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WORLD | 25-06-2024 12:06

Paul Singer is pitching Wall Street's own brand of MAGA

Over the past decade, business figures led by hedge-fund billionaire Paul Singer have poured nearly US$200 million into a New York think tank that’s now projecting its own vision for Trump’s America.

The smart money on Wall Street has its own ideas for making America great again.

What should public schools teach kids about gender? How should businesses go about hiring Black people or Latinos? Who should be allowed into the country?

Less than five months before Election Day, the nation is divided on the answers to those questions, and more. Yet on polarising issues like these, red America is increasingly heeding advice from blue New York – the city Donald Trump insists wants to destroy him.

This is no accident.

Over the past decade, business figures led by hedge-fund billionaire Paul Singer have poured nearly US$200 million into a New York think tank that’s now projecting its own vision for Trump’s America. Powered by wealthy donors, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research has become an intellectual staging ground for the American right. 

One head-spinning result: a growing number of Republican statehouses are effectively outsourcing the job of drafting laws about race and gender to policy wonks centered in Manhattan, where Democrats outnumber Republicans 10:1. 

From Idaho to Florida, North Dakota to Texas, the same conservative beliefs around diversity are being enshrined in law, often with the very same words.

For Singer, this is only the beginning. Founder of the US$66-billion Elliott Investment Management and one of the most feared activist investors in the world, Singer speaks of building a Wall Street equivalent of the Federalist Society, the legal juggernaut that’s spent decades ruthlessly pushing America’s Judiciary to the right.

 

Gaining influence

In today’s politics of hyper-wealth, this is how money turns private ideas of a few into public policies for the many. From its headquarters near Grand Central, the institute is adding heft to the Trump programme. It’s amplifying conservative attacks on everything from campus protests and corporate diversity initiatives to green energy, socially responsible investing and gender-affirming care for minors.

And it's not stopping there. Institute fellows, a mix of policy nerds, pundits and activists, are also weighing in on taxes, Social Security, education, law enforcement and more.

A review of roughly 100 federal tax filings stretching back over a decade reveals the wealth that’s flowing into the institute. Interviews with more than a dozen current and former trustees and employees point to the donors’ increasing interest in gaining influence in a potential Trump administration. Videos the institute has taken of its own events paint a vivid portrait of Singer and his ambitions. 

Over the years, the Manhattan Institute has counted among its well-heeled backers hedge-fund managers Cliff Asness, Dan Loeb and John Paulson. Others include Republican megadonor Harlan Crow and Breitbart super-conservatives Robert and Rebekah Mercer. None would comment for this story. Singer, chairman since 2008, also declined.

Its backers have no patience for neopopulism, right or left, that mistrusts red-blooded capitalists. Conservatives associated with the group aren’t necessarily Trump fans. Like many on Wall Street, Singer threw his weight behind Nikki Haley for the 2024 Republican nomination.

But over the past decade, Singer has nudged the institute further to the right and amplified its agenda, people close to the organisation say. 

In a 2018 email obtained by Bloomberg News, one fellow complained that staffers had been directed to write favourably about Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthy – or not write about them at all. She also said an article in favour of gun control had allegedly drawn the ire of Singer, and she was subsequently ordered to stop writing for outside publications, according to the email. She declined to comment.

Long-time fellow Sol Stern says he quit in 2017 after the institute’s influential City Journal rejected a critique of Trump.

“Somewhere along the way, the influence of the donors kept growing and growing,” Stern says.

 

Anti-DEI proposals

Scores of think tanks, foundations and NGOs on the left and right shape opinions, politics, policies and, in the process, American life. The Heritage Foundation, for instance, has helped write a roadmap for a second Trump administration. But the prescriptions coming out of the Manhattan Institute have proliferated with remarkable speed lately.

By the institute’s own count, 11 states – Alabama, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Indiana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Wyoming – have codified into law ideas from “model” legislation the institute has drafted since January 2023. In all, more than 60 separate bills touching on those anti-DEI proposals for universities have been introduced in 25 states.

Republican leaders, along with Wall Street billionaires like Singer, have attacked diversity, equity and inclusion as dangerous left-wing woke-ism.

Critics warn that rolling back diversity initiatives will inevitably set back decades of slow progress toward building a more just society.

“Without DEI, I would expect to see less representation of qualified candidates in education, workplaces, other spaces in society,” says Leah Watson, an attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union.

The Manhattan Institute’s president since 2019, Reihan Salam, says DEI programs often amount to “racialism” that can divide people rather than bring them together.

“An excessive emphasis on racial categories can actually be really pernicious,” says Salam, a 44-year-old son of Bangladeshi immigrants. 

A former editor of National Review, a pedigreed voice of conservatism, Salam insists his think tank leans neither left nor right. The group appeals to urban centrists who are pained by the nation’s polarisation and feel abandoned by both Democrats and Republicans, he says.

Donors aren’t looking for payback in the form of specific policies, says Salam, a familiar face on political talk shows and a figure New York magazine once characterised as “literary Brooklyn’s favorite conservative.”

It would be an “unbelievably inefficient way to do that,” he says.

That’s not quite the way some donor-trustees see it. A fellowship sponsored by billionaire Paulson sought candidates with “actionable policy ideas.’’ The institute’s allies may even find seats in Trump’s inner circle; Paulson has been floated as a candidate for Treasury secretary in a Trump administration, as has Jeff Yass, billionaire co-founder of Susquehanna International Group and adviser to one of the institute’s programmes. Scott Bessent, another potential pick, spoke at an institute event this month.

Despite Trump’s felony conviction, Wall Streeters are starting to line up behind him. For many, his promises to cut taxes and regulation are hard to resist.

This much is sure: The Manhattan Institute has undergone a marked evolution. Four decades ago, it was a sleepy redoubt of Reagan-era supply-siders. A founding premise, according to Bruce Wilcox, a former hedge fund manager who served as a trustee for about 20 years: “Let’s apply Wall Street analysis to social issues,” especially in New York City.

Today the institute has grander ambitions. Singer points to the Federalist Society. Under Trump, that group’s long game culminated with the conservative Supreme Court that overturned Roe v Wade. The court’s justices will exert immense influence for decades to come.

Leonard Leo, the conservative activist behind the Federalist Society, is an admirer of the Manhattan Institute.

“We share the same goal,” Leo told donors at a virtual 2020 gala where he was being celebrated. Two non-profits linked to Leo have since donated more than US$1 million to Salam’s institute. Leo declined to comment.

At 79, Singer has a reputation for trying to strongarm companies, and once, in the case of Argentina, an entire country, to get what he wants. He’s amassed a fortune of US$4 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. His latest targets include SoftBank Group Corp and Southwest Airlines Co.

Loeb, who made his name as a market activist himself, credits Singer with turning him into a conservative. As a philanthropist, Singer “combines the best qualities of Dick Cheney and Darth Vader,” Loeb once said.

Singer has been blunt about his hopes for the Manhattan Institute: “counter-revolution.” At the group’s 2023 black-tie gala, the billionaire leaned into culture-war rhetoric, and spoke of shattering “the wokeness that seeks to tear down all that we hold dear, including the magnificent meritocracy, which has served such an important role in keeping America great.”

 

Breaking through

At its 2024 gala last month – three weeks before the landmark verdict in Trump’s hush-money trial – Singer declared: “We’re standing against the manias of ideology that seek to drag our civilisation down into the abyss.”

“Currently, no policy group is breaking through more than the Manhattan Institute,” he said. The event raised US$4.6 million.

Under Singer’s chairmanship, the institute is spreading its message to a new generation of business leaders. Like Leo’s Federalist Society, which has planted chapters at top law schools, the Manhattan Institute has established its own student network, the Adam Smith Society, at leading business schools. Advisers include Asness, co-founder of AQR Capital Management; and Susquehanna’s Yass. 

Leading the institute’s charge against DEI is Christopher Rufo, who has reveled in his reputation as a “master of the dark arts” and “right-wing Leninist.” He was hired as a fellow in 2021, after advising Trump to ban racial-sensitivity training at federal agencies and contractors. (Joe Biden promptly reversed the order.)

Rufo played a crucial role in turning “critical race theory” – education about the role of racial inequity in the development of US society – into a hot-button issue for Republicans. Alongside investor Bill Ackman, he was at the forefront of a campaign to replace Claudine Gay as president of Harvard University amid the storm over her failure to respond to campus antisemitism. Rufo has said attacks on DEI have enabled him to recruit “a cohort of billionaire defectors.”

In a speech at an institute event last year, Rufo laid out his vision for 10 new fellows. “We’re going to train them on how to turn their intellectual work, their journalistic work, their think-tank work into a real public narrative, how to drive public interest, how to change public perceptions, how to really conquer and win the public debate.” He declined to comment.

Jessie Daniels, a professor at Hunter College in New York who studies conservative movements, says the right’s attack on DEI is mostly a response to the left’s calls for racial and social justice, particularly following the 2020 murder of George Floyd. Rufo is simply one of the loudest voices in the whirlwind. “He’s taking things that he thinks will energise the base of conservative White people, and he’s just running those up the flagpole and seeing who will salute,” Daniels says.

Another controversial conservative, Ilya Shapiro, has also found a home at the Manhattan Institute. Shapiro drew uproar after criticising Biden for nominating Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court.

Shapiro, who co-authored the anti-DEI legislation, says he and Rufo believe university DEI departments and mandatory diversity training should be eliminated. They also oppose rules requiring university job applicants to submit so-called diversity statements – a requirement that Harvard’s Faculty of Arts & Sciences, the university’s largest department, lifted on June 3.

“It’s Orwellian,” Shapiro says of how DEI works in practice. DEI proponents want people who look different but think the same, he says.

The Manhattan Institute is trying to change that, Salam says. Many lawmakers lack time or bandwidth to tackle every pressing issue themselves. An easy solution: Let the Manhattan Institute do the hard work for you.

“We are giving you some more thoughtful guidance on what it would look like to implement a policy,” Salam says. 

Take Oklahoma for example: Shapiro said he spoke to lawmakers there about the model legislation when he attended an event co-hosted by the local chapters of the Manhattan Institute and Federalist Society in early October. The next week, he testified remotely about it in front of the state’s Senate education committee. In December, Governor Kevin Stitt signed an executive order, using many of the points laid out in the model legislation. Stitt didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Jordan Pace is a fan. A Republican in the South Carolina House of Representatives, he’s co-sponsoring legislation on banning DEI programs in higher education that mirrors the institute’s model – in sections almost exactly.

“I appreciate what Manhattan is doing,” says Pace.

Not all conservatives are thrilled. Bill Kristol, co-founder of the now-defunct Weekly Standard, bible of US neoconservatism, served as a Manhattan Institute trustee for more than two decades. A leading conservative voice of the pre-Trump era, Kristol left in 2023, after the think tank hired Rufo. 

Kristol subsequently decried a Trump fundraiser hosted by trustee Paulson in Palm Beach. He characterised the attendees as “plutocrats” driven by “pure oligarchic greed.” Kristol declined to comment.

Like Singer, Salam has big ambitions for the institute. As with DEI, the think tank has drafted model laws for teaching gender identity in K-12 classrooms. On immigration, one of the most explosive issues in US politics, it has suggested laws designed to encourage immigration for highly skilled people instead of those with fewer skills or people seeking to join their families.

It’s drafted model legislation for repealing vehicle fuel-economy standards; for ending subsidies for electric vehicles and alternative energy; and for increasing R&D funding for nuclear power. It’s also proposed ways to minimise the influence of popular low-cost index funds, especially if those funds focus on socially responsible investing. 

Ben Domenech, a former fellow and editor-at-large at The Spectator, voice of small “c” British conservatism since 1828, says many donors disdain Donald Trump, the man. But they like his low-tax, light-regulation promise. And they think the Manhattan Institute might be a tool to get what they want.

If Trump wins in November, Domenech says: “Manhattan is the outside dark horse to be a real influence on this next administration.”

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