The puzzling rise of Stephen Bannon from the internet's frat row to a top office in the West Wing may have less to do with Donald Trump’s personal ideology than that of a little-known hedge-fund heiress and activist libertarian mega-donor named Rebekah Mercer.
Mercer, an intensely private woman who manages her family’s political investments and whose family is also a majority investor in the psychographic analytics company Cambridge Analytica, appeared out of nowhere in 2012 when she attended an election postmortem for GOP mega-donors and, according to the Washington Post, “stood up before the largely male crowd and delivered an unsparing critique of the Republican’s technology and canvassing operations.” Disgusted by what she viewed as the ineptitude of the Koch operation during the 2012 campaign, Mercer decided on election night to devote her family’s political efforts to burning the GOP’s house down.
Over the past four years, Mercer has frequently bucked the GOP establishment in order to drive the party ever further right, and originally backed Ted Cruz, whose constitutional originalist approach to governance closely aligned with her tea-party sensibilities. But when Cruz dropped out of the race and Trump emerged as the nominee, Mercer, unlike the Koch brothers, was unafraid to shift her support to the political novice, whom she saw as a convenient vehicle for advancing her populist agenda.
Though the Mercer family's political investments don't begin to approach the Kochs', she amplifies its impact by actively involving herself in how it's spent—including guiding Mercer-funded campaigns to hire Cambridge Analytica to drive their decision-making. But Mercer is not shy about exerting considerably more influence, up to and including influencing staff appointments. Mercer is believed to be behind the replacement of Corey Lewandowski and Paul Manafort with Bannon—who according to The Hill is “tied at the hip” to Mercer—and Kellyanne Conway—who worked on a pro-Cruz super PAC with strong ties to Mercer—earlier this summer.
Mercer remains closely involved with the Trump operation today, currently serving as a member of Trump’s transition team, overseeing the hiring of lower-level appointees and lobbying for Cabinet secretaries she views as conservative true believers.
In light of this, Bannon’s elevation of starts to seem less surprising. Bannon, as it happens, has served as a board member of Cambridge Analytica and run the Mercer-backed Government Accountability Institute, and the Mercers, as it happens, have a significant financial stake in Breitbart News.
If you can’t fathom why your Republican representatives are having such difficulty publicly expressing reservations over the appointment of such a rabid alt-rightist like Bannon to a White House post—maybe it’s because the Mercers have a financial stake in them, too.