The Billionaire Gap in American Politics

The Billionaire Gap in American Politics

The Billionaire Gap in American Politics

Financiers on the American right marshal money in the relentless pursuit of power, while their left-leaning counterparts spend it on vanity projects.


Amid the uproar over right-wing benefactor and Clarence Thomas crony Harlan Crow’s infatuation with Third Reich memorabilia, a more routine, but equally telling, indictment of the moneyed and ideologically calcified condition of American public life materialized: Harvard alum and hedge-fund titan Ken Griffin donated $300 million to his alma mater, which obligingly announced that it would rename the school’s graduate school of arts and sciences in his honor. Griffin is best known as the Daddy Warbucks for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, another Harvard alum who can reliably be found doing cable hits and appearing at proto-presidential campaign rallies fulminating against the “potentates” of Ivy League wokeness now defiling the righteous, Real American order of things.

Griffin’s flotilla of cash makes it clear that at the end of the day, right-wing billionaires will always recur to the institutions that are designed to carry their pet agendas forward—from Wall Street to state-level redistricting to the Ivy League to, in Crow’s case, the US Supreme Court. And for all the furor from the right over the sinister financial doings of liberal billionaire George Soros—most lately fingered for funding the election campaign of Trump-indicting New York District Attorney Alvin Bragg in spite of having never actually done so—liberal moneyed largesse tends overwhelmingly to back nonprofit think tanks and policy concerns. Put another way, financiers on the American right marshal money in the relentless pursuit of power, while their left-leaning counterparts spend it on vanity projects premised on the assumption that they already have power.

This, indeed, is the likeliest relevant background for Crow’s Nazi fixation (always and forever allowing for, as my colleague Jeet Heer points out, the consummate accumulation-minded weirdness of the super-rich). As journalist Jeff Sharlet documented in his groundbreaking study of the right-wing religious network The Fellowship, Adolf Hitler was also a model figure in that group’s literature—but due less to his hateful genocidal beliefs than to his stature as a history-bending Great Man. (It’s worth noting that Time magazine once designated Hitler as Man of the Year, under the same power-mongering rationale). The phalanx of right-wing pundits who have promptly assembled in Crow’s defense have denied that their benefactor is a capital-N Nazi. But even granting the substance of all this closely harmonized special pleading, the fact remains that doting on Nazi memorabilia bespeaks an undeniably unwholesome fascination with the untrammeled will to power. It’s very much of a piece with the genre of business advice books holding forth figures like Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun as founts of market-conquering wisdom.

Indeed, for decades now, right-wing donors have fixated on gaining and expanding their power with a singular Hun-like devotion. The radicalizing of the donor right harks back to a memo drafted in 1971 for the US Chamber of Commerce—and its author, fittingly enough, was a future conservative Supreme Court justice. The “Powell memo,” as it’s become known, was the handiwork of Lewis F. Powell Jr., then a partner at the Richmond-based corporate law firm Hunton & Williams, a central player in tobacco-industry litigation. The memo outlined a grim crisis of faith in the established bastions of American enterprise, as a left-leaning counterculture appeared to be gaining critical traction. There thus “should not be the slightest hesitation” in coordinating and centralizing the contributions of major right-wing donors, Powell argued, “to penalize politically those who oppose” their God-given, market-hewing prerogatives. “Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations,” he wrote.

Powell’s readers heeded his call in stirring fashion. Within a decade, new think tanks and lobbying campaigns were launched—and older ones rededicated—in the service of what Powell called the “confrontation politics” of the new right. These efforts yielded many of the name-brand policy and legislative concerns that continue to shape the country’s political agenda today, including the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the American Legislative Exchange Council—the notorious purveyor of mass-produced legislative language converted into reactionary bill after reactionary bill in state legislatures across the country. It was at a mid-’80s gathering of the Heritage Foundation that a South Carolina billionaire named Thomas Roe vividly staked out the contours of the policy world we now live in, as he blithely explained to another mega-donor, “You capture the Soviet Union—I’m going to capture the states.”

The left-leaning donor world is much less ideologically driven, in part because it traffics in the more traditional philanthropic theology of “giving back” in a fundamentally settled social order—i.e., financing benevolent undertakings as a sort of spiritual reputation laundering for the filthy rich. This tradition goes back to robber baron Andrew Carnegie’s call in his tract The Gospel of Wealth to organize philanthropic giving along the rational and efficient principles that granted him and his peers gargantuan fortunes in the first place. More than that, however, the industrial-age model of charitable giving was meant to feed egos and moral vanity. Carnegie, John Jacob Astor, Leland Stanford, and Andrew Mellon all became A-list patrons of the arts and institutions of higher learning in the effort to combine compassionate-looking disaccumulation with the pleasing spectacle of having their names carved into marble.

In the age of neoliberal capitalism, charitable giving follows far more circumscribed channels of neoliberal policy, such as school privatization, agricultural microlending, and anything that can be depicted as technologically disruptive. Former New York Times reporter Anand Giridharadas chronicled this philanthropic turn in his 2018 book Winners Take All, which showed how signature liberal philanthropies such as the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation now work to shore up the foundations of wealth inequality.

To be sure, George Soros has become the poster-donor among right-wingers for any and every development in national politics they dislike—from the Bragg indictment of Trump to the Democratic wins in 2018 and 2020 election cycles. Soros is also commonly held to be subsidizing left-leaning writers and journalists, but across my own long and well-traveled journalistic career, I’ve known one writer who has ever cashed a Soros check—veteran investigative reporter Ken Silverstein. While Silverstein concedes that “it’s hard to know exactly what Soros’s interests are,” he recalls receiving zero marching orders from the maximum donor behind the Open Society Institute; indeed, he says he never actually met Soros in person. “It’s hard to think of how someone might attack me as carrying out a nefarious campaign on behalf of Soros. My gig was to write magazine pieces; they were about corruption in the energy industry, all about us oil companies and their tawdry relationships with shitty third world dictators.… I don’t see how anybody would say that’s not a subject that matters.”

That’s also the view from within the Soros network. “We have a mission and an orientation toward what we call open society social thinking and practice,” says Leonard Benardo, executive vice president for the Open Society Foundations. “That includes broadening public access to information, bringing resources to populations and communities that have been marginalized, promoting discourses of rights and justice…. We’re not trying to build some kind of global Federalist Society. It’s kind of piecemeal social engineering stuff on the policy side.” Benardo goes on to note that Thomas’s dalliances with Harlan Crow have reinforced the already widespread perception that what counts under our federal legal system is ideology and moneyed influence. “We have lost this bedrock notion of impartiality under the rule of law. People of course assume [the courts] are political; it’s just a question of which side you’re on…. Taken to its logical end, that means they’re all just corrupt and politicized. So Clarence Thomas’s disgusting improprieties are not, as we’ve seen with The Wall Street Journal, an issue. It’s not the National Review, it’s The Wall Street Journal who says, ‘Come on, he’s on our side.’ ”

This is all a familiar enough refrain accompanying the mobilization of money and influence behind the hard right. Silverstein came of age amid the same set of political convulsions that produced the Powell memo, and notes that the right was never shy about funding and promoting its core interests. “In general, people in power are very, very aware of the fact they wield that power, and they are very, very aware of the need to protect that power. I remember reading…a 1974 issue of Business Week that I’ve quoted a lot since. This was the early ’70s, the time of the counterattack: Woodward and Bernstein and Vietnam, and college students run amok. There was a general fear that socialist revolution actually was imminent. So this Business Week piece was on the need for industrialization; the initial thought was we need to reindustrialize the US economy.… And there’s a line like, it’s unfortunate, but American workers are going to have to do with less so business can have more.”

Here was the Powell memo strategy bearing fruit yet again, albeit in a dedicated business journal that required no behind-the-scenes lobbying or propagandizing to deliver the goods. But that’s precisely the point—just as Harlan Crow’s fundamental project is to ensure that Supreme Court justices like Clarence Thomas and movement intellectuals like Charles Murray can take lavish repose in his company, and continue producing laws and rhetoric from the same movement playbook.

There’s no overt message coordination at this late stage of donor-driven political reaction—just as the Ken Griffins of the world can genially wave off charges of hypocrisy or backsliding when they bankroll a putatively liberal Ivy League institution that keeps matriculating impressively credentialed retainers of the American ruling class. Pointing out such things is rather common and vulgar, after all—just as it’s indelicate to question the host of your weekend getaway about his Nazi-insignia teapot or his autographed copy of Mein Kampf. It’s not just that breeding speaks to breeding; the whole point of brandishing power and money on a sufficiently grand scale is to ensure that nobody says much of anything at all.

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