Who's on the payroll of Peter Thiel's dark-money "influencer" campaign?
Reporting in The New York Times on a new Rockbridge Network drops some intriguing clues on what the right has been up to.
Have you heard of the Rockbridge Network? Me neither — at least, not until this morning, when I came across some reporting in the New York Times that seems to have flown completely below the radar of our discourse.1 And this is unfortunate because I think the left will eventually come to regard it as groundbreaking reporting, naming for the first time a group whose presence has now dominated our political media for several years.
The article — Dissatisfied With Their Party, Wealthy Republican Donors Form Secret Coalitions — gives us some key details on what our right-wing oligarchs have been up to in the Biden era. Since this kind of reporting has been so rare over the past few years I’m not sure how clear the significance is, so I’d like to walk through some of the key points:
1] The Republican oligarchs are still with us. It’s hard to overstate how successful the US’s hard right oligarchy has been at moving back into the shadows and out of the intense scrutiny it was under less than a decade ago; reading today’s media, you could be forgiven if you thought that Vladimir Putin was the only oligarch with any real influence in the GOP, or if you thought that Libs of TikTok has become central to right wing politics. But it turns out that all of the reactionary plutocrats who’ve been running the show in the US since the dawn of time are still at it.
2] They’re fighting for control of the GOP. This is another trend that’s been going on forever but that has been curiously ignored, even by the GOP’s critics, in the Biden era. Ordinarily what we hear is that infighting among Republicans is coming from some working class populist uprising that’s trying to overthrow the entrenched power of some wealthy “establishment” elite. But the picture that Vogel, Goldmacher, and Mac paint is one of
escalating jockeying among conservative megadonors to shape the 2022 midterms and the future of the Republican Party from outside the party machinery, often will little disclosure.
That last point, I think, is crucial. If you listen closely to the way “establishment” Republicans talk about this, what you will hear is not concern about some populist challenge, but rather concern about a challenge from other oligarchs who are posing as populists. Over a year ago, for example, you could find Jack Butler in The National Review complaining about “emerging groups and players…on the right who condemn…the dead consensus” but who really just want “to become the clearinghouse of D.C.’s new conservative elite”. Hiding in the shadows and refusing to disclose their activities is a crucial component of this rebrand.
3] They are positioning themselves as post-partisan populists but they are really just conservative Republicans. Touched on this point in (2) but it deserves elaboration. In their pamphlet, The Rockbridge Network declares that “Politics is no longer about two sides of the aisle debating the issues, voting in elections, and trusting the system” and make their usual noise about being “dissatisfied with the status quo.” But when we look at what this means, their aim is really just to “disrupt but advance the Republican agenda” and to build a GOP infrastructure that is first and foremost “focused on winning.” This is not, in fact, even some new radical faction of oligarchs with different politics; as the reporting notes, Peter Thiel and Rebekah Mercer seem to be the primary actors.
4] Yes, they’re running a dark money media operation. Among the different projects the Rockbridge Network promotes on its website, the first is their “Rockbridge Media Project.” Its goal? To build
a new conservative ecosystem by sponsoring several initiatives: public relations and messaging, a rapid response communications team for conservative activists and leaders, funding of polling, sponsorship of area-specific coverage and influencer programs, investigative journalism, documentaries and other projects for cultural influence and renewal.
They’re building this, of course, with dark money. That’s why no one heard Rockbridge until now, even though they’ve been doing this since 2021. We didn’t even hear about them from the media figures and initiatives that they’ve been funding.
5] And yes, they do have connections with our media neopopulists. Given Rockbridge’s mission statement, I suspect that most of its money will go towards media figures who align themselves more overtly with the GOP. Nevertheless, I do think it’s worth pointing out that Rockbridge’s founder, Chris Buskirk, has gone out of his way to promote a very specific constellation of media figures. Just look at some of the guests on his short lived podcast:
Oren Cass, Aimee Terese (x2), Blake Masters, Oliver Bateman, Darren Beattie, Malcolm Kyeyune (x3), Christopher Rufo, Angela Nagle, Curtis Yarvin, Alex Haschuta, JD Vance, Blake Masters, Anna Khachiyan, Sohrab Ahmari
All of these people are either directly connected with Peter Thiel or directly connected with the Post Left. They’ve all spent the past few years engaged in constant interpromotion. And though it’s unclear what connection if any this podcast had to Rockbridge money, it is connected to Rockbridge’s director, who is very much interested with building and funding an alternative network of Republican-friendly influencers. Even back in 2020, it was pretty clear how this relationship worked:
These oligarchs and their “right populist” operations have been exerting their gravity on the Post Left. Their apparatchiks have already begun using their dark-money funded platforms to host and promote them. And the Post Left — particularly those with media ventures — have eagerly returned the favor, showering figures from Tucker Carlson to Chris Buskirk with constant promotion and praise. Too reactionary for left media and too mediocre for the right, the Post Left is camped out in the uncompetitive niche market of Republican Marxism, pandering to the right populists for scraps of clout and patiently hoping for a sponsor to call their own.
Today, I would say the landscape has only changed in two distinct ways. First, the GOP’s media co-option campaign has broadened into a more general neo-populism, one often helmed by relatively disciplined and experienced media personalities from the post-Sanders right. Second, the Post Left — in frustration with the trend and as a symptom of its increasing irrelevance — has mostly collapsed into an inscrutable quagmire of infighting and political incoherence.
But that aside, the New York Times’ reporting on The Rockbridge Network gives us a clear window into how Republican dark money is operating today. We know that the same old oligarchs are still trying to manipulate our media, and we know that they’re funding influencers and other media operations with dark money. For that reason, whether any particular person has already been funded is a secondary question; the real question to ask is who has been auditioning for a job with Anti-Establishment Inc., and whether they’ve even admitted it to themselves.
Pundits like to say “no one is talking about this” to make what they have to say seem more interesting but it really is striking what a demonstrably small impact this article made online. The brief spike it created on Google Trends is barely distinguishable from static and after the standard round of Twitter traffic that every NYT article generates it essentially disappeared; within three days verified Twitter accounts stopped talking about it completely.