David Koch, the fossil fuel industry billionaire who passed away on August 23 at the age of 79, spent the second half of his life building a political power structure alongside his brother Charles that radically reshaped society and set the conditions for the rise of President Donald Trump.
Many obituaries published in recent days examine Koch’s history of polluting the environment and political system, how the donor network he helped lead mobilized opposition to addressing climate change, transformed our election laws to allow unlimited secret spending by the very rich, and systematically fought any regulation, labor reform, or tax viewed as a threat to the corporate power elite.
Yet Koch’s most visible accomplishment is the current occupant of the White House — a legacy largely unrecognized, and one that goes well beyond any other single triumph in his life.
The nexus is not readily clear to most, especially given that the two clashed publicly; Trump, for instance, has taken to gleefully ridiculing Koch and his brother as “globalists.” But in his scorched-earth quest for unparalleled influence, Koch, perhaps unwittingly, laid the path for Trump.
First, there were obvious efforts made by Koch, though largely ignored by the mainstream press, that directly elected Trump. In 2016, Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs’s primary vehicle for influence that operates as a privately run political party, hired over 650 staffers, deploying many to battleground states, including Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, to turn out Republican voters. The field staff filled in the gaps left by Trump’s chaotic field operation. In Wisconsin alone, Americans for Prosperity staff, equipped with state-of-the-art voter contact technology, made 1.5 million phone calls and knocked on nearly 30,000 doors.
Efforts made by Koch, though largely ignored by the mainstream press, directly elected Trump.
Late in the campaign, the Koch money flowed to television advertisements in the Rust Belt, including the crucial states of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, that hammered Hillary Clinton. Political scientist Thomas Ferguson has persuasively argued that the spending blitz by Republican billionaires, including Koch, in late October and early November, was the decisive factor in Clinton’s defeat. Koch groups spent $4.3 million in Wisconsin, eclipsing the $3 million spent by the Clinton campaign, with television ads that sought to simultaneously tear down Democrat Russ Feingold and Clinton, a pattern repeated in other crucial swing states.
What’s more, over the previous eight years, the Koch network had plowed tens of millions of dollars into the region, with a focus on Wisconsin, to transform the state, once a progressive bastion, into a laboratory for the radical right. The network focused carefully on political investments designed to change the power alignment throughout the upper Midwest: new barriers to voting, dramatic restrictions on labor unions, and investments in a localized conservative voter mobilization apparatus. The states that produced the Electoral College victory over Clinton had been primed for electing a future GOP presidential nominee, and Trump was simply the beneficiary.
More important, however, are the structural investments and vindictive political style nurtured by Koch. Though he wielded power largely behind closed doors, in the shadows of a complex web of dark-money lobby groups and think tanks, there were public glimpses of the Koch fiefdom. The most revealing of these can be seen in the the archived footage, preserved on C-SPAN, of the 2009 Americans for Prosperity annual gala.
The event space was transformed into a miniature presidential convention hall, complete with vertical placards among the rows to represent the various states of the union. But these were not elected delegates convened to nominate an American president. These were the assorted paid operatives and talking heads that had taken a wrecking ball to progressive society. They were there to thank their benefactor in an Orwellian four-hour tribute. A parade of prominent Republican politicians and pundits took the microphone, followed by staff of Americans for Prosperity, to sing praises to Koch, who stood before the hall. As each operative stood to explain what they had accomplished on his behalf, they dutifully addressed the billionaire as “Mr. Chairman.”
The cutthroat tactics that would define Koch’s anything-goes approach, and the men who would later serve as the lieutenants in Trump’s remarking of the country, were also on full display.
“Mr. Chairman,” said Corey Lewandowski, then the New Hampshire state leader for Americans for Prosperity, before boasting that he had organized right-wing rallies so raucous that when President Barack Obama visited the state, they had “forc[ed] him to change his motorcade route to avoid the angry mob.” Koch can be seen in the front of the room, clapping in approval.
Other officials took turns at the microphone to blast the policies of Obama and his administration. One speaker bragged that he had forced the resignation of former White House official Van Jones by appearing on the Glenn Beck program to accuse Jones of being a secret communist. Another promised to work to repeal the estate tax, euphemistically referred to as the “death tax.” And many others discussed the coast-to-coast tea party rallies they mobilized, focused on preventing action on climate change and health care reform.
Lewandowski boasted that right-wing rallies forced Obama “to change his motorcade route.” Koch clapped in approval.
Over the years, Americans for Prosperity and its affiliated nonprofits continued to battle Obama as the Koch network poured billions into election advocacy and lobbying. Their political rhetoric rarely matched Koch’s idealized form of libertarianism about limited government. Money flowed freely to anti-abortion groups as well as anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant extremists. But principled laissez-faire activism was never a criterion for receiving Koch money.
The assembled speakers at the 2009 convention were quick to form the basis of Trump’s inner circle. Newt Gingrich, who helped open the event, was the first major figure from the GOP establishment to endorse Trump’s bid for the Republican nomination. Larry Kudlow, another speaker at the event, is now in the executive office shaping Trump’s economic policies. Trump himself appeared at Americans for Prosperity events as early as 2014.
The permanent political machine gainfully employed by Koch to fan the flames of the tea party movement seamlessly transitioned into Trump’s orbit. Lewandowski would later serve as Trump’s presidential campaign manager. Alan Cobb, the vice president of Americans for Prosperity, became a senior adviser to the Trump election effort. Marc Short, who later became Trump’s liaison to Congress, previously worked as president of Freedom Partners, Koch’s central clearing house for doling out political grants. Donald McGahn, Koch’s campaign operation lawyer, became Trump’s campaign and White House attorney. And Mark Block, a key Americans for Prosperity official in Wisconsin, seen in the C-SPAN video reporting out the success of his growing chapter in mobilizing anti-Obama demonstrations, was the first to introduce Cambridge Analytica’s services to Steve Bannon, according to a whistleblower account.
No wonder, then, that much of Trump’s administration has been hyper-focused on the policy goals of the Koch network: deregulation, tax cuts, and business-friendly judges. A memo circulated to the Koch donor network last year compiled the laundry list of environmental and judicial victories scored through the administration, including leaving the Paris climate agreement and the appointment of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.
I became acutely familiar with the Koch network early in my career while traveling across the country in 2009 and 2010 to cover the emerging tea party protests. I was the first to report on Koch’s hidden hand in helping to orchestrate the tea party movement and harness its anger for his own political agenda, and interviewed him about climate change.
The tactics were often covert. During a town hall hosted by then-congressman Tom Perriello, a Democrat from rural Virginia, angry citizens took turns screaming into the mic, accusing the lawmaker of “ignoring the law of the Constitution that requires Obama to prove that he is a natural born citizen.” I witnessed Americans for Prosperity staff in the back, videotaping the confrontations to create viral moments of constituent unrest. Several of the loudest protesters told me after the event that they had met with Americans for Prosperity staff, who had provided talking points and advice for confronting Democratic lawmakers.
Later, in the midterm elections, an avalanche of television advertisements, many of which were funded by Koch, accused Perriello of abandoning his constituents by voting for health reform and the cap-and-trade bill in Congress.
In Washington, D.C., as the vote on the Affordable Care Act neared, Americans for Prosperity provided free buses, food, and other arrangements for thousands of demonstrators to storm Capitol Hill. When lawmakers saw hundreds of rowdy protesters storm the halls in opposition to the vote, few were aware that a single billionaire had paid their way.
In other instances, the propaganda techniques bordered on comical. One television advertisement featured an actor who played “Carleton the eco-hypocrite,” who sought action on global warming only to enrich himself and cause “massive unemployment.” Another Americans for Prosperity campaign depicted the Environmental Protection Agency’s climate policies represented as a Big Brother-style power grab, falsely claiming that “carbon cops” would arrest Americans and regulate churches under the guise of combating global warming. The campaign toured throughout the country with free food and an inflatable bounce house for children shaped as a giant green police car to illustrate the point.
Other advocacy efforts worked to grow the dark underbelly of American paranoia. American Future Fund was one of several groups that received over $10 million in 2010 from a Koch-financed nonprofit to run attack ads, including spots that spread the bigoted lie that a victory mosque was planned near the former World Trade Center.
In the end, media attention did little to dim Koch’s prospects for power. In the midterm elections that year, Koch’s advocacy machine helped deliver 63 seats in the House of Representatives, including Perriello’s seat, the entire state government in Wisconsin, and hundreds of other elections across the country into Republican hands in one of the greatest election routs in American history. The move to extremism was rewarded with raw power, with Koch as the kingmaker.