Author Jane Mayer on How the Koch Brothers Have Changed America

"The super-rich have become... possibly the most powerful private interest group in America," says Mayer

The Koch brothers have spent vast amounts of money to shift American politics to the right, as documented in Jane Mayer's new book 'Dark Money.' Credit: Damian Dovarganes/Getty

New Yorker staff writer Jane Mayer spent some five years researching the Koch brothers and the vast network of right-wing, ultra-wealthy donors of which they're a part. In her new book, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Mayer lays out how this relatively small group of very rich Americans has managed to make views that once seemed radical part of mainstream American thought and life.

Mayer recently spoke to Rolling Stone about how America looks different today because of this network, how the Kochs are trying to influence the next generation, and how they tried to smear her reputation during the reporting process.

You write that the Koch brothers have "used their fortune to impose their minority views on the majority." What have they accomplished in that respect?
One of their greatest accomplishments is in funding complete confusion on the subject of global warming in America. You can trace something like $25 million from the Koch family and their foundations, just over a three-year period, to organizations that deny the reality of global warming. And you can see that they've managed to change public opinion on the subject. Americans have gotten less certain on this issue, as the rest of the world has been going in the opposite direction. And you can see that our Congress has been captured by their interests and those of the fossil-fuel companies, so it will do nothing about global warming.

What are some other examples of how American society looks different today because of the Kochs' influence?
This has been a 40-year project that Charles and David Koch have been funding with their vast fortunes to try to change the way Americans think. Another of their greatest accomplishments is in turning Americans against the idea of government being a force for good. It's not they alone who have done this, but they've pushed very hard on it, and public-opinion polls show that Americans' regard for government has just plummeted in recent years.

They've also succeeded in many ways in pushing through lawsuits that their donor group has funded. They've succeeded in gutting campaign finance laws, so many of the problems we now see in terms of unlimited spending were stirred in the first place by organizations that they've helped fund.

Speaking of unlimited funding, let's talk about Citizens United. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have said that they would use overturning Citizens United as a litmus test for Supreme Court nominees, and even Jeb Bush has criticized the decision. What's so bad about it? What has it wrought?
What Citizens United has done is equate spending money with free speech without limits. What people originally thought it would do is flood the system with corporate money, but in fact something quite different has happened: It's flooded our system with unlimited money from individual tycoons, who all have very strong opinions.

And by the way, it's not just Citizens United, there's a second case, SpeechNow, that was almost entirely cooked up by the Kochs and their allies, that lifted the limit on individual spending.

What's happened is even more pernicious, in a way, than just unlimited spending. What's happened is that "dark money" — that is, contributions from undisclosed donors — has exploded. Once individuals and companies and nonprofit corporations could spend as much as they wanted, a new form of spending exploded: spending by groups that claimed to be nonprofit, nonpolitical organizations. They're called 501(c)(4)s, and they don't disclose where their money is coming from. In 2006, only two percent of outside political spending came from these dark-money groups — which call themselves social-welfare groups. After 2010, it rose to 40 percent. Almost all of that money was spending on the right. So you're getting a flood of undisclosed spending by right-wing billionaires and multimillionaires, basically. It's creating distortions in American politics and American life.

Many studies have shown that the priorities of the super, super rich are really very different from those of the rest of the country. Ninety percent of Americans think Citizens United was a bad idea and that there's too much money in American politics. But of course the big spenders see it differently, and they're the ones who are dominating. Majorities of Americans now think that climate change is real, and that mankind is causing it, and something needs to be done about it. But, again, the big private interests have captured the government on that issue, and nothing's getting done about it. Huge majorities of Americans in both parties want to see Social Security not weakened but strengthened. The very, very rich want to privatize it; they want to shred it. They don't want to pay for it. They don't need it.

On issue after issue, the super-rich have become, because of Citizens United and the other court cases associated with it, possibly the most powerful private interest group in America today.

The Koch brothers and many of these other billionaire donors are not young; they won't live forever. What does that mean for the future of their project?
It's a great question, and I think the answer is unknown. But what they've got are self-perpetuating foundations. Foundations are weird creatures in American politics — they're perpetual forces of unaccountable money and influence. And they've got tremendous private foundations on the right that have been built up purposely to try to change American politics, starting in about 1970. The Kochs' foundations are among them, but they're not the only ones by any means. They're funding think tanks, they're funding university programs, they're funding junkets for judges to try to teach them to be more suspicious of environmental regulations. Their network is functioning on so many different levels, I don't know whether it will require specific people running it or not. I think we'll probably know 10, 15 years from now.

One of the things that popped out at me when I was doing research for this book is that Charles Koch has always looked at the youth of the country as the most promising recruits for his movement. And you can see that he and his brother and their allies have been focusing an awful lot of their efforts on bringing kids into their network. Some of the people they work with describe the students like bottles of wine: They're very valuable early on, but with age they became much more valuable, because they become more prominent and powerful in society as they move up in it. It's a movement that counts on kids being drawn into it.

One thing I always wonder about these guys is: Why are they doing this? Do they genuinely believe they have a better version for America, or are their efforts purely self-serving?
I think it's all of the above. I think that Charles Koch is a true believer in his own vision of what a perfect society would be. And he hasn't really changed his view very much since the late Sixties, when the group he belonged to was described as Anarcho-Totalitarian by William F. Buckley. They were so far to the right that conservatives like Buckley viewed them as the fringe; they are so anti-government that they bordered on anarchy. I have papers and documents I describe in the book, in which Charles Koch talks about how he wants to fund and build a movement that will be radical, that will destroy the "statist paradigm," as he calls it. He really believes it. Some of his ideas that seemed so crazy and fringe back in 1980, such as abolishing the IRS and the EPA, you're hearing those same ideas now echoing among the Republican presidential candidates. So these ideas have really gained a lot of traction through the years, in part because of their funding. Do they really believe it? Yes, they truly believe it. And is it good for their bottom line? That too.

It sounds like your experience writing this book was a bit harrowing. The Kochs really went after you.
They play very rough. I've been a reporter for a long time, covering wars, the CIA, presidencies and a lot of very powerful organizations. But the Kochs are the only people I've ever covered who have hired a private investigator to try to dig up dirt and plant untrue stories about me in order to hurt my reputation. And it's not just me; they've used private eyes to try to discredit people throughout their lives, including their own brothers. There are four Koch brothers, and the two we know of, Charles and David, have spent 20 years litigating against the two other ones, Fred and Bill. They hired private eyes to go through each other's garbage.

But, you know, that's what reporting is all about: trying to speak truth to power, and holding accountable those who've got tremendous power — especially people who don't even run for office and want to change American politics.