Even before Jane Mayer’s piece on Charles and David Koch ran in the New Yorker in August 2010, she started hearing that the billionaire brothers weren’t pleased with being profiled by an investigative reporter. As Mayer describes in “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right,” she and her editor, David Remnick, got word that the Kochs were trying to find dirt on Mayer.
“I didn’t feel vulnerable,” said Mayer, in a phone interview while she was riding to a reading in the Bay Area. “There were no secret legal problems or skeletons in my closet, so I kind of laughed at the whole thing. And what I found out was that you don’t actually have to have any real vulnerabilities, people can make them up and try to tar you with stuff that’s not true, and that’s what’s really scary.”
The nature of truth, Mayer makes clear in her book, is very much at stake in our political system these days. “Dark Money” expands beyond the Kansas-based Republican kingmaker Kochs to explore the way a small number of extremely wealthy individuals, over the last several decades, used tax laws designed for philanthropy to construct a network of institutions, media organizations and political action committees to heavily influence — and at times, subvert — our democracy. As Mayer writes, the Kochs are part of “a small, rarefied group of hugely wealthy, archconservative families that for decades poured money, often with little public disclosure, into influencing how Americans thought and voted.”
Vast sums of money in the form of what Mayer calls “weaponized philanthropy” funds battles against taxes, labor unions, environmental regulation, scientific research and civil rights efforts. Secrecy is a big part of the story. “The covert nature of these maneuverings that really caught my eye,” she explained. “I found it fascinating. They’d gone to such lengths to cover up the money trail.”
Mayer, who studied history as an undergraduate at Yale and did graduate work in history at Oxford, has been a staff writer at the New Yorker since 1995. She became a reporter so she could tell stories about political history. “I came into this with a kind of a high-minded attitude towards the whole thing,” she said, “and then discovered that a lot of it is pretty rough and tumble.”
Mayer experienced that first-hand after the 1994 publication of “Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas,” which she co-wrote with former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson, a high school friend. “The two of us had never really considered ourselves particularly political,” Mayer said, but after the book came out they found themselves harshly attacked by conservative pundits and writers. “We were kind of early canaries in the coal mine in seeing what it’s like and how rough it can be when political partisans come at you,” Mayer said. “We thought we were just documenting the facts.”
Twenty-three years later, the landscape has become even more polarized. For investigative reporters, whose work lives or dies on the integrity of their research, “this is particularly unnerving. There’s much less consensus than there’s even been in my reporting career about what is real news,” Mayer said. “It’s become a kind of information warfare, and it gets the press completely caught up in the middle of it, when all you’re trying to do is be a reporter and tell the country what’s going on. And even the president of the United States is part of it.”
Although the book’s subject was serious, there are moments of humor. “I was writing about how some of these people have more money than you could ever imagine in your life,” Mayer said. “For some people there’s never enough.” One heiress she profiles attempted to increase her portion of the family estate by adopting her ex-husband (shares were given according to the number of children in each family).
“When I couldn’t talk to people like the Kochs, because they weren’t giving me interviews, I really bent over backwards to find people who knew them, and some of whom liked them: their childhood friends, family acquaintances,” Mayer says. “It’s about credibility and it’s also just about being fair.”
Mayer stresses that she didn’t want to portray anyone as a cartoon villain. “One thing I’ve learned from covering a lot of really powerful people in politics some of whom have done some pretty nefarious things,” she said, “is that it’s very rare that people are sitting there twisting their mustache and saying, ‘I’m gonna get away with this!’ If you ask Charles Koch if he thinks he’s doing something good for America, he probably would tell you sincerely that he thinks he is — it’s just that his ideology also happens to be exactly what’s great for his fortune. He’s rationalized this and created an ideology that’s perfectly self-serving.”
When it came to the 2016 presidential election, the Kochs’ network raised $889 million for a candidate they wanted to back — and didn’t find one. Donald Trump, Mayer said, “certainly wasn’t the candidate they had in mind.”
Although the Kochs didn’t work for Trump’s election, there are many Koch allies with roles in the administration, including Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and EPA head Scott Pruitt. “He’s now got a number of people in his administration who are delivering on many things the Kochs want, particularly on the environment,” Mayer says. Most of the families profiled in “Dark Money” made their fortunes in the gas and oil industry; they fiercely oppose any action to address climate change.
“I think climate change is the issue in which you have to think that on some level the Kochs have to know better,” Mayer said. “Both Charles and David Koch are graduates of MIT, with graduate degrees from MIT also. They’re not dumb guys. So how can it be that they really truly don’t see what the scientific world tells them on this subject? Instead, they’ve sided with their bottom line on this issue.
“There are many things you can fix and you can bring back, and there are sort of cycles in American history and the pendulum swings back and forth, but there are things you can damage irreparably, and that’s what I’m worried about right this moment,” Mayer added. “And that’s why this particular book — because it’s about the money that is stopping this country from doing something useful on climate change.”
Still, she says, she’s cautiously optimistic. “I think that what this last election has resulted in is kind of waking up a lot of people who were complacent about American politics, and hopefully that includes the younger generation,” she said. “And I also think some of the best journalism I’ve seen since becoming a reporter is being done right now, by all the major newspapers and many magazines, including the New Yorker. And I think there’s a huge pushback. There’s a big fight going on. And hopefully it will really energize people and wake them up.”
Since “Dark Money” came out last year, Mayer said, “nobody has been able to say that it’s not accurate. There’s nobody who’s refuted it on any side of the political spectrum. Having the book out feels wonderfully liberating,” she added. “The ultimate protection for writers is having your work published. It’s out there for everyone to read.”
President of the National Book Critics Circle, Kate Tuttle writes about books for the Boston Globe. Her reviews have also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Salon, the Washington Post and Newsday.