Book Review by Tom Nelson — Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right (Jane Mayer)

Tom Nelson for Wisconsin
4 min readDec 28, 2021
Tom’s Tomes: A book review series where Tom Nelson talks about his latest favorite books.

I have been a public servant for seventeen years, six as a legislator, eleven as an executive. The last book I’d want to read is how the right-wing diabolically, but cleverly took over our democracy. How depressing. But at the insistence of my dad as well as John Nichols, I picked up a copy of Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. It’s like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, but instead of making you feel guilty, Mayer’s tome makes you furious.

David and Charles Koch

The first chapter is on David and Charles Koch most likely because that is where it all began and you need to know your history. If I can sum up their motive in one word, it’s money. For all the philosophy and ideology they toss around, it all comes down to getting their fair share, “all of it” as Charles used to wise-crack on the playgrounds of Wichita, Kansas many, many years ago.

Mayer touches on Richard Mellon Scaife of the Quaker State — same story — and then returns to the midwest with Wisconsin’s own Bradley Foundation. (Sorry Fetterman, Youngstown is as far as we go.) This holds special significance for me. My grandfather worked at Allen-Bradley in Milwaukee as an electrical engineer and he made the Bradleys fabulously rich. He has twenty-one patents to his name, mainly components for radio controls, the industrial giant’s bread and butter. My grandfather has long since passed, but not his legacy. The patent proceeds empty into the deep reservoir of the Bradley Foundation from whence sprung forth the likes of Scott Walker and Ron Johnson from its black soil.

Perhaps the most important chapter falls under the section, Secret Sponsors: Covert Operations, 2009–2010. If this were a play, we’d be moving into Act 3 where the highest court in the land rules in the Koch’s favor by striking down the last remaining pillars of Senators John McCain’s and Russ Feingold’s namesake campaign finance legislation. Feingold’s career would topple later that year, no doubt putting the Cheshire smile on David and Charles we still have yet to wipe off.

As the Kochs, Bradleys and Scaifes and their ilk pick up speed and ram the last few good guys off the side of the mountain, the floodgates open wide and money pours into the system. Corporations are considered people and they donate as much as their treasuries can afford which are growing by the second thanks to Walker and Johnson’s agenda of tax cuts and more tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. The GOP takes back the US Congress and Democratic governors and legislatures fall like dominoes in 2010. Democrats lose over one thousand legislative seats that year. As we approach the end, Republican legislatures furiously and unapologetically gerrymander districts cementing generational majorities that will happily do the Kochs bidding for the next decade. And beyond.

The readers’ blood comes to a roiling boil as Mayer tosses around statistics such as the first year after the Great Recession — around the time of Citizens Unitedthe top 1 percent of earners in America hauled home 93 percent of the income gains. A similar statistic would permeate the COVID “recovery” a decade later.

How could they possibly get away with murder? To escape the law, the Kochs set the trap for the next heist. Understanding it would only be a matter of time before GOP voters among the 99 percent caught on to the scheme, Kochs and company fooled the proletariat, “free markets were the path to happiness and big government led to tyranny and fascism,” Mayer writes. “Opposition to programs for the poor did not stem from greed… rather, unfettered capitalism was simply the best path to human ‘well-being.’” Do you really think the rich are unhappy?

It would seem that we have come full circle from Howard Zinn’s rendering of the American experience. Those same folks who made history and then chronicled it in high school textbooks, their descendants are paying the price. We have unwittingly created a donor class that holds the purse strings and pulls the marionette strings. White, brown or black. We are all victims of the greed that has wrenched control of the American political system that brought it to its knees on January 6, 2021.

Donald Trump is all but certain to run for president again and get the nomination. Whether Biden runs for re-election or someone else becomes the Democratic standard-bearer, we’re basically screwed. Mayer’s book does not have a happy ending.

Postscript: This is what makes this Wisconsin US Senate race so important. Yes, we need to flip a seat and hold on to the Senate, but we also need to reverse the right-wing movement and return this country to its progressive roots. That means nominating a candidate who can win in tough parts of the state, who knows how to talk to Democrats and Republicans and earn their votes, who has accomplished progressive reforms by building red-blue coalitions on a county board and blue-green coalitions of labor unions and environmentalists to rebuild infrastructure and conserve our natural resources from the farm fields to the rivers and its tributaries in the community. Forward!



Tom Nelson for Wisconsin

Husband, father of 2, former candidate for U.S. Senate, Outagamie County Executive