Did you know that taxation is a form of theft? That government regulation is akin to slavery? How about that climate change is a myth dreamed up by liberals with a secret desire to control the world; laws shouldn’t be judged on fairness but on how they affect business; the minimum wage is oppressive; robber barons are heroes; or that people too poor to pay income taxes are just freeloading off the nation’s long-suffering and nose-to-grindstone millionaires and billionaires?
Written with the sharp but cool incisiveness that typifies her long form work for the New Yorker, Jane Mayer’s exposé is the type of book one reads first heatedly, then with a kind of sickened resignation. Her first book since 2008’s The Dark Side, a similarly disquieting investigation into the Bush administration’s legacy of post-9/11 abuses, Dark Money goes looking under a lot more rocks. Again, Mayer finds a cabal of authoritarian-minded Republicans looking to fundamentally alter the American landscape.
The stakes might have seemed higher in her last book, given its focus on the White House-approved program of torture and secret prisons. But this time out, the events Mayer is describing feel a great deal darker. After all, John Yoo and Dick Cheney hadn’t spent decades and vast fortunes creating a vast network of like-minded souls to legitimize their foul deeds. If they had, the revised U.S. Army Field Manual probably wouldn’t now specifically prohibit torture and CIA drones wouldn’t have to be prohibited from killing American citizens on American soil. But the wealthy activists profiled by Mayer in Dark Money aren’t the types to leave things to chance.
It’s difficult to remember now, but the kind of brutally social-Darwinian quasi-libertarianism that today passes for mainstream conservative rhetoric was once an outlier. That was particularly the case in mid-20th century America, where Mayer’s work begins. The stars of her narrative are the Koch family. Their vast wealth, petulant combativeness, and ideological rigor have had an astounding, and astoundingly little understood, impact on the nation’s politics.
It all started with Fred Koch, an oilman from Texas who later settled in Kansas, the current headquarters of the many-armed business-political operation later termed the “Kochtopus”. Like many oilmen of the prewar years, Koch was a hustler who cut deals, however, and wherever he could. For a man who became a founding member of the John Birch Society in the postwar years, that drive to get the big score led to some morally questionable projects along the way.
Much of Fred’s later diehard conservatism he ascribed to guilt over building refineries for the Soviets. He didn’t, however, seem to have much guilt over collaborating with the Nazis or hiring a German governess who was also a Nazi sympathizer to raise his sons. Two of the boys terrorized by that governess’s strict rules, Charles (born 1933) and David (1940), would grow up to become the billionaire “Koch brothers” spoken of with such dread or contempt these days by liberals or by conservatives who didn’t toe the Koch party line.
That ideology was birthed by a disparate group of academics and tax-hating cranks who, in the postwar years, challenged the mainstream consensus that the New Deal and the Great Society were generally good things, that the government could help protect citizens from the ravages of pollution and poverty, and that the wealthy should be taxed more than everyone else. The first two things were anathema to the likes of Ludwig von Mises (an obscure economist beloved by the Kochs who later became a guiding light to the likes of Ron Paul) or Friedrich Hayek (author of the conservative activist bible and anti-government screed, The Road to Serfdom). However, Mayer argues, it was really the assumption about progressive taxation that spurred the Kochs and their ruling-class brethren into their fiery, and yet mostly hidden, years of activism.
Starting in the ’70s, Charles and David Koch — their bank accounts fattened by canny investments in petroleum and chemicals, and a disciplined approach to profit making — began pouring money into a variety of causes that hewed to their vision of a society where regulations and taxes were as minimal as possible. Mayer quotes Rick Perlstein as describing the brothers’ view of libertarianism as being so extreme it might as well be called anarchism.
The irony with this devoted anti-government activism was that it was all a perfectly sound way to avoid paying taxes. Even the normally straightforward Mayer can’t resist a slightly sarcastic reference to Charles Koch’s “lifelong, tax-deductible sponsorship of libertarianism”. Since the Gilded Age, wealthy families had been parking their money in private foundations, barely regulated entities that only required them to donate a small percentage every year to public charities, allowing them to “simultaneously receive generous tax subsidies and use their foundations to affect society as they please.”
In the modern era, other conservative plutocrats who resented paying taxes also used private foundations to push their agenda. The Coors family and Philadelphia banking heir Richard Mellon Scaife also started pouring money into like-minded political organizations in the ’70s, just like the Kochs. These families also helped set up think tanks — which until that point had been studiously nonpartisan entities like the Brookings Institution — like the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, and establishing conservative beachheads in elite universities in order to engage in no-holds-barred intellectual combat with liberal orthodoxy.
The free-market Cato Institute was set up by Charles Koch in 1974. Like the constellation of publications, propaganda fronts, and quasi-academic organizations that the Kochs and their fellow anti-government radicals funded, Cato conveniently advocated for minimal taxation and minimal regulation. This was ostensibly in the service of abstract libertarian ideals. But as Mayer points out more than once, it’s hardly a coincidence that these ideals also help to dramatically lower their funders’ tax bills and leave American citizens holding the bag when one of these plutocrats’ oil refineries explodes or one of their coal mines poisons the groundwater. “While amassing one of the most lucrative fortunes in the world,” Mayer notes, “the Kochs had also created an ideological assembly line justifying it.”
Because the Kochs and their well-funded ilk pursued their goals with such discipline and secrecy, all of this could happen almost entirely away from public attention. There are times when reading Dark Money is like seeing an underground history of modern America. While the political battles of the ’80s, ‘90s, and ’00s were being waged in public, much of their true story was happening behind the scenes. By the time that Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, a fully-funded and self-sustaining conservative underground — one whose leaders openly copied the tactics of Lenin– was in place to ensure that his victory would not be followed by any easy legislative successes.
As Mayer scrupulously details, nearly every major “populist” conservative uprising in recent memory, from the Tea Party to the backlash over the Affordable Care Act, to the government shutdown over the deficit, was birthed in the well-funded ecosystem of think tanks, front organizations, and legislation factories and pushed on the ground by radical right-wing cadres who had been imbibing the anti-government propaganda pushed by Koch-funded college programs and even embedded in diatribes by radio hosts like Glenn Beck.
Caught flatfooted once again, the Democratic party didn’t know what hit it. Obama and his advisers assumed they were still facing the Republican party of old, with its various wings and constituencies, with moderates who could be counted on to cut the deals that helped keep the country operating. But they didn’t realize that the Kochs’ fight-fight-fight ethos had been purging the party of those moderates and replacing them with Hayek- and Ayn Rand-spouting anti-tax radicals who equated social welfare programs with anti-Americanism.
By the time that Obama realized in 2010 that “Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin are the center of the Republican Party”, it was too late. All the major political battles of the past few years, from the sequester to filling Antonin Scala’s seat on the Supreme Court, have been fought on the Republicans’ terms. This has been made easier for the GOP as its elected officials have an easily accessible and deep-pocketed funding network — particularly in the post-Citizens United era of nearly unlimited donations — as well as a host of organizations happy to provide fill-in-the-blank legislation, with just one requirement: toe the plutocrats’ line, or else. They could turn even a multimillionaire like Mitt Romney from a believer in climate change to a cash-groveling skeptic hack who mocked Obama for trying to “heal the planet”.
Democrats had been arguing over how liberal they should be and occasionally getting into a short-term huff about Republican antics; essentially waltzing into a gunfight with a dull butter knife. Meanwhile, the Kochtopus had captured the castle with what Mayer terms their “ambitious, privately financed war of ideas to radically change the country” waged by some thin-skinned millionaires who felt overtaxed and overregulated. In essence, she writes, the Kochs (who are today worth about $85 billion) and their network of about 400 of the nation’s richest individuals have turned the GOP into “their own private political party”. That is what $400 million — the amount that the Koch network spent in the 2012 election — can buy you.
In a new preface that Mayer wrote for Dark Money’s paperback edition, she notes that the Kochs claimed to dislike Donald Trump’s toxic rhetoric, and essentially sat on the sidelines during the election. But they were hardly above Trumpian race-baiting:
In the 1960s, Charles Koch had funded the all-white private Freedom School in Colorado, whose head had told the New York Times that the admittance of black students might present housing problems because some students were segregationists … [In 2011] David Koch echoed specious claims, made by the conservative gadfly Dinesh D’Souza, that Obama was somehow African rather than American in his outlook.
Trump might have claimed in the election to not want or need these oligarchs’ money. Like every demagogue, he pretends to be a man of the people, even while openly planning to subvert their liberties and agency. But once in office, Mayer points out, Trump inherited a Congress and Senate controlled by a GOP that has been essentially paid, trained, and equipped by the Kochtopus.
There will be a détente for a while. But eventually the demands of the Trump-Bannon white nationalists will run head-on into the interests of the Koch plutocrats. Maybe they will refuse to leave open a tax loophole, or won’t shut down the Environmental Protection Agency fast enough. No matter what sparks it, the resulting battle will be an epic clash, with the entire nation at risk of being collateral damage.