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

Eminent Harvard political scientist/sociologist Theda Skocpol argues that the influence of big right-wing pro-business donors epitomized by the Kochs is more influential and relentless as ever.

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.

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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.”

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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:

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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.