The hidden tale of how the super rich fund the radical right

June 26, 2016

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right
Jane Mayer
Doubleday, 2016
449 pages

Like “dark matter” — the vast amount of invisible mass that holds the cosmos together — “dark money” is the astronomical quantity of hidden corporate money that 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 the United States' richest capitalists buy Republican Party politicians and shape their policies.

At the core of this project are two billionaire industrialist brothers, Charles and David Koch, whose combined personal fortune of about US$90 billion is the largest on the planet. The Kochs' wealth exerts a strong gravitational force on some 400 other ferociously rich Americans. They pool 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. He 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 might 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, among their capitalist peers.

As the fossil fuel-based Koch Industries grew to what is now the second largest (and most polluting) private, family-owned company in the US, the Kochs waged war against “big government”. They have pushed relentlessly for 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. These 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. Their much prized anonymity allows them to launder their political bribes through the Koch organisation, which exerts an “outsized influence over American politics”.

Their combined financial clout is dedicated to pushing US conservative political culture, and its centrist neighbour, ever more rightwards. It does this via donations to (overwhelmingly Republican) politicians, hiring 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 US political system is now 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. 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 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. She does not investigate what it tells us about the disconnect between the Republican Party's Koch-aligned elite and its rank-and-file and its populist mascot in Trump. This is 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. 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 a layer of blue-collar workers whose jobs are threatened by the neoliberal agenda 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”. In the campaign, Trump dismissed his Republican nominee-contenders as “Koch puppets”.

So has Donald trumped the Kochs? Not quite. Some of Trump's senior campaign personnel are veterans of the Koch machine. Trump may have been able to largely finance his own donor-free race in the primaries, but a Trump-led Republican Party will still covet the Koch network's resources for the much more expensive and sophisticated full election.

There are also significant policy overlaps between Trump and the Kochs. These include global warming denial and opposition to raising the minimum wage. On such issues, Trump has no need to be bribed.

Conventional politicians in capitalist parliamentary democracies are in hock to their moneyed masters. Corporate wealth — whether Trump's self-financed billions, Hillary Clinton's $275,000 Wall Street speeches, 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.

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