The Koch brothers and their network of donors, gathering at Charles Koch’s exclusive California retreat this January, declared 2017 to be their “most productive year yet.” The event came several weeks after the passing of Trump’s tax-cut legislation, viewed by most observers as a giveaway to billionaires and corporations. In tangible terms, it was a wallet-opening moment. The network divulged that it would commit 400 million dollars to the goal of electing Republican congressional majorities in the 2018 elections in support of Trump’s legislative agenda.
The Kochs’ decidedly positive attitude toward the Trump administration comes in sharp contrast to their hostility toward Trump during the presidential campaign. After supporting several other candidates unsuccessfully in the primaries, they froze their political donations in the presidential race. There was little secret about their reasons: they viewed Trump’s populism as a threat to their corporate libertarian goals. His xenophobic claims and alignment with immigration extremists did not comport well with the Kochs’ free-market, cheap-labor philosophy, while his promises to uphold major social programs signaled a very un-libertarian willingness to curry favor with the masses and to countenance economic redistribution.
Nor did the earliest actions of the Trump administration bring any meaningful change of attitude on the part of the Koch network. When the organization met shortly after Trump’s inauguration, it looked disapprovingly on his executive orders on immigration and his axing of the Pacific Trade Agreement. These actions were only somewhat alleviated by Trump’s assault on regulations, the one bright spot on a dark canvas.
In spite of inauspicious beginnings, some noticeable thawing occurred between Trump and the big donors as the year progressed. One reason was the administration’s hiring of Koch-connected personnel for several strategic positions, resulting in increased exposure to Koch priorities. Many of the appointees were previously involved with Koch satellite organizations, including White House legislative director Marc Short (former leader of Freedom Partners, a Koch donor network) and White House Counsel Donald McGahn (former legal advisor to Freedom Partners). Of particular importance were appointees committed to delivering on the Kochs’ fossil-fuel agenda, notably White House energy aide Mike Catanzaro, an oil industry lobbyist with Koch ties and Samantha Dravis, an employee for Freedom Partners hand-picked by Scott Pruitt to implement deregulation at the EPA.
In addition, the administration felt the increasing influence of rightist Vice-President Mike Pence in the White House and conservative Republican elites in Congress who were sympathetic to many of the Koch brothers’ libertarian ideas. Several must-haves on the Koch wish list were achieved as the year advanced, including the choice of Neil Gorsuch to replace Scalia on the Supreme Court, the abandonment of the Paris Climate Agreement, the disabling of the EPA under Scott Pruitt, the adoption of a privatization education agenda under Betsy DeVos, and the elimination of the Individual Mandate in health care. The clincher, of course, was the December 2017 tax-cut, a sine qua non for the donor class.
To be sure, even as the Trump administration came to accept and advance many of the Koch brothers’ priorities, the brothers continued to remind the world that they were still independent actors. At their recent gathering they made sure to put in a good word for issues like sentencing reform and the decriminalization of drug laws, where they differ from the Trumpians, to keep their libertarian brand alive.
But, having decided to take advantage of a windfall when it presented itself, the Kochs appear more than content to remain on the Trump train, where they occupy first-class seats. The fact that Trump is a crude and unpredictable agent for their agenda is no longer seen as a stumbling block. As Jonathan Chait has pointed out, Trump presented them with a bargain they could hardly refuse: the prospect of achieving “libertarian ends” by “authoritarian means.”
The apparent contradiction brings out an unseemly fact about corporate libertarians: namely, for all their talk of liberty, they are generally very accepting of undemocratic, authoritarian methods to achieve their goals. In the Trumpian context, such methods include bullying, arbitrary dictates, and legislative subterfuge.
Indeed, the standard libertarian theme of a government that favors the “makers” of society runs very much counter to the ideals of a democracy based on promoting the common good. Since voters in a democracy tend to support government programs that serve their interests, an authoritarian regime is the only vehicle the donor class can count on to reverse that trend and get the privatized social order it wants. Under today’s impaired American political system, the donors’ best option is to hitch their star to a demagogue who captures the masses with heights of oratory and then sells out to the highest bidder.