Thanks to the cooperation of the National Book Critics Circle (NBCC) and Creative Writing at The New School, as well as the tireless efforts of our students and faculty, we are able to provide interviews with each of the NBCC Awards Finalists for the publishing year 2016.
Bradley C. Bergan, on behalf of Creative Writing at The New School and the NBCC, interviewed Jane Mayer about her book Dark Money (Doubleday), which is among the final five selections in the category of Nonfiction for the 2016 NBCC Awards.
Racism, forced emigration and ICE, healthcare, mass incarceration, big oil, climate change deniers, the evisceration of the EPA, Russian espionage, corruption, double-talk, lies, greed and “fake news” are just a few items on the seemingly endless list of antagonisms we face in contemporary US politics as the Trump administration and its alt-right populist base rip the establishment apart with infinite untruths. But there’s a maximum depth to this maelstrom; an outer limit to the madness.
Dark Money is the story of how old-fashioned values long-touted as fundamental to American identity — liberty, free trade and the right to self-determination — were brought from nouveau-riche sentiments of Gilded-Age ideologues into the arch-conservative mainstay of a new GOP, and how this paved the golden road to Trump’s surreal administration.
Jane Mayer is a thirty-year veteran of political journalism who has reported for The Wall Street Journal and is currently a staff writer for The New Yorker, where she first outed the Koch Brothers’ multifarious usurping of nearly every political stage in her 2010 essay Covert Operations. In her book she gives a panoptic account of the history, strategy and tactics of the alt-right, and tacitly suggests, despite their rotten ends, that the now-stymied left learn from the Koch Brothers’ and others of this “totalizing new generation of philanthropists,” if we desire a better future.
Bradley C. Bergan: Your book’s title, Dark Money, is clearly endemic of the dark reality contemporary politics faces today. Will you briefly describe the specific sense in which it relates to the Koch Brothers, and the evolution of the GOP in the 21st century?
Jane Mayer: The title refers to a specific term of art in politics today, describing money spent by donors who want to manipulate our democracy without the public knowing who they are, or what they are up to. As many know, that kind of spending exploded after the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in the Citizens United case. But there was much more to the story. Well before then, a handful of extraordinarily rich and determined conservatives set out to impose their minority views on the majority of Americans by investing millions of dollars in the project, often with very little public awareness that this was going on. Among the leaders of this moneyed movement were the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch whose progress I follow in the book, along with that of several of their major allies. When they started spending in the 1970’s they were considered almost the lunatic fringe, but today, the GOP very much reflects their conservative libertarian influence. While Donald Trump was not their choice of candidate, his administration is now rife with their allies and operatives, as are both houses of Congress, the courts and state legislatures.
BB: Do you think there is an analogous relationship between the Koch Summit 2009’s ambivalent conservative divide, and that of the Democratic party’s current schism, with centrist liberalism (Clinton-Obama) on one side, and radical socialism (Bernie Sanders) on the other? What are some of the major differences in how these two groups do politics? Which strategies in the Democratic party do you deem more prudent as we go forward?
JM: The Democrats today are ironically in much the same position that the Republicans found themselves in after Barack Obama’s election in 2008, in that for the Democrats, Trump represents the ultimate threat to their belief system, as Obama did for conservative Republicans. While there are clear divisions within the Democratic Party, if anything, Trump is providing a unifying force, temporarily at least uniting the different factions in their opposition.
As for their different tactics, the progressive, Bernie Sanders wing of the party has proven more adept at raising small donations from wide numbers of supporters. The more establishment wing of the party is still very much reliant on huge donors. Inevitably this orients them around different policies, with the establishment much more friendly towards Wall Street, business, and free trade. For the time being, until something can be done to reform campaign finance laws, the Democrats are going to remain divided over this, because it’s so expensive to get elected. It’s going to be hard for the party to break entirely with its big donors. For this reason, I think campaign finance reform – while it may sound boring – is really of paramount importance.
BB: You projected the political war chest accumulated by the Kochs and small circle of friends at $889 million in 2009, compared to the $11 million (adjusted for inflation) funding of Nixon by Balz during Watergate. Where would you put that war chest now?
JM: It was actually the Kochs themselves, not I, who projected they would raise $889 million in 2016. At this point, with their combined personal fortunes worth approximately $84.5 billion, Charles and David Koch have for all practical purposes virtually unlimited funds, should they decide to spend them. But that said, the big problem for them in 2016 was that they didn’t have a presidential nominee who they deigned to back. Whether there will be one more to their liking next time around, remains to be seen. Vice President Mike Pence, for instance, has always been one of their favorite politicians. Should he run for president in the future, my guess is that they’d raise a fortune for him.
BB: Since Trump took office, we’ve seen republicans in Iowa begin to dismantle the State’s collective bargaining law, setting back its public sector unions 40 years, leaving 185,000 public workers unable to bargain for benefits, healthcare, vacations, retirement, and most other workplace issues outside of wages (Source: In These Times ) . Is this a step toward patrimonial capitalism? What methods should we expect to see the Trump administration (and the GOP) take to expand its regressive form of capitalism? How can the Left fight it?
JM: I think the Left could learn a lot by studying the playbook of the Right, and that used by the Kochs in particular. They were smart in approaching politics from many directions and on many levels at once. When their prospects were poor at the federal level in Washington, they flooded local and state races with money, eventually helping to flip the majority of state legislatures and governorships their way. Once they achieved that, their side gerrymandered congressional districts all over the country, safeguarding their gains. More importantly, the Kochs and other Right wing activists thought broadly about how to dismantle liberalism. They didn’t just try to win elections, they tried to change the whole political debate in America by financing intellectuals, academic programs, think tanks, legal groups, publications, donor seminars, and many, many nonprofit groups. They basically funded a full-scale ideological war.
BB: You define 501(c)(4) as the IRS code for a tax exempt “social welfare” group allowed to participate in politics so long as it’s not the group’s primary focus. But it seems corporate “philanthropy” is predominantly a euphemism for extreme-right interests, i.e., at once increasing deductibles and allowing corporations to place funds into ostensible nonprofits whose interests are anything but grass roots (despite campaign appearances). How can we stop the extreme- (or alt-) Right from continuing to exploit this loophole?
JM: There has to be more enforcement by the IRS. It has completely rolled over after coming under attack from conservatives for trying to determine whether Tea Party groups really were, in fact, non-partisan and non-political, as the law required. My own view is that the IRS was doing its job, and should reassert itself.
BB: In your section Covert Operations: The Fossils (p.223), you show how over the past 30 years, the Right’s climate-contrarian strategy has conflated environmentalist reforms with second-amendment reversals to confuse political issues with disinformation. In what other ways are global antagonisms being conflated with extremist-libertarian appeals to populist (and conservative) insecurities?
JM: At the end of the day, the most effective strategy that extreme libertarians have used to mobilize populist sentiment has been to define the government not as the expression of the public’s will, but rather, as the oppressor of liberty. But of course while the absence of a strong and activist federal government may be great for the rich and powerful, it could mean far more inequality and suffering for the weak and poor. As Isaiah Berlin memorably said, “Liberty for wolves is death for the lambs.”
BB: The climatologist and geophysicist who introduced the famous “hockey-stick graph” of global warming, Michael Mann , noted that “this circus-like atmosphere may have a chilling effect, preventing scientists from participating in the public discourse, because they fear they, or their department head, will be threatened.” With the EPA and other federally-funded scientific organizations under threat, some scientists like Professor Abe Rosenberg of the Center for Science and Democracy urge their contemporaries to participate in public discourse as “scientist citizens.” How can scientists participate in political discourse and effect policy change if the Trump administration intentionally places non-qualified climate change deniers on the proverbial microphone?
JM: There has been discussion of a march by scientists on Washington. That certainly would be one way to make a public point. The truth is that public opinion is squarely on the side of enforcing strong environmental regulations. So if EPA budget cuts result in worsening the air, water and climate, the Trump administration may find itself in a pretty precarious political position.
BB: Do you think Obama predicted Trump’s alleged ties to Russia, in that, the Citizens United decision in July 2010 opened “floodgates for special interests—including foreign corporations—to spend without limit in our elections?”
JM: When Obama predicted that foreign money might creep into American elections once the lid was taken off corporate spending, critics said he was wrong. In fact, the recent scandal involving Russian interference in the 2016 election shows just how porous and difficult it is to trace foreign money. In light of this, Obama’s concerns look more legitimate than ever.
BB: Near the end of the mid-term election in November 2010, Obama made a last-ditch effort to warn voters that Republicans were trying to steal the elections with secret, special-interest cash. In Dark Money, you depict Democrats’ last-ditch effort ad of an old woman getting mugged as a “hackneyed” image with “simplistic message.” This suggests an increasing complexity of political narrative coupled with lowering standards of political discourse. Do you agree? If so, in what ways we can combat this development, to ensure that the media is able to accurately portray the political narrative in its reports to the people, especially now when the political narrative often goes full-hyperbole; signifying pure fiction, as was the case with the debunked terrorist attack on Sweden?
JM: I think the challenge for opponents of corrupt political spending is to make the public see and care about the impact that it has in their own lives. It’s hard to make people care about it in theory, but when they realize that private interest money may weaken regulations protecting the air they and their children breathe, the water they drink, and the food and drugs they rely on, then they care. So it’s incumbent on reporters not to get too distracted by the circus, but instead to cover those stories that powerful interests would rather keep them from noticing.
BB: After publication of your essay Covert Operations in The New Yorker, you were threatened with false accusations of plagiarism, citing several other journalists’ work you had (almost universally) attributed. Within a few hours, you reached out to each reporter to verify their consent. Did you have a sinking feeling at all, as you awaited their reply while the clock ticked down? How can the media effect real policy change if POTUS not only ignores, but actively bars credible news agencies like CNN, NYTimes, and Politico (Source: CNN Money )?
JM: When the Kochs hired a private investigator who tried to ruin my reputation, I did actually feel it was frightening, though also perhaps flattering that they cared so much. The lesson I learned from this, which I hope the press will follow more generally, is that it is incredibly important for colleagues to stand up for each other when one of us is unfairly targeted. The effort to smear me died because it was false, and my colleagues were generous enough to speak out and say so.
If a member of the media is unfairly picked on by the Trump administration, I hope that their colleagues will unite in their colleague’s defense. It makes all the difference to have a united front.
BB: Richard Fink, former executive vice president, director of the board of Koch Industries, and member of Americans for Prosperity, described a new strategy for the Kochtopus’ supplanting of the GOP, i.e., to rebrand its narrative to argue that free markets are the path to happiness, and that big government leads to tyranny and fascism on the order of the Third Reich. Would you say this “well-being” rebrand opened the doors for Trump’s reactionary-populist campaign?
JM: No, I don’t think that the “re-brand” of extreme libertarianism was what opened the doors to Trump. I think what opened the door to Trump, in part, was the capture of the GOP by its radical donor base. The big donors pushed the GOP to serve their own interests rather than those of the base. On issues such as protecting Social Security and Medicare, the GOP towed the line of its donors, and favored privatizing and weakening these programs. The GOP also pushed to lower taxes on the ultra-rich, because that’s what its radical donors wanted. All of these issues left the GOP vulnerable to someone like Trump who could claim to have the interests of the middle class in mind, rather than those of the donors, who he lampooned. So the Kochs and their ilk gave Trump an opening, and he ran right through it.
BB: How bankrupt is the notion that slashing taxes for the rich actually frees their hands to donate to nonprofits which in turn help the poor better than “big government” programs ever could?
JM: It’s a notion that is very much alive and well thanks to the wealthy people who benefit from it, and keep recirculating it, despite the utter lack of factual support for it. It’s like “Trickle-Down Economics,” a Zombie theory that the private interests keep alive, no matter how many times those with a better grasp on reality try to kill it.
BB: In your book, you explain that a big part of the Koch Brothers’ (or Freedom Partners’) rebranding involved forging false “non-divisive” alliances between the Koch Brothers, the GOP, and minority groups like the United Negro College Fund, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, et al. Will we see the Trump administration do the same as it begins to capitulate, beyond its earlier purely symbolic call to “reunite” the nation post-election, to “heal old wounds?” Is the recent use of non-local military police in the Standing Rock eviction a symptom of this? What might more widespread false alliances look like, and whom might it call upon, going forward? How can we raise awareness to expedite their recognition as such?
JM: We have already seen Betsy DeVos , Trump’s Secretary of Education, who was a charter member of the Kochs’ donor group, make a great display of her support for historically black colleges. She has portrayed them as wonderful examples of “choice” in education. Her statement of course omitted the fact that these colleges were the result of racist Jim Crow laws that kept black students from attending white colleges in many parts of the country for years. Because of that, her effort backfired. But it was an early example of exactly the kind of for-show, headline-generating alliances between conservatives and unlikely minority partners, that the Kochs’ public relations experts prescribed for them, in order to improve their own images.
BB: Last question: how long do you imagine before the POTUS is impeached?
JM: Alas I’m just a reporter, not a fortune-teller, so I’ll leave this for someone who works with a ouiji board, not a pen.
Jane Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker and the author of three bestselling and critically acclaimed narrative nonfiction books. She co-authored Landslide: The Unmaking of the President, 1984–1988, with Doyle McManus, and Strange Justice: The Selling of Clarence Thomas, with Jill Abramson, which was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her book The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals, for which she was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, was named one of The New York Times’s Top 10 Books of the Year and won the J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize, the Goldsmith Book Prize, the Edward Weintal Prize, the Ridenhour Prize, the New York Public Library’s Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism, and the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. It was also a finalist for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Bradley C. Bergan is a writer who is working on a novel within the Creative Writing program at The New School (fiction). His work may be found in 3:AM Magazine, Motherboard, @filterthesnow, and elsewhere. He lives in New York.