Book review: Jane Mayer probes the murky past of the Koch family, one of the driving forces behind America’s radical right
From building oil refineries for Stalin and Hitler, to spending millions of dollars fighting against pollution controls the Kochs are no strangers to controversy
by Jane Mayer
Lots of American industrialists have skeletons in the family closet. Charles and David Koch, however, are in a league of their own.
The father of these famous right-wing billionaires was Fred Koch, who started his fortune with
US$500,000 received from Stalin for his assistance constructing 15 oil refineries in the Soviet Union in the 1930s. A couple of years later, his company, Winkler-Koch, helped the Nazis complete their third-largest oil refinery. The facility produced hundreds of thousands of gallons of high-octane fuel for the Luftwaffe, until it was destroyed by Allied bombs in 1944.
In 1938, the patriarch wrote that “the only sound countries in the world are Germany, Italy and Japan”. To make sure his children got the right ideas, he hired a German nanny. The nanny was such a fervent Nazi that when France fell in 1940, she resigned and returned to Germany. After that, Fred became the main disciplinarian, whipping his children with belts and tree branches.
These are just a handful of the many bombshells exploded in the pages of Dark Money, Jane Mayer’s indispensable new history “of the billionaires behind the rise of the radical right” in America.
A veteran investigative reporter and a staff writer for The New Yorker, Mayer has combined her own research with the work of scores of other investigators, to describe how the Kochs and fellow billionaires such as Richard Scaife have spent hundreds of millions to “move their political ideas from the fringe to the centre of American political life”.
After their father died, Charles and David bought out their brothers’ shares in the family company, then built it into the second largest privately held corporation in America. “As their fortunes grew, Charles and David Koch became the primary underwriters of hardline libertarian politics in America,” Mayer writes. Charles’s goal was to “tear the government out at the root”.
Much of what the American right has accomplished can be seen as a reaction to the upheavals of the 1960s, when big corporations such as Dow Chemical (which manufactured napalm for the Vietnam war) reached the nadir of their popularity.
The war on liberals was so effective that practically everyone reacted to it: from The New York Times, which hired former Nixon speech writer Bill Safire to “balance” its op-ed page, to the Ford Foundation, which gave US$300,000 to the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) in 1972. The impact was cumulative: almost four decades later, Barack Obama was astonished by one of the first questions asked to him, by a New York Times reporter, after he became president: “Are you a socialist?”
The AEI was one of dozens of the new think-tanks bankrolled by hundreds of millions from the Kochs and their allies. Sold to the public as quasi-scholarly organisations, their real function was to legitimise the right to pollute for oil, gas and coal companies, and to argue for ever more tax cuts for the people who created them.
The amount of money spent has been staggering. Between 2005 and 2008, the Kochs alone spent nearly US$25 million on organisations fighting climate reform. One study by a Drexel University professor found 140 conservative foundations had spent US$558 million over seven years for the same purpose.
The next step for the radical right was to support the creation of the Tea Party movement, through organisations such as Americans for Prosperity, which was funded by the Kochs.
In the 2016 elections, the goal of the Koch network of contributors is to spend US$889 million, more than twice what they spent in 2012 .
Four years ago, because Obama had the most sophisticated vote-pulling operation in the history of American politics, and a rather lacklustre opponent, a Democratic president was able to withstand such a gigantic financial onslaught. This time around, it’s not clear that any Democrat will be so fortunate.