Despite Aggressive Rebrand, Charles Koch is Still Fighting Against DemocracyRoundup
tags: conservatism, democracy, Koch Brothers, Charles Koch, Dark Money
Nancy MacLean is the William H. Chafe distinguished professor of History and Public Policy at Duke University and author most recently of Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America.
Lisa Graves is the executive director of True North Research, board president of the Center for Media and Democracy, and a co-creator of the websites Koch Exposed and Koch Docs. She also advises BoldReThink.org.
In November 2020, just two weeks after the most divisive U.S. election of our lifetimes, billionaire Charles Koch published a book called Believe in People: Bottom-Up Solutions for a Top-Down World. A few days before that, on November 13, The Wall Street Journal published a story with the headline “Charles Koch Says His Partisanship Was a Mistake.” Koch, the article noted, wanted a “final act building bridges across political divides.”
The same day, The Washington Post headlined a puff piece about the book: “Charles Koch congratulates Biden and says he wants to work together on ‘as many issues as possible.’ ” The writer, political columnist James Hohmann, informed his readers that the chief executive officer of Koch Industries said “there is too much hate in the country and lamented how emboldened extremists have become” (Hohmann’s words). Nearly all of the major media outlets that reported on the book carried similar exclamatory quotes from Koch about his investments in the Republican Party: “Boy, did we screw up.” “What a mess!” “This is crazy! Are we going to have a civil war?”
Heaving a collective sigh of relief that the donor and strategist most responsible for the radicalization of the Republican Party had now committed to a mellow “final act,” news outlets told their audiences, in effect, that they no longer needed to worry about the Koch network. It had been tamed by the shock and horror of Donald Trump. But what mainstream news editors seemed to forget was that they were covering a specialist in strategic disinformation, who had perfected the practice of deceiving the public during his network’s three decades of climate change denial.
Koch, the single most influential billionaire shaping American political life, never changed course. And the head fake he pulled off in 2020 succeeded in securing for his vast donor network—and the hundreds of organizations they underwrite—the freedom to operate, virtually without scrutiny, over the two years since. In that time, far from ceasing their efforts to divide the country, they have ramped them up. Like a snake shedding its skin as it grows, Koch was merely rebranding—yet again after exposure—and grouping his numerous operations under a sunny new name: Stand Together.
In August, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) reported that Koch-funded organizations spent over $1.1 billion in the 2020 election cycle. At the same time his book claiming to have changed course was in press, Koch spent almost 50 percent more than the record amount the Koch network had raised in the 2016 cycle: $750 million. Koch did not endorse Trump, though his spending buoyed the top of the ticket and helped maintain a GOP Senate majority to secure Koch-backed policies and judicial nominees embraced by Trump.
One of these organizations, Koch’s Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organization, claimed it was involved in more than 270 races in the 2020 election, reaching almost 60 million voters with door-knocking, phone calls, postcards, digital ads, and more. AFP also played heavily in the battle for U.S. Senate seats in Georgia, in January 2021—even as Koch was still getting favorable coverage for his supposed withdrawal from divisive electoral politics. AFP Action, the super PAC arm, alone raised and spent $60 million nationwide in that election cycle.
Meanwhile, other key organizing enterprises, think tanks, litigation outfits, campus centers, and more that were previously backed by the Koch network continue operating today, sometimes under new names, and with expanded funding. These include endeavors we consider unethical, only some of which we have the space to highlight here.
Take, for example, Koch’s longest running quest: enchaining democracy by rigging the rules of governance to free corporations from customary oversight and to prevent the will of the vast majority of Americans from securing federal, state, and local policies to improve their lives. With the connivance of Trump, the generalship of Federalist Society leader Leonard Leo, and the well-funded campaigning of Leo’s Judicial Crisis Network, the arch-right billionaire succeeded in capturing a supermajority in the U.S. Supreme Court. Koch had told his allied billionaire backers that this was one of his top priorities for the Trump Administration—along with the dramatic tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy that he also secured.