Dark Money

The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Mayer (Anchor, $17, 576 pages, Paperback)

Only a few months removed from the 2016 election, I read one of the most troubling books about American politics I’ve encountered in a long time. The book is Dark Money, prize-winning New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer’s exhaustively investigated and engrossingly reported account of how the Koch brothers – Charles and David – and a network of massively wealthy donors have executed a well-orchestrated plan to exert outsized influence on the workings of our political system. Spurred on by the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, the torrent of money the Kochs and their allies have unleashed ought to be a matter of concern for all Americans, as Mayer explains in this sobering book.

If you’re not familiar with the Koch brothers, perhaps your mental image of them approximates Randolph and Mortimer Duke, the hapless commodity traders of the 1983 movie, Trading Places. If that’s the case, forget it. Graduates of MIT, the brothers, Charles in particular, are laser-focused on realizing what Mayer characterizes as their “hard-line libertarian,” anti-tax, anti-environmental (most notably on the issue of climate change), anti-regulation agenda.
“They said they were driven by principle,” she writes, “but their positions dovetailed seamlessly with their personal financial interests.”

The Kochs’ program includes the establishment of think tanks like the Cato Institute and a successful drive to infiltrate academia with a cadre of libertarian scholars to provide the intellectual firepower for their movement. Once confined to private institutions of higher education, they’ve now expanded to the public sphere, with the Mercatus Center at Virginia’s George Mason University.

Mayer carefully documents these efforts, along with the ones of families like the Bradleys of Milwaukee (whose family foundation’s assets multiplied 20-fold when their company was acquired by Rockwell International in 1985), the late Richard Mellon Scaife of Pittsburgh (heir to a fortune built on Gulf Oil, Mellon Bank and Alcoa) and others in the stratosphere of the super-wealthy to shape public policy to suit their narrow interests.

If all you know about the name DeVos is that someone who bears it is now Secretary of Education in the Trump administration, for example, Mayer will enlighten you on the campaign of Betsy DeVos and her family to undermine Michigan’s public-education system.

One of the ironies of Mayer’s story of these anti-government crusaders is that many of the fortunes fueling their massive giving, including the Kochs’, benefited from federal government largesse, in the form of lucrative, defense-related contracts and other subsidies.

Another of the ironic aspects of this movement is the way the Internal Revenue Code has been used as a tool to fund the political passions of the mega-rich. Mayer describes how members of what she calls the “Kochtopus” have established complex networks of tax-exempt “social welfare” organizations (the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity among the most well-known) under section 501(c)(4) of the code, “weaponizing philanthropy,” as she colorfully terms it, and serving as funnels for the effectively untraceable contributions that give the book its title.

Mayer exposes how this tax-deductible dark money (40 percent of all “outside” political spending in 2010) fueled the engine of the Tea Party movement and how such funds were instrumental in the fight against Obamacare through a front group with the benign name (common for most such organizations) of the Center to Protect Patient Rights.

Koch dollars – $25 million between 2005 and 2008 (three times the amount spent by ExxonMobil) – also have been at the heart of the climate-change-denial movement. That’s a subject Mayer dramatizes through the story of Penn State meteorology and geosciences professor Michael Mann, who endured relentless attacks from climate-science deniers who threatened his tenured status.

While the Kochs and their allies have suffered their share of disappointments, the raw financial power of their network in the past two presidential election cycles is nothing short of staggering. In 2012, they contributed an estimated $470 million to a dizzying array of organizations. Only four years later, they planned to pour $889 million into the election fray. Mayer describes how these funds are raised at highly secretive biannual donor summits, where participants happily compete to outbid each other with their multimillion-dollar pledges of support.

Consistent with their aggressive business and political practices, the Koch brothers apparently wouldn’t let Mayer’s story be told without putting up a vigorous fight. After her 10,000 word piece on their activities appeared in The New Yorker in August 2010, Mayer learned from a reporter for the New York Post that, fueled by information he had received from an investigator with possible ties to the Kochs, he was about to report that she had plagiarized several articles. Only quick action on her part caused the baseless story to be killed.

Fortunately, that episode did not deter Jane Mayer. On page after page, she lays out the evidence of how these “political philanthropists” have “exercised their power from the shadows, meeting in secret, hiding their money trails, and paying others to front for them.”

Their striking success so far has only fueled their determination to pursue their goals in the Trump administration and beyond. And that’s bad news for anyone concerned about the long-term survival of our democratic institutions.