Author and columnist Jane Mayer of The New Yorker may well be the country’s premier investigative political journalist. One of her many areas of expertise is the role of “dark money” in our politics, the massive spending of undisclosed amounts by people and organizations that want to shape our country’s direction but prefer to keep their existence and motives hidden from the American people. As the author of the self-descriptively titled book Dark Money, in 2016 Mayer earned acclaim for (as The New York Times Book Review put it) coming as close as anyone possibly could to uncovering and explaining the byzantine and secretive conservative juggernaut devised by Charles and David Koch for the purpose of installing hard-right, pro-industry, anti-regulatory conservatives into our government and courts, while enriching the Kochs’ vast wealth in the process.
Mayer’s investigative talents are no less evident in her latest piece published in The New Yorker. Entitled The Big Money Behind the Big Lie, Mayer’s article explores the right-wing machinery—some of it familiar, some of it newly improved and disguised—that, in cynically foisting the Big Lie on the American public, stands in the shadows, waiting to profit from it.
Although the Arizona audit may appear to be the product of local extremists, it has been fed by sophisticated, well-funded national organizations whose boards of directors include some of the country’s wealthiest and highest-profile conservatives. Dark-money organizations, sustained by undisclosed donors, have relentlessly promoted the myth that American elections are rife with fraud, and, according to leaked records of their internal deliberations, they have drafted, supported, and in some cases taken credit for state laws that make it harder to vote.
One of the key sources of funding the Big Lie has been the Heritage Foundation, a longstanding right-wing, billionaire-funded think tank that puts its efforts toward the promotion of “free enterprise, limited government and individual freedom,” which are primarily aimed at lowering the tax and regulatory constraints on the nation’s wealthiest individuals and corporations. In particular, Heritage funds and promotes propaganda to deny, distort, and mischaracterize research about climate change when the result of such research implicates the fortunes and prospects of the fossil fuel industry, as is often the case.
Seizing on Trump’s Big Lie and sensing an unprecedented opportunity to achieve those goals, the Heritage Foundation is now one of the primary culprits in the ongoing national and statewide efforts to disenfranchise Black Americans and other Democratic constituencies, who the right sees as a threat to their continued profit engorgement.
As Mayer’s research shows:
One of the movement’s leaders is the Heritage Foundation, the prominent conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. It has been working with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)—a corporate-funded nonprofit that generates model laws for state legislators—on ways to impose new voting restrictions.
As noted in this report by Boston public broadcasting affiliate WBUR, the Heritage Foundation’s sister organization, Heritage Action, is the political arm of the Heritage entity, tasked with getting its policies implemented through legislation. Mother Jones reporter Ari Berman, interviewed in January by WBUR, described the involvement of Heritage Action in popularizing Trump’s Big Lie of election fraud:
[I]t’s an intensification of an existing strategy. And it’s unique in the sense that we just had a situation where Donald Trump tried to overturn the election. And now there are a record number of bills that are following that attempt to try to overturn the election. And Heritage Action is at the forefront of trying to weaponize that big lie. And the way that these, quote-unquote, election integrity measures have been portrayed by their supporters in places like Georgia, places like Texas, is that they’re just responding to their constituents concerns about the election.
As is the case whenever huge amounts of dark money are directed toward conservative ends, Mayer’s research uncovers a number of right-wing foundations and organizations collectively pushing Trump’s Big Lie of imaginary election fraud in state-led efforts, where their actual sources of funding are rather removed from what the public is encouraged to believe. Their relationship to current attempts by GOP state legislatures to restrict ballot access, impose onerous ID requirements, and strip election officials of power to certify election results are the product of years of efforts by the Republican Party and its donor base to whittle down the size of the American electorate in the face of demographic changes that disfavor GOP policies.
It wasn’t until the 2020 election, however, that these efforts were openly encouraged by an American president. That provided an unprecedented opportunity for the Republican donor base to legitimize these suppression measures in the eyes of a huge segment of the American electorate that had been carefully primed by Donald Trump to accept them as necessary, even crucial. It didn’t matter one whit to these groups that the means by which they sought to disenfranchise Americans would subvert traditional concepts of American democracy. And it meant even less that these efforts would ultimately lead to overturning legitimate elections.
The fraudulent and contrived “audit” still ongoing in Arizona, for example, designed to foster doubts among Republican voters about the integrity of that state’s balloting process, has been portrayed as a locally inspired effort under the auspices of the state’s GOP senate majority, but much of the financing for the people actually conducting the audit (a group called Cyber Ninjas, owned by conspiracy-spouting right-winger Doug Logan) is traceable to a multimillionaire named Patrick Byrne, the founder of the internet retailer Overstock.com. Byrne, an extreme pro-Trump conspiracy theorist, is one of the new faces backing GOP-led attacks on voting; others, as Mayer’s article reveals, have simply reconstituted themselves from organizations that have existed for decades.
As Mayer shows, many of the groups behind funding the coordinated state-by-state efforts to enact voter suppression bills through such established organizations as FreedomWorks (an organization with astro-turfing efforts that yielded the Tea Party protests in President Obama’s first term), as well as the newly established “Election Integrity Project,” which is based in California and can be traced to the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation:
Based in Milwaukee, the private, tax-exempt organization has become an extraordinary force in persuading mainstream Republicans to support radical challenges to election rules—a tactic once relegated to the far right. With an endowment of some eight hundred and fifty million dollars, the foundation funds a network of groups that have been stoking fear about election fraud, in some cases for years. Public records show that, since 2012, the foundation has spent some eighteen million dollars supporting eleven conservative groups involved in election issues.
As Mayer points out, nearly all of these organizations follow the classic pattern of right-wing “dark money” sources—they invariably rely for their initial impetus on the largesse and involvement of reactionary, ultra-wealthy donors who can’t be bothered with the messy business of democratic elections. In essence, they depend on people who are less concerned about this country’s democratic origins than they are their own ability to profit from the privilege of living here. And they all have a stable of ultra-fanatic, morally compromised lawyers ready to file nuisance suits in the hope of landing on the docket of some corrupted, Federalist-society appointed judge.
Mayer quotes Jonathan Rauch, who characterized what is happening right now with voter suppression as “epistemic warfare by some Americans on other Americans.” She also cites Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (whose presentation during the confirmation hearings of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court should be required viewing for those who want to understand the role dark money plays in our politics). As Whitehouse put it, “It’s a massive covert operation run by a small group of billionaire élites. These are powerful interests with practically unlimited resources who have moved on to manipulating that most precious of American gifts—the vote.”
What Mayer shows most clearly is that all of these legislative maneuvers and faux “audit” circuses to disenfranchise Americans have their origins in organizations funded by those who have a vested financial interest in suppressing the votes of ordinary Americans. And that fact helps to explain why Republicans at both the state and national levels so quickly and willingly adopted and parroted the Big Lie: These organizations are funded by the exact same individuals and corporations who pay for their campaigns.
In other words, for elected Republicans embracing the Big Lie that Trump actually won and voting to overturn the Electoral College results weren’t actions taken out of some conviction that the 2020 election was tainted, but by the practical necessity of maintaining their own offices. A vote to overturn democracy meant keeping their campaign spigots turned on. What the billionaires funding these efforts have done is weaponized the rhetoric of Donald Trump in order to encourage their stooges in government to pass measure after measure of voter suppression legislation and implement procedures to permit overturning elections that go the “wrong way.” Elected Republicans have revealed themselves only too willing to do so, even if it means destroying American democracy in the process.
And they have a natural base of support in a Republican electorate continually stoked by racial and class grievances. That type of voter is readily primed to accept any slurs or imagined acts attributed to people they don’t consider legitimate Americans to begin with. Mayer quotes Michael Podhorzer, a political adviser to the AFL-CIO:
“What blue-state people don’t understand about why the Big Lie works,” he said, is that it doesn’t actually require proof of fraud. “What animates it is the belief that Biden won because votes were cast by some people in this country who others think are not ‘real’ Americans.” This anti-democratic belief has been bolstered by a constellation of established institutions on the right: “white evangelical churches, legislators, media companies, nonprofits, and even now paramilitary groups.”
The election of Donald Trump provided the reactionary billionaires behind these organizations with a golden opportunity to fulfill all of their anti-regulation, anti-tax dreams. But Trump’s ignominious defeat in 2020 has provided them with an even greater, wholly unexpected opportunity: to finally get rid of democracy in this country altogether, or at very least keep it in their own hands and working for their own interests for as long as possible.
No doubt they consider what they’re doing the fulfillment of their own personal American dream, even if it entails the destruction of democracy for the rest of us. For these people, that’s a distinction without a difference.