Politics / November 24, 2023

Why “Liberal” Donors Love Giving Money to the Extreme Right

Many purportedly progressive plutocrats turn reactionary on Israel and labor.

Jeet Heer
Eyes right: EBay founder Pierre Omidayar, whose Omidyar Network Foundation helped to pay for the labor section of Project 2025—designed to help a second Trump administration hit the ground running by providing personnel and policy options.(Ramin Talaie / Corbis via Getty Images)

If Donald Trump wins back the presidency in 2024, his second term in office will be much more authoritarian than anything he was able to achieve in his first go-round. Yet some very wealthy donors who style themselves as progressives are helping to fund Trumpian schemes to remake the government along autocratic lines.

When Trump was first elected, he faced a challenging staffing problem that has now been solved. In 2016, the existing conservative think tanks, which provide both the ready-to-go policy agenda and the employee lists used to staff incoming GOP administrations, were still organized around the pre-Trumpian Republican Party. So in his first term Trump was hard-pressed to find staffers who would execute his policy agenda, aside from anti-immigration fanatics like Stephen Miller (who came Trump’s way thanks to his far-right strategist Steve Bannon).

But over the last seven years, right-wing institutions have become steadily Trumpized, so that the MAGA vision of Trump as the head of a radical right-wing transformation of American politics has been fleshed out in terms of both policy and personnel. For a road map to the future, all one needs to do is read the 920-page Mandate for Leadership crafted by a group called Project 2025 Presidential Transition Project, a consortium of right-wing organizations including the Heritage Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council, and the Family Research Council. As Roger Sollenberger of The Daily Beast notes, Project 2025 “has been criticized for its hard-right, authoritarian agenda—including ‘dehumanizing”’ rhetoric towards the LGBTQ community, re-upping Trump’s attempt to include citizenship on the census, leveraging the power of the Justice Department to crack down on critics, and a potentially unconstitutional plan to sic U.S. troops on domestic protesters.”

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But the dangers of Project 2025 as a blueprint for a turbo-charged MAGA agenda go beyond the immediate electoral prospects of Donald Trump. After all, in the past such think tank efforts have typically served as dress rehearsals for Republican administrations. The original Mandate for Leadershipreleased by the Heritage Foundation in 1981—was a best-seller that shaped both the staffing of the Reagan administration and policies such as the military buildup and the evisceration of the welfare state. The American Enterprise Institute’s advocacy of neoconservative foreign policy bore disastrous fruit under George W. Bush. Even if Trump loses in 2024, at some point another Republican president will reside in the White House. And they will almost certainly enact the autocratic policy vision of Project 2025, with the help of the radicalized think-tankers who now staff GOP institutions. The Project 2025 agenda to undermine the civil service is already being echoed by other Republican presidential hopefuls such as former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley.

Given the extremism of Project 2025, you might expect that anyone who claims to be a progressive would steer clear of it. Yet, as Roger Sollenberger’s reporting makes clear, American Compass, a think tank that contributed heavily to Project 2025’s section on labor policy, is getting funding from some extremely wealthy progressive donors. Two of the five major funders for American Compass, Sollenberger notes, “stand out for their prominent histories of supporting liberal causes—the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Omidyar Network Foundation.” The Hewlett Foundation, which claims its agenda is to “strengthen our economy, democracy, and climate” gave American Compass nearly $2 million. The Omidyar Network, created by Ebay founder Pierre Omidyar, has chipped in another $500,000. Previously, Omidyar had given to many progressive causes, including providing the seed funding for the excellent investigative magazine The Intercept. A third liberal-leaning group, Action Now Initiative, has donated $250,000 to American Compass.

Formed in 2020 by Oren Cass, a former Mitt Romney adviser, American Compass is an attempt to flesh out Donald Trump’s vague rhetoric of economic populism with actual policies. The think tank often makes noises about the need to check corporate power and support workers. This rhetoric provides ideological cover to liberal supporters who present the group as a useful instrument for getting the Republican Party to become more pro-worker.

Matt Stoller, a Democrat known for his advocacy of anti-monopoly policy, countered the Daily Beast exposé by claiming that “American Compass is going after fake private equity returns, anti-labor policies, credit card monopoly profits, and unregulated railroads. Authoritarian? No.” (Stoller is an adviser to American Compass, as well as running his own think tank, the American Economic Liberties Project). In an online statement, the Hewlett Foundation credits American Compass with “orienting political focus from growth for its own sake to widely shared economic development that sustains vital social institutions.” A spokesperson for Omidyar Network Foundation advised The Daily Beast “to reach out to American Compass directly for comment on the pro-worker elements they were able to advocate for related to Project 2025.”

The argument is that American Compass is a useful stalking horse for getting the Republican Party to become more pro-worker and progressive on economic policies. This line of reasoning might be persuasive—if it weren’t for the fact that, based on Project 2025, American Compass gives every evidence of being as anti-worker and plutocracy-friendly as any other right-wing think tank.

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Labor reporter Hamilton Nolan, who has written an extensive explication of the labor sections of Project 2025, concluded that the authors, “intend to use every regulatory mechanism they can to weaken unions. They intend to make it harder for workers to organize and build power against corporations. They intend to make it easier for employers to flout safety laws and many other types of pro-worker regulations.”

Nolan’s analysis provides many specific details. Among other facts, he notes, “they want to roll back ‘independent contractor’ rules to earlier standards that make it impossible for ‘gig economy’ workers to organize and build power; they want to roll back the improved ‘joint employer’ standard, which would allow corporations that have franchises to escape responsibility for bad labor practices; they want to roll back the recently improved overtime threshold, which would make millions of workers ineligible for overtime pay.” Nolan provides many more details along this line.

As American Compass has clearly failed in its purported mission to make the GOP more pro-worker, it’s hard not to conclude from the evidence that the effort is merely a rhetorical fig leaf, designed to hide the same old anti-union agenda the GOP has followed for decades. This ideological shell game serves the interest of not just Republicans but also those liberal-leaning plutocrats who might not themselves be at all friendly to labor unions.

We can see the same shell game on the issue of Israel/Palestine—with liberal funders giving money to the influential pro-Israel lobby group (American Israel Public Affairs Committee). The Intercept recently reported on an offshoot of AIPAC called the American Israel Education Fund (AIEF) that helps to pay for congressional trips to Israel. The Intercept notes,

The Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which gave $1.5 million to AIEF in 2019, portrays itself as heavily focused on progressive issues, including education, voting rights, criminal justice, and reproductive rights. The foundation also funded a number of hawkish, pro-Israel groups in the same year, including [the Foundation for Defense of Democracies] (FDD); the Middle East Media Research Institute, which monitors foreign language press in the Middle East and has been criticized for bias and misleading translations; the Investigative Project on Terrorism, led by the discredited extremism expert Steve Emerson, who has been repeatedly invited to speak at AIPAC summits despite allegations of Islamophobia; and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a D.C. think tank that was itself spun off from AIPAC.

There are many reasons anyone who claims to be progressive should be wary of AIPAC. The organization spends heavily in Democratic primaries to defeat left-leaning candidates. As Slate recently reported, AIPAC is preparing to spend $100 million in 2024 to mount primary challenges against members of the Squad and left-wing Democrats. Further, AIPAC has endorsed 106 Republicans who supported the January 6 attempted coup. Given this history, no one who claims to support American democracy should want to have anything to do with AIPAC. Yet it receives funding from progressive donors, and has no trouble finding Democratic politicians willing to take funding.

On Wednesday The New York Times reported, “A Democratic Senate candidate in Michigan said he was offered $20 million by a Michigan businessman to drop out of the race and instead take on a primary challenge against Rashida Tlaib, the Palestinian American representative who was censured this month for her statements about the Israel-Gaza war.” The donor was Linden Nelson, who in the past has given money to Democrats, Republicans, and AIPAC. However, AIPAC claims that Nelson has not given money to them in over a decade.

Nelson’s history of donations points to one reason putatively liberal donors gives to reactionary think tanks and lobbying groups. Rich people often like to give money to both major parties as a form of insurance to make sure they have a voice no matter who wins an election.

Marshall Steinbaum, an economist at the University of Utah, informed me that this type of progressive donation to right-wing institutions is no surprise. Donors, he noted, “always want to make it seem as though ‘both sides’ are in dialogue, so they fund ‘both sides’ to say the same thing. There are tons of conservative groups that are actually funded by progressive funders, so they can say they’re talking to reasonable conservatives. That American Compass is also in bed with Trump puts the lie to the idea that Hewlett, etc, are sponsoring a broad anti-Trump coalition.”

This attempt to play both sides strengthens the right in numerous ways. First it gives right-leaning institutions like American Compass and AIPAC the patina of bipartisan respectability. It helps elevate right-wing ideas as being normative. More subtly, by creating a false consensus backed by wealth, it undermines faith in democracy. Voters will reasonably conclude that if the same rich people give money to both Democrats and Republicans, to both right and left think tanks, then politics really is just a big sham, with a narrow ideological spectrum set by the ultra-rich. Although these progressive funders might claim to hate Trump, they are justifying the very cynicism that allows angry right-wing anti-establishment politics to thrive.

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Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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