The secrets behind the Koch brothers: Inside the remarkable new book that details their dirtiest deeds

Here's a taste of the insanity inside Jane Mayer's new book, "Dark Money"

Published February 8, 2016 4:24PM (EST)

Charles and David Koch   (MSNBC/AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack/Photo montage by Salon)
Charles and David Koch (MSNBC/AP/Phelan M. Ebenhack/Photo montage by Salon)

Jane Mayer’s new book, "Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right," has already revealed many previously unknown facts about the Koch brothers in particular. For instance, reporting in the book forms the bulk of her latest New Yorker essay, showing that the Kochs' newfound interest in criminal justice reform is primarily a front to boost their P.R. and to gut health and safety laws. In addition, the book shows that family patriach Fred Koch’s fortune was cemented by lucrative deals with Stalin, and was forged by providing crucial support to the Nazi regime. But even these stunning results only touch the surface of the interesting facts, some new and some expounded, in Mayer’s new book.

The Nazi Connection

One of the earliest revelations from the book was the New York Times reporting that Fred Koch partnered with Nazi sympathizer William Rhodes Davis to build an oil refinery that was “a critical industrial cog in Hitler's war machine.” This is damning enough, but other passages from the book are equally jarring. For instance, in 1938, Fred wrote that,

“Although nobody agrees with me, I am of the opinion that the only sound countries in the world are Germany, Italy and Japan, simply because they are all working and working hard....”

Mayer argues that he preferred their work ethic to the laziness and government dependence he believed was caused by the New Deal. Later, he hired a German nanny for his two sons who was “a fervent Nazi sympathizer who frequently touted Hitler's virtues.” To round out his wrongheadedness, Fred claimed that, “the colored man looms large in the Communist plan to take over America,” expressed admiration of Mussolini and aided Stalin early in his career.

Ideological Indoctrination

One of the crucial parts of the Koch strategy is creating an intellectual infrastructure for their libertarian ideas. Mayer lays out the long history of the wealthy buying their way into universities, focusing on John M. Olin’s strategy of funding programs for “Law and Economics” at prestigious universities. Olin, who believed that Marxism and Keynesianism were essentially the same, and claimed that liberalism and socialism were “synonymous,” aimed to reshape the university. Rather than an explicitly conservative course, he preferred the law and economics program because it didn’t appear ideological, but noted that “Economic analysis tends to have conservatizing effects.” He said later, “Law and Economics is neutral, but it has the philosophical thrust in the direction of free markets and limited government. That is, like many disciplined, it seems neutral, but it isn’t in fact.”

The Koch brothers are slightly less subtle, funding organizations like the Mercatus Center, which unabashedly support a plutocratic agenda. Mayer writes that George Pearson, an early Koch advisor, believed gifts to universities “didn’t guarantee enough ideological control.” He suggested that donors maintain control over hires. As of 2015, Mayer reports that the Kochs subsidized programs in 207 colleges and universities and were set to expand into 18 more. In some cases, such as West Virginia University and Florida State University, their foundations exert influence over hires. At Florida State, one student reported that the new introductory economics course included lessons that “sweatshop labor wasn’t bad,” and “climate change wasn’t caused by humans and isn’t a big issue.” A libertarian donor gave grants to 63 colleges to fund programs that were “required to teach his favorite philosopher, the celebrator of self-interest Ayn Rand.” In North Carolina, Art Pope funded think-tanks that pushed to cut public university budgets at the same time as he gave grants to support programs in “Western civilization and free-market economics.”

Even more disturbingly, the Koch brothers have recently been pushing their ideology into high schools. The curriculum teaches that,

“Franklin Roosevelt didn’t alleviate the Depression, minimum wage laws and public assistance hurt the poor, lower pay for women was not discriminator, and the government, rather than business caused the 2008 recession.”

Christina Wilkie and Joy Resmovits of Huffington Post report that the program, Young Entrepreneurs, which Charles and Elizabeth Koch founded in 1991, has expanded dramatically, with $1.45 million in assets in 2012. In 2012-2013, it was taught in 29 Kansas and Missouri schools, with plans to expand into 42.

Strategic Use of Racism

One of the dirtiest tactics on the right has long been the strategic use of racism for political gain. In his book on the subject, Ian Haney-Lopez argues that racism has been exploited to undermine the middle class. The Koch brothers and their network of organizations often stoop to low levels to ensure Republicans are elected.

Mayer reports that during now-Gov. Sam Brownback’s 1996 Senate race there was a “barrage of phone calls informing voters that his opponent Jill Docking, was a Jew.” According to later reporting from the Wall Street Journal, an operative on the Koch payroll was involved in the ads. Later, the American Future Fund, which “received more than 92 percent of its 2012 revenues from two organizations connected to Charles and David Koch,” became involved in an attack on former Democratic congressman Bruce Braley. The odious Koch-linked attack narrated,

“For centuries, Muslims built mosques where they won military victories. Now, they want to build a mosque at Ground Zero, where Islamic terrorists killed 3,000 Americans. It's like the Japanese building at Pearl Harbor.”

Mayer notes that David Koch accepts the crank theory pushed by Dinesh D’Souza that Obama is secretly influenced by his father’s anti-colonial agenda. She cites an interview Matthew Continetti had with David in which Continetti reports:

David agreed. “He’s the most radical president we’ve ever had as a nation,” he said, “and has done more damage to the free enterprise system and long-term prosperity than any president we’ve ever had.” David suggested the president’s radicalism was tied to his upbringing. “His father was a hard core economic socialist in Kenya,” he said. “Obama didn’t really interact with his father face-to-face very much, but was apparently from what I read a great admirer of his father’s points of view. So he had sort of antibusiness, anti-free enterprise influences affecting him almost all his life. It just shows you what a person with a silver tongue can achieve.

Random Factoids

Mayer’s book is frequently difficult to stomach: Learning how a powerful group of donors is engaging in a coordinated assault on American democracy is never easy. Nor is it easy to read about the children of Crossett, Arkansas, who stay inside breathing from respirators because of Koch Industry pollution. However, the book contains a slew of anecdotes that are at least somewhat humorous, which can ease reading. For instance, Mayer notes that,

“Susan Gore, heiress to the a piece of the Gore-Tex fabric fortune and founder of a conservative think tank… was so intent on increasing her personal inheritance that she tried to adopt her ex-husband.”

The goal was to increase the share of the family trust she would inherit. Mayer’s book also highlights how the conservative plutocratic movement have often bought off seemingly anti-establishment characters. She notes that Glenn Beck is paid more than a million dollars a year to read what is termed “embedded content,” which he says on air, “making it sound as if it were his own opinion."

Interestingly, the Koch brothers were not always loved by leading conservative intellectuals. Mayer notes that William F. Buckley Jr. called their ideas “Anarcho-Totalitarianism.” As I’ve documented, such criticisms may return as the Koch brothers continue to threaten the power and influence of other powerful right-wing interests, like the Chamber of Commerce.


Mayer’s book draws from other works, like Daniel Schulman, Ken Vogel and the brilliant investigative journalist Lee Fang. However, it offers a comprehensive history, not just of the Koch brothers, but of early funders of the conservative movement, like the Richard Mellon Scaife and John M. Olin. In addition, it includes detailed document of Art Pope’s takeover of North Carolina, the powerful DeVos family and the depravity of John Menard Jr., who once labeled arsenic-tainted mulch as “ideal for playgrounds.” As the Koch network becomes on track to spend a small fortune on the 2016 election, their history and strategy becomes even more compelling.

By Sean McElwee

Sean McElwee is founding executive director of Data for Progress. He tweets at @seanmcelwee.

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Books Conservatism Dark Money History Jane Mayer Money In Politics The Koch Brothers