08.25.2017
  • UK
  • United States

Populist Billionaires

The face of right-wing anti-elitism is surprisingly elite.

Nigel Farage speaking at CPAC in 2015. Gage Skidmore

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Over the past few years, the liberal-left has looked on in horror at the rise of various populist right-wing movements creeping up around Europe and the United States.

French National Front leader Marine Le Pen was one of the two finalists to become France’s next president. Islamophobe Geert Wilders at one point looked to be headed towards an unprecedentedly large share of the vote in the Netherlands. The United Kingdom narrowly voted to leave the European Union. And, of course, Donald Trump became president of the United States.

These electoral victories have all been cast, accurately, as products of populist rage and activism. Some votes for the populist right were a frustrated middle finger in the face of their economic and political “betters.” Some were motivated by economic anxiety and represented a desperate rejection of the neoliberal policies that have failed time and again to bring the benefits they promise. And some were an expression of ugly nativist and xenophobic sentiments. Many were some combination of all three.

Yet one theme among among a number of these movements is often left unmentioned: the role of vast sums of money from some of the world’s (and, particularly, the United States’) wealthiest people.

The paradox at the heart of these populist right-wing movements is that while they are products of popular anger — and appear a rejection of the globalized, hyperconnected world extolled by the elite — it’s also segments of this elite that are helping power these movements.

In the United Kingdom, the Leave.EU campaign and UKIP — the right-wing, anti-EU party that helped push Brexit onto the national agenda — were both partly bankrolled by Arron Banks, a British millionaire who is listed as the director of more than forty companies. Banks made his money mostly in insurance, though he also owns a number of security and intelligence companies and five diamond mines in Africa. Banks is thought to be worth as much as $240 million, but a precise number is hard to put on his wealth because so much of it is tied up in an inscrutable structure of companies set up in offshore, low-tax havens. (Banks defends this practice on the basis that he’s “an internationalist.”)

Banks put £8.5 million (around $11 million) of his own money into the anti-EU campaign, donating £1 million to UKIP and £7.5 million to Leave.EU. He probably donated even more, because spending prior to the “regulated period” in UK politics — the weeks, months, or even year before an election — is not monitored or restricted. These sums may sound like a pittance compared to the vast amounts sloshing around in the US political system, but it still made Banks the single largest political donor in British history.

Though it’s impossible to measure, in a result that was as close as the Brexit victory the Leave.EU campaign — which focused on scaring voters about immigrants and verged on outright racism —  could have made the difference. One Leave campaigner said it had been “absolutely critical to the result.”

Banks talks a good populist game, complaining to the New York Times about the UK’s obscene levels of wealth inequality. But he’s also already started using the database of a million voters the campaign built up to hawk insurance.

Banks was introduced to Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP and the face of the Leave.EU campaign, by another millionaire, Jim Mellon, who made his wealth from uranium mining in Russia in the nineties and doesn’t even live in the United Kingdom. Mellon also donated around £100,000 to Leave.EU.

These aren’t outliers. A study last year found that just ten wealthy donors made up more than half the donations for EU referendum campaigns, with pro-Brexit donors making up six of those ten. One of these donors was Peter Hargreaves, the founder of a financial services company, who donated £3.2 million to the Leave.EU campaign.

It’s a recurring pattern. Some of UKIP’s biggest donors in the past have been wealthy property developers and club owners. Mr. UKIP himself and self-styled man of the people Nigel Farage is a millionaire former commodities trader who has profited handsomely from his time in the European Parliament, and is practically a walking caricature of upper-class British poshness, with his autobiography featuring passages like this one about how he got his start in commodities trading:

I ate dozens of oysters, drank champagne cocktails and relaxed amidst brays, barks, guffaws and good yarns. I paid visits to the Stock Exchange, Lloyds, discount houses, looking for my niche. I knew just one thing. I did not want to be known as “someone’s boy,” and my father was a well-known character on the Exchange . . . The solution was found as so many solutions are, on the golf course.

We find similar things with other prominent Brexit campaigners. Boris Johnson, for instance, earned £1.3 million over his first three years as mayor, and described the £250,000 he earns for writing a newspaper column on the side as “chicken feed.” The face of anti-elitism is surprisingly elite.

This isn’t limited to the United Kingdom. In the Netherlands, the largest donor to Geert Wilders’ far right Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) is the David Horowitz Freedom Center, an American organization that funds various conservative and Islamophobic outlets, including Jihad Watch. The center gave the PVV €108,244 in 2015, the largest individual contribution in the Dutch political system in a single year, though it’s donated to the party over the course of a number of years, as well as paying for Wilders’s trips to the United States.

The center, in turn, has received money from a whole host of wealthy American donors. These include Aubrey Chernik, a software developer worth nearly $1 billion; the Sarah Scaife Foundation, controlled by the late Richard Mellon Scaife, whom the Washington Post in 1999 dubbed “the most generous donor to conservative causes in American history”; and the Bradley Foundation, which gave nearly as much money between 2001 and 2009 to conservative causes as the Scaife and various Koch foundations combined.

Another big-money-backed, right-wing organization that came to Wilders in a time of need was the Middle East Forum, which paid a large sum into Wilders’s legal defense fund when he was being prosecuted for hate speech. The forum gets money from the Bradley Foundation, the Koch-funded Donors Capital Fund, and numerous others.

Which brings us at last to the United States and Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency. Trump’s victory was of course a singular political achievement that often defied the trail of money, one that was propelled by both popular anger and a lack of popular enthusiasm — for his opponent, in the latter case. But Trump and the movement he helped awaken also got a boost from the 1 percent.

Billionaire computer scientist Robert Mercer, whose daughter Rebekah was the driving force behind Trump’s transition, is Trump’s single biggest donor. He also bankrolled Breitbart News, the “platform for the alt-right” in the immortal words of Steve Bannon, to the tune of $10 million.

Mercer’s role in propelling far-right movements doesn’t stop at the North American side of the Atlantic, however. Last year, his data company, Cambridge Analytica, teamed up with Leave.EU to make Brexit a reality, a service that Mercer provided free of charge. It’s recently come to light that the data firm used by Vote Leave — the other pro-Brexit campaign — is also connected to Mercer. (When this came to light, members of the Leave.EU campaign began absurdly denying Cambridge Analytica’s involvement, despite months of openly trumpeting it).

Trump also received the financial backing of numerous other conservative millionaires, including Peter Thiel and Sheldon Adelson. And, of course, Trump himself is (allegedly) a billionaire, while Steve Bannon, the man widely presumed for a long time to be running the show, is worth as much as $48 million. (Bannon also happened to be the owner of Cambridge Analytica during the Brexit referendum).

But even aside from the money and effort they contributed directly to Trump’s campaign (and to Brexit), the super-rich of the United States have long been setting the conditions for Trump’s rise. For decades, wealthy conservative donors have bankrolled the dizzying, criss-crossing nexus of think-tanks, organizations, books, and intellectuals of the far right, which have helped popularize the neo-nativist platform that Trump eventually found success with.

Six years ago, the Center for American Progress released a report titled “Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America,” showing that “a small group of conservative foundations and wealthy donors are the lifeblood of the Islamophobia network in America.” Some of the names of the top seven foundation might sound familiar by now — they include the Bradley Foundation, the Richard Mellon Scaife foundations, and Donors Capital Fund.

The story is similar when it comes to anti-immigration. The Scaife family are the biggest funding source for the anti-immigration movement today, with the Colcom Foundation — set up by environmentalist and population control advocate Cordelia Scaife May — doling out $76 million to anti-immigration groups in the decade to 2013, making it the single biggest funder of anti-immigration causes. Meanwhile, three of the four foundations run by Scaife family members donate generously to organizations like the radical anti-immigrant hate group FAIR, the Center for Immigration Studies, and ProEnglish.

Meanwhile, Buzzfeed recently revealed the role of racist septuagenarian millionaire William H. Regnery II in propelling the white nationalist movement to its current heights. Regnery, the heir to a vast conservative publishing fortune, bankrolled a number of far-right publishing ventures and groups, such as the Charles Martel Society (named after a Frankish leader who repelled the advance of Muslims in Europe), which in turn created the “alt-Right” National Policy Institute. Regnery hired Richard Spencer to head it in 2011.

Half the NPI’s seed money — around $380,000 — came from Regnery, and he’s given around $580,000 worth of donations since 2001. It’s a small sum compared to others, but as Regnery put it, his “support has produced a much greater bang for the buck than by the brothers Koch or Soros, Inc.” Spencer told Buzzfeed that the NPI wouldn’t exist without Regnery’s money. Spencer himself, as is well-established now, is the product of old, racist money, not to mention an elite education, as were those who recently organized and marched in Charlottesville.

All this at first seems counter-intuitive. After all, it’s generally assumed that xenophobic and anti-immigrant attitudes are the domain of the white working class, which goes to explain the success of Trump and Brexit among such voters. But data analyses like this one from Vox paint a more complicated picture. It suggests that the most active elite donors have significantly harsher anti-immigration and authoritarian views than others, including other wealthy people who aren’t political donors.

None of this is to say that these movements and ideas are simply astroturfed. They’re not. Nor is it to say that the far right would be unsuccessful without the backing of big donors. A party founded by actual Nazis nearly won the Austrian elections despite the country’s public funding of elections, and Marine Le Pen had tremendous success despite the strict restrictions on French campaign finance laws (though she, too, comes from less than humble beginnings).

Rather, like the Tea Party, or the conservative movement in the second half of the twentieth century more generally, these are clearly grassroots movements whose success is significantly enabled by the copious amounts of money being funneled to them.

The rise of the far right isn’t just an issue related to those at the bottom of the ladder. The problem of far-right populism is also a problem of capitalism, and the laws and legal mechanisms that allow big money to spread its tentacles wherever it can.