The hidden history of the billionaires behind the rise of the radical right

September 10, 2020

Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right
By Jane Mayer
New York, Anchor Books, 2017

Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right reveals how a small group of libertarian capitalists in the United States have pushed their ideology into the mainstream — ultimately shifting public opinion and influencing government policy.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, this influence is even more apparent. Rhetoric that is anti-government regulation is the most obvious example. In exploring this ideology, Mayer successfully weaves US history, biographical accounts and political analysis.

It has been a long battle to win hearts and minds for this tiny group of wealthy elites. From the early 20th century, libertarian capitalists had a difficult time convincing average Americans of their extreme ideas. When you are a plutocrat acting in your own interests, how do you convince the population that it’s actually the public interest you have at heart?

As Mayer chronicles — you watch and learn from other successful social movements. Then you fabricate your own movement and use it as a front for your own interests. You hide behind seemingly innocuous not-for-profits. You hide your money trail. You sugar coat your ideology with duplicitous language, using words like “wellbeing”, “freedom” and “individuality”. You publicly campaign against injustice, while you advocate for policies that result in environmental destruction and human misery — until eventually the intentions behind your fringe ideas are so opaque they are palatable for the public.

Arguably, the most powerful masterminds behind this agenda have been the Koch brothers. As young boys they were indoctrinated by their father’s anti-government, libertarian worldview. After inheriting their father’s enormous wealth, David and Charles Koch built Koch Industries — a multinational conglomerate based in Kansas.

The Koches claim that the libertarian ideology of figures like Friedrich Hayek and Ludwig von Mises informs their business decisions and political aspirations. However, their autocratic, top-down approach to running their businesses raises questions about their adherence to these beliefs. They are also happy to join forces with groups who are the obverse of libertarianism, if it’s in their best interests. It’s for these reasons, that Mayer spends much of her book chronicling their lives and their pursuit for political power.

While the Koch brothers enjoyed impressive success in expanding their father’s business, their initial pursuits within the public and political arena weren’t quite as successful. However, after a few decades and billions of dollars spent on lobbying and buying politicians, they started to make traction, influencing government policy. Collaborating with other libertarian capitalists, they have managed to build a private political machine that’s primary goal is to cripple any government policy that stands between them and their profits.

Mayer attributes their success to a multipronged approach that includes: 1) using philanthropic organisations to fund their movement while hiding money trails and avoiding tax, 2) infiltrating the judicial and education systems to spread their ideology 3) building a parallel “political party” to the Republican party that controls congress, while also orchestrating what appear to be grassroots political movements – “AstroTurfs”.

Philanthropic organisations and not-for-profits that claim at least 51% of their activity as education, can legally remain completely private. They aren’t required to disclose where their funding comes from nor how it is used. These taxpayer subsidised groups have long been vehicles for the wealthy to influence public policy without being seen. They also double as a public relations strategy that positions elites as benevolent pillars of the community.

Mayer has spent a lot of time investigating and tracing hundreds of these groups found in every state across the US. A substantial number of them can be traced back to the Koch brothers and their cohort of billionaire elites.

One strategy for disseminating their ideology was to establish conservative cells within the intelligentsia. They were able to do this under the guise of the Olin Foundation. The foundation created and funded programs to train the next generation of far-right conservatives. Graduates from these programs now sit on boards at Harvard and other “ivy league” schools.

Their law and economics program has also influenced important figures in the judicial system. Dozens of all-expenses-paid, luxury junkets were used to lure judges across the country. Mayer claims that more than 660 judges attended these retreats. At one point 40% of the federal judiciary had participated including Supreme Court justices.

The Koches couldn’t do this alone. Cohorts such as Richard Melon Scaif, the Bradley brothers, John M Olin and dozens of others have all pooled their wealth and resources. In the last two thirds of her book Mayer focuses on the Barack Obama years and details how this group accelerated its activity to essentially buy the Republican party. Their success in doing this is most apparent when looking at their influence on policy around climate change, environmental protection, workers' rights, healthcare and education.

Probably the most depressing and disturbing part of Mayer’s book is the level of collusion between Republicans and the oil industry. Fossil fuel companies currently have huge reserves. These reserves comprise billions of untapped profits waiting to be exploited. Climate policy will potentially lock these capitalists out of billions of dollars. There are countless examples of how this class of capitalists have killed off burgeoning domestic and international climate change regulations.

Understandably, these libertarian capitalists have weaponised the issue of climate change through a relentless, multi-pronged attack. It’s been a strategy of false data, disinformation and bad science, causing mass confusion and obstructing progress on any policy. The tactic hasn’t been to disprove climate change but to cast just enough doubt to block any progress. Humanity’s greatest existential threat should be something that unites us. Instead the libertarian capitalists’ quest for profits have divided the public and hijacked the debate.

Since 2004, their little-known billionaire funded group Americans for Prosperity (AFP) has helped tilt the Republican Party further and further to the right. This multilevel organisation is essentially a parallel political party. They run legislative and executive staff to set policy agenda.

AFP has been behind some of the most conservative victories in the US. Mayer demonstrates their ability to radically shift to the right by examining their work in Wisconsin. Traditionally the progressive home of public sector unionism, Wisconsin has been transformed into a conservative stronghold.

Focused on anti-union legislation, AFP has sought to weaken any organsiations that support progressive candidates. In Wisconsin, they helped defund and pull apart public sector unions that support public programs and work with Democrats or even moderate Republicans. Campaign contributions for some unions fell almost 70%. This may have contributed to Donald Trump’s surprise win in Wisconsin.

The sudden explosion of Tea Party activists in 2009 was also partly an AFP-funded venture. The Tea Party was a seemingly grassroots movement. However, the AFP exploited widespread anger and discontent around issues stemming from the 2008 crash and subsequent downturn.

Mayer suggests the emergence of the Tea Party was very much a top down movement, organised by AFP rather than grassroots. However, others have disputed this, claiming while AFP certainly contributed, it wasn’t entirely responsible for the movement.

This is probably where the book is a little weak. It only examines the relationship between these billionaire elites and the Republican Party. A broader look at how other competing factions operate within the Republican Party would have given a more holistic insight.

Mayer builds a convincing and comprehensive case against this class of capitalists. Her historical view sheds light on the origins of the financial takeover of US politics.

Written before Trump came to power, it demonstrates how US democracy was being delegitimised and undermined by this ideology and its proponents for decades. Their pursuit for profit continues to result in death and destruction for millions around the world. Their free-market capitalist ideology has no regard for human life nor the environment.

This has inevitably resulted in the election of a president who encompasses these values with a fervour that will potentially see the US descend into catastrophe.

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