Book Review: Dark Money
Author: Jane Mayer
Reviewer: Stephen Keim SC
In a sign that my allotted time is ebbing away even more quickly than I had imagined, I notice that my review of Ms. Mayer’s previous great work, The Dark Side , was completed on New Year’s Day, 2010. I could have sworn it was last week or, at most, last month. I became an instant and inveterate fan of Mayer’s work from the moment I opened her work on the misdeeds of Dick Cheney during his War on Terror committed while his boss, George Bush, looked on or, more pointedly, averted his eyes.
Indeed, there are more recent signs of the ebbing of days. Scribe published Dark Money during 2016. I purchased my copy in late 2016 with enthusiasm and grand intentions to read it, that night. But work and life and other books got in the way and it took until another Christmas to turn that last page; read the final paragraph; wander through the acknowledgements; and even explore the end notes. Nothing was diminished by the delay. The significance of Dark Money and its implications for our democratic processes won’t go away, any time soon.
Dark Money’s epigraph is a famous quote from Supreme Court Justice, Louis Brandeis which states that a country may have democracy or wealth concentrated in the hands of a few but that it cannot have both. The thesis of Dark Money is that America is choosing the latter of the two alternatives.
Dark Money starts and ends with Charles and David Koch, the Koch brothers, heirs to an oil fortune and heirs to right wing fringe politics. The lesson of Dark Money is that, by mobilising their fortunes and utilising the same dishonest tactics, and often the same operatives, used by the tobacco industry to deny and obfuscate the science that linked tobacco to cancer, the brothers have pushed their fringe ideas into the mainstream.
Fred Koch, the father of Charles and David, invented an improved process for refining petrol from crude oil. Hounded by the major oil companies using patent enforcement litigation, Fred took his skills, first, to Stalin’s Russia and then used them to assist Hitler’s Germany to rebuild its industrial capacity. He also, eventually, achieved a $1.5 million judgment in the courts against the oil majors.
By 1960, Fred Koch was extremely wealthy and poured money into the John Birch Society . The Society categorised the de-segregation decision in Brown v Board of Education as sufficient to justify the impeachment of Chief Justice, Earl Warren; admired the anti-communist policies of Benito Mussolini; and regarded welfare as a plot to lure rural blacks to the city to foment a vicious race war. The Society marketed their ideas like commercial organisations selling product but also advocated and used the secretive and deceptive methods of the communists they hated and saw under other people’s beds to achieve their objectives.
The brothers took over their father’s money; his penchant for political activism; and many of his right-wing ideas. David ran as a candidate for the Libertarian Party candidate in 1980. His candidacy was a way of getting around campaign financing laws in that, as a candidate, he could donate as much as he liked to his own campaign. Presaging the deceit which was to come, the Party’s slogan was that it had only one source of funds: “You”. Instead, $2 million came from David Koch, more than 60% of what the Party spent in that campaign. The 1980 campaign led Charles Koch to say that politicians are only actors and that he wanted to supply the themes and the scripts. In the thirty-seven years which have passed since then, massive progress has been made on that ambition.
The Koch brothers have been able to leverage their own money by convincing other very rich families to donate to their projects. Dark Money also documents the actions of other right wing warriors who have used their billions to change political orthodoxy in America.
Mayer devotes a chapter to the scion of the Mellon banking, Alcoa aluminium and Gulf Oil family, Andrew Mellon Scaife , who died in 2014. Scaife pioneered the use of funding foundations with neutral names whose purpose was to manufacture, at the behest of the provider of funds, and promote, right wing ideas and to attack long established and non-partisan bodies like the Ford Foundation as hopelessly liberal and biased. One such body founded by Scaife was the Heritage Foundation. By this single stratagem, repeated several times with the endless support of funds, a few very rich people managed to re-define the political realm by defining the centre as left-wing and liberal and, thereby, categorising the previously fringe ideas of the right as just one side of the mainstream spectrum. These were strategies that the Kochs would use to manipulate perceptions in many different policy areas.
Dark Money documents the work of millionaire industrialist, John M Olin, whose Olin Corporation polluted the company town of Saltville, Virginia, by pouring 100 pounds of mercury into its waterways, every day. Olin Corporation became an early target of the EPA after it was legislated into existence in 1970. Olin’s affront at being challenged by government agencies on his company’s record of dangerously polluting the environment in which his workers lived and worked motivated him to destroy the power of any government to challenge the way rich people like him did business. This is a common theme in Dark Money. Almost universally, the policies that the very rich pursue, conveniently, benefit their ability to make and keep even more money without being called to account.
Mayer documents the case of a Koch Industries employee, Donald Carlson, who was employed to do the dirtiest jobs, cleaning up the most toxic chemicals. Carlson died of leukemia in February 1997. Because Carlson worked with benzene, his employer was required to offer annual blood tests. But, for four years, from 1990 to 1994, the company hid from Carlson the information that his blood counts were abnormal. The case also illustrates the legal tactics used by the Koch companies and many of their allies. The cases are defended with no dollars spared; no admissions are made; and, eventually, a mean settlement is offered with confidentiality clauses to hide the truth. Mayer also documents the prosecution and conviction of Koch Industries for false reporting of the their benzene emissions and the public relations campaign they ran against Sally Barnes-Soliz, the environmental technician and whistle blower, who had compiled the truthful returns and observed that falsified versions had been filed, instead.
As part of a grand strategy to change the values of society, Olin used his Olin Foundation to pour huge sums of money into supporting the work of particular academics, whose views and work were known to be right wing and who were already established at major educational institutions, thereby, establishing extreme conservative beachheads in respectable educational institutions. The Olin Foundation gave money to Allan Bloom whose best-selling book on higher education described rock music as commercially pre-packaged masturbation fantasy. It also funded Dinesh D’Souza , a pioneer of the right’s use of the term political correctness to denigrate all political discourse that does not agree with it. As I write, D’Souza is denigrating the survivors of the Parkland School shooting massacre for having the temerity to speak out on gun control. The Foundation also funded whole departments provided the School in question was prepared to create a department that specialised in a right wing version of traditional disciplines. For example, the Foundation spent $68 million underwriting the growth of a previously fringe discipline, law and economics, and, between 1985 and 1989, underwrote 83% of the costs of law and economics programs in American law schools. The project reflected the strategy used to create new orthodoxy by pretending not to upset the old orthodoxies. By using the term, “law and economics”, Olin avoided appearing overtly ideological. Nonetheless, the practitioners of the new discipline understood that their role was to replace existing legal orthodoxy with extreme conservative views about the function of law and its role in society.
In 1976, Charles Koch wrote what he called a blueprint for the libertarian movement. Among his prescriptions was the need to use all modern sales and motivational techniques. In 1984, he created a body called Citizens for a Sound Economy. Though bankrolled by wealthy industrialists including the Koch brothers, Citizens for a Sound Economy looked from the outside as a community organisation formed and operated by concerned citizens. Within a few years, Citizens for a Sound Economy had 50 paid operatives across 26 states organising events, buying television time and running campaigns promoting the Koch brothers anti-tax, anti-government agenda. Citizens for a Sound Economy provided the blueprint which was used, over future decades, repeatedly, on many issues dear to the heart of rich conservatives, by which wads of money were used to create the impression of grass roots organisations. “Astroturf” became a particularly apt term to describe this mechanism and these organisations. (In August 2016, Fueling US Forward was launched with Koch money to promote fossil fuel usage. The tactics of the new entity including using gospel music concerts as a bait and switch method of persuading Afro-Americans that their well-being would be ensured by more fossil fuel usage which would keep their energy costs low.)
Citizens for a Sound Economy, itself, was AstroTurf for hire. Mayer quotes public records which show that a procession of companies, including Exxon and Microsoft made donations to Citizens for a Sound Economy which were followed by Citizens for a Sound Economy running a false citizens’ campaign on issues of financial importance to the donor.
By the time, Barack Obama was inaugurated on 20 January 2009, the machine created by the Koch brothers and their wealthy allies had been developing for over two decades. The Introduction to Dark Money describes a meeting held just over a week later in Indian Wells, California. Charles and David Koch had summoned many of the richest and, certainly, the most right wing conservative businessmen in the country, including eighteen billionaires, to a weekend meeting. It was at that meeting that Republican tactics were decided for the next eight years. There would be no compromise; no acceptance that Obama had won; no move to the centre; no attempt to build a bigger tent into which more politicians and supporters would be welcomed. The Party would take a much harder line against any form of regulation and whatever Obama tried to do would be opposed.
In a later chapter, Dark Money traces the origins of the Tea Party Movement, a movement for which the Kochs have always disclaimed responsibility. Many trace the origins of the idea to a rant by a former futures trader, Rick Santelli, on CNBC. Mayer points out that much of the infrastructure for the Tea Party had already been put in place by the Koch movement’s Astroturf organisations and even the idea was expressed earlier than Santelli’s rant by Rush Limbaugh whose show was largely funded by Mellon Scaife’s Heritage Foundation.
By the 2014 mid-term elections, the Kochs had financed their own system of accumulating electoral data that was so good that the Republican Party organisation was forced to do a deal to be able to use it. One Koch operation engaged in recruiting and training candidates while another had paid organisers able to be deployed into any hard fought electoral contest. In this way, the Koch organisation was able to supplant the GOP organisation from outside.
The expenditure of $300 million by the Koch organisation led to the prize of Republican control of the Senate. The new majority leader of the Senate, Mitch McConnell, had spoken at a recent Koch brothers donor summit and had bowed and scraped to Charles and David Koch, saying that he did not know where the party would be without them.
After the mid-terms, McConnell hired a former Koch Industries lobbyist as his chief policy director and launched a war on the Environmental Protection Agency. The evidence would suggest that McConnell has been fighting for Koch causes ever since.
Dark Money closes before the 2016 presidential election. The Koch organisation announced at the beginning of 2015 that it would be spending a staggering $889 million in the campaign almost matching what both major parties would be each spending.
The Kochs never endorsed Trump. But Trump was persuaded to appoint Mike Pence as his running mate. The vice president is a long-time associate and ally of the Kochs, receiving their donations, exchanging staffers and delivering on policy. Pence who was in charge of the transition was the key factor in so many Koch allies heading government departments including Betsy de Vos (the de Voses get a chapter in Dark Money) in education and Scott Pruitt in the EPA.
In 2018, Charles Koch has got to writing the scripts for politicians like Mitch McConnell and Mike Pence. There are many more politicians receiving their lines from the same sources as those two. But the Kochs have achieved much more. They control, through their funding of AstroTurf organisations, much of the background noise against which politicians must do their jobs. They provide the carrots, in the form of electoral funding, and the stick, by way of funding opponents in both primary and general elections. They run many academic faculties and control much of the news media. Their steady stream of self-interested and dishonest propaganda gushes from a myriad of different outlets.
The Kochs appear to fear nothing except that people hear the truth about their attempts and actions to subvert democracy in their own interests and their own ugly image.
Only a few brave journalists, wonderful writers like Ms. Mayer, publishers like Scribe and concerned citizens such as we are stand between the Kochs and the world dominance they crave.
And, if public life in America is polluted by the money of plutocrats, is Australia untouched by such things? The evidence would suggest that similar (if not the same) forces seek to manipulate Australian politics and that some Australian politicians are equally in awe of them.
I strongly recommend Dark Money to a reader in America, Australia, indeed, anywhere in the world. Ms. Mayer speaks with the benefit of exhaustive research but she speaks in a quiet voice. The facts pile up, the excitement and horror build, and the narrative emerges.
Despite the importance of the message, Ms. Mayer writes in human terms. Her characters stand out on the page. Above all else, Ms. Mayer is a wonderful writer. Dark Money is a wonderful story, beautifully and endearingly told.