Jane Mayer begins Dark Money by considering the early years of the billionaires—and their companies—who dominate conservative politics today. She documents the rise of Fred C. Koch’s industrial powerhouse Koch Industries, which made its start by working with Soviet and German engineers to build oil refineries in the 1930s. She covers the birth of Koch brothers Frederick, Charles, David, and William, and she describes their father’s political influence in their lives as they became supporters of conservative and libertarian political causes in the US, favoring small government and deregulation, particularly in the private sector. Mayer recounts the infighting and lawsuits that resulted from disagreements and power struggles between the brothers, concluding the story with a careful examination of the ways Koch family donations continue to determine the course of conservative politics in America.
Mayer also describes the founding of a number of conservative advocacy groups, think tanks, and charitable organizations, noting the relationship between an organization’s policy goals and the bottom lines of the billionaires who fund it. She describes the birth of the John Birch Society, the transformation of the John M. Olin Foundation into a conservative political foundation, the origins of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), and the rise of conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the Mercatus Center. Finally, she covers the most recent election and the ways the efforts of a select group of billionaires have influenced the Republican Party platform and policy in the US today.