Jane Mayer

Dark Money

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Dark Money Summary

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Investigative journalist Jane Mayer wrote Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right in 2016 following the rise and subsequent election of President Donald Trump. It is a non-fiction book which explores the history of a number of rich men, most notably the Koch brothers, and how their financial backing of conservative institutions leads to the growth of radical right-wing politics in America. The book tells the history of these families and their political actions, making the argument that contemporary American politics is more of a plutocracy than a democracy.

Mayer begins her book with a discussion of the 2016 election, in which the total candidate spending was $6.8 billion, nearly twice as much as the candidates in the 2012 election spent on their campaigns. More than $1 billion of that figure was contributed by just a handful of powerful men, who, Mayer argues, use think tanks, lobbies, and non-profit organizations as a front for massive donations to conservative politicians. These men are Charles and David Koch, John M. Olin, Richard Mellon Scaife, and members of the DeVos and Coors families.

Mayer goes into the most detail in her discussion of the impact of Charles and David Koch, known more commonly as the Koch brothers. The brothers inherited their fortune from their father, a man who collaborated with Nazis and the Soviet Union to build oil refineries in Russia and Germany. After their father’s death, Charles and David bought out the company from their brothers Bill and Fred, expanding their operations to include lumber, paper, coal, chemicals and other commodities, as well as futures trading. This lead to a rift in the Koch family, when Bill and Fred realized they’d been cheated out of the potential to make billions of dollars.

The Koch brothers were educated in right-wing politics from an early age, and their schooling upon entering the adult world only contributed to and expanded their belief systems. The men began as standard conservatives, rapidly becoming more invested in an extreme libertarianism sometimes known as “anarcho-totalitarianism,” which promotes a free market, next to no government regulation of business or individual liberties, and other policies that maximize the accumulation of personal wealth. Mayer writes on the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, and its early investigations into the Koch brothers about oil spills and other environmental contamination at their many facilities. The Koch brothers fought the EPA, becoming radically opposed to all environmental conservation projects.

Around this time, the Koch brothers began investing in think tanks, donor summits, non-profit organizations, and other political lobbying organizations. The brothers founded a few of these organizations, which had vague and innocent-sounding names but actually held extraordinary political clout and actively advocated for radical right-wing, anti-environmental policies. Because the Koch brothers have so much money, they can match nearly any amount of funding provided by other non-profits and individuals. The Koch brothers got their agenda across by forcing candidates to support their views on taxation, business deregulation, and defunding conservation in order to receive funding. Mayer also points out that with the passing of the Citizens United Supreme Court Case, the Koch brothers and their corporate dollars were given full permission to act as if they were an individual donor. Their billions of dollars in funding was considered an act of free speech and freedom of expression.

Mayer talks about many other significant families and how buying this level of political clout has been a theme in US history – she writes on the Rockefellers, who funded a huge number of political campaigns and projects in the 1920s. Her overall message is one of intense criticism of the systems and laws that allow so few men to have such a large amount of control over the economy, and also makes it clear that she does not stand behind the environmental damage caused by the Koch brothers and other billionaires. Mayer makes it clear that she believes that the actions of the Koch brothers have lead to the disillusionment that the American people have in their government and to the current political situation in the U.S. and worldwide.

Jane Mayer has received a number of awards for her long-form journalism, including a Guggenheim Fellowship. She has written three other books on the US political system and corruption, as well as a large number of short non-fiction pieces on various topics involving politics and history for The New Yorker and other journals.