Back in mid-August, Donald Trump was making headlines for a campaign shake up which led to the dismissal of his previous campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, and the onboarding of two new individuals: Stephen Bannon and Kellyanne Conway.
It wasn’t long before members of the press were drawing lines between Trump’s new staff members and billionaire GOP mega-donor Robert Mercer.
Consider that before Bannon joined the Trump campaign, he was chairman of Breitbart News, an ultra-conservative news outlet funded primarily, to the tune of $10 million, by Mercer.
And Conway, prior to her role with camp Trump, managed the day-to-day operations of the Keep the Promise I – a Super PAC with $13.5 million of Mercer’s money that, somewhat ironically, ran anti-Trump ads in support of Ted Cruz during the primaries.
However, once Trump secured the nomination, Mercer redirected his funds in Trump’s direction, converting Keep the Promise I into Make America Number 1, which released a slew of anti-Clinton attack ads across the Internet.
The dual-appointment of Bannon and Kellyanne was a revelation of just how much influence Mercer can exercise over Trump.
While Mercer himself is an extreme introvert – he once told The Washington Post, “I’m happy going through my life not saying anything to anybody” – Rebekah Mercer, the middle of his three daughters, acts as a surrogate for her father’s checkbook. She’s been making a name for herself as of late amongst the Republican Party elite, and she reportedly sat down with Trump back in August and told him to hire Bannon and Conway.
With this information come to light, it might be worthwhile to gather a sense of Mercer’s life and politics, in order to understand the sort of agenda Trump may be beholden to.
A ‘Computational Life’
Robert Mercer’s fascination with computers began at the age of ten, when his father explained to him the complex workings of the IBM 650 – the world’s first mass-produced computer. The year was 1956.
Now I didn’t have a manual for the 650, and I really had no idea what it meant to write a computer program, or even what instructions were, but I spent all my time thinking about [it]...when I was older my dad brought home an ALGOL manual from a Burroughs B5000. I wrote a lot of programs in ALGOL, and I kept them in a big notebook that I carried around with me all over the place. It’s very unlikely any of them ever worked, because I never had a computer to run them on. - Robert Mercer, co-CEO of Renaissance Technologies
The above biographical information is pulled from a rare forty-minute talk Mercer gave in 2014 upon receiving a lifetime achievement award from the Association for Computational Linguistics.
The oft-described ‘reclusive’ computer scientist and co-head of hedge fund Renaissance Technologies spent the twenty years prior to entering the finance industry working on speech recognition software for IBM at the company’s Watson Research Center. Thanks to Mercer’s work at IBM, we have applications like Google Translate.
Then, in 1993, Renaissance Technologies was looking to hire computer scientists to attempt a new, technical approach to financial investment. They scouted Mercer, along with his IBM colleague Peter Brown.
The two men joined the hedge fund that year, and began writing computer codes that looked for unusual market patterns to trade on. Their unorthodox methods were hugely successful, and when Renaissance founder James Simons retired in 2010 he left Mercer and Brown in charge of the company.
According to Forbes, Mercer made $150 million in 2015, and while he’s regularly described as a billionaire, an exact account of his net worth appears unattainable. Indeed, most information concerning Robert Mercer is hard to come by. He is secretive by design, and routinely denies requests for comment from the media.
However, some sparse anecdotal evidence on Mercer stands to highlight the introverted eccentricity of a man described by his former boss at IBM as an ‘automaton’.
· In 2009 Mercer paid $2.7 million to have an elaborate HO-scale model railroad constructed in his Long Island mansion, before immediately suing the company RailDreams, claiming he was overcharged by nearly $2 million for the train set.
· As an investing member of the gun dealership Centre Firearms, Mercer has acquired one of the country’s largest collections of machine guns and historical firearms.
· In 2013 he was sued by his household staff for forcing 65-hour workweeks without overtime, and for docking workers’ pay for infractions such as ‘failing to replace shampoos…if there was an amount of less than one-third of a bottle remaining’.
Mercer’s Political Ventures
Despite his reluctance to make public political comments, however, Mercer, along with his daughter, penned a joint-statement to The Washington Post on October 8th declaring their unwavering support for Donald Trump in the midst of tremendous backlash following the now infamous leak of audio and footage from 2005 in which the Republican presidential candidate brags about deliberate acts of sexual assault.
Can anyone really be surprised that Mr. Trump could have said to Mr. Bush such things as he has already admitted saying? No. We are completely indifferent to Mr. Trump’s locker room braggadocio. - Robert and Rebekah Mercer in The Washington Post
If this seems like nothing quite so much as an unusual display of an unpopular political stance, then you’re beginning to understand Mercer’s politics.
Over more than half a decade…Robert Mercer has carved an idiosyncratic path through conservative politics, spending tens of millions of dollars to outflank his own party’s consultant class and unnerve its established powers. His fortune has financed think tanks and insurgent candidates, super PACs and media watchdogs, lobbying groups and grass-roots organizations. - The New York Times, Aug. 18th, 2016 (Deep Pockets)
Mercer is currently ranked as the #1 donor to federal candidates in the 2016 election cycle by the Center for Responsive Politics. In addition to spending over $32 million since 2010 financially backing Republican candidates, Mercer has given $4 million in charitable donations to the Heartland Institute, a climate-skeptic think tank notorious for skewing scientific data to ‘disprove’ climate change. He’s donated unknown amounts to Doctors for Disaster Preparedness, a group whose membership advocates stockpiling medications in preparation for an impending doomsday scenario and believe, among other things, that government authorities were behind the San Bernardino killings. He has given $400,000 to a Super Pac called Black Americans for a Better Future, which reported seven donors to the FEC back in January, each of them a conservative white male.
Mercer has been a long time foe of Hillary Clinton, helping to fund attacks on the democratic nominee for years. Clinton has supported a proposed Financial Transaction Tax on high frequency stock trading. An FTT targets exactly the sort of algorithmic, lightning-quick trading that Mercer and his colleagues at Renaissance have pioneered, and would cause negative effects on the company’s profits while generating tax revenue for public education.
This political marriage of Trump and Mercer, two wealthy, fringe Republicans, isn’t all that surprising. However, while Trump’s political posturing is under the public’s microscope, Mercer’s agenda is purposefully murky. But, considering all of Mercer’s contributions to the Republican nominee’s campaign, it’s probably by inspecting the latter that we can know how the former would govern, if elected.