In Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, investigative journalist Jane Mayer takes a close look at the Koch brothers and the broader network of wealthy, conservative donors working to reshape America into their image.
Mayer recently spoke to Rolling Stone about how this network has changed American society, and — below — she delves into the issue of money in politics, and specifically what effect the Kochs could have on this year’s high-stakes presidential election.
The two big winners in the New Hampshire primary were Bernie Sanders, whose campaign donations have averaged just $27 (as he’s fond of pointing out), and Donald Trump, who’s largely self-funding his campaign. What does that say about this campaign cycle?
I think what we’re seeing is a national outpouring of outrage and disgust that 400 or so of the richest people in America are trying to pick our next leader for us. Whatever your politics are, whether they’re left or right, people really don’t appreciate having a handful of the richest people in the country decide everything for us. The one thing Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump have in common is that both are railing about the corruption of the American political process, and both are saying, “I am not bought by anyone else.” And that message is really resonating with voters.
It’s an irony, because the super-rich donors have in some ways created the backlash that’s eating them alive at this point. That said, at the end of the day, we’re a long way away from Election Day, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the usual order somehow restores itself, and the big money wins. We’ll see.
Of course, with Trump, his model is very different from Bernie Sanders’. Bernie Sanders is funded by tiny donations from not particularly wealthy people, whereas Donald Trump is a billionaire, running as a billionaire. And so, on the Republican side, you kind of have a choice between the billionaire who owns himself, and the candidates who are owned by the other billionaires. It’s a somewhat oligarchic choice.
The last I heard, the Kochs had not really thrown their weight behind any of the GOP candidates yet. Why not?
Well they haven’t traditionally gotten that involved in primaries. They’re waiting to see which contender emerges as the strongest, the one who can beat whoever the Democratic nominee is. That said, they’re not happy, obviously, with Donald Trump. He’s the only one of the major Republican candidates who has not come to their donor summits and kissed their ring. The rest of the Republican candidates who are still in the race have all paid homage to the Kochs and tried to beg them for their financial backing.
And not just the Kochs! I mean, we have to remember, the Kochs are two brothers, but what makes them so important in politics is they’ve created a donor group around themselves of something like 400 or 500 others who are also extraordinarily rich. They’ve put together a war chest of as much as $889 million for the 2016 cycle. That’s a stunning amount of money — unprecedented in modern political history. They have a private kitty that’s waiting for someone. The other candidates have all sort of begged for it, but Trump is standing in a different spot. The Kochs are waiting to see what happens.
That said, one thing I would really like to emphasize, and one of the points of my book, is that presidential politics is really only one arena for the Kochs and similar big-money conservative donors. Presidential politics is probably the hardest item to purchase in American politics: It’s the most visible, and private money has the least effect because there’s so much free publicity for presidential candidates.
Where the influence of money goes so much further, and what people who are interested in this need to take a look at, is the lower levels: the state and even local elections. There’s Koch money that’s been going into school board races, questions about funding mass transit in Tennessee, or funding a zoo in Ohio. They’re fighting the expansion of Medicaid in South Dakota and all over the country. Their organizations are flooding money into universities and colleges in order to try and recruit young people to their point of view and then train them as cadres to go into their political groups. It’s a comprehensive system to change America. So presidential politics certainly is the splashiest arena, but it’s not actually the place where they have the most influence.