The passage below is not fabricated, although you could be forgiven for thinking it was, so harebrained, unpleasant and cockamamie are some of the characters and ideas described therein.
No, this is reality, that is Donald Trump and Steve Bannon’s reality as reported in Joshua Green’s much-praised study of the Trump-Bannon relationship, Devil’s Bargain, a book which some might think would be better titled Fruitcake’s Bargain. Others will see it as the natural outworking of neo-liberal American capitalism.
This short extract introduces the reader to one of the key figures in the effort to elect Donald Trump to the White House, a reclusive billionaire called Robert Mercer who gave goodness knows how many millions of dollars to his campaign
Mercer is also the man behind Steve Bannon. A Citizen Kane of the 21st century, Mercer financed Bannon’s efforts to build up the alt.right mouthpiece, Breitbart before Trump’s run, and now, following his departure from the White House, reportedly intends to fund an effort by Bannon to create a TV channel which will compete with Fox News for the loony, right-wing market. Only in America!
The passage below is literally something you could not make up. But the people described are a) real, and b) in no small measure responsible for inflicting Donald Trump on the world. They will, albeit from the sidelines now, continue to exert a significant influence on American, and world, politics.
God help us all.
It was early December 2015, and Steve Bannon was wearing a full-on bombardier costume with leather jacket and goggles, and toting a goatskin flying helmet. He was dressed up as one of his favorite movie characters of all-time, Brigadier General Frank Savage, the tough-as-nails commander, played by Gregory Peck, who takes over a demoralized World War II bombing unit and whips them into fighting shape in the 1949 classic Twelve O’Clock High. Ordinarily, Bannon wasn’t big into cosplay. But this was a special occasion: the annual Christmas party thrown by the reclusive billionaire Robert Mercer, an eccentric computer scientist who was co-CEO of the fabled quantitative hedge fund Renaissance Technologies.
As introverted and private as Bannon was voluble and outspoken, Mercer was nonetheless a man of ardent passions. He collected machine guns and owned the gas-operated AR-18 assault rifle that Arnold Schwarzenegger wielded in The Terminator. He had built a $ 2.7 million model train set equipped with a miniature video camera to allow operators to experience the view from inside the cockpit of his toy engine. He was a competitive poker player. He liked to relax by shaping gemstones. And he loved to dress up in costumes.
Each year, Mercer and his family threw an elaborate, themed Christmas party at Owl’s Nest, his opulent waterfront mansion on Long Island’s North Shore. Past themes had included “Cowboys and Indians” and “The Roaring Twenties.” This year’s theme was “The End of World War II.” Mercer, styled as General Douglas MacArthur, had obtained an authentic World War II tank to park on his lawn and had flown in artifacts from the National World War II Museum in New Orleans: a piece of the USS Arizona recovered from the floor of Pearl Harbor, a parachute-silk wedding dress that once belonged to the French wife of an American GI, and the Medal of Honor given to PFC Arthur Jackson, a young Marine who single-handedly killed fifty Japanese soldiers on the South Pacific island of Peleliu in 1944. As guests mingled beneath tents spread across Mercer’s sprawling twelve-acre lawn, a group of Andrews Sisters impersonators provided the evening’s entertainment.
Mercer, who was then sixty-nine, had recently developed another late-in-life interest: politics. From a distance, his hard-line anti-government views appeared no different from those of any number of financial-industry power moguls scattered throughout the country, whose collective fortune financed the Republican Party and its affiliated think tanks and pressure groups. Up close, however, Mercer was . . .well, he was different. He resembled the bloodless capitalist hero in an Ayn Rand novel. Mercer wanted to bring back the gold standard and abolish the fractional-reserve banking system upon which the modern economy is built. He funded an Idaho activist who foments legal challenges to environmental laws, claiming they are part of a United Nations plot to depopulate rural America. He was once overheard by a Renaissance colleague insisting that radiation from the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in World War II actually improved the health of people outside the blast zone. “He’s a very independent thinker,” said Sean Fieler, a fellow conservative hedge fund manager who has worked with Mercer to lobby for a return to the gold standard. “He’s a guy with his own ideas, and very developed ideas.”
Mercer’s budding interest in right-wing politics was propitiously timed. He started to become active just as the Supreme Court was getting ready to hand down its decision in the 2010 Citizens United case—the case David Bossie had brought—opening the floodgates for wealthy individuals to take a larger and more active role in electoral politics. Mercer excited the Republican political world because, though he was a talented poker player, he didn’t bluff about his intentions and he was willing, and even eager, to make an enormous ante to a candidate or a cause he believed in.
Of course, Mercer’s eccentricity made it a bit difficult for ordinary Republican candidates to maneuver themselves into a position where they might catch the billionaire’s eye. The first horse Mercer bet on in a big way was a candidate so far out on the right-wing fringes that simply to describe him is to invite disbelieving laughter (which it often did). In 2010, a sixty-eight-year-old research chemist named Arthur Robinson, who lived on a sheep ranch deep in the Siskiyou Mountains of southern Oregon, decided to challenge the longtime Democratic congressman, Peter DeFazio. Calling Robinson a “research chemist,” while technically accurate, doesn’t quite do justice to the exotic nature of the man’s pursuits. A self-funded medical renegade, Robinson was consumed with extending the human life span and believed that the secret to staving off death and disease could be found in human urine. To that end, Robinson collected thousands upon thousands of urine samples, which he froze in vials and stored in massive refrigerators that stood among his wandering sheep. Robinson published a newsletter to share his findings and to periodically put out calls for more urine (“ We need samples of your urine” read a typical house ad). Mercer was a subscriber to Robinson’s newsletter (this was likely the source of his claim that exposure to atomic radiation can benefit human health, a theory known as “hormesis”)…………..
…………..As the evening stars rose over Owl’s Nest, friends and courtiers from all walks of life strolled across the Mercers’ lawn, magically transported, if just for the evening, back to 1945. Jack Hanna, the khaki-clad celebrity zookeeper, came wandering by (the Mercers gave $ 100,000 to his zoo). But the evening’s buzz was all about politics. With the presidential election less than a year away, Rebekah Mercer (Robert Mercer’s third daughter), who was dressed as Rita Hayworth, stood to be a figure of consequence. Texas senator Ted Cruz, dressed as Winston Churchill, was especially solicitous of her. As everyone gathered on the lush grounds of Robert Mercer’s estate was keenly aware, the Mercer family had given away more than $ 77 million to conservative politicians and organizations since 2008.
You didn’t have to be a brilliant scientist to see the joy Bob Mercer derived from his annual Christmas pageant, or to understand that anyone hoping to curry favor with him would be wise to play along. This is how it came to be that adults who never imagined themselves dressing up in costumes—adults like Steve Bannon—wound up hunting for just the right period-appropriate accoutrements to make a positive impression. The effort could pay off handsomely. In fact, for Bannon, it already had. Over the past three years, the Mercers had become the key financial backers of a far-flung network of interlocking political and media groups that Bannon either had conceived of or had come to control. Bob Mercer was going to be vitally important to the presidential race. He was a man you’d dress up for. Bannon called him “the Godfather.”