The Mys­te­ri­ous Mr. Mercer

Robert Mercer is one of the wealth­i­est, most se­cre­tive, in­flu­en­tial, and reactionar­y Repub­li­cans in the coun­try

Bloomberg Businessweek (North America) - - Contents - By Zachary Mider

Meet the se­cre­tive hedge fund man­ager bankrollin­g Ted Cruz

In 2010, Arthur Robin­son, a re­search chemist, de­cided to run for Congress in south­ern Ore­gon. Robin­son, now 73, was not your av­er­age can­di­date. In a lab on a sheep ranch in the Siskiyou Moun­tains, he’s spent the last cou­ple of years col­lect­ing thou­sands of vials of hu­man urine. Funded by pri­vate donors, he claims his work holds the key to ex­tend­ing the hu­man life span and wrest­ing con­trol of medicine from what he calls the “med­i­cal- in­dus­trial- govern­ment com­plex.” He has some un­usual ideas. Ac­cord­ing to his monthly news­let­ter, nu­clear ra­di­a­tion can be good for you and cli­mate sci­ence is a hoax. In his spare time he buys un­wanted pipe or­gans from churches and re­assem­bles them on his prop­erty.

Robin­son was new to pol­i­tics and had lit­tle money of his own. The Demo­cratic in­cum­bent, Peter Defazio, had held of­fice for more than 20 years and eas­ily out­spent him. But six weeks be­fore the elec­tion, a bar­rage of ads hit the air­waves, por­tray­ing Defazio as a pup­pet of the Demo­cratic lead­er­ship. Robin­son lost, but the $600,000 in ads helped him turn in the best per­for­mance by a Repub­li­can in the district in decades.

When the ads first ap­peared, Robin­son says he had no idea who’d paid for them. Even­tu­ally the Wash­ing­ton op­er­a­tives who bought them re­vealed they were work­ing for Robert Mercer, a com­puter pro­gram­mer and hedge fund man­ager in New York. Robin­son knew Mercer slightly, as a donor to his re­search projects and a sub­scriber to his news­let­ter. Once, he’d even vis­ited Mercer at the ex­trav­a­gant man­sion on Long Is­land Sound where he lives with Diana, his wife of 49 years. He says they’ve never dis­cussed pol­i­tics.

Mercer is one of the most enig­matic and pow­er­ful forces in U. S. pol­i­tics. Be­gin­ning around the time of Robin­son’s race, Mercer has put at least $32 mil­lion be­hind con­ser­va­tive can­di­dates for of­fice, in­clud­ing $11 mil­lion for a group sup­port­ing Texas Sen­a­tor Ted Cruz’s cam­paign for the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion. So far, Mercer is the big­gest sin­gle donor in the race. Work­ing with his daugh­ter Rebekah, he’s spent tens of mil­lions more to ad­vance a con­ser­va­tive agenda, in­vest­ing in think tanks such as the Her­itage Foun­da­tion, the me­dia out­let Bre­it­bart.com, and Cam­bridge An­a­lyt­ica, a data com­pany that builds psy­cho­log­i­cal pro­files of vot­ers. Groups he funds have at­tacked the sci­ence

of global warm­ing,

pub­lished a book crit­i­cal of Hil­lary Clin­ton, and bankrolled a doc­u­men­tary cel­e­brat­ing Ayn Rand.

Mercer, 69, has never spo­ken pub­licly about his political pri­or­i­ties and de­clined a re­quest to be in­ter­viewed for this story. This ac­count is based on in­ter­views with more than two dozen peo­ple who have spent time with Mercer or worked on his political ef­forts, very few of whom were will­ing to speak on the record. He’s tight-lipped even with his friends. That’s made him an ob­ject of in­tense spec­u­la­tion. Some al­lies pri­vately say they think he’s pro-life and op­posed to gay mar­riage, and oth­ers say the op­po­site. Repub­li­can op­er­a­tives gos­sip about what lit­tle scraps of in­for­ma­tion they can glean—his the­atri­cal Christ­mas galas, his habit of whistling to him­self dur­ing busi­ness meet­ings. Other pow­er­ful con­ser­va­tives court him: Free­dom Part­ners, the net­work over­seen by the brothers Charles and David Koch, some­times caters events with cook­ies from Ruby et Vi­o­lette, a bak­ery owned by Rebekah and her two sis­ters.

Mercer is the co-chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of one of the coun­try’s largest and most se­cre­tive hedge funds, Re­nais­sance Tech­nolo­gies, but peo­ple who’ve spent time with him say he hasn’t shown any in­ter­est in ad­vanc­ing its agenda in Wash­ing­ton. They say he dis­dains the es­tab­lish­ment wing of the Repub­li­can Party, which he sees as too cozy with Big Busi­ness and Wall Street. Un­like many of his peers in New York fi­nan­cial cir­cles, he doesn’t shrink from the cul­ture wars. He’s sup­ported a cam­paign for the death penalty in Ne­braska and funded ads in New York crit­i­cal of the so-called ground zero mosque. He and Rebekah have also di­rected money to an anti-abor­tion group and a Chris­tian col­lege, though peo­ple who know the father and daugh­ter say they don’t talk about re­li­gion.

A sur­pris­ing amount of Mercer’s at­ten­tion and money finds its way to some of the most un­usual fringes of the right wing. He’s at­tended and funded an an­nual con­fer­ence or­ga­nized by Jane Ori­ent, an Ari­zona physi­cian and ac­tivist who re­cently sug­gested in an opin­ion ar­ti­cle that el­e­ments in the U. S. govern­ment might have taken part in the San Bernardino mas­sacre. Mercer money also found its way to an Idaho ac­tivist named Fred Kelly Grant, who trav­els the coun­try en­cour­ag­ing le­gal chal­lenges to en­vi­ron­men­tal laws, which he says are part of a sin­is­ter plot by the United Na­tions to de­pop­u­late ru­ral Amer­ica.

“He’s a very in­de­pen­dent thinker,” says Sean Fieler, a con­ser­va­tive donor in New Jersey who’s worked with Mercer on ad­vo­cat­ing a re­turn to the gold stan­dard. “He’s a guy with his own ideas, and very de­vel­oped ideas, and I wouldn’t want to speak on his be­half.”

Four peo­ple who’ve dis­cussed the mat­ter with him say Mercer is pre­oc­cu­pied with the coun­try’s mon­e­tary and bank­ing sys­tems, which he sees as hope­lessly com­pro­mised by govern­ment med­dling. He was the main fi­nan­cial backer of the Jack­son Hole Sum­mit, a con­fer­ence that took place in Wy­oming last Au­gust to ad­vo­cate for the gold stan­dard, two of th­ese peo­ple said. His name wasn’t any­where on the agenda. Ac­cord­ing to video shot at the event, he sat with Rebekah to­ward the back of the au­di­ence, an un­ob­tru­sive, sil­ver-haired gen­tle­man with dark brows, wire-rimmed glasses, a navy suit, and a red tie. At din­ner that night, he sat at a ta­ble while other guests chat­tered around him, softly whistling to him­self.

Mercer’s rapid emer­gence as a political force was helped along by the U.S. Supreme Court, which held in Cit­i­zens United v. FEC in Jan­uary 2010 that in­de­pen­dent political spend­ing is pro­tected by the First Amend­ment. The rul­ing opened the door for un­lim­ited elec­tion spend­ing by in­di­vid­u­als and cor­po­ra­tions, most of which ended up be­ing fun­neled through the groups that have be­come known as su­per PACS. Eight months af­ter Cit­i­zens United, Mercer funded one of the coun­try’s first su­per PACS to sup­port Robin­son’s bid in Ore­gon.

Crit­ics warned that Cit­i­zens United would bring about a new era of cor­po­rate in­flu­ence in pol­i­tics, with com­pa­nies and busi­ness­peo­ple buy­ing elec­tions to pro­mote their fi­nan­cial in­ter­ests. So far, that hasn’t hap­pened much; big cor­po­ra­tions, for in­stance, still play a neg­li­gi­ble role in pres­i­den­tial elec­tion spend­ing. In­stead, a small group of bil­lion­aires has flooded races with ide­o­log­i­cally tinged con­tri­bu­tions. The re­sult has been a shift in power away from the political par­ties and to­ward the whims of the donors them­selves. In part, this ex­plains the large num­ber and va­ri­ety of can­di­dates fielded by the Repub­li­cans in 2016.

Few have ben­e­fited as much from this new ar­range­ment as Cruz. The Texas sen­a­tor is loathed by es­tab­lish­ment Repub­li­cans in Wash­ing­ton. But in July, a group of re­lated su­per PACS known as Keep the Prom­ise re­ported rais­ing $38 mil­lion to sup­port Cruz’s bid, al­most all of it from three fam­i­lies no one would con­fuse with tra­di­tional Repub­li­can power bro­kers. In ad­di­tion to Mercer, there’s Toby Neuge­bauer, a founder of a Hous­ton in­vest­ment firm who now lives in Puerto Rico, and Far­ris Wilks, a ma­son, pas­tor, and father of 11 from ru­ral Texas who be­came a bil­lion­aire a few years ago in the frack­ing busi­ness. Thanks to th­ese three men and their fam­i­lies, Cruz’s su­per PAC war chest was larger than that of any can­di­date ex­cept Jeb Bush, putting to rest any doubt that he’d have the fi­nan­cial fire­power to mount a cam­paign.

Ac­cord­ing to Neuge­bauer, Cruz laid the ground­work for his run in Fe­bru­ary 2014, at a pri­vate meet­ing on the deck of the Palm Beach home of prom­i­nent donors Lee and Al­lie Han­ley. Join­ing the Han­leys around a ta­ble in the Florida sun were Cruz and his wife, Heidi; his strate­gist, Ja­son John­son; Neuge­bauer; and Robert and Rebekah Mercer. The topic was Cruz’s chances in the elec­tion. A pair of re­searchers hired by Mercer and Han­ley pre­sented some in­trigu­ing find­ings. The coun­try was ready for a Mr. Smith Goes to Wash­ing­ton fig­ure—they used the phrase “Trum­p­like,” Neuge­bauer says—mean­ing that an out­sider can­di­date should have a good shot in 2016. The el­der Mercer, as usual, sat silently in his suit and tie as the group spent seven hours dis­cussing how a race might play out.

“Fi­nally, the sen­a­tor turns to him and says, ‘Bob, you haven’t said any­thing all day. Tell me what you think,’” Neuge­bauer re­calls. Mercer spoke for just a few min­utes. “He helped us frame up how we should be think­ing about our risks and op­por­tu­ni­ties,” Neuge­bauer says. “Bob is one of the great­est minds liv­ing.”

A year later, Cruz an­nounced his can­di­dacy at a Chris­tian univer­sity in Vir­ginia, then flew to New York. That evening, he at­tended a pri­vate gath­er­ing at Rebekah Mercer’s apart­ment in the Her­itage at Trump Place, a sky­scraper on the Up­per West Side, where guests en­joyed sweep­ing views of the Hud­son River. Ac­cord­ing to the Wall Street Jour­nal, Rebekah and her hus­band have spent more than $28 mil­lion buy­ing six ad­join­ing apart­ments on three floors of the tower. Robert Mercer didn’t at­tend, but within three weeks he’d co com­mit­ted $11 mil­lion to help put Cruz in the White House.

It wasn’t un­til late in life that Mercer had th the means to bankroll a pres­i­den­tial campa paign. He’s the son of a re­search sci­en­tis tist who held posts all over the coun­try, m mostly in the West. His father told him

“Fi­nally, the sen­a­tor turns to him and says, ‘Bob, you haven’t said any­thing all day. Tell me what you think’”

about a ma­chine called a com­puter when he was 10 years old, spark­ing a life­long fas­ci­na­tion. In high school in New Mex­ico in the 1960s, Mercer filled a big note­book with code, de­spite hav­ing no com­puter to try it on.

Mercer de­scribed his “com­pu­ta­tional life” in a speech in Bal­ti­more in 2014, where he’d come to ac­cept a life­time achieve­ment award from the As­so­ci­a­tion for Com­pu­ta­tional Lin­guis­tics. Dur­ing a col­lege job at an Air Force weapons lab in New Mex­ico, he says, he found his life’s call­ing. “I loved ev­ery­thing about com­put­ers,” he said. “I loved the soli­tude of the com­puter lab late at night. I loved the air-con­di­tioned smell of the place. I loved the sound of the disks whirring and the print­ers clack­ing.” His time at the lab also gave him an early taste of govern­ment bu­reau­cracy. One day he fig­ured out how to in­crease his com­puter’s speed by 100 times. “Then a strange thing hap­pened. In­stead of run­ning the old com­pu­ta­tions in 1/100 of the time, the pow­ers that be at the lab ran com­pu­ta­tions that were 100 times big­ger. I took this as an in­di­ca­tion that one of the most im­por­tant goals of govern­ment-fi­nanced re­search is not so much to get an­swers as it is to con­sume the com­puter bud­get, which has left me ever since with a jaun­diced view of govern­ment-fi­nanced re­search.”

Af­ter earn­ing a PH.D., Mercer joined IBM, where he was part of a team try­ing to teach com­put­ers to trans­late hu­man lan­guage. Lin­guists tack­ling the prob­lem at the time were con­vinced they needed to teach com­put­ers the in­tri­ca­cies of each lan­guage’s gram­mar and syn­tax to make any progress. Mercer was part of a group of pro­gram­mers who knew lit­tle about lin­guis­tics. In­stead, they just dumped huge blocks of trans­lated text into a com­puter and then taught it to guess at the likely re­la­tion­ships be­tween words, us­ing sta­tis­tics. When the pro­gram­mers pre­sented their work at a con­fer­ence in 1988, the lin­guists were hor­ri­fied. But the IBM team’s method worked, form­ing the ba­sis of mod­ern-day speech-recog­ni­tion soft­ware and tools such as Google Trans­late.

In 1993 ex­ec­u­tives at Re­nais­sance Tech­nolo­gies took no­tice of Mercer’s work and of­fered jobs to him and sev­eral of his IBM col­leagues. Si­t­u­ated on Long Is­land’s North Shore, more than an hour from New York City, the hedge fund was the brain­child of James Si­mons, a for­mer mil­i­tary code­breaker and math pro­fes­sor who has an im­por­tant the­ory named af­ter him. Re­nais­sance op­er­ates more like a univer­sity math depart­ment than a Wall Street trad­ing shop. Dozens of math and physics Ph.d.s work on a 50-acre cam­pus com­plete with a li­brary, a gym, and ten­nis courts, us­ing com­put­ers to crunch mar­ket data and spot pat­terns a hu­man trader would over­look. When Mercer joined Re­nais­sance, he was in his late 40s and two of his three daugh­ters had al­ready grad­u­ated from high school. He and a col­league from IBM, Peter Brown, rose quickly through the ranks, and when Si­mons re­tired in 2009, they be­came co-ceos.

In his book More Money Than God, Se­bas­tian Mal­laby calls Re­nais­sance “per­haps the most suc­cess­ful hedge fund ever.” Its main fund, known as Medal­lion, earned 39 per­cent per year on av­er­age from 1989 to 2006. The firm long ago stopped of­fer­ing out­siders the op­por­tu­nity to in­vest in it; in­stead, its math whizzes have fo­cused mostly on mul­ti­ply­ing their own money. Mal­laby de­scribes Brown as an ex­tro­vert who some­times zips around the of­fice on a uni­cy­cle; Mercer is “an icy cold poker player” who never re­called

hav­ing a night­mare. Al­though the scale of Mercer’s for­tune has never been es­ti­mated, Si­mons’s is pegged at about $15.5 bil­lion. Si­mons is also a ma­jor political donor—he was one of the largest sup­port­ers of Demo­cratic causes in 2012.

In 2014 a Se­nate com­mit­tee found that Re­nais­sance had used a com­pli­cated se­ries of trans­ac­tions that low­ered Medal­lion in­vestors’ per­sonal tax bills by an es­ti­mated $6.8 bil­lion. Then-sen­a­tor Carl Levin, the com­mit­tee’s Demo­cratic chair­man, called the ma­neu­vers “a se­ries of fic­tions.” Re­nais­sance says the trans­ac­tions were proper and not tax-mo­ti­vated, and it’s de­fend­ing its con­duct in an IRS pro­ceed­ing. Be­cause the Medal­lion fund is open only to Re­nais­sance em­ploy­ees, it’s likely that most of the tax sav­ings went to the firm’s top ex­ec­u­tives.

In his speech in Bal­ti­more, Mercer re­called his vic­tory over the ex­perts, re­count­ing a fa­vorite line of his for­mer boss at IBM: “When­ever I fire a lin­guist, the sys­tem gets bet­ter.” It may be no sur­prise, then, that in pol­i­tics, Mercer has some­times ig­nored ex­pert opin­ion and em­braced long shots. In eco­nomic pol­icy, cli­mate sci­ence, and med­i­cal re­search, he’s di­rected money to causes that are al­most as far from the main­stream as it’s pos­si­ble to get.

In 2005, Robin­son de­voted an is­sue of hi his news­let­ter, Ac­cess to En­ergy, to an ap ap­peal for funds to buy a pow­er­ful piece of re­search equip­ment known as a mass sp spec­trom­e­ter. He sug­gested that a revo­lut lu­tion in med­i­cal treat­ment was at hand, if on­lyo he could get $2 mil­lion to buy one.

A short while later, Rebekah Mercer called to in­tro­duce her­self, and soon the Mercer Fam­ily Foun­da­tion sent its first check, for $60,000. The Mercers have since sent Robin­son’s lab, which he calls the Ore­gon In­sti­tute of Sci­ence and Medicine, at least $1.4 mil­lion more, ac­cord­ing to the foun­da­tion’s tax fil­ings, al­low­ing him to buy freez­ers to store his grow­ing stock­pile of urine.

On an over­cast day in Novem­ber, ber, Robin­son, who has white hair and pale eyes, comes to the door of his lab in a red flannel shirt, blue­jeans, and socks. The spec­trom­e­ter, the size of a cou­ple of re­frige­frig­er­a­tors, is whirring away in­side, next to a huge an­tique pipe or­gan. Out­side are two cam­ou­flage-painted ship­ping con­tain­er­sners hold­ing some of his 14,000 urine sam­ples in mil­i­tary-grade freez­ers. The lab stands part­way up a hill­side over­look­ing a lit­tle val­ley. Sheep graze in the meadow.

Some­day, Robin­son says, his meth­ods will rev­o­lu­tion­ize di­ag­nos­tic medicine. He’ll use the spec­trom­e­ter to de­code the chem­i­cal pat­terns in urine, the red flags that warn of dis­ease be­fore it strikes. The hu­man life span will stretch. It’s hard to judge the cred­i­bil­ity of his claims; al­though he earned a PH.D. from the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at San Diego in the 1960s, he hasn’t pub­lished peer­re­viewed re­search on di­ag­nos­tic medicine in decades. “We’ve com­pleted ex­per­i­ments here, which we could eas­ily pub­lish, but we want to wait un­til they are per­fect,” he says.

In his monthly news­let­ter, Robin­son ad­vo­cates for a re­vival of nu­clear power, warns that cli­mate sci­ence is a “false re­li­gion” that will en­slave mankind, and rails against pub­lic education—he homeschool­ed his six chil­dren on the ranch and now sells the cur­ricu­lum. The com­mon theme in his var­i­ous projects is a deep dis­trust of govern­ment and a sense that broad seg­ments of the Amer­i­can pub­lic are de­luded. Main­stream sci­ence re­search, he says, is cor­rupted by its de­pen­dence on the whims of bu­reau­crats. Even the pri­vate health-care in­dus­try is part of the “med­i­cal mo­nop­oly” that stands in the way of progress.

How much of this does Mercer en­dorse? Robin­son says he can’t be sure. “I have strong im­pres­sions about him, but they’re based on not too much data. I’m very grate­ful he’s helped us.” A typ­i­cal in­ter­ac­tion with Mercer, Robin­son says, came a few months back, af­ter he wrote in Ac­cess to En­ergy about the clo­sure of a nu­clear power plant in Cal­i­for­nia. Robin­son cal­cu­lated that the power from the shut­tered re­ac­tors could have de­sali­nated enough sea­wa­ter for all the state’s non­farm wa­ter needs.

An e-mail from Mercer showed up in Robin­son’s in-box. “He says, you know, ‘I was think­ing about that for New Mex­ico once, but I no­ticed that lift­ing the wa­ter to where it was needed from the ocean took a lot more en­ergy than de­sali­nat­ing it. You left that out.’ ” Why had Mercer been study­ing de­sali­na­tion in New Mex­ico? “I have no idea,” Robin­son says.

Not long be­foreb his first run for of­fice, Robin­son paid a visit to Mercer at his home in Headh of the Har­bor, a short drive from Re­nais­sance’s cam­pus in East Se­tause­tauket. Mercer has dubbed his house the Owl’s Nest. Owls seem to be some­thing of a fa­mil­iar for Mercer. He’s com­mis­sio com­mis­sioned a suc­ces­sion of yachts, all called Sea Owl, the lat­est of which stretches to 203 feet, with a pi­rateth­emed play­room for the grand­kids and a chan­de­lier of Vene­tian glass. At least one Sea Owl was fit­ted with a med­i­cal cen­ter and video links, so a stroke at sea, for in­stance, could be di­ag­nosed and treated re­motely by a for­mer White House physi­cian ashore. Through Cen­tre Firearms, a gun deal­er­ship he owns with a group of in­vestors, he re­cently ac­quired one of the coun­try’s largest col­lec­tions of ma­chine guns and his­tor­i­cal firearms, in­clud­ing a weapon Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger wielded in The Ter­mi­na­tor.

At the Owl’s Nest, vis­i­tors pass through pil­lars crowned by a pair of owl stat­ues, their wings out­stretched as if tak­ing flight. Peo­ple who’ve been in­side de­scribe a pis­tol range, a se­ries of se­cret pas­sages, and an oc­tag­o­nal tower hold­ing a twos­tory li­brary.

When Robin­son vis­ited, Mercer led him to the base­ment, where he keeps his model train; it cost about $2.7 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to a law­suit brought by Mercer against its de­signer, and de­picts a swath of the Hud­son Val­ley. A vis­i­tor can sit in a mock-up of a steam lo­co­mo­tive’s cab to con­trol the train. The wind­shield shows the view from a video cam­era on the tiny en­gine on the track below.

Robin­son saw Mercer again last Au­gust, at a Dou­bletree air­port ho­tel out­side Los An­ge­les. A group called Doc­tors for Disas­ter Pre­pared­ness, of which Robin­son is a long­time mem­ber, was hold­ing its 33rd an­nual meet­ing. Founded to pro­mote civil de­fense dur­ing the Cold War, it’s trans­formed over the years into a fo­rum on many of the same fringe-sci­ence top­ics that Robin­son cov­ers in his news­let­ter. It’s been run for decades by Robin­son’s friend Ori­ent, the Ari­zona physi­cian. At­tacks on main­stream cli­mate sci­ence are a sta­ple, but the range of ma­te­rial is broad. One re­cent pre­sen­ta­tion spun a the­ory about links be­tween John F. Kennedy’s as­sas­si­na­tion and the deaths of his brother and son.

At the Dou­bletree, one speaker warned that the aim of Oba­macare was to bring about a col­lapse of the U.S. health- care sys­tem; she urged the au­di­ence to stock­pile med­i­ca­tions and find doc­tors who would work for cash. An­other speaker spent al­most an hour ar­gu­ing that HIV does not cause AIDS; rather, he said, the link was in­vented by govern­ment sci­en­tists who wanted to cover up other health risks of “the life­style of ho­mo­sex­ual men.”

In an in­ter­view, Ori­ent says she knows

lit­tle about Mercer other than that he’s at­tended sev­eral of the con­fer­ences and has been a “gen­er­ous” donor to them. In ad­di­tion to ar­rang­ing the events, Ori­ent heads a sep­a­rate group that op­poses govern­ment in­volve­ment in health care, and she writes fre­quently in the far-right me­dia. In De­cem­ber she posted an ar­ti­cle about the San Bernardino killings, sug­gest­ing that the govern­ment failed to stop the at­tacks be­cause it’s “on the other side.”

At the Dou­bletree, a sur­pris­ing num­ber of strands from Mercer’s in­ter­ests in­ter­sected. Bre­it­bart.com, the pop­ulist web­site he funds, dis­patched a reporter to cover the meet­ing. The Heart­land In­sti­tute, a cli­mate-skep­tic think tank to which he’s given more than $4 mil­lion, sent its sci­ence di­rec­tor to present his plan to abol­ish the En­vi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency. An­other speaker warned of thee dan­gers of Agenda 21, the UN pro­gram m that’s a fre­quent tar­get of a Mercer-fundedd ac­tivist. Ge­orge Gilder, a techno-evan­ge­list t and bit­coin ad­vo­cate who re­cently wrote e a mono­graph for the Mercer-funded gold- stan­dard pro­ject, was on hand. And of f course there was Robin­son, who sharedd a lunch ta­ble with Robert and Re­bekahh Mercer. As usual, he says, Robert Mercer didn’t have much to say.

A month af­ter tthe Cal­i­for­nia con­fer­ence, the Mercers head­ed­hea to Jack­son Hole. Ev­ery sum­mer top of­fi­cof­fi­cials at the Fed­eral Re­serve gather in the Wwyoming re­sort com­mun nity ni­tynity with to many­man dis­cuss­discu of mon­e­tary­the world’s pol­icy.top econBut omists the Mercers wen­twe in­stead to the Jack­son Hole Sum­mit, a “counter-con­fer­ence” they funded through a non­profit group called the Amer­i­can Prin­ci­ples Pro­ject. The sum­mit’s aim was to ques­tion the very pur­pose of the Fed, call­ing for an end to govern­ment in­volve­ment in the money sup­ply and a re­turn to the gold stan­dard. Steve Lone­gan, an APP ac­tivist from New Jersey, opened the event by wav­ing a dol­lar bill in the air. “To­day, my friends, this lit­tle piece of pa­per in our pocket is ma­nip­u­lated, its value de­ter­mined, and un­der­mined rou­tinely, by a bunch of un­elected, un­ac­count­able bu­reau­crats who are meet­ing right now a few miles away,” he said. “Amer­ica needs to wake up to this threat!”

The U.S. turned away from the gold stan­dard dur­ing the Great De­pres­sion and dropped its last links in 1971. It’s dif­fi­cult to find a main­stream econ­o­mist who ad­vovo­cates for it; a 2012 sur­vey of econ­o­mists sts at top U.S. univer­si­ties failed to turn up pa a sin­gle sup­porter. Yet it’s a par­tic­u­lar in­ter­erest of Mercer’s, say sev­eral peo­ple who’ve’ ve dis­cussed the mat­ter with him.

Mercer is also a pas­sion­ate critic of a cen­tral el­e­ment of the mod­ern fi­nan­cial sys­tem known as frac­tional re­serve bank­ing, th­ese peo­ple said. Es­sen­tially, it’s the prac­tice of banks lend­ing out their de­pos­i­tors’ money to oth­ers. Banks have been do­ing this for hun­dreds of years, but a few out-of-the-main­stream econ­o­mists con­sider it a form of fraud—akin to con­jur­ing cur­rency out of thin air. Ac­cord­ing to one as­so­ciate, a thinker said to be in­flu­en­tial with Mercer is Mur­ray Roth­bard, the late econ­o­mist who called the mod­ern bank­ing sys­tem “a shell game, a Ponzi scheme.” It’s un­clear how Mercer’s views on the bank­ing sys­tem square with his hedge fund ac­tiv­i­ties; it emerged in the Se­nate tax in­ves­ti­ga­tion that Re­nais­sance, to boost re­turns, some­times sought lev­er­age of as much as 20 times the value of its as­sets from gi­ant banks such as Bar­clays.

In early 2015, Lone­gan ar­ranged a meet­ing be­tweenb and Chair the Janet Fed’s Yellen. con­ser­va­tiveA­mong those crit­ic­sto ta take part was John Al­li­son, a di­rec­tor and fo for­mer pres­i­dent of the Cato In­sti­tute, a c promi­nentp came away lib­er­tar­ian em­bar­rassed think by tank. Lone­gan’sAl­li­son p pre­sen­ta­tion, which he pri­vately char­ac­ter­ized as am­a­teur­ish, says a per­son fa­mil­iar with his views. (Lone­gan says he was un­aware of Al­li­son’s crit­i­cism and that even a top Fed of­fi­cial praised the pre­sen­ta­tion.) Cato an­nounced it was back­ing out of the up­com­ing Jack­son Hole event. Rebekah Mercer wrote to Cato, urg­ing it to re­con­sider, ac­cord­ing to two peo­ple with knowl­edge of the cor­re­spon­dence. Her re­quest was likely to carry weight, as the Mercers are also Cato donors. The think tank re­versed course and sent a speaker to Jack­son Hole.

Al­li­son won’t dis­cuss his views of the Yellen meet­ing but ac­knowl­edges he had a “de­bate” over strat­egy with Lone­gan’s group. “It was about be­ing sure, when chal­leng­ing the Fed, that we’re seen as in­tel­lec­tu­ally cred­i­ble,” he says. “I have re­ally high re­gard for Bob and Rebekah. They’re re­ally fine peo­ple. Any­time you’re try­ing to ac­com­plish a dif­fi­cult task— which, rein­ing in the Fed, it doesn’t get much more dif­fi­cult than that—you’re go­ing to have dis­putes about tech­nique.”

As for the Jack­son Hole con­fer­ence, the clos­est the gold-stan­dard ac­tivists got to Fed of­fi­cials was at the air­port, where Lone­gan passed out gold-coin choco­lates to passers-by.

Bre­it­bart.com,Bre­it­bart.co which de­voted at least six sto­ries to theth sum­mit, has proved to be one of Mercer’sMerce bet­ter political wa­gers. He in­vested $10 mil­lion in the me­dia out­let when it was strug­gling in 2011, ac­cord­ing to a per­per­son with knowl­edge of the trans­ac­tion. Since then, its au­di­ence has ex­ploded. In De­cem­ber it an­nounced its bil­lionth page view of the year.

Other bets haven’t had as much im­pact. Grant, the Idaho lawyer and ac­tivist, says he got more than $100,000 from the Mercers in 2013 af­ter meet­ing with them at Rebekah’s apart­ment. For years, Grant has preached a lit­tle-known le­gal the­ory, known as co­or­di­na­tion, that he uses to chal­lenge en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tions. The plan was to turn his one-man cru­sade into a self-sus­tain­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion. But now Grant, 79, says the Mercer money is long since spent and he was never able to hire staff.

Mercer’s bet on Cruz, how­ever, is look­ing pre­scient. When Mercer plunked down his $11 mil­lion last April, the polls put Cruz near the bot­tom of the Repub­li­can race. Now, cap­i­tal­iz­ing on a surge of in­ter­est in anti- es­tab­lish­ment can­di­dates, Cruz is near the top of the polls na­tion­wide and lead­ing in Iowa, which holds the coun­try’s first nom­i­nat­ing con­test on Feb. 1. Cruz de­clined to com­ment for this story.

It’s hard to know ex­actly how much at­ten­tion Cruz pays to Mercer’s views, but he’s breathed new life into one of Mercer’s pet is­sues. Dur­ing two na­tion­ally tele­vised de­bates last fall, Cruz called for a re­turn to the gold stan­dard. “We had it for 170 years of our na­tion’s his­tory and en­joyed boom­ing eco­nomic growth,” he de­clared in Novem­ber.

A few weeks later, noCruz paid a visit to the Owl’s Nest for Mercer’s an­nual Christ­mas bash. The his­tor­i­cal-themed par­ties have be­come leg­endary in Repub­li­can cir­cles: Hun­dreds of guests from the fam­ily’s political, busi­ness, and char­i­ta­ble en­deav­ors gather in elab­o­rate cos­tumes, en­ter­tained by per­form­ers shipped in from across the coun­try. Last Christ­mas’s theme was the end of World War II. A tank greeted vis­i­tors ar­riv­ing at the es­tate; the din­ing tent was set up as a mess hall, where a trio im­per­son­at­ing the An­drews Sis­ters sang Boo­gie Woo­gie Bu­gle Boy and In the Mood. In the li­brary, vis­i­tors peered at a piece of the USS Ari­zona re­trieved from the wreck­age of Pearl Har­bor and a wed­ding dress made of para­chute silk. Mercer was dressed as Gen­eral Dou­glas Macarthur. Ted Cruz, in a three­piece suit, came as Win­ston Churchill.

Back in Ore­gon, Robin­son has been col­lect­ing his lat­est round of urine sam­ples. Since his loss in 2010, he’s run two more un­suc­cess­ful cam­paigns for Congress, each time with six-fig­ure fi­nan­cial sup­port from Mercer. He doesn’t rule out a fourth at­tempt this year. If it hap­pens, he says, he won’t call his friend for help. Mercer’s money will know where to find him. <BW>

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