Dark Money—the Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

By Jane Mayer

Anchor Books | 2016

Reviewed by Jane M. McCabe

As a small-time business owner in Billing, Montana, a company that sold school supplies to school districts in North Dakota and Montana, my father was a Republican who believed in free enterprise. He believed it provided people with opportunities to create their own businesses and that they should be able to profit from their initiative.

But, my father, who died in 1968, didn’t know how capitalism would evolve in the late 20th Century, what with the rise of multinational corporations, who would move much of their manufacturing overseas, where the cost of labor was much less than it was in the United States. He thought anti-trust laws would prevent companies from growing too large.

He didn’t know that the wealth generated by the people who owned the means of production in this country, people like the Koch Brothers, from Wichita, Kansas, whose fortunes were made originally in the oil and coal industries, would so sky-rocket that they would be able to circumvent any laws that held them in check and would be able to influence American politics to put the candidates that supported their libertarian policies in office. He would have probably grieved had he known the direction taken in this country to eradicate actual democracy.

Jane Mayer has an impressive resumé as an investigative journalist. She is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of three previous, critically-acclaimed books: Landslide: The Unmaking of the President, 1984-1988 (with Doyle McManus), Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas (with Jill Abramson), and The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals.

In March of 2010 The New Yorker published an article written by her, entitled “Covert Operations—the billionaire brothers who are waging a war against Obama.” The story reveals in depth for the first time how the publicity-shy Koch brothers had stealthily leveraged their vast fortune to exert outsized influence over American politics. It also showed that their environmental and safety record was woefully at odds with their burnished public images as selfless philanthropists.

And, now, with the publication of Dark Money, she has written a indictment of the Koch Brothers and their use of their enormous wealth to manipulate American politics, by making candidates seem much more virtuous than they in fact are.  According to The New York Times, “it is not easy to uncover the inner workings of an essentially secretive political establishment,” but this something Ms. Mayer has done.

The Koch brothers are four—Charles, David, Freddie and Bill. Their fortune began from their father Fred, Sr.’s invention of an improved process for the extraction of gasoline from crude oil, but over the years since his death, it has expanded to include all kinds of industrial holdings here and aboard.  Sibling rivalry broke out after Fred, Sr.’s death in 1967, and Charles and David bought out Freddie and Bill.

Dark money is money that is secretly channeled in support of conservative political candidates. 

The Koch brothers support a libertarian agenda—they are against taxes, against social programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; they are against government itself, so seek by all means at their disposal to limit its size.

This is how they work: They fund organizations with fine-sounding names, like the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, Americans for Prosperity, Cato Institute, Center for American Progress, Center for Media and Democracy, Citizens for a Sound Economy—how could anyone object to organizations with names like these?  The brothers give sizable contributions, but, it’s like paying yourself, because the real agenda promoted by these organizations is to limit the size of government and to promote candidates who will work to these ends.

The public is ignorant of their size and the enormous sums they channel into seeing candidates they support get elected.

Sometimes they work to discredit politicians who work for the common good. These smear campaigns are quite effective. Did you ever wonder when politicians bantered about the phrase, “Crooked Hillary,” that they offered no evidence as to what she had done to earn this appellate, other than to be sloppy about her emails? And yet, people bought it lock, stock and barrel.  Donald Trump treated us to the power of language used to discredit others during the Republican convention when he called Marco Rubio, an honorable man who has earned his stripes, “little Marco.”

They are wolves in sheep’s clothing. During the 2016 campaign, the Koch brothers’ long-time consigliere told them that they needed to change their language so that it would sound as though they supported humane causes, when in actuality their single real cause is to protect their money and continue to make money.

The business of business is to make money, however, there seems to be no limit to the amount of money people like the Koch brothers want to make. Even Jay Leno can own so many cars. Their greed is inestimable, perhaps because the more money one has, the greater his power.

Traditionally, Americans who have made huge fortunes—the Rockefellers, Andrew Carnegie, J.P. Morgan, Guggenheim—used part of their fortunes to build some of our most venerable museums and concert halls that benefit all, and, so, David Koch has contributed the money from the David H. Koch Charitable Foundation to build a library with his name at Lincoln Center.

People tend to look no further, to say to themselves, now isn’t that nice of him, without knowing that this same David Koch turned his head when two young people were killed in Texas when a gas pipe in need of replacement exploded. He knew perfectly well of this danger but said it was cheaper for them to pay the charge in the wrongful death suit than to invest to make the changes necessary to prevent this kind of “accident.”

People like the Koch brothers will funnel great sums of money into making susceptible Americans believe global warming is a hoax, into believing that candidates who back their policies are just conservative politicians, into believing salacious lies about liberal politicians, into believing the media, the mainstay media publishes “fake news.”  On and on it goes.

What’s tragic is just how successful they are in duping the American public. Were I Danté, I would place these men in the lower reaches of the Inferno.

All the above causes me to ask what changes for the good, the common good, could be made if these people paid their fair share of taxes, if the amount of money that could be made by a corporation was truly capped?

These are questions that should be asked of all Americans.

Reading Dark Money wasn’t easy. I tended to bog down in its minutia of detail. Nevertheless, I think Jane Mayer has written an important book, which I hope will be read by many.

(Jane M McCabe is an Associate Editor for Neworld Review. She lives in Los Angeles with her dog Sadie.)

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