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


This was a book I had to take in carefully measured sips, monitoring my blood pressure. After I finished, I exhaled a record-breaking sigh and paced the room, yanking my hair. It’s not a book for the faint of heart. Reading it is only pleasurable if you’re a masochist or a billionaire. It’s excellent, well-researched, incredibly engaging despite the sickening awareness that overcomes you as you learn how long this has been going on and how many billions of dollars has been spent to push American thought to the extreme rightward.

All of this stems from a tiny group of extremely rich men who mostly inherited their wealth (see: refutation of argument about how the poor are “handed things”), interested mainly on increasing their wealth and protecting it from taxation. They’ve been subtly influencing opinions, research, politics for decades—at least since David Koch’s failed vice-presidential bid in 1980 as a Libertarian. At that point they realized they just wanted to write the script that’s spoken, not try to be the actor.

Early days were the Freedom School, founded in 1957 by Robert LeFevre which highly influenced Charles Koch. LeFevre had been indicted earlier for his role in a right-wing movement that worked audiences into a frenzy as they chanted “Annihilate them!” in response to Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt’s names. Sound familiar? Hilariously, at the Freedom School Charles fell in love with the work of Friedrich Hayek, but only the condensed version offered by the Reader’s Digest which left out his support for minimum standard of living for the poor, environmental regulations, and anti-monopoly stance.

The book offers a glimpse into the litigious nature that led two of the Koch (Bill and Frederick) brothers into suing the other two (Charles and David) after being swindled out of millions of their inheritance. Despite being the wealthiest resident of his Park Avenue building, David Koch is known to the staff as a cheapskate, never tipping the doormen except for a ridiculous $50 check (!) at Christmas. (Worth watching: the Alex Gibney documentary, Park Avenue.)

It goes beyond the Kochs. Other asshole millionaires are also at the helm of this tragedy. They all take advantage of the tax loopholes of charitable giving by funneling cash into their own private foundations. The Olin Foundation left explicit instructions for the $370M endowment to be completely spent by 2005 out of “fear that it would fall into the hands of liberals, as he believed the Ford Foundation had tragically done.”

They infiltrated higher education and set up their own think tanks, subsidizing the next generation’s libertarians. George Mason is a hotbed of Koch cash, with an institute whose “applicants’ essays had to be run through computers in order to count the number of times they mentioned the free-market icons Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman. Students were tested at the beginning and the end of each week for ideological improvement.”

And then there’s climate change and the awful impact to the Koch’s bottom line that all the regulations were causing. Between 2003-2010 “over half a billion dollars was spent on… a massive ‘campaign to manipulate and mislead the public about the threat posed by climate change.'” This explains why every single Republican is a climate denier, in the Koch’s pocket owing money for their election. Koch Industries was the #1 producer of toxic waste in 2012 according to the EPA, generating 950M pounds of hazardous materials.

Betsy DeVos candidly admitted that they wanted something for their money in 1997, saying “My family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican Party. I’ve decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we’re buying influence. I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect some things in return.”

How about those Astroturf movements (not grassroots, but fake)? Jim Ellis was brought in to agitate against Obamacare, having created fake movements in the past, most notably the “smokers’ rights” protests in the 1990s.

And of course, Citizens United‘s impact is a factor, opening the floodgates for dark money. Licking their wounds post-2008 defeat, they set in motion the groundwork for the 2010 takeover, first by taking over state legislatures for redistricting, then pushing their candidates into Congress. The Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling led to huge amounts being funneled into the 2012, 2014, and 2016 elections.

The author, Mayer, was the target of an attmpted smear campaign after an extensive expose about the Koch brothers came out in the New Yorker which served as a springboard for this book. Luckily she was able to evade the false accusations of perjury and her personal life left nothing to smear her with.

I’m thinking about starting to offer book “pairings” much like wine; this one pairs well with breaks to read biographies about early pioneers in the conservation movement, or with a nice frothy fiction.

Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas

If you’d like to feel physically ill about the charades that went on in Washington almost 20 years ago wherein Clarence Thomas was shoved down the Senate’s throats and confirmed to the Supreme Court, this is your book. It is incomprehensible that Thomas can exist– pulling the ladder up after him and cutting away voter protections and affirmative action protections that helped his career. The judge most unprepared, least experienced for nomination, served up by Bush to appease two various groups– the far right (where Thomas’s ideals leaned in extreme tilt) and those who wanted to see Thurgood Marshall replaced by another black man. The book goes into the backroom deals leading up to his confirmation hearing, while exploring the parallel line of what Thomas’s early years were like, his dealings with women, and detailing Anita Hill’s life. Hill was conflicted about coming forward with her report, rightfully so if viewed with the brutal harassment she felt at the hands of the politicos; she was contacted by members of the Labor Committee who were following up on tips they’d received and agreed to talk to them. The information sat bouncing around Washington for weeks like a hot potato, no one wanted to touch it. Finally, Hill became exasperated that her information was going nowhere and agreed to go on record as a named accuser. That Joe Biden’s handling of the procedure was clumsy is an understatement. He allowed the conversation to be restricted to Hill’s accusation alone, barring information about Thomas’s pornography habits and other relevant bits. And Biden gavelled the hearings closed before the other women who had been harassed could come forward, Angela Wright waiting in the wings. The only hint of positivity about the entire affair was the response of Washington’s women to take this seriously.