Donor-advisers, the arcane and erudite term of art for the elite fixers of the ultra-high-net-worth crowd, have underappreciated power in politics. People like Miriam Adelson or George Soros don’t have time to whip the party committees—that’s why they have Andy Abboud and Michael Vachon. (Indeed, one reason I’m skeptical of Elon Musk’s political ambitions is that he hasn’t yet hired a political fixer of his own.) But no other individual donor-advisor on the left comes close to being as provocative as Dmitri Mehlhorn, the political muscle behind Reid Hoffman, and a growing sphere of influence himself.
Mehlhorn, who entered politics after a decade at GLG and then some years fighting the teachers’ unions at various advocacy groups, quickly achieved first-name status within elite Democratic circles—not always for the right reasons, as he made fierce defenders and fierce critics alike. While Dmitri isn’t always speaking for Hoffman, he is, without a doubt, one of the most powerful people in the Democratic donor world—playing host, for instance, to a 2020 donor table that featured Biden officials and helped steer big money behind the scenes to super PACs and dark-money groups. (Mehlhorn advises other donors besides Hoffman, but doesn’t disclose them.)
After Biden’s election, however, Dmitri has become increasingly public with his frustrations toward the leftward flank of the Democratic Party, which he sees as all but facilitating Trump’s return to power in 2024. Earlier this year, Mehlhorn sent an email to a group of progressive activists he had supported in the past, saying that the anti-Trump cause would have been better served if the left had “simply taken a long nap” over the last year. (Several people forwarded me the note.) “I have very few friends in politics,” he told me.
That’s all to say that Mehlhorn is widely seen as abrasive but also very creative and smart, and indisputably having the ear of many of the Democratic Party’s biggest bundlers, megadonors, and clandestine influencers. His opinion matters.
And over the last few months, Mehlhorn has undertaken a new crusade: helping support Liz Cheney, the newfound Democratic heartthrob du jour, who voted with Trump some 90 percent of the time while in office but was that rare Republican who voted for his impeachment and has now twisted the knife by artfully managing the House Select Committee’s case against the former president. Dmitri and I recently spoke about Cheney, the left, and more. This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Theodore Schleifer: Have you actively considered pitches in the last few weeks to support a G.O.P. primary from Liz Cheney? Or is this just theoretical?
Dmitri Mehlhorn: We have received no credible pitches. We have received a number of pitches on her behalf. One of the issues, to be clear, is that I don’t know how she intends to stop Trump from becoming the next president. It is possible that she will run in a G.O.P. primary, and if so, I will look at that plan very closely and with great interest. Because whatever she does, I’m curious. But I very much doubt that that is going to be a vehicle that will allow her to do much good.
You would be skeptical that an investment would produce a good R.O.I.?
I would be skeptical because it would be either one of two things. One: it would be an effort to actually defeat him, which I think we now know is impossible, realistically, given the nature of the Republican primary. Or two: to somehow use the platform to raise the salience of her very powerful and legitimate critiques of him. And my problem there is that it requires the Republican Party to allow her to join the debate stage, and I don’t think they will let that happen because they’re all about protecting their God-King.
If she has a good plan to reduce the likelihood of Trump taking office again, yeah for sure, we are definitely moving capital to try to forestall that calamity. And she has proven a very capable and high-integrity leader. So yeah, very much eager, but it has to be a good plan. We get a lot of plans with big dollar signs that just don’t pencil out in terms of the likelihood of actually working.
You said on a podcast recently that you think there’s only a 50/50 chance that American democracy, with its peaceful transfer of power, survives this decade. What do you say to a skeptical donor who hears that and says, “OK, I hate Trump as much as you do, but that sounds overly dire.”
I have that conversation a great deal, where I’m like, it sounds crazy, but here’s what I think. And they’re like, that seems too dire. And I’m like, let’s talk about it. And at the end of it, you know, pretty much everybody wants a stiff drink.
If you believe that the Republican Party is fully committed to ending the peaceful transfer of power—which all you have to do to believe is listen—and you believe it’s very, very difficult to keep a party out of power because of the pendulum nature of American politics… you have to say that Democrats have to lock the G.O.P. out of power in ‘22, ‘24, ‘26, ‘28 and ‘30.
If Democrats keep both chambers and fight off thugs like Blake Masters and J.D. Vance and so forth, who are explicitly talking about ending democracy as their campaigns, if we fight those people off then I think the Republican establishment—the Mitch McConnells of the world, the Kevin McCarthys of the world—will make the decision that sticking with Trump is bad.
The Republican Party is not only committed to ending the peaceful transfer of power, they face no electoral consequences from doing so. So one of the very few things we can do is give them sufficient medicine so that they realize they have to return to what they were and break from what they have become.
Let’s talk about what you believe donors need to do in 2022 to be on the winning side of that coin flip. You’ve been very critical of the activist left—saying “all they do is work for Trump” and that they’re naive. But they haven’t been doing that in a vacuum… a lot of that activism has come from donors on your own side of the aisle, no?
I never say anything behind anyone’s back that I don’t say to their face first. The donors in the community who I believe have done damage to the anti-Trump cause, every one of them knows it, and every one of their donor-advisors knows it. Because I’ve told them. And so as a result, I have very few friends in politics, which doesn’t bother me at all. It’s like that old line: if you want a friend in politics, get a dog.
So in the Democratic donor community, my relationships with many people are very cool, if not outright hostile, because I have told them that their strategies are working against our shared objective of keeping Trump out of power. And indeed, over time, I’ve told them that I can’t be a part of some of their convenings anymore because they are too dug in on ideas that just won’t work.
Do you have a sense as to how much Reid Hoffman will spend in total on the 2022 cycle?
I don’t know. He decides that along the way. I mean, his rate of spending has gone way down.
Most of what we’ve done has been a series of media investments. One of the things that the fascists are doing is trying to create a hermetically sealed information environment around their targets.
Your focus in the midterms has been on two categories: There’s been the media investments, and then there’s been your work in the Democratic primaries to beat back progressives. But that’s not that much money, and so it’s always funny when I see people describe Mainstream Democrats as “Reid Hoffman’s super PAC.”
Shifting the Democratic brand in these ways is not just an act. It can be either a virtuous or vicious cycle. If Nina Turner is in the Democratic caucus, that changes the Democratic caucus, which in turn makes more Nina Turners more likely to join.
We were big fans of President Biden urging us to fund the police. We very much believe that Marjorie Taylor Greene and J.D. Vance want to defund the F.B.I. These are the sorts of things that we’re trying to focus people on.
Who is “we”? One question I often get from other Democrats, that might not surprise you, is: “Is Dmitri speaking for Reid? Or is Dmitri speaking for Dmitri”?
I don’t speak for Reid. Reid speaks for Reid, and I speak for me. But our ideas about what needs to happen line up 90 percent of the time, 95 percent of the time, probably higher than that at this point after six years. So when I say “we” I do mean me and the team, which includes Reid.
Last thing: What do you want people to hit you up on before the midterms?
I doubt that there’s many things that can still be done that we would fund, other than as a way of catalyzing. We’ll hold fundraisers where we might put a match out—for example, we did a fundraiser for Josh Shapiro, and he co-hosted it with a donor of the left who often disagrees with us on many substantive things. But that’s part of the point—if we can come together for Josh Shapiro… We’ve done a similar thing with Ben Wikler in Wisconsin.
Our whole theory has been that the post-Labor Day [Democratic] ecosystem is actually pretty well developed. And so our strategy is to do things in the other 21 months or two years before that.
Marc Andreessen’s “Spirit Walk”
I wrote the other week about Chris Buskirk, a new it-operative in G.O.P. circles who is advising a group of MAGA donors including many with ties to Silicon Valley, such as Peter Thiel. In recent years, Buskirk has been working to organize a coalition of Trump-aligned donors called the Rockbridge Network and, more generally, position himself in the center of the action.
Buskirk is a very successful networker: He comes to Silicon Valley often and I’m told that he likes to host small, intimate dinners with conservative figures in the industry. One donor who is close with Buskirk, for instance, told me that he used to think of giving to super PACs as somewhat “dirty”—but that Buskirk had “opened up” this donor’s aperture a bit and that the donor now is cool with big super-PAC checks. This is all especially meaningful now that many Silicon Valley moguls are moving rightward, and feeling more comfortable than during the heart of the Trump era to engage in politics. Or as the Buskirk-aligned donor told me: “Are we OK to be louder than we were before?”
One person who is certainly louder in politics than he has been in recent years—and someone who I am told has been talking with Buskirk recently—is legendary Silicon Valley entrepreneur (and Thiel friend) Marc Andreessen. Andreessen’s political evolution isn’t that dissimilar from many tech eminences of his generation: Once a key fundraiser for the Gore-Tech group that served as a kitchen cabinet of sorts to the 2000 Democratic presidential nominee, Andreessen eventually gave big to Mitt Romney and shuttled out to speak at his annual Utah ideas summit. Then, suddenly, Andreessen shut up about politics during the Trump era. His once-irrepressible, entertaining Twitter feed fell silent, and he didn’t donate to anything that wasn’t a corporate PAC for six years. A few years ago, Andreessen described his political ideology in a discussion with a source of mine as basically pro-stasis—i.e. don’t change much, the laws are fine as they are—which, to be sure, is similar to what many Silicon Valley leaders would also say if you injected them with truth serum.
Now with Trump out of office, Andreessen has rediscovered his voice, speaking up again about the “woke” left and arguing in a recent interview that companies are “asking for trouble” if their employees focus on left-wing workplace politics rather than their corporate missions. This past May, in another sign of his revitalized political engagement, Andreessen and his business partner Ben Horowitz made their biggest single disclosed campaign contributions ever, donating $1 million each to a pro-crypto super PAC. (The donation was technically from their eponymous firm.) “I was always kind of a centrist Democrat, like basically everyone else I knew in tech and the Valley,” Andreessen told Sam Harris in a candid interview earlier this summer. After Trump, he continued, “I checked out of traditional politics in 2015 and kind of went on a spirit walk, and decided to try and reread everything from scratch and figure out what was going on. And I’ve come out on the other side in a weird, fuzzy, undefined state.” Republican strategists tell me they have definitely not detected Thielian levels of interest in campaigns from Andreessen, and yet he keeps popping up in the safe spaces of the New Right. “He clearly cares about many of these concerns,” said one allied operative. But “it’s not yet clear what that means.”
I don’t think Marc is formally involved with Rockbridge, but Buskirk and Andreessen are certainly ideologically sympatico: Buskirk has name-checked Andresseen, alongside Thiel, as one of America’s best innovators with “a track record of backing energetic, talented people.” The G.O.P. operative and Silicon Valley billionaire also share a notable distaste for elite media gatekeeping and a common desire to build their own media channels. Buskirk, the media entrepreneur behind American Greatness, runs the super PAC for Thiel-backed Blake Masters in Arizona; before the G.O.P. primary, the PAC sent out an eight-page faux newspaper with pro-Masters content. He also serves on the board of a new conservative news outlet in the state. Buskirk savvily understands the inevitable politicization of media.
Meanwhile, Andreessen just backed Adam Neumann with a $350 million middle-finger to the mainstream media, which he knocked for sensationalizing Neumann’s downfall at WeWork, and he frequently inveighs against the same magazines that in simpler times couldn’t resist putting him on their covers. When The Atlantic reported this month that Andreessen, a seemingly-earnest supporter of the YIMBY movement, had opposed new housing development in his hometown of Atherton, the venture capitalist didn’t bother to respond to the journalist. Instead, he just blocked the reporter on Twitter. Andreessen, like Buskirk, sees the media as fundamentally broken.
Andreessen told Harris this summer that he is “not doing anything politically” these days. I wonder, though, if he is thinking about it. Both of Thiel’s candidates would jive well with the American Dynamism theme that Andreessen pitches these days, and both could use more dough, ASAP. Masters is an underdog in Arizona, and Buskirk would be wise to coax a check out of him so Masters can compete with the lavishly-funded Mark Kelly. Then, in Ohio, there’s Thiel-backed J.D. Vance, who learned last week that Mitch McConnell’s super PAC would spend a staggering $28 million to shore up a seat that should have been safe for Republicans. I’ve reported that McConnell and other Republican leaders want Thiel to spend money to push Masters and Vance through to the Senate. Maybe the G.O.P. establishment should ask Andreessen for his pixie dust, too.
More MacKenzie Mystery
There are few subjects of fascination in the world of philanthropy that rival MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Jeff Bezos who has, with remarkably minimal staff, reshaped the world of philanthropy by proving that billions of dollars can be deployed overnight. Correspondingly, there is also a fascination with MacKenzie’s circle—the consultants at places like Bridgespan, the people at her family office, Lost Horse, and also, frankly, her friends.
One person who I’m told has at least on occasion been claiming to have the ear of MacKenzie these days is none other than Vivi Nevo, the Zelig-like Israeli-American venture capitalist who many hyper-ambitious wealthy people inevitably come across as they make and give away a fortune. Nevo is one of those people who is enormously connected—he walks on the beach shirtless with Jack Dorsey, pops up each year in dress code at Sun Valley, has received the Graydon-era Vanity Fair treatment, and has had his birthday party thrown by Mark Burnett, with Bezos in tow—and yet has almost zero online presence. “Who The Hell is Vivi Nevo?” read one headline in The Wrap back in 2008.
Given his friendship with Jeff and MacKenzie over the years, it should be little surprise that Vivi has remained close to the couple. And Vivi told some people last year that he was helping MacKenzie with what to do with her money, a source who overheard him make the claim told me. Now, Nevo denied to me that he is anything more than friendly with Scott—“I have not provided MacKenzie Scott advice of any kind,” he told me when asked whether he had ever said that—raising the prospect that this was some mild overstatement in close company, or perhaps he simply wanted to keep the nature of their conversations privileged. (Is advice among billionaires from different spheres advisement? Who knows…) But if you want an introduction to Scott, which many in the world of philanthropy desperately do, you might be wise to first broker an introduction to Vivi.
MacKenzie, after all, has revealed much about her philanthropic process, including remarkable biannual updates with her list of grantees, but she has not said a peep about her staff that help her make decisions. (You’ll have to read Puck for that list.) MacKenzie promised late last year to unveil a public-facing website to demystify her team and process, but she has yet to do so, saying in a March update that she would only do so when every grantee had weighed in on how much they wanted to disclose about their gift. Instead, she is still speaking through her grantees—a spate of gift announcements in the last few weeks now has her approaching $13 billion in donations since 2019.
Thiel’s Big Weekend Party
Exactly twenty years ago, the PayPal I.P.O. ushered in a new era of Silicon Valley history. Its public offering, followed shortly thereafter by its sale to eBay, created the seed money that Peter Thiel would use to invest in Facebook, that Elon Musk would use to invest in Tesla, and that Reid Hoffman would use to found LinkedIn. The 2002 I.P.O. was one of those epoch-altering events that are overlooked in our collective consciousness. Working at PayPal in those early years was like graduating from Stanford in the early 1990s, or rooming with Mark Zuckerberg in the mid 2000s, or maybe working at Coinbase in the mid-2010s… right place, right time, and good things happened to you.
This weekend, that I.P.O. will be overlooked no more. Thiel is organizing and playing host to a PayPal 20th anniversary party this Saturday at his mansion in L.A., I’m told, inviting a section of its alumni network—not just the ‘Mafia’ that you’ve heard of—that includes most of those who were present for the I.P.O. More than 100 people are expected at the reunion. The night before, Jimmy Soni—an author and G.O.P. operative who also works for Jeff Roe’s sprawling political shop, Axiom—is also hosting an event for his new book about the PayPal early team, The Founders (a book that David Sacks has said he may make into a movie). Will Elon show? The Tesla C.E.O., who founded one of the two companies that combined to form PayPal, had an intense rivalry with Thiel back in those early days, but is now red-pilled just like Thiel, although they’re not close friends.