A few more words about Jane Mayer

This is an addition to my previous review of Jane Mayer’s impressive 2016 Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.

The shit hit the fan in America when Barack Obama was elected president in 2008.   The Democratic president had both houses of Congress and the Supreme Court still had a “swing vote” [1].   Hope and Change were in the air after two terms of bungling, warring, tiny minority-enriching right wing rule that culminated in a massive fraud-driven economic crash.   It was a bleak time for the radical right, and their best and brightest got busy strategizing and putting their strategies into action.

After their victory in Citizens United, the cleverly argued case that legalized unlimited campaign-related spending as the protected speech of legal fictions now considered “persons”, Charles Koch and his network went into overdrive.   The secretive billionaire group funded the “grassroots” Tea Party making it possible for Americans to see continual, locally organized anti-Obama protests on television every evening from every corner of this gigantic nation.   There appeared to be a groundswell of spontaneous, united opposition to Obama, who was otherwise enjoying a 60% approval rating, but no matter.  The optics are key.

After putting Scott Brown into office, with a huge infusion of cash right before the interim election in Massachusetts to fill Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat, ending the Democrats ability to overcome a filibuster, Koch’s network got busy nationwide in the lead-up to the 2010 midterms.   In that election they spent over $137,000,000, gaining 63 seats in the House of Representatives and wresting control from the Democrats.  The massive spending also allowed Republicans to further eat into the Democrat’s Senate majority, where a bunch of the contested seats were flipped. Crucially, Republicans also picked up massive influence in state elections across the country, taking over a majority of state governments.   This last bit was crucial as electoral district lines were about to be redrawn after the 2010 Census.      

Democracy was not necessarily going to be the long-term solution for the Koch network and their unpopular ideas, but this kind of unprecedented national electoral victory was intoxicating.   Unlimited “dark money” changed the game.  Few candidates could survive being massively outspent by an opponent who could constantly air effective attack ads right up to election day.  

Not much was known about the roots of powerful advocacy groups like Americans for Prosperity and many other interlocking right wing foundations, think tanks and non-profits set up by the Kochtopus until investigative journalist Jane Mayer and her colleagues began researching the players and their connections.   She wrote a long 2010 piece in the New Yorker that infuriated Charles and David Koch and their friends.   Mayer had previously written about the billionaire funder of liberal causes George Soros, whose foundation, the Open Society Institute, spends up to a hundred million dollars a year on its causes.   Soros, unlike the Kochs, had agreed to be interviewed for Mayer’s article.  He accepted the unflattering things about about him and his influence machine in the piece without protest.  David Koch went wild when he read Mayer’s article about his family business.  

Koch complained in a four page letter to the New Yorker about the unfair portrayal of his “covert operations,” insisting there was nothing secret about his well-funded and extensive network of political influence, without citing any factual  inaccuracies in the article.  Koch then gave an interview during which he called Mayer’s New Yorker piece “hateful, ludicrous and just plain wrong”.  [2]   Not long after Koch made those comments, a smear campaign was underway to discredit Jane Mayer, featuring e-mailed threats and ultimatums, private investigators and an opposition research staff.  

They didn’t find much they could use, but trumped up a “plagiarism” case against her that was posted briefly on-line, before it was taken off-line, probably to avoid litigation over the attempted libel.   The plagiarism case was extremely thin, with four insubstantial paragraphs cited (from a long career at the New Yorker.)  Two of the four citations contained attributions to the people she was allegedly plagiarizing.     The Kochtopus, not directly implicated in the smear campaign because — why would they be? — didn’t succeed in destroying Jane Mayer or her reputation, but not for lack of trying.  Fortunately, they also didn’t succeed in shutting her up.

In January 2016 her book Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right came out.   It is a hell of a book, an important story that should be widely discussed as we are locked in this vicious zero-sum fight between the facts (and truth) and endless spin (and powerful lies).   Who are you going to believe, a bunch of hysterical climate scientists claiming that our escalating global climate catastrophes are somehow related to man’s heedless pollution of earth, sky and water, or two of the richest men in America who make their money dirtily extracting a highly toxic, and very lucrative, natural resource, while defending liberty?

Integral to the radical right’s position in the “post-factual” fight is sewing skepticism, doubt, outrage about things that are otherwise indisputable.   We see this in the right’s pre-emptive dismissal of the mainstream media, well-researched, carefully vetted work of honest American journalists is now reduced, for the simple minded, to traitorous “fake news,” the hateful spewing of “enemies of the American people.”   Bizzarro world, my friends.

Take a look at how the two sides of this debate are stacked up, and how unlimited money (“speech”) among a tiny group of super-wealthy anti-government radicals makes for slaughter sides.   Tell me which side is the more deadly enemy of the American people.



[1] albeit a swing vote who voted with the right in Citizens United, actually writing the partisan majority opinion.

[2]  David Koch, a world-class philanthropist, is not always so self-righteously pissed off.   As Jane Mayer writes in her 2010 article, and in Dark Money, he is also capable of world-class self-deprecation:

David Koch joked about his good fortune in a 2003 speech to alumni at Deerfield, where, after pledging twenty-five million dollars, he was made the school’s sole “lifetime trustee.” He said, “You might ask: How does David Koch happen to have the wealth to be so generous? Well, let me tell you a story. It all started when I was a little boy. One day, my father gave me an apple. I soon sold it for five dollars and bought two apples and sold them for ten. Then I bought four apples and sold them for twenty. Well, this went on day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, until my father died and left me three hundred million dollars!”


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.”