Dark Money charts the rise of the Koch family, beginning with Fred Koch, who started building Koch Industries in the 1930s and 40s when he developed a more efficient system for extracting gasoline from crude oil. After competitor lawsuits put a halt to production in the United States, he turned his attention overseas, working with Soviet and German engineers to build new refineries as part of industrial expansion plans. Having amassed a fortune, Fred Koch grew interested in political advocacy and founded the John Birch Society, a conservative group Mayer describes as spreading conspiracy theories about Communist coups in the US.
After his death, control of the Koch fortune passed to Fred Koch’s sons, Frederick, Charles, David, and William Koch. Mayer outlines the brothers’ contentious childhoods, describing a family situation characterized by father Fred Koch’s strict rules and inflexible expectations. In adulthood, the brothers’ relationships only grew more complicated. With Freddie pursuing his interest in the arts in New York, Charles became his father’s chief successor. He and his brothers attempted to force Freddie to give up his stake in the company, but the effort backfired: Bill joined ranks with Freddie and tried to force Charles and David out. Mayer documents the string of lawsuits that plagued the family for decades, raising questions about Koch Industries’ business practices and political spending.
Mayer also describes the rise to power of billionaires John M. Olin (1892–1982), whose John M. Olin Foundation promoted conservative politics at liberal centers of education, and Richard Mellon Scaife (1932–2014), who used the Sarah Scaife Foundation to become, Mayer argues, “the dark spirit” funding “right-wing causes" in ways that were notoriously difficult to trace.