Conservatives have traditionally had a fondness for the corporate elite, trusting in the likes of Jack Welch, Charles Koch, and the rest of the Reaganite overclass to govern the country’s affairs and steer civic life. Philanthropy, for generations, was core to that invisible hand, rooted in their widely held belief that Wall Street could better allocate America’s resources than Washington. The prevailing wisdom across the American right was to unshackle the mega-donor class, within reason—incentivizing them to send their billions to tax-exempt institutions, and allowing them to make larger political contributions, too, often without disclosure. Largely conservative institutions from neighborhood churches to Americans For Prosperity reaped the windfalls.
The arrival on the political scene of the likes of Reid Hoffman, Laurene Powell Jobs, Melinda French Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and most recently, MacKenzie Scott, has changed the game. This crew, along with a dozen other liberal billionaires, have ideological instincts that skew more to the Democracy Alliance than the Chamber of Commerce. And they have established their own rival philanthropic program that in some ways outpaces the right. Conservatives may still love the rich in principle, but in practice they now believe that they are losing the money wars. Among the ten wealthiest people in America today, all but one made their fortune in Silicon Valley, and almost all of them are Democrats. For some on the right, this new cohort represents an almost existential threat: A financial-political-cultural cabal that melds do-gooder charity with D.E.I. activism to advance a pro-immigration, pro-gay rights, pro-woke political agenda under the guise of nonpartisanship.
That was the argument that was en vogue, anyway, during my visit last week to Orlando, where I circulated among the conservative money establishment at a conference hosted by the center-right consulting firm American Philanthropic. The get-together drew various luminaries of the compassionate-conservative set, with Ben Sasse delivering a party-line-toeing keynote about the importance of virtue and charity in small towns, close-knit families and churches and Rotary Clubs, et cetera. But beneath the surface, there was something else afoot—rumblings in conservative philanthropy of more elemental resentments toward the ruling class. The message: The aristocracy—left or right—is an oppressive regime that needs to be dethroned.