Open war has broken out yet again in the Republican Party. This time, it’s between President Trump and former White House strategist Steve Bannon (the self-identified author of Trumpism as a political ideology), and the economically conservative, libertarian-tinged Koch Network.
The issue? The Koch Network, after years of professing its libertarian inclinations but sticking up almost uniformly for Republicans and offering mainly carrots to induce changes in bad behavior, has decided to stop. No more support—at least for now—for Republicans who they have determined are insufficiently economically conservative. No bolstering of Republicans who seem wholly agreeable to Trump’s anti-free trade maneuvers and consequent proposed bailouts of affected industries. No love for Republicans who voted for the massive $1.3 billion spending package earlier in the year. And no love from the president, or Bannon, for the brothers whose approval Trump sought when first running for president.
Indeed, Bannon has said the Kochs should “shut up and get with the program” (the “program” apparently being putting every Republican possible, no matter how wrong or disagreeable, in office come Nov. 6).
The anger and bitterness is palpable. And it’s utterly unsurprising we’ve wound up here.
In spite of the Koch Network’s reputation as rigidly, predictably and dogmatically Republican in practice, but libertarian-minded for PR purposes, the truth is, it encompasses a lot of the economic conservative mega-donors who have traditionally exerted a lot of influence in Republican Party politics, and who really are more libertarian(ish) than conservative or Trumpite.
Talk to Koch Network figures as of a few years ago, and you’d find a lot of support for people like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Mike Pence, and Ted Cruz. There was never much interest in Trump. In fact, The Donald was effectively shut out of Kochworld early in the 2016 primary process, despite Trumpworld’s efforts to curry favor with the Network and leverage its assets. The situation today, in which the more libertarian of the two brothers—Charles—is running the show, and emphasizing libertarian-conservatism even more, was totally foreseeable.
So too was this week’s skirmish, which is just the latest iteration of a fight that has now been brewing for years between big dogs in the GOP who really, really do believe in free markets, capitalism, and liberty and those who have used rhetorical adherence to those concepts to advance a culturally right-leaning populist nationalist version of big government and provide philosophical cover to people who were fine with government programs, taxes and spending, but just didn’t like President Obama or Hillary Clinton.
The two approaches are, in the minds of many libertarians and many Bannonites, fundamentally incompatible, though as the president correctly noted in his tweeted criticism of the Kochs, perfectly reconcilable in the minds of a bunch of Koch Network donors if framed simply in terms of taxes, deregulation and judges. The president is banking on being able to maintain the support of those figures, and others like them, enough to fend off a primary challenge in 2020—or, the more likely result if such a challenge is mounted, a general election loss (see: Ford, Gerald, Carter, Jimmy, and Bush, George Herbert Walker).
The Koch Network, or at least its leadership and donors, are banking on being able to force the GOP back on course by deploying a lot of sticks—and no longer just carrots—a tough prospect when you consider the massively high approval rating that Trump has with Republicans (a full 87 percent according to Gallup’s latest numbers) and that libertarians—what conservatives really are, at least with regard to massive swaths of domestic policy—aren’t the majority of Republicans, let alone Americans. If they were, Rand Paul would have performed better in 2016, or Ted Cruz would at least have bested Trump in the end—right?
The segment of the voting public whose values are best represented by the Koch Network are, however, a powerful demographic and one that Republicans—and Democrats, for that matter—shun at their peril.
Both parties engaged in this exercise in 2016, and those of us who declined to support either Trump or Clinton have heard plenty of carping in the years since for how we cost this candidate this state, or that candidate that other one. The truth is, though, that politics are about coalitions. And if you want to win in more libertarian-minded swing states like New Hampshire, or Maine, or anywhere in the Mountain West, or even Virginia these days, unless your opponent literally can’t get above 45 percent in a poll, you’re going to have to attract the kind of people who agree with Charles Koch to make the math work. Moreover, if you’re a Republican, you’re going to have to do better than just agreeing with the president on everything if you want access to that sweet, sweet Koch Network cash, and infrastructure.
The role that money in politics plays is overstated. The probability, at least in presidential elections, is that the amount of media coverage devoted to a candidate or campaign better predicts outcomes than does the amount of money spent to run. But money is not insignificant, and neither is voter data—something else the Kochs have worked hard to cultivate, and which it looks like Trump will never, at this rate, get his hands on. That potentially puts Trump, and Republicans, at a disadvantage going forward, even if turning the spigot off for some Republicans does not (yet) equate to turning it on for Democrats (though Charles Koch has also hinted at that in recent days, and some individual Network donors seem inclined).
The political dynamics of 2016, or 2018, will not last forever. Those more in line with the Kochs may have taken a beating in the last election, and they might in 2020, too. But if the Kochs are right about actual policy outcomes, eventually voters are going to become disenchanted with Trumpism/Bannonism because it will fail to yield the economic and financial results promised.
At that point, the Kochs and those who take issue with trade and immigration restrictionism, massive deficit spending and big debt, and other big government policy like the proposed farm country bailout, will have triumphed. And it will be easier in that circumstance for the GOP to run home to its native Kochworld than stay living in Trumpland, a new and still rather unfamiliar frontier.