The Koch brothers, Charles and David, get a lot of attention from political observers and, increasingly, from the public. No wonder. The fortune they possess together is greater than those of Bill Gates, Carlos Slim, Warren Buffet, and other private individuals who are often characterized as the richest people in the world. But it’s not the brothers’ wealth that attracts the attention. It’s their heavy-handed attempt to dominate American politics. That’s the subject of Jane Mayer’s explosive new book, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.
As Warren Buffet has said, “There’s class warfare all right. But it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” The brothers are at the very center of the war machine.
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes
The Koch brothers are not alone
Though the Koch brothers provide a convenient (and worthy) target, it’s important to understand that they alone are not responsible for the wrenching changes that have taken place in American politics over the past several decades, and particularly since 2009. As Mayer reveals, the brothers — Charles, especially — preside over a network of billionaires and centimillionaires who operate in tandem in support of the most virulent, Right-Wing causes and candidates in the country’s politics. A total of some 300 individuals constitute the network. As many as two hundred have attended recent annual gatherings hosted by the brothers.
Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer (2016) 464 pages ★★★★★
The brothers didn’t invent the tactics that have been used to upend the political order. Mayer credits the late Richard Mellon Scaife, the Pittsburgh-based scion of the Mellon Bank and Gulf Oil fortune. In 1964, Scaife set out to change the terms of political debate by investing heavily in think tanks and academic centers to espouse a radical “free-market” ideology and imprint it on a new generation of scholars, lawyers, and activists. Scaife’s various family foundations were soon followed by the Bradley, Olin, and Coors Foundations in advancing the Right-Wing agenda.
In addition to Scaife and the Koch Brothers, the “vast Right-Wing conspiracy” they set in motion includes the aging casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, an obsessively pro-Israel donor who has outpaced everyone else in the country in political spending in recent elections, and the De Vos family of Michigan, owners of Amway, as well as other members of the 0.01%, a majority of whose fortunes were built on oil, gas, coal, and finance. Also prominent within this network are ultra-weathy individuals and families who have used similar tactics to bring about dramatic shifts in the politics of individual states — Wisconsin and North Carolina, for example.
What do they want?
The plutocrats in the Kochs’ network profess similar political beliefs which they characterize as “conservatism” to promote “freedom” and the “free market” in America. However, it’s highly misleading to refer to this ideology as conservative. Instead, it’s radical and reactionary, having nothing to do with conserving anything whatsoever of the past.
On the contrary, it’s clear from Mayer’s account that the common intellectual thread that runs throughout this group of supremely privileged individuals is a determination to turn back the clock to the nineteenth century, repealing every political reform instituted under Teddy Roosevelt and all his successors. Child labor laws? Check. Anti-trust legislation? Check. The progressive income tax? Check. Social Security? Check. The minimum wage? You get the point. What these people want is clearly nothing less than the “freedom” to pollute, exploit their employees, avoid taxes, dictate the terms of political debate, and pass their vast wealth on to their children and grandchildren in dynastic fashion.
Who are these people, really?
Though they tend to style themselves as “self-made,” many of them — including the Kochs — inherited considerable fortunes. They live in multimillion-dollar homes (usually, several of them), preside over huge businesses, and donate millions of dollars to “charity” (usually, arts institutions and universities that will place their names on buildings). However, a disturbing number of them are, not to put too fine an edge on things, criminals.
As Mayer puts it in her understated way, it is “striking how many members of the Koch network had serious past or ongoing legal problems.” For example, “between 1980 and 2005, under Charles Koch’s leadership, his company developed a stunning record of corporate malfeasance.” The Koch brothers’ and the De Vos family businesses have paid tens of millions of dollars in fines for violation of environmental laws, worker health and safety regulations, and tax laws, causing far more harm to society than even the worst violent offender. In a just society, many of these people would have gone to prison long ago.
A multipronged strategy
Mayer describes the Kochs’ and their allies’ strategy as multipronged. At the outset, their efforts went largely into intellectual enterprises, chiefly think tanks and universities. The purpose of these “investments” was to nurture a new generation of “free-market conservatives” who would (and did) change the dynamics of public discourse. A second prong of the strategy was to press state and federal legislators and the courts to shift economic policy to their (self-interested) way of thinking.
At the same time, they consciously set out to foster the grassroots efforts that eventually produced the Tea Party, by creating phony populist organizations (“Astroturf”), providing funding and political expertise, and subsidizing sympathetic media. For example, they paid Glenn Beck $1 million to hype the Tea Party on his show.
To round out the picture, they mounted a lavishly funded effort to seize control of the Republican Party and gerrymander Congressional district lines in states across the country to guarantee a Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Have no doubt about the success of this strategy: witness the fear-mongering and Right-Wing platitudes consistently mouthed by the Republican candidates contending for the presidency in 2016.
The vanguard of “the billionaire class”
All this is possible now after the 2010 Citizens United decision and its sequels in the courts, which freed what Bernie Sanders calls “the billionaire class” to dominate federal elections to a greater extent than was feasible even under the Robber Barons in the closing years of the nineteenth century. Reportedly, a single session at a gathering hosted last year by the Koch Brothers generated pledges for this year’s election campaigns totaling $889 million, an amount far greater than either the Republican or Democratic parties raised for the last presidential campaign. In all likelihood, this sum will prove to be only a portion of the funds they contribute collectively when the final figures are toted up. After all, they can afford it: together, the men (and a few women) in this network are “worth” considerably more than $100 billion dollars.
Where does all the money go?
You might think it’s not easy to spend so much money, and you’d be right. To bring these massive funds to bear in the political area, the members of the Koch network have created literally hundreds of organizations — think tanks, academic institutes, SuperPACs, “public welfare” organizations, “charities,” and businesses to put their money to work. Some of these entities evidence no more signs of activity than a post office box. Others, such as the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Federalist Society, and the Kochs’ most identifiable political venture, Americans for Prosperity (AFP), are well known and substantial. For example, AFP employed 550 people in the 2012 election cycle. Most of the organizations created by the members of the network exist merely to launder money from wealthy donors, funneling it through a series of obscurely named entities to avoid the few remaining campaign finance disclosure requirements.
To operate this exceedingly complex array of organizations, both bogus and genuine, requires a huge number of political operatives, lobbyists, pollsters, and others. Though none of these people are likely to approach their benefactors in personal wealth, many of them are reaping millions of dollars for their efforts.
The most dramatic revelation in Mayer’s book is her account of the way the Koch brothers’ father built the fortune that was the foundation of their enormous wealth. Like his sons Charles and David after him, Fred Koch was an MIT-trained engineer. He developed advanced techniques to refine crude oil. Forced by the major players in the oil industry to operate outside the country, he built a thriving business overseas building oil refineries. Among the longest-standing and most lucrative business partnerships he undertook were with Stalin and Hitler’s governments. A scholar who studied Koch’s work for Nazi Germany concluded that “the American venture became ‘a key component of the Nazi war machine.’ Historians expert in German industrial history concur.”
Some readers may also find surprises in Mayer’s accounts of the central role of the Koch Brothers and their allies in launching and funding the Tea Party and the protracted (and successful) effort to undermine the public consensus about the serious threat that climate change poses to human life in the near future. Mayer reports that “from 2005 to 2008, a single source, the Kochs, poured almost $25 million into dozens of different organizations fighting climate reform . . . Charles and David had outspent what was then the world’s largest public oil company, ExxonMobil, by a factor of three.”
About the author
Jane Mayer is an investigative journalist who has been a staff writer at The New Yorker for twenty years. She is a former war correspondent. She has won many of the top awards the journalistic profession has to offer. Dark Money is her fourth book.
For related reading
This is one of the Good books about billionaires.
For a look at the origins of the Right-Wing extremism that the Koch brothers have been banking in recent years, see Birchers: How the John Birch Society Radicalized the American Rightby Matthew Dallek (The roots of today’s Right-Wing extremism).
And check out:
- The Lords of Creation: The History of America’s 1 Percent by Frederick Lewis Allen (Why the Great Recession happened—and the Great Depression before it)
- Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World by Anand Giriharadas (Are tech billionaires and hedge-fund managers changing the world for the better?)
- Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America by Kurt Andersen (How America lost its way and ended up at war with itself)
- Jackpot: How the Super-Rich Really Live—and How their Wealth Harms Us All by Michael Mechanic—The curious lives of the rich and not-so-famous
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