By Gail Kent
Long before Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton ran for president, others have been pulling voters’ strings behind the scenes to influence the outcomes of elections. These people were not Russians, they were, and are, Americans – uber-wealthy Americans with their own agendas, often agendas that do not align with the best interests of the country.
In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled by five to four in the Citizens United decision that is was okay for corporations and labor unions to spend an unlimited amount of money to convince people to vote for or against a candidate. It’s still illegal for companies and labor unions to donate directly to candidates for federal office, but they can create superPACs and nonprofits, shadow organizations, to accept this money from billionaires and corporations and use it to buy advertising, most of it negative.
PACs are subject to disclosure laws, but nonprofits, as long as their mission is “social welfare,” are not. Most of these nonprofits flout the social welfare provision of the law so that they can keep their donors’ names private, becoming virtual front organizations for candidates. This hidden money that is used for things such as advertising, “documentary” films trashing rival candidates and a variety of other disinformation campaign tactics is called “dark money.”
But dark money doesn’t just exist in these 501 (c)(4) organizations, as Jane Mayer, author of the New York Time best-seller Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right explains in her blockbuster published last year shortly before the election. The award-winning staff writer for the New Yorker spent five years researching the book, which centers on the billions of dollars pumped into the political arena since the ‘60s and ‘70s by Charles and David Koch and their plutocrat friends. The Kochs didn’t begin influencing politics through dark money with the Citizens United decision, but began long before by funding innocuous-sounding but agenda-laden think tanks, gifts-with-strings to academic institutions, “educational” junkets for judges (reaching all the way to the U.S. Court of Appeals and Supreme Court) and media groups.
Charles Koch hated government. His father, an original member of the John Birch Society, was a strict – even cruel – disciplinarian. Once his father died, Charles “went to great lengths to ensure that neither his brothers nor anyone else could challenge his personal control of the family company,” Mayer writes. “Only government and the courts remained as sources of authority . . . and if enacted, Charles’s libertarian policies would eliminate these . . . He was driven by some deeper urge to smash the one thing left in the world that could discipline him: the government.”
Charles and David Koch (there were four brothers, but the other two were rivals) are ferocious defenders of free-market ideas, including anti-regulation, especially anti-climate EPA regulations. The 2012 EPA identified Koch Industries, a multinational corporation with subsidiaries in manufacturing, fertilizer, refining, petroleum, chemicals, paper, ranching, commodities trading and other ventures and investments, as the single biggest producer of toxic waste in the United States. Koch Industries has been in federal court many times over the years for clean air and water violations, including lethal violations. While they have paid millions in fines, their government connections have been instrumental in helping them avoid other legal problems, such as when they were able to get a sympathetic U.S. attorney appointed to oversee a grand jury criminal investigation by making donations to key politicians.
The Kochs funneled $200 million or more into the 2010 elections, including supporting the grassroots Tea Party movement, resulting in Republicans gaining 63 seats in the House, putting them in control. More importantly, they gained 675 seats in state houses across the country, giving the GOP control of the redistricting process when the new census was released. This meant North Carolina variety store billionaire Art Pope was able to realize his dream of funding the redistricting computer program REDMAP, allowing conservatives to gerrymander the whole country until the next census in 2020.
The Kochs sponsor the advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, which was at the forefront of climate-change denial, and by the time Congress convened in 2011, the group had gotten agreements from 156 House and Senate members to support a “no climate tax” pledge. While the Kochs say their political involvement is driven by principle, “their positions dovetailed seamlessly with their personal financial interests,” Mayer writes.
During the 2016 election the Kochs’ initial budget for buying the presidency was $889 million. They sat out the primaries, as they usually do, then found that the only candidate they opposed won. (Their favorite was Marco Rubio.) Mayer says that rather than closing their wallet, they downgraded their budget to $750 million and poured it into 19 Senate, 42 House, four gubernatorial races and countless lesser ones all over the country. In addition, they mobilized an “unprecedented and unparalleled permanent, private political machine . . . amazingly, in 2016 the Kochs’ private network of political groups had a bigger payroll than the Republican National Committee. The Koch network had 1,600 paid staffers in 35 states and boasted that its operation covered 80 percent of the population.”
As it turns out, Trump had his own dark money source, and it wasn’t Koch. On March 23, Jane Mayer was interviewed on Democracy Now (https://www.democracynow.org/2017/3/23/jane_mayer_on_robert_mercer_the ) by Amy Goodman, who asked Mayer about Robert Mercer, a secretive billionaire hedge-fund tycoon, who is said to have “out-Koched the Koch brothers” in the 2016 election. Mercer, along with his daughter Rebekah, is credited by many with playing an instrumental role in Donald Trump’s election. Mayer says Mercer rescued Trump when his campaign was floundering after Paul Manaford was forced out as his campaign manager last August. The Mercers funded Trump, brought in Steve Bannon, Kelleyanne Conway and David Bossie of Citizens United.
The Mercers had previously invested $10 million in Breitbart News, making them co-owners. They also created an organization call the Government Accountability Institute to help drive the political narrative in the 2016 election. They created a book called Clinton Cash, a collection of corruption allegations against the Clintons, which they hoped to get into the mainstream media. They took it to The New York Times exclusively, and the Times ran a story out of it that they say they independently corroborated. A year later, the Mercers made a movie version of it, which they showed at Cannes.
It wouldn’t be fair to talk about dark money without mentioning George Soros, the 85-year-old Hungarian-born New York billionaire investor, who has had a 25-year relationship with the Clintons. Soros donated more than $25 million to boost Hillary Clinton and other Democratic candidates and causes, according to the Federal Election Commission records and interviews with associates and Democratic operatives. ( http://www.politico.com/story/2016/07/george-soros-democratic-convention-226267 ). Seven million dollars of that went to a super PAC called Priorities USA Action; $2 million to American Bridge 21st Century, an opposition research super PAC targeting Trump and other Republicans; $700,000 to an assortment of Democratic committees; $5 million to a superPAC called Immigrant Voters Win; and $5 million to a nonprofit devoted to fighting conservative efforts to restrict voting.
So what is the difference between the dark money investments of the Kochs and Soros? First, the sheer volume of money and breadth of influence can’t be compared. The Kochs have built a nationwide network that is set up to outlast their lifetimes, and they have invested more than a billion (perhaps many billions) over many decades through think tanks, PACs, foundations, institutes and direct contributions. While Soros has spent millions, especially dominating 527 groups such as MoveOn.org, the Kochs far outspend Soros. Unlike the Kochs, Soros was a latecomer to political involvement. It was not until the 2004 presidential election that he began investing in political causes, when he donated $24 million to defeat President Bush.
The other difference between the Kochs and Soros appears to be their motivation. While Charles Koch claimed in a USA Today interview that all he wanted was to “increase well-being in society” and bristled at the idea that he was motivated by boosting his bottom line, the nature of the work in his think tanks, foundations, institutes, etc., says otherwise. Soros, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have anything to gain financially by supporting progressive causes such as immigrant voters’ rights.
Regardless of the source, however, dark money is polluting American politics and is changing – or has already changed – our one-person-one-vote democracy into sham. Mayer’s book, Dark Money, is a must read for everyone who cares to fully educate themselves about the political landscape we are operating in, for the Koch money will influence American politics for many years to come.