Four years before Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., pumped his fist to a supportive mob that would soon overrun the Capitol Police and hunt lawmakers through the halls of Congress, the former Missouri attorney general needed a deep-pocketed patron. Naturally, he called on the man who helped bankroll former President Donald Trump's rise: hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer, whom he would soon describe as a friend while name-dropping him to court support from far-right figures like Steve Bannon, a longtime Mercer ally. It's unclear what came of Hawley's meeting with Mercer, but the Club for Growth, which has received millions from the Mercer family, and the Senate Conservatives Fund, which also got Mercer donations, quickly became Hawley's biggest financial backers, by far. Mercer's daughter Rebekah kicked in a near-maximum donation to his 2018 Senate campaign for good measure.
While Charles Koch and his late brother David have dominated Republican fundraising in recent decades, the Mercers' recent strategic investments in far-right candidates bought them a disproportionate level of influence in the Republican Party before culminating in an effort to subvert the election that fueled the deadly Capitol siege.
"The Mercers laid the groundwork for the Trump revolution," Bannon told The New Yorker in 2017. "Irrefutably, when you look at donors during the past four years, they have had the single biggest impact of anybody, including the Kochs." Steve Schmidt, a former Republican strategist and co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project, sees it differently. Rebekah Mercer, he said in an interview with Salon, is the "chief financier or one of the chief financiers of the fascist movement, and that's what it is."
Hours after the pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol, killing five people and injuring dozens of police officers in a futile bid to stop the counting of electoral votes, Hawley joined with top Mercer beneficiaries in objecting to the results to back Trump's "big lie" that the election was somehow stolen. There was Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, whose super PAC got $13.5 million from the Mercers during the 2016 presidential campaign — before the family dropped another $15.5 million to back Trump. There was House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., defending the majority of the GOP House caucus voting to overturn legal election results after his Congressional Leadership Fund received $1.5 million from the Mercers. And there was Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., who received $21,600 from the Mercers before speaking at the rally that preceded the riot and objecting to the results. Brooks was later named by "Stop the Steal" organizer Ali Alexander as having helped orchestrate the event, though his office said he has "no recollection communicating in any way with whoever Ali Alexander is."
Alexander himself may have benefited from the Mercers' millions while working for the Black Conservative Fund, a small and mysterious group that received $60,000 from Robert Mercer in 2016. Though the group did not raise any money in 2020, it promoted the White House rally to tens of thousands of followers, according to CNBC.
The Mercers funded numerous key players who helped foment the Jan. 6 insurrection, though their full involvement remains unclear. Along with far-right candidates and groups, they have also funded the far-right social network Parler, which was used to coordinate the Capitol siege, and Cambridge Analytica, the now-defunct London-based data firm that stole Facebook user data to help Trump's 2016 campaign target potential voters.
"As I discovered first-hand, the Mercers are exceptionally skillful at obfuscating and masking their political enterprises," David Carroll, a professor at The New School in Manhattan who sued Cambridge Analytica for his data in London, said in an email to Salon. "I marveled at how their ownership of Cambridge Analytica was effectively shielded from the U.K. courts where they were prosecuted."
Now that the Mercers have survived the scrutiny of the Federal Trade Commission and former special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, Carroll added, "I would assume the family has doubled-down on investing in its own privacy."
Schmidt agreed that "it's hard to keep track of the money" the Mercers have doled out to their pet causes.
"In this movement, the money is a fundamentally important part of it. It fuels the movement and that movement is an extremist movement," he said. "Is there a better than even chance that the Mercer money is flowing, like so many tributaries, right into a larger seditious stream on this? Of course there is."
Lax laws surrounding dark money donated to nonprofit entities mean it will likely be "several years before the public will have a complete sense of how much the Mercers spent," wrote The Intercept's Matthew Cunningham-Cook.
Publicly available data shows that the Mercers helped fund numerous players who pushed the "big lie." The family donated $3.8 million to Citizens United, which is run by longtime Trump adviser David Bossie, who was tapped to lead the former president's legal challenges. Though the Mercers have pulled back their financial support in recent election cycles amid growing scrutiny, they donated $300,000 during this past cycle to the Republican National Committee, which joined Trump's legal battle.
The Mercers were also the top donors to Arizona Republican Party chairwoman Kelli Ward, a devoted Trump loyalist, The Intercept reported last week. Ward joined the lawsuit led by the Republican attorney general of Texas that sought to overturn the results of the election in multiple states and spoke at a December rally that featured Alexander to push Trump's election conspiracy theories. On Twitter, Ward promoted her appearance at a "Stop the Steal" rally alongside former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who urged Trump to invoke martial law to rerun the election and posted the hashtag "#CrossTheRubicon," a phrase that refers to Julius Caesar marching his army into Rome to declare himself a dictator. The Arizona GOP also promoted Alexander's tweets, which included his declaration that he was "willing to give up my life for this fight."
"Live for nothing, or die for something," the party tweeted about a month before the Capitol riot.
More recently, Rebekah Mercer co-founded Parler, ostensibly a "libertarian" moderation-free social network that quickly became a megaphone for far-right figures like Alexander and fellow organizer Alex Jones, both of whom had been banned from mainstream social networks for spreading disinformation. Alexander, Jones and others used Parler to spread falsehoods about the election while others simply trafficked in white supremacist content, according to the Anti-Defamation League. "Holocaust denial, antisemitism, racism and other forms of bigotry are also easy to find," the ADL said.
Parler was used by some of the Capitol rioters to plan and coordinate the attack. The site was briefly taken offline by Amazon before finding a new host, though its apps have been removed from the Apple and Google app stores. Rebekah Mercer said in a Parler post that she started the social network to combat the "increasing tyranny" of our "tech overlords," slamming mainstream social networks over "data mining" — which is exactly what the Mercers' former company, Cambridge Analytica, exploited to steal Facebook users' personal data to help Trump in 2016. Although Mercer touted Parler's protection of user data, hackers were able to easily gain access to unsecured user data, which showed that Parler users had penetrated deep inside the Capitol and shared videos and photos of their crimes.
Before Trump, the family for years bankrolled Breitbart News, formerly run by Steve Bannon, who affectionately termed it the platform of the alt-right. Along with Breitbart, which received a $10 million investment from the family, the Mercers also funded Bannon projects like Glittering Steel, a film production company, and the Government Accountability Institute, whose president authored the anti-Hillary bestseller "Clinton Cash" and later pushed discredited conspiracy theories about Joe Biden and his son Hunter's work overseas. Bannon's appointment to Trump's White House, after Rebekah Mercer pushed for him to take over Trump's campaign, was celebrated by the Ku Klux Klan and American Nazi Party. Though Bannon fell out with Trump after a few months in the White House, both he and Breitbart aggressively pushed Trump's false narrative following the election.
The Mercers also funded conservative groups that helped push Trump's election lies and spread hate. An analysis by Georgetown University's Bridge Initiative, which researches the spread of Islamophobia, extensively detailed the Mercers' donations to groups that promote "racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism," and that have since moved on to pushing election conspiracy theories.
In 2017, the Mercers donated $200,000 to the Gatestone Institute, where Rebekah Mercer sat on the board of governors. The group spent years pushing anti-Islam writings before echoing Trump's baseless fraud claims following the election. That same year, the Mercers gave $1.725 million and another $500,000 the following year to the Bannon-founded Government Accountability Institute, whose research director Eric Eggers pushed unfounded fraud claims on Sean Hannity's radio show. In 2018, they gave $8.1 million to DonorsTrust, which later donated $1.5 million to the white nationalist group VDARE, which subsequently promoted conspiracy theories about the election.
"Any examination of the growth of the far-right today in the U.S. must take into account the role of the Mercer family," said Mobashra Tazamal, a senior research fellow at Bridge who authored the report, in an email to Salon. "Rebekah Mercer, in particular, has provided financial support to politicians who amplify white nationalist sentiments, and platforms like Breitbart and Parler that magnify far-right conspiracy theories."
Tazamal added that the Capitol riot should not be understood as "an organic event" but rather as a "coordinated attack."
"By strategically funneling millions into known hate groups, platforms amplifying racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia, and politicians who pushed forth outright lies of a stolen election, Rebekah Mercer played a role in inciting the violence by providing material support," she said. "The billionaire family has used their extraordinary wealth to bankroll the rise of violent white nationalism in this country."
Rebekah Mercer defended herself in a 2018 Wall Street Journal op-ed, claiming that she "welcomes immigrants and refugees" and rejects "any discrimination based on race, gender, creed, ethnicity or sexual orientation," despite repeatedly funding lawmakers and groups accused of trafficking hate. She said she supported Trump "because he promised to tackle entrenched corruption on both sides of the aisle," even though he did far more to fill the swamp than drain it. She insisted that she had "no editorial authority" at Breitbart and argued that Bannon took the outlet in the "wrong direction," though The New Yorker reported that the family had invested $10 million in the outlet on the condition that Bannon would be placed on the company's board. The report also said that she is "highly engaged" with the site's content and "often points out areas of coverage that she thinks require more attention."
"She reads every story, and calls when there are grammatical errors or typos," a source told the outlet.
The Mercers were also the principal patrons for far-right troll Milo Yiannopoulos. After Yiannopoulos was fired by Breitbart for comments defending pedophilia, he received a wire transfer from Robert Mercer's accountant, according to BuzzFeed News. "Rebekah Mercer loves Milo," a source told the outlet. "They always stood behind him, and their support never wavered."
Politico in 2016 dubbed Rebekah Mercer the "most powerful woman in GOP politics." Newsmax founder Chris Ruddy, whose outlet also pushed the "big lie," labeled Mercer the "first lady of the alt-right." Though her father signed the large checks, Politico reported, it's Rebekah Mercer who is "running the family operation" and whose "frustration" with the Koch brothers' donor network — in which the Mercers previously participated — led her to start a "rival operation."
Rebekah Mercer heads the Mercer family's foundation, which donated $35 million to right-wing think tanks and policy groups between 2009 and 2014, according to the Washington Post. It marked a massive shift for the family, which donated just $37,800 in 2006, including a $4,200 check from Robert Mercer's wife Diana to Hillary Clinton's Senate campaign. The election of Barack Obama changed everything, leading the family to pump at least $77 million in political donations into conservative candidates and causes between 2008 and 2016. Though their early forays into politics in New York and Oregon were utter failures, and Ted Cruz's 2016 presidential campaign crumbled under the weight of relentless attacks from Trump and general bipartisan disdain, their investment in Trump quickly paid dividends.
Rebekah Mercer reportedly led a major reorganization of Trump's 2016 campaign, connecting him with Bannon and former Cruz adviser Kellyanne Conway, who would replace Paul Manafort at the helm of the team. Mercer, who also served on the Trump transition's executive committee, pushed for Trump to hire Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general who was forced to resign less than a month into Trump's presidency amid a criminal investigation and now spreads QAnon conspiracy theories online.
It's unclear why the Mercers fund so many far-right causes, though sources close to the family told Politico in 2016 that they "harbor a deep and abiding enmity toward the political establishment." Robert Mercer has been described as a "reclusive" former IBM computer scientist who made his fortune as co-CEO of the algorithmic trading company Renaissance Technologies. Sources close to him told The New Yorker that he is a conspiracy theorist who believes the Clintons had opponents murdered and were involved in a drug-running ring with the CIA. He has also described the Civil Rights Act as a mistake, arguing that Black people were better off financially before the passage of the landmark law, according to the same New Yorker report. Racism in the U.S. is "exaggerated," Mercer reportedly said, attributing most of it to "Black racists." He has likewise argued that climate change is not a problem and would actually be beneficial for the Earth, sources told the magazine.
"Bob believes that human beings have no inherent value other than how much money they make," David Magerman, a former colleague of Mercer who later sued him for unlawful termination, told the New Yorker. "A cat has value, he's said, because it provides pleasure to humans. But if someone is on welfare they have negative value. If he earns a thousand times more than a schoolteacher, then he's a thousand times more valuable."
Magerman warned in an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer that Mercer was "effectively buying shares in the candidate."
"Robert Mercer now owns a sizable share of the United States Presidency," he wrote.
While painting herself as a philanthropist who supports small government and personal responsibility, Rebekah Mercer, who reportedly home-schools her four children in a $28 million Trump-branded apartment in New York that she shares with her husband, a Morgan Stanley banker, described the state of the country in apocalyptic terms in a 2019 book first flagged by The Intercept.
"[W]hat is the state of [the American] experiment today?" Mercer asked. "'Now we are engaged in a great civil war,' said Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg in 1863. One hundred and fifty-five years later, it is barely hyperbolic to echo the Great Emancipator." She added, "We are not yet in armed conflict, but we are facing an ever more belligerent, frantic, and absurd group of radicals in a struggle for the soul of our country."
The report added that the Mercers own Centre Firearms, a company that claims to have the "country's largest private cache of machine guns," and has a Queens warehouse filled with guns and "an Mk 19 belt-fed grenade launcher, capable of hurling 60 explosives per minute."
The Mercers' extremist sympathies set them apart from other big Republican donors like the Kochs, whom Schmidt described as transactional limited-government ideologues who "got none of what they were seeking" from their Republican funding.
The Kochs "wanted conservative governance," said Schmidt, who was senior strategist for Sen. John McCain's 2008 presidential campaign. "They didn't get that. They got big government, they got big-spending, out-of-control government, led by the Republican Party. That's the complete opposite of what they invested in."
But the Mercers "invested in a different cause," he added.
"That cause is not a democratic cause. It's not a limited-government cause. It seems that the Mercers invested in chaos and they got exactly what they wanted. It seems like they invested in someone who didn't believe in American democracy, and they got someone who tried to burn it down."