DARK MONEY: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right
Doubleday, 2016, 449 pages
Review by Phil Shannon
Like ‘dark matter’ (the vast amount of invisible mass which holds the cosmos together), “dark money” is the astronomical quantity of hidden corporate money which holds the conservative US political universe together. This is the conclusion to be drawn from the meticulously documented book by Jane Mayer, investigative journalist at The New Yorker, on how America’s richest capitalists buy Republican Party politicians and shape their policies.
At the core of this corporate political power are two billionaire industrialist brothers, Charles and David Koch, whose combined personal fortune of around $90 billion is the largest on the planet. The Kochs’ wealth exerts a strong gravitational force on some four hundred other ferociously-rich Americans, pooling their wealth in a Koch-run network that seeks to radically remake US politics in the cause of ultra-free-market extremism.
The Koch brothers’ wealth owed everything (namely, a $300 million inheritance each) to their father, Fred Koch, who made his fortune in the 1930s in the Soviet Union (powering Stalin’s brutal ‘rapid industrialisation’) and in Nazi Germany (fuelling Hitler’s war machine) with oil refineries that used his invention of an improved process for refining crude oil.
As his choice of international business clients would suggest, dictatorial control also defined Fred Koch’s domestic child-raising regime. His sons claim that their authoritarian upbringing accounted for their embrace of the political philosophy of ‘libertarianism’, the absolutist rejection of state intervention, particularly taxation and government regulation, in private life.
That their libertarianism was merely an intellectual mask for corporate self-interest became obvious when David Koch, winning just 1% of the popular vote as the Libertarian Party’s Vice-Presidential candidate in 1980, and his elder brother decided that the 1% that really mattered politically was to be found elsewhere, amongst their capitalist peers.
As the fossil-fuel-based Koch Industries grew to what is now the second largest (and biggest polluting) private, family-owned company in the US, the Kochs waged war against ‘big government’ through slashing corporate taxes, extinguishing environmental protections and tearing up the welfare safety net.
Their particular innovation was to maximise the political purchasing power of their fellow billionaires, who gather at the Kochs’ six-monthly, invitation-only ‘donor summits’ held under intense secrecy and tight security. These are the “invisible rich”, says Mayer, subject to miniscule public disclosure obligations, whose much-prized anonymity allows them to launder their political bribes through the Koch organisation which exerts an “outsize influence over American politics”.
Their combined financial clout is dedicated to pushing American conservative political culture, and its centrist neighbour, ever more rightwards, through donations to (overwhelmingly Republican) politicians, the hiring of lobbyists, and the ‘philanthropic’ funding of ostensibly independent but tightly-controlled ‘educational’ foundations, think-tanks and university institutes.
The Koch-driven expansion and masking of dark money has been aided by Koch-initiated court cases in 2010 which abolished all caps on political funding and restricted public accountability. The American political system is more than ever “awash in unlimited, untraceable cash”, says Mayer. The Koch political funding model is the cash-stuffed ‘brown envelope’ on steroids.
The Koch network’s national political apparatus is as big as the Republican Party’s, and its aggregated $889 million pledged for the 2016 election cycle rivals the $1 billion election budget of both the Republicans and Democrats. The tentacles of the ‘Kochtopus’ reach far and deep, ensnaring Republican politicians at Presidential, Senate, House and state levels.
Donald Trump, the billionaire 2016 Republican presidential nominee, appears, however, to have eluded the Koch grasp. Mayer notes that Trump’s wealth means he “can afford to ignore the Koch billions”. Mayer, however, does not further explore the Trump-Koch relationship and what it tells us about the disconnect between the Republican Party’s Koch-aligned elite and its rank-and-file (and their populist mascot, Trump), a deepening political rift between the rich and the rest that also plays out in the Democratic Party and in wider society.
Trump was the only Republican Presidential hopeful the Kochs did not invite to their summit auditions because he is too moderate for the Kochs’ liking, especially on taxation, free trade agreements, cheap immigrant and overseas labour, government welfare for the needy, and foreign policy. Trump appeals to blue-collar workers whose jobs are threatened by the neo-liberal, globalisation agenda that the Kochs promote. Part of Trump’s success with his white working class supporters is due to the perception that he is not in the pocket of what he calls the ‘donor class’ - Trump had dismissed his Republican nominee-contenders as Koch ‘puppets’.
Has Trump trumped the Kochs? Not quite. Some of Trump’s senior campaign personnel are veterans of the Koch machine, and, whilst Trump may have been able to largely finance his own donor-free race in the primaries, a Trump-led Republican Party will covet the resources of the Koch network for the much more expensive and sophisticated full election. There are also significant policy overlaps between Trump and the Kochs, including global warming denialism and opposition to raising the minimum wage, where Trump does not need to be bribed.
Conventional politicians in bourgeois parliamentary democracies are in hock to their moneyed masters. Corporate wealth - whether Trump’s self-financed billions, or Hillary Clinton’s $275,000 Wall Street speeches, or routine corporate political donations, or the Kochs’ subterranean ‘dark money’ - corrupts democracy by buying political influence and control on behalf of the super-rich few.