Donald Trump vs. Charles Koch Is a Custody Battle Over Congress

Most of the media coverage of the “ugly public feud,” as the New York Times called it, between President Trump and the Koch brothers has taken the Kochs at their word that they may have to give up on the Republican Party of Trump and start backing Democrats, so disgusted are they with the President’s protectionist trade policies. But history suggests that the Kochs’ threat is about as believable as that of a parent threatening to “just plain leave” if a balky toddler doesn’t behave.

Despite their record as one of the country’s largest and most consistently partisan financial sponsors, the Kochs’ pique at their own party is nothing new. For decades they have complained bitterly about Republican politicians whose fealty to their libertarian agenda has rarely, in their view, been absolute enough. This dissatisfaction with the Grand Old Party was evident as far back as 1980, when Charles Koch, who is now eighty-two, convinced his younger brother David Koch, who is now seventy-eight, to run for Vice-President on the Libertarian ticket, against Ronald Reagan. The Kochs, who at one point were members of the fringe-right John Birch Society, deemed Reagan insufficiently conservative, as they now do Trump. But after Reagan won in a landslide—the Libertarian Party got only one per cent of the popular vote—the Kochs gave up on third-party politics. From that point on, they used their vast family fortune to build a three-pronged political machine comprised of lobbying, campaign donations, and nonprofit pressure groups to pull the Republican Party toward their views. One could argue that their return on investment has been remarkable; the Republican Party has adopted many of their hard-right anti-government, anti-regulation, and anti-tax views, few of which were in vogue when the Kochs entered politics. But no matter how far right the G.O.P. has moved, it’s never been quite far enough for Charles Koch, who declared, in 1978, that “our movement must destroy the prevalent statist paradigm.”

Neither of the Bush Presidents passed the Kochs’ political-purity test. In fact, it was the Kochs’ disappointment with George W. Bush’s expansion of prescription-drug benefits, among other issues, that inspired them, in 2003, to form their political-fundraising network with like-minded conservatives. Since then, the group has grown into a private political machine that arguably rivals, and by some estimates overpowers, the Republican Party itself. Earlier this year, the network announced that it planned to spend four hundred million dollars in the coming midterm-election cycle, to help preserve the Republican majority in both houses of Congress. But last weekend, somewhat unexpectedly, at a meeting, in Colorado Springs, of some five hundred members of this group, all of whom have pledged to contribute at least one hundred thousand dollars annually to the cause, Koch officials attacked Trump, in all but name, as “divisive,” and threatened to start backing Democrats in some midterm races. This came atop the recent news that the Kochs’ main political-advocacy group, Americans for Prosperity, had sponsored an ad praising Heidi Heitkamp, the Democratic senator, who is running in a tough reëlection race in North Dakota, for voting to loosen financial regulations. The Kochs haven’t committed to backing her, but they have declined to support her Republican opponent, Kevin Cramer, more or less thumbing their nose at the President, who personally endorsed him.

Trump took little time to fire back, tweeting, “I don’t need their money or bad ideas,” that he has “beaten them at every turn,” and that the Kochs “have become a total joke in real Republican circles.” Trump, of course, was never the Koch network’s preferred candidate. In 2016, he was, in fact, the only Republican Presidential candidate whom the Kochs declared they could not support. As a would-be strong man, Trump shared none of their libertarian anti-statist sympathies. In fact, Charles Koch memorably complained that choosing between Trump and Hillary Clinton was like choosing between “cancer or a heart attack.” Trump meanwhile derided the politicians who sought the Kochs’ backing as “puppets.”

Yet Trump has done more to further the Kochs’ agenda than any previous Administration. Despite claiming to represent the country’s “forgotten men,” he has surrounded himself with Koch apparatchiks and allies. Several of his Cabinet members’ allegiance to the Kochs long predates their allegiance to Trump, including Vice-President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The Administration has fulfilled many of the Kochs’ wildest dreams, ranging from environmental revanchism to extraordinarily regressive tax cuts. The Kochs have also lavished praise on Trump’s conservative judicial picks. As Trump himself observed in a tweet this week, he’s made Charles and David Koch, whose fortunes are estimated at more than fifty-three billion dollars each, far wealthier. So, given how richly Trump has rewarded them, why are are the Kochs sounding off now?

On the surface, the cause of the rift is their opposition to Trump’s protectionist trade and immigration policies, which clash with their free-market preferences—and Koch Industries’ bottom line. The policy fight runs deep, reflecting a larger rift in the Republican Party on these issues. Exacerbating tensions, Trump and Charles Koch are both headstrong billionaires who are accustomed to buying, and then getting, their ways. Both were sent to military schools by their parents, after having disciplinary problems at home, and both have high regard for themselves as self-made men, despite both inheriting vast fortunes from their fathers.

Beyond this, both appear to think that the Republican Party in particular, and American politics in general, should be theirs to dominate. Yet, if you parse last weekend’s complaint from Charles Koch carefully, what you see is that his ire wasn’t so much directed at Trump, whom he didn’t name, as at the Republicans in Congress for having fallen in line with the President instead of with him. According to the Washington Post, Koch said that he “regrets” backing some of the Republicans he helped elect, because they had strayed from the Koch network’s agenda. As a result, he reportedly said, at the closed-door meeting in Colorado, “We’re going to be more strict on holding someone accountable if they say they’re going to be for the principles that we espouse, and then they aren’t.” It was in this context that he said he might even consider backing Democrats.

The conservative activist Erick Erickson told the Post that “the Kochs are rather appalled at what they’re seeing from Republicans who they helped elect in 2010, 2014 and 2016—and who promised to be fiscally responsible and support free markets.” Instead, many Republicans in Congress have now defected to Trump, and the Kochs, like many others, are evidently disappointed to see how easily their party’s elected representatives have switched their allegiance.

As Stephen Bannon, Trump’s former chief political strategist and an architect of the nationalist and nativist policies that the Kochs oppose, put it, “the donor class controlled the Republican Party—that is, until the rise of Trump.” Now, the Kochs’ real problem, he said, was that they “see that being ripped away.”

Charles Koch’s real beef may not be so much with the President, from whom he never expected all that much, and, who, like other Republican Presidents, has disappointed him. Instead, it is the Republicans in Congress whose campaigns he lavishly funded. Unforgivably, they have violated the age-old definition of an honest politician, one who, once bought, stays bought.

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