People often wonder where the radical right—the neo-Nazis and white nationalists and alt-righters—get their funding, besides the occasional online fundraiser. The truth is somewhat bland but disturbing: Most of their money comes through discreet donations from relatively anonymous individuals with significant wealth accrued through nondescript means including finance, real estate, construction, and the like.
New York Magazine’s Sarah Jones performed a public service this week by diving into the tax records of one such financier, a “libertarian” donor named Robert P. Rotella. (Full disclosure: I am quoted in this article.) What she revealed was a portrait of a quiet support network: namely, a range of significant financial support for a broad menu of far-right organizations, mostly disguised by being intermingled with a larger number of mainstream conservative and libertarian groups.
Rotella oversees a self-named foundation whose funding originated with his company, Rotella Capital Management, which generally has spread donor dollars to outfits like the Cato Institute and Reason Foundation. Based in the Seattle suburb of Bellevue, Washington, the Robert P. Rotella Foundation has, at the same time, been including white nationalist organizations and an anti-immigration hate group among the recipients of its largesse—along with bizarre conspiracy-theory-oriented organizations such as the Expolitics Institute, which has an “extraterrestrial affairs” certification program, and the psychics-and-aliens-oriented Farsight Institute.
That conspiracism, however, actually complements its quiet support for the radical right, which is itself fueled by a universe of afactual theories. Rotella’s funding helps explain how white nationalist organizations are able to milk the laws providing for foundations that operate as tax shelters to reel in those donations:
Of the $5.8 million the foundation has donated to various causes since 2002, roughly $105,000 has gone to organizations like the National Policy Institute, or NPI, which is led by neo-Nazi Richard Spencer. A comprehensive review of the foundation’s available 990 reports indicates that its financial support for white nationalism began in 2014 and continued through 2018. Though $105,000 is not an exceptionally large sum of money, white nationalist organizations are small, and it doesn’t take much money to keep them afloat.
This system hasn’t changed significantly since at least the 1990s, if not before. My first attempt to dig into the financing of right-wing extremists involved an investigation into the sponsorship of militia-organizing sessions in western Washington. It was detailed in my 1999 book, In God’s Country: The Patriot Movement and the Pacific Northwest, which found that many of the sessions were being quietly sponsored by a network of development, construction, and real estate interests with large sums of money to spend on these far-right political projects (the central entity being the Building Industry Association of Washington).
The late journalist Paul de Armond (whose work on these subjects has, unfortunately, become unavailable online) uncovered evidence showing how wealthy benefactors interconnected with land-use extremists from the so-called “Wise Use” movement and gun rights extremists to help spread the “constitutionalist” militia gospel offered by outfits like the Militia of Montana, whose leaders spoke at several organizing rallies in western Washington. In the end, much of the effort collapsed when members of the militia groups that arose from the surreptitious BIAW organizing were arrested and ultimately convicted for plotting terrorist acts in 1996.
In the mid-2000s, when I investigated the financing of an attempt to build a border barrier in Arizona led by Chris Simcox and his Minuteman Civil Defense operation, the same system was largely still intact, with the added twist that the money it generated was being sucked up to benefit larger Beltway-based right-wing moneymaking operations. Simcox’s fence-building scam was originally generated by a collection of wealthy benefactors, many of them in businesses such as construction and real estate.
Once in place, however, the fence-building appeal became a nationwide fundraiser that drew in millions of dollars in donations from around the country. Those funds were largely pocketed by the network of Washington, D.C.-based organizations behind the fundraiser, all led by right-wing gadfly Alan Keyes.
The fence was never built. Eventually, Simcox was convicted of child molestation and is now in an Arizona prison.
Which, generally speaking, is the kind of bad ending that seems to eventually befall most far-right organizations, the vast bulk of which are often just scam operations wrapped in patriotic bunting. It may fool donors—or, in Rotella’s case, it may simply give them cover. But it never ends well.
Published with permission from Daily Kos.