Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right

The evolution, or, as some would call it, the metastatic mutation, of the Republican party is one of the most unescapable facts of US politics in recent memory. The normalization of over-the-top spending in political elections has gone hand-in-hand with the changes, particularly in the aftermath of the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court decision. In fact, thanks to the reporting of Jane Mayer, among others, acknowledging PACs and other forms of Dark Money in the political discourse has become accepted practically to the point of banality.

But, as Mayer makes clear, the explosion of Dark Money after Citizens United was the culmination of a process, not a new innovation. Published in 2016, Dark Money examines the deep roots that sprouted the present political environment.

Mayer identifies the earliest ferment of “the second gilded age” during a time when there was relative economic equality. The first signs, as she identifies them, took place during the 1930s when some wealthy families took umbrage at being accused of causing the financial panic and conservative groups chanted against the Roosevelts in an eerie foreshadow of the 2016 election rallies.

Men such as Fred Koch made fortunes in this period on government contracts (Koch also made money building building oil refineries for Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union) and, at the same time, were adamant that the government never get any of it back in taxes.

The solution lay in a provision of US tax code that encouraged philanthropy. Ordinarily the government taxed generational wealth through the estate tax, but trusts that dedicated their returns to charitable endeavors for a period of years passed virtually tax-free, while other donations were tax-deductible. Fred Koch, like many others, took to philanthropy as an inheritance scheme.

It was Koch’s sons––Charles, most notoriously––who realized the potential in weaponizing the donations to advance their libertarian political agenda. David Koch made an abortive bid for the Vice Presidency on the Libertarian ticket in 1980, funding it with his estate, but already by that time they had a history of backing conservative groups such as the John Birch Society.

In the years to come, they founded a network of ultra-wealthy conservative donors that funneled enormous amounts money into educational institutes and activist non-profit organizations. As Mayer describes it, the this network took the election of Barack Obama in 2008 as an ominous portent and redoubled their political spending in each successive election.

Dark Money has entered into the public conversation around American politics, but Mayer makes what is now a simple thesis into an illuminating and infuriating piece of reportage. Time and again she paints a portrait of greed and corruption, from the cutthroat fraternal Koch wars to workplace fatalities of the Cignas corporation, to the extreme control over the workers in the Menard corporation, to the heir to the Gore (of Goretex) fortune who attempted to adopt her ex-husband for a larger cut of the inheritance.

Despite the fact that this story has become ubiquitous, there are two outstanding features of Dark Money. One, as laid out in brief above, is the long genesis of this movement. The other speaks to the current political moment.

Mayer explains at length the processes by which Dark Money reshaped the electoral maps after the 2010 census, swinging state and local elections that oversaw redistricting where every dollar went further. But for me the most enlightening passages were where she examined the methods that the non-profit organizations used to shape political discourse, including “astroturf” campaigns (i.e. artificial grassroots movements) that give the appearance of popular support and using the speed of media to set the terms of debate by issuing reports and studies based on false information, only to offer retractions after the fact. In Mayer’s view, these attacks on everything from climate change proposals to the ACA caught the Obama administration off guard and effectively thwarted his presidency.

Although Dark Money predates the 2016 election, it remains relevant for the Trump presidency. In part this is because a number of prominent individuals in the current administration, most notably Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, appear in the book. But it is also because the techniques of the Trump administration parallel the ongoing efforts of the various non-profits, albeit from an institutional platform. In other words, 2016 was a triumph for Dark Money, but, far from declaring victory and going home, it opened up new avenues of attack.

A few weeks ago I read Winners Take All, a look at philanthropic help-you-help-me do-gooderism and said that it marked a more generous look at similar processes. In retrospect, I would have liked to read Dark Money first. Mayer does a better job of examining the origins of the philanthropy, but these are two sides of the same coin. In one, what is good for the donor is good for the country; in the other, what is good for the country could also be good for the donor. Both Dark Money and a Winners Take All identify a core flaw at the center of the Second Gilded Age, while simultaneously examining all the ways in which these monied interests short-circuit the political will to institute effective change.

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I have since finished Archer Mayor’s Presumption of Guilt, which I will be writing up with his Three Can Keep a Secret, and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Wizard of Earthsea. This morning I began a history of the Greek War of Independence.

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