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No, Donald Trump's triumph is not a setback for the Koch brothers

David Koch
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David Koch

The billionaire brothers and political superdonors Charles and David Koch disliked Donald Trump and the populist promises he made to his white working-class followers. But is Trump’s ascension to the Oval Office a blow to the Kochs’ agenda, or even to their power within the larger conservative/Republican movement?

Theda Skocpol doesn’t seem to think so.

In a talk yesterday at the University of Minnesota, eminent Harvard political scientist/sociologist Skocpol said the big right-wing pro-business donors epitomized by and led by the Kochs is ever more influential and relentless in pushing its agenda and perhaps as effective as ever.

Yes, she said, there is also large group of wealthy liberal donors in the game, imitating some of the Kochs’ techniques. But they are fewer, less disciplined in pursuing their agenda, more scattered in channeling funds to a few powerful organizations, and for all those reasons less effective.

Her talk, at the U of M’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, wasn’t much about Trump. It was about the megadonors and how they work. One of the best ways to miss the point of how they work is to follow the contributions of individual donors to individual candidates or to the Democratic or Republican parties under rules and laws that require the contributions to be disclosed, Skocpol said.

A better start is to focus on the big secret conclaves at which the left and right donors meet and hear pitches from political groups seeking their support. She has been researching how those conclaves work. The Koch Brothers have been hosting what they call “Koch Seminars”  since 2003.

Conservative millionaires and billionaires pay large fees to attend the seminars, which are held twice a year at posh resorts, closed to the public during the meetings and often surrounded by armed guards to keep prying eyes away, Skocpol said.

Select political candidates favored by the Kochs are allowed to attend and mix with the fat cats, and Skocpol’s research suggests that such an invitation often pays large dividends in future fund-raising efforts by those candidates. Among the major 2016 Republican presidential candidates, Trump was the only one who had never attended one of their seminars, Skocpol noted.

But the dollars that flow to candidates at the semi-annual events pale compared to the much bigger funds raised by groups that use a variety of means to advance the conservative agenda.

The donors hear presentations from sanctioned conservative groups that are raising political action funds. She said the attendees are required, as a condition of getting into the seminar, to give a minimum of $200-250,000 to the groups that are accepted to fund-raise there, and most give much more than that.

She estimates that in the most recent election cycle, the Koch Seminars caused between $700 million and a billion dollars to be channeled to the relatively few Koch-sanctioned recipient organizations.

Skocpol summarized:

“The bottom line is that the Koch seminars gather their 400-500 people twice a year, put them through a pretty disciplined two or three days of lectures on what we’re all here for, to have the courage to fight for a free society, a market-based, entrepreneurial society, and lay out the strategies pretty carefully, and then expose people, to about 8-10 Koch-directed political organizations, above all Americans for Prosperity.”

AFP functions somewhat as the unofficial political advocacy representative of Kochism. Through the devices described above, the Koch organization has built what Skocpol called “a virtual third political party in the United States.”

Since 2005, the liberal answer to the Koch donor meetings, calling itself the “Democracy Alliance,” has been holding similar meetings, twice a year for three days at a time, at which they rent an entire wing of a luxury hotel, allow about 200 donors to attend and be importuned for political funds by selected left and center-left groups.

The Democracy Alliance raises plenty of money from liberal fat cats, but not nearly as much as the Koch Seminars raises, Skocpol said.

In addition – and Skocpol seemed to think this was a very key difference that adds to the effectiveness of the Koch operation – instead of offering the donors eight to 10 groups as potential recipients as the Kochs do, the Democracy Alliance encourages the donors to give to any organizations on their approved list of hundreds working for progressive causes. She believes that focusing the money on a relatively few groups closely linked to Kochism has a lot more impact than sanctioning hundreds of groups to receive funds from liberal donors.

“I call it free market Leninism,” Skocpol said. “It gathers up resources from a lot of people and delivers it in a very strategic way to an integrated operation that can generate ideas and combine them with political and policy campaigns.”

After the talk, I asked Skocpol what was “Leninist” about that. She said that, like the way Vladimir Lenin organized the Bolshevik revolution and the Communist Party, the Koch method is “very focused, very disciplined, very persistent, very centralized.”

By contrast, she calls the Democracy Project an exercise in “progressive market anarchy.”

“Dozens of organizations are approved to receive contributions. Each individual chooses which of those organizations they will contribute to. [The Democracy Project] raises much less money in each election cycle than the Kochs do, more on the order of $300 million compared to $800 million to a billion for the Kochs]. And it dissipates it over hundreds of organizations that are fighting for different causes.

I’ll close with one more long Skocpol quote, which circles back to the point at the top, that even though the Kochs didn’t endorse Trump, they are making out fine:

What’s really interesting to me is the payoff that the Koch network gets after Donald Trump is elected. And that’s a point I want to reinforce even though it’s not popular among a lot of people: That elections aren’t all that matter.

 It’s hard to keep that in mind right now, because this seems like an election that really does matter. And it does matter. But it produced a president who didn’t have a big policy apparatus already in place…

I mean Hillary Clinton, if she’d been elected, she had a thousand wonks, all ready to go. Donald Trump had what? Jared Kushner, I guess is the policy wonk. There are no wonks.

So Trump turned to the Koch network for a lot of political and policy expertise. That includes help making policy and expertise in mobilizing support for a policy agenda. Mike Pence. Paul Ryan. A man named Marc Short, who was head of Freedom Partners is now head of legislative affairs for the White House.

I could go on and on. There is a long list of people who came out of that [Koch] network and who are part of the reason we see Donald Trump, after promising a very populist agenda in the election, turning to very, very ultra-free-market policy ideas like completely dismantling almost a billion dollars of federal spending on health insurance in order to transfer that to tax cuts for the rich. That’s not a populist idea. That is an idea that has come directly from people around Donald Trump to whom he has outsourced his legislative agenda.

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Comments (16)

Policy Wonks

You need policy wonks to create things (we can argue whether any specific creation is good or bad) but you don't need policy wonks to destroy things. I.E. you needs policy wonks to replace, but not to repeal.

So if your plan is to simply eliminate regulations, as opposed to creating more "user friendly" regulations that accomplish a desired goal, no policy wonks need apply.

It takes a lot more time, effort, and skill to build a house than it does to tear it down.

And the lesson is…

…zealots are focused, determined, and relentless. Sadly, at least in this context, those are traits not found as commonly among those on the left. As a result, we have a national government more or less purchased by right-wing zealots pining for a "free market" that has never existed, and that won't exist at any foreseeable point in human history, no matter who's in the White House, or running China, or in charge in Berlin, etc. It's capitalism-as-religion, with the Kochs and similar folks as disciples, and a larger group of wealthy true-believers working to control city councils, state legislatures, and Congress. The Presidency is largely symbolic, since policy is made (and more importantly, funded) at the local and legislative level.

I saw that policy vacuum in

I saw that policy vacuum in Trump's presidential campaign and especially in his near-inability to give any policy details in questions and debates.

He was ignorant of how to implement anything, ignorant of how Congress works or how the federal government is set up. Ignorant of the complexities of health care and health insurance, ignorant of the tax code even as it sometimes applied to him and his business. And unwilling to lean about those policies (the man is both lazy and impatient, we're told.) He couldn't talk about any of it, while Clinton was criticized for being more than able to talk about specifics.

That void of policy knowledge made me suspect that Trump would at the very least be dominated by Congressional figures who could easily get around him with more conservative policies than what his "populist" promises foretold. And of course, amplified, as the lecturer yesterday described, by the Koch network of very prepared ultra-wonks on policy.

The

The unreliability/unpredictability/untrustworthiness of Donald Trump was demonstrated repeatedly during the campaign.

It has been further demonstrated in the vast gulf between his blather on the beautiful health-care plan he would have and the despicable plan he wanted to sign into law. It is demonstrated by the airstrike on Syria that he campaigned against (even in light of chemical weapons), reiterated as late as last week, and flip-flopped within a few hours. It is demonstrated by his caving on China policy. Who knows what tomorrow will bring.

The Kochs' rightly read him as unreliable. They are riding with the horse they have, though.

Hedging their bets

More likely, the Koch's are hedging their bets. Over the years, a lot of big business and rich people in this US have donated to both the GOP and the Democratic party to do this. The Kochs seems to be especially determined to overthrow anything that they perceive threatens their little empir so are only hedging their bets against a possible incompetent rival, Trump. I think "Leninist" is quite accurate to describe them and their followers. Trump is their Trotsky.

If anyone thinks it's easier to "simply eliminate regulations" rather than create more "use friendly" ones, I'd invite them to look at the slough of bills in the Minnesota legislature this session, like the current SF 723 the Environment and Natural Resources Finance Omnibus Bill. It's larded with legislation obviously conceived and probably written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), another Koch instrumentality. It's a budget bill but with a bunch of policy changes that are designed to kneecap water quality regulation by the MPCA and other anti-environmental initiatives. Also the Bills that would "preempt" local initiatives a banning plastic bags, etc. These are serous, carefully crafted and thought out pieces of legislation designed to sabotage environmental protection, while seeming to maintain environmental protection. Like a lot of "deregulation" in the past 30 years, these bills reflect a huge public bamboozlement factor: you can't just repeal regulations; you must replace them with more complicated regulations that allow you to regulate less while seeming not to do so.

Oh, those scary Kochs...

“Yes, she said, there is also large group of wealthy liberal donors in the game, imitating some of the Kochs’ techniques. But they are fewer, less disciplined in pursuing their agenda, more scattered in channeling funds to a few powerful organizations, and for all those reasons less effective.” Is there a proof of this statement? Soros seems very disciplined and quite determined…

“I call it free market Leninism,” Skocpol said. “It gathers up resources from a lot of people and delivers it in a very strategic way to an integrated operation that can generate ideas and combine them with political and policy campaigns.” “By contrast, she calls the Democracy Project an exercise in “progressive market anarchy.” OK, the Kochs didn’t invite Trump to their “gatherings” and didn’t help him a bit and yet he won the Republican nomination and then the presidency, practically against the Kochs wishes – this doesn’t look like very effective operation to me. By contrast, Democratic machine made Clinton the candidate and disposed of Sanders – a far cry from “anarchy.” We should also remember that Lenin got his way in Russia while the Koch brothers have not succeeded since 2004 (the first Russian revolution was in 1905 and in 1917 Lenin won). In other words, their success ratio (counting by presidential elections) is one out of four at best…

So it looks like it was another left wing gathering with the simple agenda: the Kochs (and Trump) are scary so let’s resist, at least by giving money to the progressive causes… Of course, the Koch brothers are not one dimensional as liberals want to show them to be. Here are a few examples: The Koch brothers each made $10 million grants to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) to fight the Bush administration over the PATRIOT Act; David Koch established the David H. Koch Charitable Foundation which has provided an estimated $1.5 billion to a variety of causes and institutions including public television, medical research, higher education, environmental stewardship, criminal justice reform and the art; In 2014, the brothers made a $25 million grant to the United Negro College Fund; in 2009 David Koch gave the Smithsonian Institution $15 million for the purpose of building a hall covering 6 million years of human evolution and he has given the American Museum of Natural History $20 million and the Smithsonian $35 million to build dinosaur hall; the Koch brothers have advocated reform of the United States' criminal justice system and in 2011, Koch Industries received a "Defender of Justice award" from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers in recognition of their financial support for providing low-income defendants with competent legal representation; and finally, the Kochs aligned with President Barack Obama in heading criminal justice reform, citing poor conditions and an outdated system (in addition to the president, the Kochs have partnered with groups such as the ACLU, the Center for American Progress, Families Against Mandatory Minimums, the Coalition for Public Safety, and the MacArthur Foundation) and they seek to aid those suffering from systemic overcriminalization and overincarceration, who are generally from low-income and minority communities. How many wealthy liberals help the conservative agenda in anything?

Most of the Koch Bros

donations that you cite are neither liberal nor conservative in essence. And they are funded in part by our tax payments.
And remember that the ACLU ultimately is devoted to civil liberties, not to the Democratic party nor liberalism as a political philosophy.
For one example, they defended neo-Nazis outside of Chicago when they thought that a civil liberties issue was at stake, even though most ACLU members personally strongly disagree with the American Nazi Party's positions.
They have the right to say anything they want to as long as it is not a direct incitement to violence. That's the line that Trump has been walking, and I suspect that the ACLU would support him against civil action based only on his speech (no matter how objectionable) as long as it stayed within the bounds of the law.

You said that most Koch’s

You said that most Koch’s donations are neither conservative nor liberal in nature. Can you say the same about George Soros’s donations? On the other hand, if what you said is correct, why are they so hated by the Left? Of course, ACLU is a strongly liberal organization based on the positions they take in most cases. Yes, they defended the Nazi’s right to march but that was 40 years ago; plus, they were defending their freedom, not their views, as you pointed out (by the way I hope that ALL, not just most, “ACLU members personally strongly disagree with the American Nazi Party's positions.” But, going back, “public television, medical research, higher education, environmental stewardship, criminal justice reform and the art” and many others that I listed that the Kochs gave money for are all liberal causes…

Yes, those scary Kochs

I would offer that any donation made by either Koch is made with the intention of advancing their personal agenda. The Kochs did not support Trump but they did not oppose him either! They simply shifted their financial support to candidates for the Senate, House, governorships, and state legislatures. To believe their contributions to a variety of organizations proves they are magnanimous is simply ignoring their long history of using those contributions to influence those who receive their contributions to support positions that advance their agenda.

The Kochs opposed Trump

The Kochs opposed Trump during primaries… “I would offer that any donation made by either Koch is made with the intention of advancing their personal agenda… “To believe their contributions to a variety of organizations proves they are magnanimous is simply ignoring their long history of using those contributions to influence those who receive their contributions to support positions that advance their agenda.” So how did they benefit from giving money to “public television, medical research, higher education, environmental stewardship, criminal justice reform?” How did they use those contributions to support their position? On the other hand, do you think Soros gives money without consideration for his personal agenda?

Sinclair Lewis :"It is

Sinclair Lewis :"It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it !"

We get it--the Kochs' foundations support many different organizations--if you watch PBS, you see their name as financing many programs.

But as with every relationship, there are "deal-breakers" that are too big to overlook. For many it is their absolute position of climate change denial, which happens to run squarely with the the fossil-fuel basis of their fortune. Hence, the Sinclair Lewis statement. Maybe their support of other causes helps them to sleep better.

Do you want to say that the

Do you want to say that the left hate them just because they disagree with them on the climate issue? That shouldn’t be enough to make them evil, should it? But even in climate change, the Koch brothers’ position is very reasonable: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/energy-environment/wp/2016/06/06/wha..., https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/07/common-ground-on-cl..., http://www.huffingtonpost.com/connor-gibson/charles-koch-admits-clima_b_....

Sure--profiting mghtily from

Sure--profiting mghtily from the destruction of a livable climate is enough reason to dislike someone. Opposing alternatives is enough reason to dislike someone. The campaign of doubt worked very well for the tobacco industry. It worked for the asbestos producers. It worked for the pesticide industry. On and on.

We all benefit

We all benefit from “the destruction of a livable climate,” at least those who eat meat, drive cars, and fly planes. Some may benefit more but how much benefit is necessary to be disliked? On the other hand, why do you want them (or anyone else, for that matter) to blindly believe what others are saying? If some doubts were not justified in the past in some cases, it doesn’t mean that no one needs to doubt anything in the future. I was a big doubter about a predicted Y2K disaster… and I was right in my doubts.

The Koch boys

At least Charles and David (Fred and Bill don't always agree with them) are more capitalists than conservatives. They'll support whatever organization aids in their accumulation of capital. In this way, they're more like the pre-political Trumps than they are like political conservatives like Paul Ryan, who are ideologically consistent even when it tanks the economy. The Koches recognize that issues like improving working conditions in the long run builds their profits.

Soros v. Koch "I welcome their hatred"

FDR in 1936: "We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace--business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.

They had begun to consider the Government of the United States as a mere appendage to their own affairs. We know now that Government by organized money is just as dangerous as Government by organized mob.

Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me--and I welcome their hatred."

I can imagine a Soros saying something like that about a Koch brother, not the other way around.