Book review preview: Dark Money by Jane Mayer

(my first book review since elementary school:)

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right,  Jane Mayer (January 2016)

Dark money is tax deductible, it turns out.  If you anonymously contribute a very large sum of money to a political cause, funneling the cash through a non-profit 501(c)4 corporation, in the worst case scenario you get a gigantic tax deduction against your income.  If you advance your political agenda with a skillful bet on the right politicians, you can reap an even higher return on your tax deductible investment. Win-win, if you know what I’m sayin’.

It is hard to empathize with somebody you will never share an experience with.   Being born into generations of vast, inherited, well-invested wealth means you have no need to ever make contact with the great unwashed, heading home in crowded subway cars with their grubby little problems.   The world of the super-wealthy, the top 0.01%, is hard for the rest of us to picture.  It is apparently also very, very challenging to be that rich in ways the rest of us cannot begin to imagine.  

Some indomitable men in this tiny group of the very richest, very best American families, led by the secretive Charles Koch, autocratic son of a founding John Birch Society member, realized that in order to eventually own literally everything in America, without interference from parasites of every stripe, they would need to control the government that was trying to put tyrannical limits on their freedom.   Charles Koch’s wealth, now highly diversified, was originally, and mainly, from oil refining.  His father had developed a process for refining the cheapest, dirtiest, source, the most energy intensive to extract, and selling the finished product for much higher profit than their competitors could.   The EPA, in particular, was a bone in the reclusive billionaire’s throat.   Government regulation was the only thing standing in the way of virtually unlimited profits for Koch Industries.

It would take thirty or more years for Charles Koch’s radical agenda to yield a bumper crop (The Year of Trump), but the beneficiaries would be very happy with the results and well-reimbursed for their tax deductible political spending over the decades.  Look at what they’ve already achieved: abolishing profit-killing “environmental” and “safety” regulations,  limiting the size of, and trust in, a government of severely limited powers, decimating labor unions, “primarying” all moderates out of office and out of politics, ending ‘class warfare’ with a decided flourish, redistributing wealth steeply upward to themselves.  Along the way they crafted and sold a larger, widely accepted public narrative that justifies all this as right and proper, even highly moral and exceptionally American.  It isn’t that all this pollution is doing anything bad to the environment, you understand, fellow sophisticated climate change skeptics, it’s a conspiracy by rich liberal eco-hypocrites to kill jobs using fake science to do so.

Dark Money, by the  great Jane Mayer, pulls together a million details of how and what this tiny, infinitely wealthy group did to ensure that their privilege is preserved in perpetuity.  Mayer details the more than thirty year strategic campaign, mucho, mucho dinero very productively spent in a brilliant, deliberate, coordinated, disciplined long game of lobbying, swaying public perceptions and spending fortunes to put people in power who would advance their cause.  This largely successful campaign to bypass electoral democracy and take control of the government directly, by other means, is finally paying off big time.   All perfectly legal, these extraordinary means, the Supreme Court said so in a series of indisputable 5-4 decisions.   Extra-democratically grabbing power makes it sound so harsh, so dirty, almost fascistic, like a tiny, secretive clique imposing their will on the other 99.9%.   Let us simply say, these intrepid protectors of the 0.01% deployed their oceans of money very wisely.    

A lot of the world Jane Mayer lays out is sickening stuff, but, damn does she lay it all out.  It is one skill to be a good researcher, to dig up and read everything and to find and master a lot of interesting, complicated material, selecting and organizing the most crucial of it.  Being able to weave the raw materials into a flowing, compelling narrative is another skill entirely.   Reading a book like Dark Money it hits me over and over — this writer is really fucking smart.  I think it’s the sense that, in addition to the book being beautifully written, everything you are reading has been set so perfectly in context by everything you’ve learned to that point in the story.  It is an immensely complicated, yet, on another level, elementally simple, story.  Jane Mayer tells it clearly, smoothly and with virtually no editorializing.  I offer this example, as a placeholder for a more detailed review I will complete at a future time.

Mayer describes the great revelation Charles Koch and his friends had, along with a major change of strategy, after David Koch badly lost his vice-presidential bid in 1980.   Since Koch ran for vice president, rather than president, he could use a loophole in the law to legally finance his campaign with as much of his own unlimited cash as he chose to spend.  One of the planks of his vice presidential platform was abolishing all limits on campaign spending, (which is now the law of the land via the partisan 5-4 Citizens United ruling).   When the Koch platform, skewed toward the freedom of the wealthiest to acquire more while shrinking oppressive government and its socialistic programs to insignificance,  got less than 1% of the vote (ironic– he probably drew 100% of the top 1% vote) the Koch brothers [1] (along with their allies from the best of the top 0.01%) understood that their ideas were too unpopular to ever prevail by electoral means.  

They began to set about influencing public discourse by different means.  They drew up a long-term battle plan, with the help of a cunning graduate student named Fink.  They created a network of influence and public relations operations. They funded prestigious think tanks, numerous non-profits, endowed academic chairs, sponsored courses and student societies in the colleges across America, eventually found their way onto Ivy League campuses (to correct the distressing left-leaning tendency of these influential institutions), unleashed an army of lobbyists, paid advocates, psychological warfare experts like wordsmith-for-hire Frank Luntz (attack Global Warming “myth” by attacking the non-unanimous scientific consensus [2] — Luntz later recanted this bullshit).   They advised political candidates, funded their campaigns, took over state houses, got odious laws and regulations overturned, drafted model laws in corporate/legislative partnerships that advanced their cause, vetted Supreme Court picks, created and funded non-profits for specific political attacks, like the Swift Boat Attackers, funded the ‘grassroots’ radically anti-Obama Tea Party, and so on.  36 years of hard, dedicated, singleminded work later, et, voila!

Fred Koch, father of all of four battling Koch brothers, like Fred Trump, father of our current president, was a brutal, demanding, loveless autocrat and an admirer of Mr. Hitler who shared many of Hitler’s views on how things should run and who deserved to rule.  Fred Koch performed a heroic, well-paid service for the Fuhrer before the war, building a high tech oil refinery in Germany that ensured  the luftwaffe would have a ready supply of high octane petrol for years to come.   Fred Koch hired a German Nazi nanny (literally, she adored the Fuhrer) to strictly discipline the young Koch boys.   She was apparently very severe in her methods while she was the primary caretaker of the boys for the long stretches when the parents were away.   The nanny proudly returned to the Fatherland after the fall of France.   Talk about Nazi bastards, these boys come by it honestly.

I will amend this review a bit when I am done listening to the book.  It is hard to stop listening to the well-read audio version I have on my listening device.  I’ve already made dozens of notes.  

If we have any hope of fighting back against the monsters now in seemingly locked-down control, a book like this provides essential knowledge we need for understanding the fight ahead.

I highly recommend Dark Money.  Good reading on a subject even more vital to know about now than when she released it in early 2016.   Goddamned good work, Jane, and another very important book (The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned Into a War on American Idealsabout Cheney’s torture program, is another, also highly recommended) that deserves to be widely read and talked about.


[1]  A Note on the “Koch Brothers”

The until recently secretive right-wing billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch are known as The Koch Brothers.   Their oldest brother, Freddie, was cut out of the picture years ago after an ugly family power play, featuring an attempt at blackmail by his other three brothers.   David Koch’s twin brother, Bill Koch, after decades of savage litigation against his brothers Charles and David, and some chicanery written into their demented mother’s will, finally signed a non-disparagement agreement with Charles and David, formally ending their long, bitter legal wars.  A family of goddamned princes, really.  Of these four brothers, only two have become “The Koch Brothers.”  You could argue that no two brothers have ever had a larger say in the public life of their country.


{2]  Mayer writes:

In a 2002 memo, the Republican political consultant Frank Luntz wrote that so long as “voters believe there is no consensus about global warming within the scientific community” the status quo would prevail. The key for opponents of environmental reform, he said, was to question the science—a public-relations strategy that the tobacco industry used effectively for years to forestall regulation. The Kochs have funded many sources of environmental skepticism, such as the Heritage Foundation, which has argued that “scientific facts gathered in the past 10 years do not support the notion of catastrophic human-made warming.”

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