Jane Mayer’s Dark Money opens like a conspiracy thriller in the California desert, at the opposite end of the country from Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. There, as she describes it, a cabal of billionaires met under the aegis of Charles and David Koch, whose libertarian sabers long rattled to no audience until Obama got elected. Suddenly, interest in the brothers’ campaign against any and all government regulations exploded among the country’s wealthiest. They gathered in droves to hear how they could subvert the election, and the general will of the people, to advance their own ends. All the scene is missing is a fluffy white cat for Charles Koch to stroke and you’d have a clandestine group worthy of a James Bond film.

Mayer, a journalist for The New Yorker, is no stranger to running afoul of the Koch brothers; in fact, one of the later chapters in the book, she details an experience where the businessmen’s legal goons attempted to smear her as a plagiarist, a charge even the supposed victims of her theft discredited. Writing as if to preemptively counter more of those methods, Mayer provides extensive background on her subjects, even digging into the thoroughly reprehensible background of some of the more bullish members of Koch’s ring of anti-regulatory lobbyists. Take, for example, Paul Singer, who bought up chunks of the national debt of small, impoverished nations, then flipped it back onto them with new, usurious interest rates on top. This is the behavior of a supervillain, but it warrants only a passing mention.

The most recurring biographical aspect of the profiled billionaires is the fact that all of them believe that only hard labor can make a man (and sometimes, sure, why not, a woman) successful, and yet nearly every one is the heir to a prefab fortune. Hell, even David Koch cops to this, as noted in one of his most quoted speeches, in which he facetiously told a class that he made his money saving little by little, every day until “one day my father died and left me three hundred million dollars.” The spoiled attitudes of these contemporary libertarian monomaniacs can be traced back through family legacies of blood money, be it Richard Mellon Scaife’s treasury secretary great-uncle, who successfully spearheaded a giant tax cut in the ‘20s that contributed to the many factors of the Depression, or the Kochs’ own dad, Fred, who helped build refineries for both Hitler and Stalin.

This biographical dirt-digging is viscerally satisfying as a tapestry of long-standing corruption among the American superclass, but it is made relevant to the arc of the book in the manner that Mayer demonstrates both the copious nonprofit advocacy groups founded by the rich as tax shelters and the issues that those groups lobbied for as a return on investment. Chemical baron John Olin poisoned a Virginia town with mercury (old and recent examples of environmental destruction are ubiquitous in Dark Money, and the fines imposed on him prompted the creation of a self-named foundation devoted to funneling money into think-tanks like the Federalist Society, where pseudo-intellectual Young Turks are farm-raised and well-paid to raise hell for libertarian causes. Mayer is quick to point out that libertarian values will always lose, and massively, in an open battle where voters have the positions stated normally, but much of the book chronicles how such advocacy groups sublimated reactionary values into laterally positioned battlegrounds like education, where endowments to Ivy League schools helped create entire fields of study devoted to recruiting scholarship-hungry kids into becoming the next generation of legal rabble-rousers.

The key event in the book’s narrative is the 2010 midterm election, the first national contest in the wake of the Citizens United decision that loosened limits on nonprofit and corporate donations. The election, of course, saw Obama and the Democratic Party’s commanding gains in 2008 effectively halted by a coordinated media blitz by well-funded reactionary candidates not only for Congress but at the state and local levels. As superfluous as Mayer’s reporting on the individual donors may seem, they exist not simply to trash these people but to counter a popular narrative held by both the mainstream media and a confounded Democratic Party, that 2010 represented some kind of Tet Offensive for malignant billionaires. Instead, it was the culmination of decades of slow preparation, catalyzed by conservative fears of a black president.

Mayer’s view of the electoral shellacking is as copiously detailed as her profiles, and she is especially chilling when laying out the ramifications of the Tea Party victories of 2010. Routs at the state level gave Republicans massive control of gerrymandering districts to better seal off later challenges to those gained seats, while House and Senate subcommittees had to cede space to a clutch of extremist freshmen where, say, they could sit on science and environmental committees and stall any bills on climate change and regulation.

The only bright spot in this disturbing chronicle is the 2012 election, which wasn’t exactly a counter to the sudden dump of cash into the system but at least proved that voters could be sufficiently mobilized against anointed corporate candidates like Scott Walker and Mitt Romney. But the full ramifications of the Citizens United case and this new era of oligarchical king-making has yet to be fully explored. The upcoming cycle looks to be as much a referendum on this topic as anything, with Donald Trump running as much on racist populism as on the fact that as a member of this ruling class, he can ironically campaign exempt from their influence. Yet whatever the future holds, it’s clear that the fight against these anti-democratic methods will rage for years to come.

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