The Republican Party’s ongoing civil war involves lots of fireworks and subplots, but the overarching fight is between two visions and three billionaires.
Charles and David Koch are investing hundreds of millions of dollars to take over the GOP and push America toward libertarianism. Donald Trump joined the Republican Party to run for president and push the country in the opposite direction, toward populist nationalism.
Tragically, the Koch brothers’ mistakes are steadily handing victory to The Donald.
Many voters might be surprised to learn that the men are so different. After all, they bear some similarities. They inherited wealth, extended their dads’ businesses, and became three of the richest people in the world. They treat each other politely; David and Donald, for instance, have socialized together in Florida. And of course, all three are trying to shape the Republican Party’s future.
On substance, however, the men could hardly be more different. On most economic issues, Donald Trump resembles the Italian media billionaire Silvio Berlusconi. Berlusconi filled his political career with offensive jokes about women, immigrants, Muslims, as well as false assertions about foreign affairs and hostility to the media. In his nine years running Italy, The Economist reported that he showed a “total disregard for the economic condition of his country” with results that “will haunt Italy for years to come.”
The parallels to Trump are eerie. Trump’s campaign trades regularly in false and misleading claims, including lies about immigrants, lies about vaccines, a defense of entitlement spending, and a demand for trade protectionism. Taken together, this racist, nativist, anti-science package would bring America closer to fascism than any time in its history. Incidentally, it would also cripple the U.S. budget and economy, as well as the global economy.
With the significant but specific exceptions of climate change and health reform, the Koch brothers’ critique of Washington is almost the exact opposite of Trump’s. Indeed, with those important exceptions aside, the average Jon Stewart fan would probably agree with the Koch brothers more than Hillary Clinton on a wide array of issues.
From the 1960s through the George W. Bush administration, Charles and David Koch were fierce critics of the GOP. David Koch, in fact, was the Libertarian Party candidate for vice president in 1980—the year Ronald Reagan was first elected. The brothers founded and funded think tanks that opposed the Vietnam War, the Patriot Act, prison-building, homophobic marriage laws, corporate subsidies, deficit spending, and many other GOP positions.
Unlike Trump’s platform, this set of ideas has been thoroughly developed by diverse thinkers from libertarians to moderate thinkers in both parties. It is a promising platform for governance, and the Koch brothers had spent decades patiently bringing it to fruition.
At least, that was their strategy until 2008, when they panicked and changed course.
The root cause was those two thorny policy areas where they actually do agree with Trump: climate change and health reform. Charles and David feared that Obama would socialize medicine, overreact on climate change, and crash the economy. As a result, they discarded their careful libertarian strategy and created a monster: They heavily backed the GOP by funding a quasi-grassroots rage campaign known today as the Tea Party movement, built to attack Obama and Democrats.
In the short term, this Koch investment clearly failed. The Tea Party failed to block either of Obama’s election victories; failed to block healthcare reform; failed to block health-care implementation; and failed to block executive action on climate change. By attacking the Democratic Party directly, the Koch brothers dragged their own brand into the political arena—exactly the result they initially wanted to avoid.
And, as time has passed, the Koch brothers’ initial panic about Obama has proven foolish. Health-care spending growth has actually slowed since Obamacare was enacted, perhaps because the law was written to mimic reform ideas developed over decades by Republican think tanks. Obama’s climate actions have been moderate and well regarded by the business community, especially as the science of climate change increasingly confirms the prudence of public action. Indeed, in the waning years of the Obama administration, the Koch brothers have found common cause with the president on criminal justice reform.
The Koch brothers’ Tea Party strategy looks even worse when moving from the short-term to the long-term. Their project to move America in a libertarian direction is in shambles.
Most Tea Partiers reject libertarianism, the Koch brothers’ core political idea. The movement’s roots in climate denial drove skepticism of scientists in general, including regarding vaccines. The sole true libertarian in the race, Rand Paul, is barely hanging on. The Koch brothers’ initial favorite, Scott Walker, has already dropped out. In other national news, the Tea Party faction installed in the House by the Koch brothers’ investment has made the chamber ungovernable, with pro-business Speaker John Boehner resigning, and his deputy Kevin McCarthy withdrawing his name from consideration as the next speaker.
Meanwhile, Trump is picking up the pieces. The rage-driven Tea Party may have been a bad platform for the Koch brothers’ vision, but it is almost purpose-built for Trump, who leads both the GOP race and, by an even larger margin, polls of the Tea Party. When the Koch brothers tried to block Trump from accessing their political network in July, Trump turned it to his advantage, and by August key operatives were abandoning the Koch network in favor of Trump. On this trajectory, the main result of the Koch brothers’ billion-dollar bet on the GOP will be to elect their worst nightmare as president.
The game is not yet over, however, and the Koch brothers still have cards to play. With an estimated $100 billion in combined personal net worth, they have more than 10 times the resources available to Trump. They can still hope that America’s saner voters step up and shut down The Donald. They can try to cultivate one of Trump’s closer competitors, such as Marco Rubio or John Kasich. In some ways even Carly Fiorina and Jeb Bush could be plausible candidates for the Koch brothers to support.
It’s hard to see how the Koch brothers will ultimately get what they want, however, by continuing to fund the GOP. Notwithstanding their recent PR initiative to improve their public image, their Tea Party is an unfixable albatross around their necks. Having never previously dabbled in race baiting, the Kochs now own responsibility for a movement that fanned fear and hostility to the nation’s first black president, with a special focus on older, more conservative white men from the South. This anti-libertarian, nativist, near-hate group is their baby.
It is time for them to act like the great businessmen they are and cut their losses. It is time for them to act like the libertarians they claim to be and think of the country’s future. The history of successful American political movements, from the Progressives in the 1890s to United We Stand in the 1990s, shows that a thoughtful and powerful third party movement can be the best way to change America, for good.
It is time for the Koch brothers to dump the GOP and return to their true roots as libertarians.