“There is nothing in our constitutional democracy that accepts that two of the richest people in the world can control our destiny.”
Over the last week, I have been riveted by Jane Mayer’s book, Dark Money. It is basically the history of how billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch organized a movement to take over the government. An exaggeration? As the 2016 election approached, it looked as though they were about to lay down a winning hand. Ah, but when you do the wrong thing–and our democracy was never meant to work this way–perhaps you will lose. The presidential trump card the Kochs had counted on turned out to be the Joker, the wild card.
That’s my take on the moment, so let me give some background.
In the beginning, Mayer writes that Charles and David Koch were inculcated into libertarian principles by their wealthy, authoritarian, and even brutal father. His parenting style may go a long way in explaining the course they have chosen. One researcher hired initially by the company wrote that “Charles harbored a hatred of the government so intense it could only be truly understood as an extension of his childhood conflicts with authority.”
The driving force behind the Koch’s ambitions, Charles was so libertarian in the beginning that he was described as being “off in the ether.” An early source of inspiration was a book called The Road to Serfdom by Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, who believed that centralized government planning would lead inexorably to dictatorship. The conservative Reader’s Digest published the book in condensed form in 1944, and it became extremely popular. However, Mayer points out that the condensation omitted “Hayek’s politically inconvenient support for a minimum standard of living for the poor, environmental and workplace safety regulations, and price controls to prevent monopolies from taking undue profits.”
Over time, Charles became less extreme, but he continued to believe that the only legitimate role of government was to “serve as a night watchman, to protect individuals and property from outside threat including fraud. That is the maximum.” According to the brothers’ developing ideology, the two primary evils of government were taxation and regulation in a nation perceived to be developing an “anti-capitalist mentality.”
From the way their father had set up their own inheritance, the brothers had learned how to use trusts and foundations to avoid paying taxes. Later they also learned how to funnel foundation money into entities that would promote their ideology. They shared this knowledge with wealthy peers and began to develop a complex network that would spread their ideology while minimizing taxes and protecting the privacy of donors. They regularly called secret “summits” with the ultra-rich where they continued to refine the strategy for promoting conservative ideas. The ultimate goal was to pare down government so that everyone would have a free hand to accumulate wealth with as little interference as possible.
So although the Kochs became known as philanthropists, their giving had a self-serving purpose. Their network funded scholars to write and publish helpful ideas; they funded “think” tanks to provide supportive research; they moved into higher education to fund free enterprise research centers; and they moved into law schools with a program stressing the need to analyze laws and regulations for their economic impact as well as fairness. And, of course, they made political donations.
By 2015, the Charles Koch Foundation was subsidizing pro-business, antiregulatory, and antitax programs in 307 different institutions of higher education in America and had plans to expand into 18 more.
As one reads the history of this movement, it is important to keep in mind what areas the privately held Koch Industries was invested in: refineries, pipelines, a coal subsidiary, coal-fired power plants, fertilizer, petroleum coke manufacturing, timber, and leases on over a million acres of untapped Canadian oil. You can see this coming: They were totally opposed to being regulated in any way; and when the issue of climate change came up, they went after it full bore.
With regard to regulations, they might have argued that they were unnecessary because corporations would be responsible and protect the public and the environment without them. However, their own business provided evidence of that fallacy.
In one example, an employee who reported a corroding pipeline was told that “it would be cheaper to pay off damages from a lawsuit than make repairs.” Later two young people burned to death when their truck exploded on ignition from butane gas leaking from that damaged pipeline. In 1999, a jury awarded the young woman’s father a fine of $296 million. The Koch brothers did not learn from this costly experience. In 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency found them the number one producer of toxic waste in the United States.
In response to the issue of climate change, the Koch network took the position that cutting back on emissions would kill millions of jobs. In addition, they organized to question the science. Mayer writes that Fox Television was an ally, giving “saturation coverage to the issue, portraying climate scientists as swindlers pushing a radical, partisan, and anti-American agenda.” The effort was successful in creating enough uncertainty and doubt to seriously hamper effective action.
Over time, the Koch strategy shifted to gaining control through the Republican Party. The entities their network was funding worked steadily to define government as “a force of evil, not public good,” as Mayer put it. Among other things, it was blamed for nurturing dependency among the poor. The propaganda converted the compassion that had inspired welfare programs into blaming. In cases where tax credits reduced taxes to zero among low-income families, a conservative writer referred to these people as “moochers.” The Wall Street Journal labeled them “Lucky Duckies” freeloading off the rich.
In 2016, Forbes magazine reported that Charles and David Koch each have a net worth of $39.6 billion.
There were other blaming tactics. According to a scientist under assault for his research on climate change, there was a connection between Second Amendment enthusiasts and climate change denial. It seemed they had been told that the government wanted to take away their freedom and probably their guns, too. After the economic collapse of 2008, the increasingly radical right claimed that it had been caused not by the recklessness of the financial industry but by government programs helping low-income home buyers get mortgages.
Creepy, eh? And as one reads Mayer’s book, the really creepy thing is the countless number of ways and the enormous amount of money the Koch network was secretly investing in their anti-government ideology. In fact, by the 2016 election, the Koch network had become so rich and powerful, it was like a third party on the verge of supplanting the Republican Party. Flooded with money, in part due to the Citizens United case, its intention was to pour nearly $900 million into the 2016 election. This was an amount almost equal to what each party would invest.
Mayer’s book came out in January 2016, and at this time, readers can see how the tide has begun to turn against the Kochs. For one thing, their message that “Government is the problem,” served to roll out a red carpet for Donald Trump’s unexpected election. The fact that he had never worked in the government made him the attractive, virginal alternative to “establishment” candidates. At the moment, however, his lack of experience is becoming daily more problematic.
And although he is aligned with the Republican agenda in many ways–especially in his commitment to cut corporate taxes–he discovered a priceless contradiction to the Koch-cultivated conservative disdain for those who are struggling financially. He brilliantly allied with a cry that can be interpreted as, “I’m not asking for charity. I want to work! I want a job! ”
But whom is Trump really with, so to speak? He seems to have a gift for reading an audience, and his primary allegiance may be to the idea that receives the greatest applause in the moment. Is he beholden to anyone at any depth? An anecdote Mayer shares about an event in August of 2015 makes the reader doubt that dark money has much clout. The Koch brothers had called one of their secret summits with the ultra rich in part to meet Republican presidential candidates. Trump was not invited. Mayer writes that as his rivals “flocked to meet the Koch donors,” Trump tweeted, “I wish good luck to all of the Republican candidates that traveled to California to beg for money etc. from the Koch brothers. Puppets?”
Trump undoubtedly understands and shares the perspective of dark money in some respects, but he doesn’t seem to have been cut out to serve the goals of anyone but himself. One can imagine the Koch brothers chewing their knuckles until they bleed. And how about all the other billionaires who have mobilized to pare down the government? They must be beginning to realize that the Koch strategy has inadvertently served to usher a wild card into the highest office in the land. The Joker is capable of creating mayhem in a number of areas, including economic, and that could be very, very costly.
Of course, we would all share in economic distress, but it would be a learning experience. As I said, our democracy was never meant to be controlled by a coven of the super wealthy. And insofar as we have been complicit with the goals of the Koch ideology–well, when you do the wrong thing . . . . Now the question is how to get back on track with the right thing. No, not the “right” thing. The wise and fair thing.
And now a final message for readers. Dark Money by Jane Mayer may turn out to be the most important book of our generation, and I wish everyone would read it. I hope you will relay this post to anyone who shares your concern about where America has been heading.