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“Attack Philanthropy”: Right-Wing Billionaire Fueled Climate Denial & Conservative Judges, Schools

StorySeptember 08, 2022
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New revelations about the secretive right-wing billionaire Barre Seid, who donated $1.6 billion to a conservative nonprofit run by Leonard Leo, known as Donald Trump’s “Supreme Court whisperer,” show he has also used his massive fortune to undermine climate science, fight Medicaid expansion and remake the higher education system in a conservative mold. We speak with The Lever’s Andrew Perez, who reported on what Seid calls “attack philanthropy,” after obtaining emails through an open records request.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we end today’s show with new revelations about how the secretive right-wing billionaire Barre Seid conducts what he calls “attack philanthropy.” Last month, The Lever and ProPublica and The New York Times first exposed how Seid used his electronics fortune to pack the Supreme Court with a conservative supermajority. Now details from emails released through open records requests show Seid also backed the Heartland Institute, which has spent decades attacking mainstream climate science. He also secretly funded groups that fight Medicaid expansion and work to reshape the education system.

For more, we’re joined by Andrew Perez, senior editor and reporter at The Lever. He co-reported this new exposé with ProPublica’s Andy Kroll and Justin Elliott, headlined “How a Billionaire’s 'Attack Philanthropy' Secretly Funded Climate Denialism and Right-Wing Causes.”

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Andrew, as you bring us each chapter of this new investigation. Again, this is the man, Barre Seid, who people know very little about, who has now just committed $1.6 billion to a new right-wing group to reshape America. Tell us the latest that you’ve learned.

ANDREW PEREZ: Sure. That’s right. So, we recently reported about how Barre Seid converted his electronics company into a $1.6 billion donation for Leonard Leo, the right-wing Supreme Court architect. And what we’ve reported now is, you know, we spoke to people who know Seid, we reviewed emails we obtained through public records requests, and we got a sense of what his philanthropic approach looks like. And what he calls that is “attack philanthropy.” And the idea is making financial bets that have the power to make transformative change on politics and society. And that’s clearly what we saw happen with his giant donation to Leonard Leo’s new nonprofit.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And could you explain, Andrew, what exactly is the Heartland Institute? What are its origins, and what is its principal work?

ANDREW PEREZ: Sure. So, Barre Seid, we understand, is considered to be the major patron for the Heartland Institute. The Heartland Institute has long been a hotbed of climate denial, pushing the idea that the sun and solar cycles are responsible for changing planetary temperatures, not human activities. And they also have a history of questioning the health impacts and risks of smoking.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And can you explain, what most surprised you in this — I mean, over the course of this investigation, what have you been most surprised by?

ANDREW PEREZ: Yeah. I mean, so, you know, people were — some campaign finance reporters were loosely aware of Barre Seid. But what we learned is that he’s become fabulously wealthy over — between 1996 and 2018, he took in $1.7 billion in income. And in that time, he donated at least $775 million to nonprofits. So, he is a giant, giant donor, probably one of the most — one of the largest donors in the U.S., and very, very little known.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Andrew Perez, you keep learning more. You talked to a close friend of Barre Seid, B-A-R-R-E S-E-I-D. He said that Seid described himself as prone to anonymity paranoia. So, this leads to the issue of dark money. This is changing the landscape of politics in the United States. Can you talk about what he wants to do with education, with Medicaid and, of course, the denial of climate science?

ANDREW PEREZ: Yeah. Well, so, he’s funding groups like the Heartland Institute that are hotbeds of climate denial. He’s funding groups like the State Policy Network that push — that have opposed Medicaid expansion, that push deregulation and tax cuts at the state level, that have pushed voting restrictions. And, you know, now he’s giving money to Leonard Leo, who is — you know, we understand Seid considers himself to be a libertarian, but Leonard Leo is a staunch social conservative who has, you know, built the Supreme Court to tear down abortion rights in this country. So, you know, we see that he’s funding a very, very radical right-wing program.

AMY GOODMAN: And education?

ANDREW PEREZ: Well, so, he’s funded a lot of — we believe, some universities. He appears to be the donor who gave $20 million to rename George Mason University’s law school after Antonin Scalia. You know, we see that he was frequently emailing with professors there, with one he was particularly friendly with, as well as the dean. And, you know, you could see that they were quite, quite eager to please him. He’s also been, we believe, a donor to Hillsdale College, which has come up in recent years in that it’s helped undermine the idea — or, undermine the science related to COVID. And it’s also served as sort of a feeder for the Trump administration for jobs there.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Why these two universities and colleges in particular, Hillsdale College and George Mason University?

ANDREW PEREZ: Yeah. Well, so, with Hillsdale, we understand that Barre is quite, quite interested in the Great Books curriculum, you know, these kind of Western classics. With George Mason, it’s a university that is politically influential. It’s right outside the nation’s capital. And it’s become, you know, this sort of Supreme Court university. The law school is named after Antonin Scalia. And then, you know, we see that Judges ClarenceThomas, Brett Kavanaugh, Neil Gorsuch have taught there in recent years, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: We want to thank you, Andrew Perez, for being with us, senior editor and reporter at The Lever. We’ll link to your new exposé with ProPublica, “How a Billionaire’s 'Attack Philanthropy' Secretly Funded Climate Denialism and Right-Wing Causes.”

That does it for our show. Democracy Now! is currently accepting applications for a people and culture manager. If you are or know someone who’s interested in HR, please go to democracynow.org and apply at that website or send it around to others you know.

Democracy Now! produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Messiah Rhodes, María Taracena, Charina Nadura. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh. Stay safe.

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