The Dark Money That Fuels Radical Right Ideology
Dr. Alan Waring is a retired risk analyst and former Visiting Professor, now Adjunct Professor, at CERIDES (Centre for Risk and Decision Sciences) at the European University Cyprus.
Financial support for political parties and interests within democracies is not of itself unlawful, and indeed is commonplace across the political spectrum. However, given the radical-right’s objectives and policies that are harmful to many categories of citizens (especially ethno-religious minorities and other vulnerable minorities), as well as democratic institutions (e.g. press freedom, political views), it is appropriate to examine critically its financial backing.
The majority of such funding comes from foundations set up specifically to further ultra-conservative, and in some cases more extreme right-wing, interests. In the US alone, there are dozens of such bodies, many of which claim charitable status and therefore tax exemptions as supposed research and education organizations. Typically, wealthy corporate oligarchs lie behind such foundations. Some are individual corporate owners or controllers, while others are family corporations. Jayne Mayer’s 2016 book on such oligarchs and their ‘dark money’ funding, especially in the US, forced attention on a previously hidden aspect of radical-right enablement.
This article, which examines the murky ‘dark money’ world of radical-right funding, and the fusion of mutual interests and authoritarian predispositions between the corporate and radical-right worlds, is a foretaste of The New Authoritarianism Volume 3: A Risk Analysis of the Corporate/Radical-Right Axis which I edit, due out in 2021 from Ibidem Verlag.
Synergies Between the Corporate World and Radical-Right Political World
A crucial feature of the penetration, success, and normalization of radical-right ideology in the political arena is that of the synergies between political and corporate worlds. As Bakan on the pathology of corporate power, Birch on corporate totalitarianism, and Bloom and Rhodes along with Crouch on corporate authoritarianism and corporate political power, observe, the two worlds feed off, enable and strengthen each other. Of course, not all corporate chiefs and business owners are enamored by or enthusiastic about radical-right ideology and agendas.
Many corporate leaders, especially in publicly listed companies, eschew radical or extreme politics, either from conviction and/or in order to maintain corporate governance standards and to protect corporate reputation. Indeed, in principle it may be acceptable for corporate interests to lobby politicians and for politicians to seek financial support from big business. Nevertheless, there is an obvious risk of undue influence, bribery, and/or wider corruption, e.g. the so-called ‘Ibiza video scandal’ in 2019 in which the Austrian far-right FPŐ leader Heinz-Christian Strache, who in the coalition with Sebastian Kurz’s ŐVP was Austria’s Vice-Chancellor, was caught on video offering to fix government contracts to a woman posing as the niece of a Russian oligarch. Strache was forced to resign.
In addition to financial fraud and corruption, there is also the potential for promotion of unwholesome political agendas that suit both political and corporate interests. Far-right politicians and parties may attract corporate donors for their media and advertising campaigns and for targeted social media promotions. This may also encourage unlawful actions on behalf of political clients e.g. the Cambridge Analytica abuses of millions of Facebook users leading up to national elections in 2016 in the US and the UK Brexit referendum.
Corporate donors with far-right sympathies may also feel emboldened to conduct their own businesses in an authoritarian and regressive manner, which is likely to harm employees, other categories, and society in general. Oklobdzija is a major critic of such ‘dark money’ abuses, along with Michaelson’s corporate abuses in product safety.
The detrimental relationship between right-wing political and corporate interests has been analyzed by Bloom and Rhodes on corporate authoritarianism and the threat to US democracy. The authoritarian style and excesses of some corporate chiefs is often very similar to that of radical-right political leaders. For example, on President Trump as a high-profile example, who is also unusually both a radical-right political leader and a corporation owner:
“The appeal of the populist demagogue is the same as that of the all-powerful CEO. Both celebrate authoritarian and anti-democratic notion of leadership. This is a culture where winning at all costs and vanquishing opponents is prized while deliberation and shared power is scoffed at as weak and girlish. The goal is the domination of others for one’s own pleasure and profit.” (Bloom & Rhodes, 2016)
Wealthy Donors, Intermediaries, and Enablers
Wealthy US owners or CEOs of large corporations, who are known radical-right supporters, include Robert Mercer, William Regnery II, the two Koch brothers [one, David Koch, died in August 2019], members of the DeVos family, the Lynne and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Coors brewing family, Robert Shillman (CEO of Cognex), and Nina Rosenwald (the Sears, Roebuck & co-heiress). The radical-right American Enterprise Institute is reportedly funded by the Donors Capital Fund to which the Koch, DeVos, and Bradley families are major contributors, as well as directly from them.
David Koch funded the right-wing Americans for Prosperity. The Independence Institute is funded by the Castle Rock Foundation set up by the Coors family. In addition to Mercer, nine billionaires, including radical-right activists, contributed to Donald Trump’s political campaign (e.g. T. Boone Pickens, Stanley Hubbard). The billionaire former hedge fund manager, Steve Mnuchin, is cited in Hackett’s list as Trump’s chief fundraiser and became Treasury Secretary in President Trump’s cabinet. The radical-right billionaire Betsy DeVos was appointed by President Trump as Education Secretary.
Mercer, the co-CEO of Renaissance Technologies hedge fund, reportedly invested$10 million in the radical-right Breitbart News and the radical-right revolutionary Steve Bannon, who in 2012 became its editor and then executive chairman. He then invested a further $5 million in Cambridge Analytica, which Bannon established and who was a board director and vice-president, including the period of the Cambridge Analytica scandal involving misuse for political purposes of illicitly obtained personal data of millions of Facebook social media account holders.
In addition to individual radical-right politicians and corporate leaders, there exist numerous intermediaries with radical-right commitments, such as ideological ‘think tanks’, right-wing research groups, right-wing philanthropic foundations, public and media relations consultants, lobbying groups, propaganda websites, and other influencers promoting the supposed common cause of big business and radical-right politicians.
For example, the Southern Poverty Law Center describes William Regnery II as “a major figure in the white nationalist movement, having founded The National Policy Institute, a white supremacist ‘think tank’, and the Charles Martel Society, which publishes The Occidental Quarterly, a racist, anti-Semitic and pseudo-scholarly ‘journal’”. Richard Spencer, an unapologetic neo-Nazi, has led the National Policy Institute since 2011.
Posner cites as intermediary organizations in the US: Breitbart News, the far-right Freedom Caucus, and the Heritage Foundation. However, the actual numbers are well in excess of 30 and (in addition to Breitbart News, the Charles Martel Society, the National Policy Institute, and those cited by Posner) include: Adolph Coors Foundation, Allegheny Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, Americans for Prosperity, Bradley Family Foundation, Carthage Foundation, Castle Rock Foundation, Cato Institute, Council for National Policy, Donors Capital Fund, Fairbrook Foundation, Freedom Caucus, Gatestone Institute, Government Accountability Institute, Heritage Foundation, David Horowitz Freedom Centre, Independence Institute, Infowars website, John M. Olin Foundation, John Templeton Foundation, Media Research Foundation, Mercatus Center, New Century Foundation, Pioneer Fund, Project Veritas, Randolph Foundation, Rebel Media, Sarah Scaife Foundation, Shillman Foundation, Stop Islamization of America (SIOA), VDare Foundation, and the Young America’s Foundation.
Many of these organizations and their beneficiaries and activists are closely linked and frequently collaborate. For example, such anti-Muslim SIOA protagonists as Pamella Geller and Robert Spencer are linked to the Mercer and Shillman Foundations. Geller works closely with Rebel Media funded by Mercer and was employed at Breitbart News. Spencer collaborates with the David Horowitz Foundation, which is funded by the Rosenwald and other foundations and backed by Shillman. Project Veritas, also funded by Shillman, runs the far-right Infowars. The British far-right activist Tommy Robinson, who set up and led the far-right EDL in Britain and was also variously active with the BNP, Pegida UK, and the post-Farage UKIP, holds the distinction of a Fellowship from the Shillman Foundation and is also linked to Shillman’s Rebel Media and Infowars operations.
Not all of those listed above are linked to extremists. Some clearly are e.g. disseminating ethno-religious prejudice and hatred and white nationalist/nativist ideology, either directly, or via invited speakers, protégés, sponsored individuals, or sponsored ‘research’. For example, the Young America’s Foundation (YAF) invites such far-right protagonists as Ann Coulter, Ted Nugent, David Horowitz, Robert Spencer, and Matt Walsh to speak at its events. Kotch also reports senior YAF members as making donations to the far-right Charles Martel Society and to the political campaign funds of Republican Representative Steve King, a well-known white nationalist. Further, YAF board member James B. Taylor is also a former president of the National Policy Institute (NPI).
Many US-based ultra-conservative policy and opinion-forming institutions and their financial backers also support similar bodies in other countries through the Atlas Network, a US-based global coalition of more than 450 right-wing bodies. For example, in Britain, the European Research Group, the Centre for Policy Studies, the Institute for Economic Affairs, the Economists for Free Trade, the Legatum Institute, and others, enjoy a close relationship with Atlas associates in the US. Similar right-wing bodies in Canada include the Aurea Foundation, the Donner Canadian Foundation, the Fraser Institute, the Justice Centre for Constitutional Freedoms, the Lotte and John Hecht Foundation, and the Montreal Economic Institute, some of which are part of the Atlas Network.
Overall, radical-right funding organizations manage funds worth many millions of US$, and sometimes hundreds of millions. The Charles Martel Society, National Policy Institute, New Century Foundation, and VDare, are cited by Kunzelman as examples of white nationalist groups who raise millions of dollars by claiming tax-exempt charitable status. Annual revenues often run to tens of millions of dollars. For example, in the US, in 2015 YAF’s annual revenue was reported to beS$36.2m, while the Heritage Foundation’s was $82.4m and the Donor’s Capital Fund’s revenue for 2014 was reported as $49m.Looking to make a difference? Consider signing one of these sponsored petitions:
Potential for Harm to Democracy and Society
Relationships per se between corporations, oligarchs, influencers, and politicians are not unlawful. However, are such relationships liable to corrupt temptations that are likely to lead to advancement of political interests and agendas that may harm a democratic society or vulnerable sections of it? ‘Dark money’ manipulation of political processes, emphases and outcomes in democratic societies has been heavily criticized by Michaels and Oklobdzija. Overall, the mutual influences hold troubling implications for the future of democracy, especially malevolent influence by such agencies as radical-right leaning journalists and media.
For example, does such manipulation unduly favor the wealthy and the powerful at the expense of the rest of society? Does it encourage wealthy protagonists to believe that they are entitled to buy political outcomes? Unchallenged, such amoral calculation and unsavory, if not harmful, methods may come to be normalized in the pursuit of egregious radical-right political motives and/or personal greed.
As Bloom and Rhodes noted, “….elite authority all too often knows no limits, and doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer”, and that “…economic and social elites are all too often granted sovereign privilege without any sense of responsibility or accountability. It is the very definition of an authoritarian culture dressed up as political democracy.” Birch went further: “It is the institutionalisation and naturalisation of corporate agendas in different governance structures that most clearly illustrate what can be seen as totalitarian features of the corporation.”
The mutual admiration and synergy between corporate and radical-right leaders masks a paradox. In the US, one of the populist radical-right’s biggest rhetorical enemies is globalization of trade, the selfish corporate interests that accompany it, and the undue manipulation, deals and trade-offs between corporate interests and politicians in Washington at the expense of ordinary citizens. One of President Trump’s boasts was that as President he would clean up this ‘Washington swamp’, a theme he returned to in May 2020: “One of the things I said, we have to expose the deep state, you know, drain the swamp… I had no idea the swamp was like this….and there are still plenty of others in there. But we are draining the swamp-like nobody’s ever drained the swamp.”.
In 2016, he promised he would clear out the liberal elites and protect the ‘little man’. In reality, Trump’s radical-right administration has strengthened its ties with big corporations and wealthy oligarchs and made no noticeable efforts to cleanse the politico-corporatism in Washington. He has simply replaced the alleged liberal sleaze with his illiberal sleaze, the liberal elites with his illiberal elites, for example, his cabinet appointments of radical-right billionaires Steve Mnuchin and Betsy DeVos. When the wealthy politico-corporate intermediary and Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was convicted and jailed in 2019 for multiple counts of bank fraud, tax evasion, money laundering, and other related crimes, Trump publicly dismissed it as a “fake witch-hunt”.
The radical-right and particular corporate interests share authoritarian world-views, attitudes, opinions, judgements, and conduct, which frequently involves amoral thinking and calculation. Such a fusion of mutual interests is lubricated by the availability of ‘dark money’ and corrupt influence in both directions ‒ financing of radical-right politicians and their causes, and political support for corporate interests, none of which is likely to benefit society and much of which may harm it. Further, both groups may be emboldened to eventually cross the dividing line between merely amoral conduct and into illegal and potentially major criminal activity, any or all of which may contribute to an undermining of democratic order, processes, and institutions.
This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.