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Lunch at Renaissance Technologies — the secretive, $32 billion quantitative hedge fund headquartered in East Setauket, New York — has long been a communal affair.

In a sparse dining room overlooking a tree-dotted Long Island lawn, the computer scientists and mathematicians who develop Renaissance’s trading algorithms gather to dine on deli takeout and bottled water. The conversations typically tend toward mundane workday chatter: children, vacations, sports. Yet in this remote 50-acre setting, far from Manhattan’s financial district and Connecticut’s hedge fund row, one person — co-CEO Robert Mercer — stands out for expressing a singular passion: politics.

Former colleagues say Mercer’s ultraconservative, free-­market, antigovernment opinions make him unique among the millionaires and occasional billionaire who sit around that table. His views touch upon such varied and controversial topics as support for climate change deniers, a return to the gold standard, and the extreme free-market Austrian economics and individualism popularized by Ayn Rand.

Mercer also has long held strong views on the Clintons.

“He thought Bill Clinton was a criminal, and I’m sure he still does,” says Nick Patterson, who worked at Renaissance until 2001 and in 1993 suggested hiring Mercer from IBM Corp. There Mercer had gained renown for his breakthrough work on computer linguistics, along with Peter Brown, who also would join Renaissance. The two became co-CEOs following the retirement of founder Jim Simons in 2009. (Simons, for his part, recently told CNBC that he and Mercer don’t discuss politics.)

During the 1990s, Patterson recalls, Mercer often railed against then-president Clinton, continually referring to a murky alleged land deal in Arkansas that had followed the former governor to the White House. Like many of the scandals surrounding the Clintons, there was more smoke than fire: Whitewater turned out to be little more than fodder for right-wing talk shows and, apparently, Renaissance lunches.

Mercer’s views did not soften over time. During the Barack Obama era — when hedge funds garnered more scrutiny from Democrats following the global financial crisis — Mercer and his daughter Rebekah, who runs the Mercer Family Foundation, quietly used his substantial fortune and tech savvy to further their policy and political goals. Primary among them: defeating Hillary Clinton in her quest for the presidency.

That he succeeded, against great odds, must be immensely pleasing to the 70-year-old. First backing Senator Ted Cruz and then Donald Trump, Mercer made a bet — both financially and emotionally — on two men the political establishment disdained. His continued support of the eventual victor through the lowest depths of the campaign, and his willingness to stand largely alone among his hedge fund peers in that bet, must make the results of November 8 all the more satisfying — for when Donald Trump was declared the winner of the presidential election late that night, the greatest trade of Robert Mercer’s life paid off.

That Mercer would become Trump’s kingmaker is as surprising as the mogul’s upset win itself. Before this election cycle Mercer was virtually unknown in political circles. Now he has become a force to be reckoned with, on par with Charles and David Koch, who for years have backed Republican candidates and causes with their substantial checkbook.

Though he has done so quietly, Mercer has over time helped finance nearly 100 candidates for national office. There also have been sizable bets on technology to mold public opinion against Clinton and for Republicans — technology that both critics and supporters say was critical to Trump’s success.

Since 2010, Mercer has combined $45 million in campaign donations ($25 million in 2016 alone) with more than $50 million in pretax contributions to ultraconservative nonprofits. He has made an estimated $15 million in other politically oriented investments. Included in that total is a $10 million investment in controversial website, which under former executive chairman Steve Bannon became what he called a platform for the “alt right” — the far right wing that is home to an openly racist constituency. Additionally, Mercer’s foundation has funded a nonprofit called the Government Accountability Institute, whose president wrote a controversial 2015 book on the Clinton Foundation. Mercer also has put $5 million into Cambridge Analytica, a data-mining and behavioral science company that says it used social media–enabled analysis to target elusive and angry swing-state voters in the 2016 election.

Even liberals like Patterson, now at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, have grudging respect for the man. “Let’s give Bob some credit,” he says. “Suppose the main thing you wanted to do is defeat Hillary. He’s a very smart guy. It’s quite clear Mr. Trump and Bannon and Mercer understood some things about the U.S. that most people didn’t understand.”

To the critics aghast at Trump’s victory, however, Mercer seems more like a villain out of a novel. “If there is a dark, dystopian evil overlord behind everything that Trump has accomplished, it’s Robert Mercer,” says Michael Kink, a top Democratic activist who worked on the congressional campaign of Zephyr Teachout, a progressive congressional candidate in New York who was defeated by a Mercer-backed Republican in November.

The culmination of Mercer’s effort is not just the election of Trump and other Republicans. Mercer’s daughter, Rebekah (known as Bekah) has since been named by Politico as the most powerful woman in the GOP. She is on Trump’s transition team, and two Mercer-financed associates, Bannon and Kellyanne Conway, could end up in the White House after joining the campaign at what is reported to have been the Mercers’ prodding. Bannon already has been named Trump’s chief White House strategist.

Both Mercers will continue to have influence in the Trump administration, according to those on the inside. They are close to both Bannon and Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner — the two people the president-elect relies on most, according to Trump transition team member Anthony Scaramucci of SkyBridge Capital. Underscoring the newfound closeness, Trump made an appearance at the annual “Heroes and Villains” Christmas party held at Mercer’s home on December 3 (accompanied by Conway, who was dressed as Superwoman). Bekah Mercer reportedly has been influential in Trump’s hard-right choices for several White House posts, including Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions for attorney general and retired lieutenant general Michael Flynn for national security adviser. The day after attending the Mercer party, Trump announced he would interview John Bolton — the hawkish former Bush undersecretary of state and Bekah Mercer’s reported pick — for the position of secretary of State.

In a world of secretive hedge fund moguls, Robert Mercer stands out as one of the most reclusive — a trait he shares with the fund he now runs.

Little that is known about Mercer’s background provides insight into his political views. He was born in California and raised in New Mexico, the son of now-deceased Virginia and Thomas Mercer. His father, a scientist whose research at Albuquerque’s Lovelace Foundation for Medical Education and Research was financed by the Atomic Energy Commission in the 1960s, died in 1993 at age 72, two years older than his son is now. (A prize in the father’s name is now granted by the American Association for Aerosol Research, which has received $25,000 from the Mercer Family Foundation.)

While somewhat chatty inside Renaissance, Mercer is notoriously shy in the outside world. At two Hamptons fundraisers this summer, held at the homes of New York Jets owner Woody Johnson and financier Wilbur Ross (Trump’s current choice for Commerce secretary), the hedge fund manager was in the background, making small talk with other Trump donors, says Scaramucci. “He was incredibly cordial and gentlemanly,” the SkyBridge founder adds.

“Bob is fairly reserved,” says Patterson, recalling that at Renaissance Mercer “worked very, very hard. He’s probably not the guy you’d want to go to a party with.”

Mercer almost never talks to the press (and declined to be interviewed for this article). In a rare 2014 public address, made when receiving a lifetime achievement award for his seminal work on computer linguistics, Mercer gave a 40-minute talk peppered with self-deprecatory remarks showing a sly sense of humor that belied the description of him as a “cold blooded poker player” in Sebastian Mallaby’s 2010 hedge fund exposé, More Money Than God.

Saying he was simply a computer programmer, the gray-haired Mercer spoke softly of how his love affair with computers developed, starting at the age of ten. Later, working at the Kirtland Air Force Base weapons lab while a student at the University of New Mexico, he got his first distaste of government. When Mercer learned to run computations in one hundredth of the time, “the powers that be” asked him to run programs 100 times bigger, he recalled. “I took this as a lesson that one of the most important goals of government-financed research is not so much to get answers but to consume the computer budget,” he told the crowd at the Association for Computational Linguistics. “It left me ever since with a jaundiced view of government-financed research.”

After receiving his Ph.D. in computer science in 1972 from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Mercer joined the other brains of his generation at IBM. At Renaissance, however, he seems to have found the perfect spot for a free-market fanatic: The firm, which has produced many millionaires on the back of pure brain and computing power, is capitalism at its most basic. Yet in another sense, Mercer was a man at odds with his new co-workers: Founder Simons and co-CEO Brown are both staunch Democrats, the former being one of the top Democratic donors of the most recent election cycle. Mercer, on the other hand, is more aligned with former conservative presidential candidate and Arizona senator Barry Goldwater than with the socially liberal Rockefeller Republicans of the East Coast. Indeed, through his family foundation Mercer has donated $950,000 to the Goldwater Institute. He also has given to the Cato Institute, the Federalist Society, the Heritage Foundation, and the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, among other conservative groups.

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