Rutland Herald and Montpelier (Barre) Times Argus

Sunday January 17th, 2016

“The only thing we have to fear, is fear itself.” That notable quote from President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first inaugural address was not a clever rhetorical line - but a statement of fact.  This is how the scene was described in a special exhibition at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum. 

“The mood of the enormous audience waiting to hear the new president was grim. Along with millions of their fellow citizens listening on the radio, they were gripped by fear. For on March 4, 1933, America was in the midst of the fourth year of a massive economic depression—the worst in our history.

“The dark months before FDR’s inauguration had been the bleakest of the Great Depression. One in four workers was unemployed. One in five Americans barely survived on meager charity and state and local relief. The stock market was down 75 percent from 1929. Exports were at their lowest level since 1904.

“In just four years, the suicide rate had tripled. In rural areas—where almost half of Americans lived—sharply falling crop prices brought disaster. Farmers defaulted on bank loans and lost their land. Tenant farmers and sharecroppers faced eviction. Farm laborers’ wages were slashed. As the nation suffered, its government seemed paralyzed.”

Yet during the 1932 election campaign in which Roosevelt was running against incumbent Republican President Herbert Hoover, FDR was no fear-monger. Actually he projected an image of optimism that America would ultimately prevail. It did, after several years, due to his “New Deal” programs – and the economic stimulus provided by WWII.

The politics of fear is as old as civilization itself. Although autocrats and dictators regularly use fear to control their masses, democracies are certainly not immune to its use - witness the current 2016 presidential election campaign.

I do not dispute that many Americans are angry and afraid. Since the economic crash of 2008, the recovery has been significant but there are many in the working and middle classes who have not yet or may never be made whole. Likewise I understand that people are growing increasingly fearful of Islamic State terrorism.

However it’s hard to escape the irony that the very presidential aspirants who want to ban Muslims from this country, or carpet bomb large tracts of the Middle East to deal with a threat to America that cost fewer than twenty lives here last year- are at the same time vociferously opposed to sensible restrictions to address the epidemic of gun deaths that number at least ten thousand each year- not counting suicides and accidents. But that is a subject for another day.

Today, I want to examine how the existence of unlimited outside money is stoking the fear and anger of so many Americans. This is documented by Jane Mayer in her new book, “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.”

Ms. Mayer, who is a full time reporter for the New Yorker, begins her tale with a new revelation - that in the 1930s, the Koch family patriarch's companies helped build key oil facilities for two highly disreputable regimes. In Mayer’s words, “The fiercely libertarian Koch family owed part of its fortune to two of history’s most infamous dictators, Joseph Stalin and Adolf Hitler.”

In the 1950s father Fred Koch was a founding member of the ultra-conservative John Birch Society which among other things accused then President Dwight Eisenhower of being an agent of the international communist conspiracy.

In his New York Times review of “Dark Money” scholar David Nasaw praises Mayer’s extensive research, from which we learn that in 1980, Fred’s sons David and Charles, provided major financial support for the Libertarian Party whose platform “offered a preview of their anti-government zealotry.” Among other things it opposed federal income and capital gains taxes, called for the repeal of campaign finance laws and the abolition of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. According to author Mayer, the platform was, in short, "an effort to repeal virtually every major political reform passed during the twentieth century.”


The party polled less than one percent in the election. But instead of accepting the voter’s verdict, in the next decades the Kochs chose to spend money changing the way Americans voted. Ms. Mayer writes, “they contributed well over $100 million, much of it undisclosed, to dozens of seemingly independent organizations aimed at advancing their radical ideas.” To protect their investments in fossil fuels, the Kochs funded think tanks to raise doubt about climate change. They also spent tens of millions of dollars to roll back environmental regulations and defund or abolish the federal agencies that write and enforce them.

The Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which permitted non-profits to spend money on political campaigning while keeping many donors names secret, opened the floodgates for the Koch brothers whose political machine rivals that of the two major political parties. Yet as reviewer Nasaw writes in the Times, “The Kochs, Ms. Mayer is careful to remind us, are only one of several fabulously wealthy families that have tried to move America to the right. Their outsize influence is a result not only of their outsize fortune — according to Forbes magazine, the brothers are the fifth and sixth wealthiest Americans, with a combined family income larger than that of Bill Gates — but also of their intellectual prowess and organizational skills. For more than a decade, they have organized donor summits to which they have invited like-minded billionaires, political consultants, media celebrities and elected officials. At these meetings, plans are made, issues chosen, money raised, donations pooled, spending coordinated for the next election cycles.”

There is one more billionaire in the game of course. Donald Trump doesn’t need Koch money, though so far he’s been sailing through on free media. Still, more than at any other time, in American politics today - money talks. And among the millions of Americans who are listening are many whose votes have apparently been secretly bought by a small cadre the country’s right-wing billionaires.

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