New Yorker writer Jane Mayer examines the origins, rise and dominance of a billionaire class to whom money is no object when it comes to buying power
By Charles Kaiser
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 rightwing billionaires was Fred Koch, who started his fortune with $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 the US.
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 like Richard Scaife have spent hundreds of millions to “move their political ideas from the fringe to the center of American political life”.
Twenty years after collaborating with the Nazis, Fred Koch had lost none of his taste for extremism. In 1958, he was one of the 11 original members of the John Birch Society, an organization which accused scores of prominent Americans, including President Dwight Eisenhower, of communist sympathies.
In 1960, Koch wrote: “The colored man looms large in the Communist plan to take over America.” He strongly supported the movement to impeach chief justice Earl Warren, after the supreme court voted to desegregate public schools in Brown v Board of Education. His sons became Birchers too, although Charles was more enamored of “antigovernment economic writers” than communist conspiracies.
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’.”
Another man who studied Charles thought “he was driven by some deeper urge to smash the one thing left in the world that could discipline him: the government”.
Much of what the American right has accomplished can be seen as a reaction to the upheavals of the 1960s, when big corporations like Dow Chemical (which manufactured napalm for the Vietnam War) reached the nadir of their popularity.
In 1971, corporate lawyer (and future supreme court justice) Lewis Powell wrote a 5,000-word memo that was a blueprint for a broad attack on the liberal establishment. The real enemies, Powell wrote, “were the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences”, and “politicians”.
He argued that conservatives should control the political debate at its source by demanding “balance” in textbooks, television shows and news coverage – themes that were echoed in inflammatory speeches by Richard Nixon’s vice-president, Spiro Agnew.
The war on liberals was so effective that practically everyone reacted to it: from the New York Times, which hired ex-Nixon speechwriter Bill Safire to “balance” its op-ed page, to the Ford Foundation, which gave $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 thinktanks bankrolled by hundreds of millions from the Kochs and their allies. Sold to the public as quasi-scholarly organizations, their real function was to legitimize the right to pollute for oil, gas and coal companies, and to argue for ever more tax cuts for the people who created them. Richard Scaife, an heir to the Mellon fortune, gave $23m over 23 years to the Heritage Foundation, after having been the largest single donor to AEI.
- Charles Kaiser is a writer based in New York. He is the author of 1968 in America, The Gay Metropolis and The Cost of Courage.
Editors Note: This article was printed in The Guardian in January, 2016, but the information it provides is as relevant today as it was in 2016.
The Guardian Jan, 2016