Robert Mercer probably would have flown into Roswell. From there—1,800 miles from home—he would’ve traveled south through the high desert plains of southeast New Mexico, flat as a tortilla, past abandoned homesteads and irrigation machines moving in slow circles.
His phone reception would’ve gotten spotty when he turned left off Highway 285. He would’ve seen the bare limbs of a pecan orchard and a graveyard decked in plastic flowers. At the town hall in Lake Arthur, population 433, he would’ve met Police Chief William Norwood, the department’s sole full-time employee, a barrel-chested man with two spare rifle magazines on his belt. There, Mercer, the fabulously wealthy computer scientist who helped bankroll the election of President Donald Trump, would’ve reported for duty as a volunteer policeman.
If Mercer’s trips to Lake Arthur resembled my recent visit, he might’ve climbed into the passenger seat of Norwood’s police truck, whose black-and-white paint job is fading in the wind-whipped sand. He and Norwood might’ve rolled past the house where someone reported spotting a stolen car—a false alarm, it turns out. While monitoring radio chatter, the plutocrat and the chief might have jawed about the latest news in a town so small it has no stores: the recent pursuit of a motorist across half the county; the record of the high school’s six-man football team; reports of stolen pecans. Pulling up a chair at an Italian restaurant in nearby Hagerman, the chief might’ve urged Mercer to try the lasagna.
For most of the past six years, as Mercer became one of the country’s political kingmakers, he was also periodically policing Lake Arthur, according to the department. If he followed Norwood’s protocols—and Norwood insists no volunteers get special treatment—he would’ve patrolled at least six days a year. He would’ve paid for travel and room and board, and supplied his own body armor and weapon.
Until a few months ago, Mercer, 71, ran what is arguably the world’s most successful hedge fund. He employs a phalanx of servants and bodyguards and owns a 203-foot yacht named Sea Owl. He was the money behind Breitbart News and Steve Bannon, whose fiery populism helped propel Trump to the White House, as well as the data firm Cambridge Analytica, which shaped the campaign’s messages. Shortly after the election, Mercer donned a top hat and welcomed the president-elect to a costume party at his seaside mansion on Long Island. What was a guy like that doing in the desert, wearing a gun and a shiny badge?
I was surprised when I first heard about Mercer’s sojourns in Lake Arthur, but then I’m used to his surprises. During the two and a half years I’ve covered Mercer, I’ve come to think of him as a hard-right version of that guy in the beer commercials, the Most Interesting Man in the World. There seems to be an inexhaustible supply of incredible-but-true Mercer stories, including his pioneering research that begat Google Translate, his funding of a stockpile of human urine in the Oregon mountains, his million-dollar model train set, and his habit of whistling constantly, even during work meetings. The common threads in these stories are a fierce intelligence, a wide-ranging curiosity, and an utter indifference to the judgment of others. The story of his adventures in Lake Arthur, which hasn’t been previously reported, adds yet another strand. It shows just how far a man of means will go to get something he can’t buy: the right to carry a concealed firearm anywhere in America.
Read more at Bloomberg Businessweek.