The shakeup in Donald Trump’s campaign has elevated numerous hard-right operatives with ties to a wealthy financier named Robert Mercer, as the New York Times detailed Thursday.
But Mercer’s political career started before he helped people like Steve Bannon, Kellyanne Conway, and David Bossie outflank establishment Republicans and rewire the American right. And while the Times portrays Mercer‘s shift from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) to Trump as simple rich-guy pragmatism, there is good reason to think Mercer’s overlap with Trump’s thinking is deeper than that.
His first major foray into manipulating public opinion came in 2010. Mercer provided the cash that summer for television ads decrying the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” in New York City, a right-wing smear of a planned Islamic cultural center two blocks from the former site of the World Trade Center.
“We want to push back against the extremists,” the imam behind the project told the Times in 2009, adding he hoped the location of the cultural center “sends the opposite statement to what happened on 9/11.”
But in an ad bought with $1 million of Mercer’s money, then-gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio called the man behind the plan “a terrorist-sympathizing imam” while images of the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks flashed behind him. Lazio was running for governor under the New York State Conservative Party banner. The ad sought to link Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to the Islamic center, and the center itself to radical terrorism, despite having zero evidence to support either connection.
For months, the source of the financing for Lazio’s ad was a mystery. But the next January, Politico broke the news that it had been Mercer’s doing.
Mercer became very wealthy by helping to run one of the first hedge funds to rely upon computerized trading. He’s earned a reputation as a successful eccentric, with a model train set the size of half a basketball court in his basement.
Much of his other extensive political giving has seemed to focus on bottom-line issues for someone in that line of work: He has spent heavily against Democrats who want to tax high-frequency trading, for example, and lobbied against tax reforms that would have curbed his company’s ability to hide money from the IRS.
But his role in promoting the anti-Muslim smear campaign surrounding the Park51 site suggests Mercer’s thinking on Islam is in harmony with Trump’s own. And while the “Ground Zero Mosque” slander almost seems tame in contrast with Trump’s rhetoric about the Muslim world in 2016, the 2010 saga illustrates how such vilification influences people and situations far outside professional politics.
The smear over the building plan didn’t start with Lazio or Mercer. Leading Islamophobe Pam Gellar and fellow right-wing media figures spent months whipping people into a lather over the proposal. The planned center became a right-wing media obsession, with everyone from Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity to Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich weighing in. Dick Morris called it a “command cente[r] for terrorists.” The Washington Times editorial board wrote that if the project were completed, “the terrorists win.”
Trump’s mode of Islamophobic rhetoric is even more aggressive. This election season has been dangerous for American Muslims, with more than 100 separate anti-Muslim incidents around the country since the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris. Those attacks are only a subset of the overall violence partly attributable to Trump’s rise in the past year.
The spring and summer of 2010 also saw a number of ugly episodes at both Muslim community centers and actual mosques around the country.
A man set off a crude pipe bomb at the Islamic Center of Northeast Florida ahead of evening prayer, injuring none of the 60 people inside. A mosque construction site in Murfreesboro, TN, was set ablaze.
Sites in Texas and California were vandalized with graffiti that invoked the New York building plan. And a Florida church announced plans to burn copies of the Quran en masse, despite public concern from Department of Defense officials that the episode would be used as recruiting propaganda by the Taliban.