Extensive coverage has revealed the uncertainty of “Free Speech Week’s” proposed speakers’ appearances on the UC Berkeley campus next week. One thing you’re not likely to get a lot of disclosure on, however, is who is paying for Milo Yiannopoulos’ visit, presented euphemistically under the rubric of “free speech.”
But there have been hints. On July 13, it was reported that “leaked documents, including a promissory note and emails, as well as conversations with several people familiar with the matter, strongly imply that the (Mercer family) funded Yiannopoulos following his resignation from Breitbart News after video surfaced in which he appeared to condone pedophilia. Together, they suggest that the financiers of the new conservative politics aren’t simply interested in protecting their money, but in winning a brutal new culture war waged largely online.”
For community members concerned with Yiannopoulos’ visit, it is important to understand that his performance (generally, insulting feminists, Black Lives Matter and Muslim immigrants before shouting down questioners) is operating as part of a larger agenda, even if he refuses to publicly identify his “investors.”
A Yiannopoulos campus visit to the University of Washington last January was sponsored by Glittering Steel, a production company co-owned by the Mercer family and Stephen Bannon. In a leaked email written a few days after he resigned from Breitbart News, Yiannopoulos expressed concern that some of his young staffers may be “working in proximity” or “potentially communicating directly” with the Mercers without first being bound to nondisclosure agreements.
Robert Mercer has been described by the New Yorker as “the reclusive hedge-fund tycoon behind the Trump presidency.” Along with the $25 million in direct spending he put into 2016 political campaigns, Mercer has also promoted far-right causes through a variety of other venues: $24.5 million in 2015 in “charitable” giving, mostly to organizations backing conservative causes (e.g. Citizens United); large investments in Breitbart; and funding for right-wing conspiracy films, including “Clinton Cash,” which arguably played a pivotal role in the 2016 election.
Mercer’s political money is managed and distributed by his daughter, Rebekah Mercer, who served on Donald Trump’s transition executive committee and was influential in many White House appointments, including that of Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
In a leaked March 2 email, titled “Next mtg with mom and dad,” Yiannopoulos asked an assistant to set up dates for presenting the budget to investors and “then suggest those dates to the Mercers.” Two days later, Yiannopoulos sent a copy of an unsigned $50,000 promissory note to his lawyer with Robert Mercer listed as the payee. Yiannopoulos, a citizen of the United Kingdom, also allegedly discussed asking the Mercers for visa sponsorship in emails.
Curiously, Robert Mercer’s funding of political causes saw a sharp uptick in 2014, after his firm Renaissance Technologies was hauled before a U.S. Senate subcommittee and he was asked to explain why it had used a paperwork trick to disguise short-term trading profits as long-term capital gains, avoiding $6.8 billion in taxes. Although Renaissance has $97 billion in assets, it continues to dispute the IRS tax bill to this day, and the issue remains unresolved.
Another beneficiary of Mercer’s recent largesse has been Young America’s Foundation, which brought Ben Shapiro (ironically, a bitter rival of Yiannopoulos) to campus Sept. 14 — a visit that cost UC Berkeley approximately $600,000 in security expenses. Mercer has become a major donor to the conservative campus outreach organization, which also receives millions of dollars from Dick and Betsy DeVos and the Koch Brothers. Rebekah Mercer serves on the YAF board.
When not funding inflammatory talks on campus and GOP politicians, Robert Mercer funds inaction on global warming. The Mercers have donated more than $5 million to the Heartland Institute, an organization promoting climate change skepticism, and $500,000 to Berkeley Earth, a local research firm run by one-time climate skeptic (and UC Berkeley physics professor) Richard Muller. Stephen Bannon has been an investor and/or employee in at least six of Mercer’s organizations; after he left the White House last month, one of the first things Bannon did was meet with Mercer for a planning session. White House counselor Kellyanne Conway has also worked for a number of Mercer-related organizations, including a 2015 super PAC backing Ted Cruz’s presidential campaign that was later converted into a pro-Trump PAC.
Yiannopoulos said he is willing to personally spend as much as a quarter million dollars on fees related to his visit. The Berkeley Patriot, the nominal campus organizer, has an $800 budget from ASUC. That’s a lot of cash Yiannopoulos has on hand — despite losing his job and his book contract.
Yet Yiannopoulos seems shy about acknowledging his financial backers — and disclosing the exact nature of his relationship with the Mercers, whose connections helped launch him to the public spotlight with a prominent job at Breitbart. In fact, he backed out of an interview with the Los Angeles Times in July when they started asking about the Mercers. Why is the loquacious one so close-mouthed about who is financing his agenda?
Given that Milo Yiannopoulos is coming next week for free speech, maybe ask him for a word about his sponsors.
Jeremy Breningstall is a graduate student at UC Berkeley.