Following the 2016 election, I tried to better understand what had happened by reading books. Along with the New York Times list of “Six books to understand Trump’s win,” I found that Dark Money brought much illumination into developments that had been decades in the making. Disturbing but essential reading, and I’m sharing my review again during this year’s edition of Nonfiction November because it’s still as relevant as ever. This review was originally published on October 17, 2017.
Jane Mayer, Dark Money (2016)
As my highly non-political brain tries to grasp what is really behind the political and social upheavals of our time, I’m grateful for the books that are helping to give me some insight into these difficult and complex topics. Such a book was the first entry in this series, The Unwinding by George Packer, which created a kaleidoscopic narrative impression of the experience of ordinary and extraordinary Americans over the last forty years.
Packer pictures the economic and social disintegration of our time as a complex web of small and large interacting forces that makes it hard to blame any one person or group. That view has its own validity, but it’s also important to recognize the influence of certain wealthy individuals who have methodically worked to subvert liberal tendencies and swing the government sharply to the right, in service of their own self-interest. In Dark Money Jane Mayer brings this secretive group — centered around the Koch brothers — into the limelight, painstakingly piecing together a story that they would much rather not have uncovered, but that everyone needs to know. The Kochs and their ilk form an incredibly powerful, single-minded, focused force that has already changed our country in manifold ways, and intends to do so even more in the future.
Mayer first delves into the family history and character of the main operatives, most notably Charles and David Koch, two of four brothers born into a fortune built on fossil fuels, but now reaching its ever-expanding tentacles into a dizzying array of companies and enterprises. Rich in material goods but poor in empathy, compassion, and social conscience, the Kochs are typical of an emerging class of American plutocrats who follow their own version of the Golden Rule: The ones who have the gold rule.
For all of their adult lives, the Kochs have been doggedly fighting to eliminate legislation and constraints that would hurt their personal and business interests. A failed bid for a Libertarian vice-presidency and some damaging environmental lawsuits (as well as bitter family in-fighting over their inheritance) formed temporary setbacks, but with the Obama presidency and the country’s alarming swerve towards liberalism, their cohort of conservative donors expanded, and their efforts gained momentum. The 2010 Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United tremendously magnified their impact, as it enabled them to pour massive undisclosed contributions into political campaigns and candidates. And as our present situation makes clear, they’ve now risen to unprecedented heights of influence, and are close to achieving the goal of destroying all governmental checks on their power.
Underlying this story is a decades-long campaign to transform the intellectual landscape through the manufacture of radically conservative ideas, which are incubated in think tanks and university programs controlled by the billionaire donors, placed into the culture through respectable-seeming books, and made effective through legislation. The whole process takes place under the aegis of non-profit organizations that serve as tax breaks for the rich while pushing their self-serving agenda. These anti-social institutions mask their true intentions behind benign-sounding names like Americans for Prosperity, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and the Institute for Humane Studies.
Mayer carefully uncovers this secret history by making connections that others might have overlooked, putting together the existing pieces and filling in the blanks where necessary, always being careful to reveal both her evidence and the gaps where it is missing (which are sometimes just as telling). Her conclusions will surely be challenged by those who are threatened by them, and a number of her sources have to remain anonymous due to the severe repercussions they would sustain if they were named. Mayer herself became the subject of a smear campaign that bore traces of Koch involvement, as usual hidden beneath layers of obfuscation and secrecy. Investigative journalism like hers is under attack, naturally, so we should appreciate it while we can, and do our best to make sure it can still exist in the future.
Fascinating, chilling, and infuriating, Dark Money is a must-read for anyone who wants to know what is behind some of the more puzzling developments of our time, such as the sudden drop in public concern about climate change, one of the most insidious products of the Kochs’ ideological mill, and the rise of the Tea Party, an ersatz grassroots movement grown in the soil of big money. Mayer methodically and convincingly traces the fingerprints of the robber barons who profit most from our oil-based economy, and provides an essential awareness of some of the hidden forces that shape our lives.
It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of such power, but I keep coming back to the thought that such outward phenomena are given us to try to wake us up to our inner tasks and responsibilities, and to reveal what lies beneath our unexamined habits of thought and action. Just as Donald Trump is the logical president for a society that values money above all else, the Koch brothers are the logical rulers of a system with self-interest and selfish materialism at its very core. Both are symptoms of the pervasive illness of our time: alienation from the true sources of life and the true nature of the self. We can rage against their excesses and blame them for their abuses, but the uncomfortable fact remains that to get at the root causes of this illness, we have to look within, to grapple with it in ourselves. Otherwise, even if we manage to contain and control it in one place, it will soon break out in another.
It’s up to us to reconnect to the inexhaustible source of creative energy, to unflinchingly face the ways that unconscious greed shapes our actions and motivations, and to overcome the weakness of egotism with the strength of love and compassion. If enough of us would take up that task with as much energy and determination as these two men have devoted to their dark pursuits, it would create a far greater light, and illumine much more that presently remains unseen.