Beware the Conservative Trojan Horse
Liberals’ Obsession with the Kochs and the Kochs’ Support of Conservatives are both Misplaced
Jane Mayer, writing for The New Yorker, has penned an insightful article ostensibly about “The Danger of a President Pence”. In the author’s telling, Vice President Mike Pence was, before he joined the Trump ticket, a political mediocrity distinguished primarily by his abiding social conservatism and a tendency for hypocritical political opportunism that often backfired. Facing potential electoral defeat in Indiana’s gubernatorial race, Pence’s decision to partner with a man so antithetical to his Christian values can be understood as yet another opportunistic gamble. If the history is any indication, this one, too, has a good chance of going wrong for him. But it might not.
And so Mayer cautions us, especially liberals, to be wary of a potential President Pence in the unlikely event that President Trump were to step down. Certainly, the Vice President’s retrograde social conservatism, especially his views on women and women’s rights, repulse many. But this is not Mayer’s primary concern. Rather, she is worried that Pence would really be a Trojan Horse for the “anti-government” agenda of his billionaire backers, of whom Charles and David Koch are the most prominent.
The Kochs, billionaire brothers and owners of Koch Industries, have been the bugbears of the left since they gained attention for their funding of the Tea Party and other such causes unpopular with liberals. Mayer has been chronicling the brothers since at least 2010, and has even written a book about them with the ominous title “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right”.
Mayer and other liberals have an obsession with the Kochs, seeing the nefarious influence of their dark money network wherever they find a policy with which they disagree. She worries about the influence these long-time Pence backers might have on America, in the unlikely event that Trump leaves office.
Never mind that the “dark money” network is so insidious and so mysterious that everybody already knows about it — since the Kochs themselves have been funding free-market activities at least since their involvement in establishing the libertarian Cato Institute in the 1970s.
Never mind that the left is funded by its own cohort of multibillionaires, from George Soros and Warren Buffet to the titans of Silicon Valley — not to mention all those speaking fees Hillary Clinton racked up on Wall Street.
Never mind that the Kochs refused to mobilize financial support for Trump during the presidential campaign — even with Pence on the ticket.
Never mind that the Kochs are self-proclaimed libertarians on both economic and social issues, with David Koch on record as pro-choice, pro-gay rights, and pro-science — not to mention their active funding of various anti-poverty and criminal justice reform initiatives, all traditionally liberal causes.
Never mind any of that, because, well, what have the Kochs actually achieved in politics for all their millions spent?
Since the Kochs started funding libertarian and conservative causes, the size of government has continued to grow relentlessly under administrations both Democratic and Republican. The country remains engaged in costly, bloody, seemingly unending wars in the Middle East. Entitlement spending continues to grow at unsustainable levels after successive expansions under Presidents Bush and Obama. Dodd-Frank continues to place financial markets under regulatory chokehold. The EPA, the FCC, and the Department of Education all still exist and exert far-reaching control — to say nothing of the IRS and high corporate income tax rates it enforces. Republicans have failed to slow, let alone reverse, the size and scope of government.
For all of Jane Mayer’s concerns about a vast right-wing, dark-money conspiracy, the evidence would indicate that, if it exists at all, it has been hugely unsuccessful.
And it is likely to remain so. That raises the obvious question: why?
Washington’s political class offers the most immediate and obvious answer. Donald Trump has demonstrated himself incapable of governing even with majorities in the House and Senate. More importantly, his anti-immigrant, law-and-order, populist leanings are anathema to the Kochs’ worldview. And while more traditional conservative Republicans may control Congress, their haplessness is hamstringing even those items on their agenda that should have been slam dunks.
But there is a another reason. Namely, the Kochs have backed and continue to back the wrong horse. They have supported conservatives organizations and individuals that do not wholly agree with or that even undermine their political ideals.
The Tea Party, which brought the Kochs to the public’s attention, started as a free-market reaction to the overreach of both the Bush and Obama administrations — until it was hijacked by populist, nativist, social conservative factions. Time and again, conservative candidates, many funded by organizations financed by the Kochs, have claimed to stand up for free-market values only to discard them once in office. Recall the ease with which George W. Bush “abandoned free-market principles to save the free-market system”. Consider those individuals most associated with Tea Party politics — Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and Ted Cruz come to mind — and reflect on whether they define themselves by, and are remembered for, primarily their economic or their social-religious views.
And that’s the real Trojan Horse. Conservatives cloak themselves in free-market rhetoric — but that is only a smokescreen for a set of values that is fundamentally Christian and that has nothing to do with free-market capitalism. The political principles at the foundation of American constitutional republicanism — namely, the ideals of individual rights and limited government — are not, contrary to the view of many on the right, Judeo-Christian in origin. In fact, they predate Christianity, with their earliest manifestations in the pagan civilizations of Ancient Greece and Rome. Those principles later emerged in an America influenced by post-Dark Ages Enlightenment thinking that respected the guiding role of reason in man’s life and that saw little room for faith in politics. Those are the values at the root of the Kochs ideology.
Yet even if Mayer was accurate in her cynical view of the Kochs — that their belief that free markets and limited government are good for society is merely camouflage for rapacious wealth accumulation — one would still have to question the success of their methods. For the Kochs continue to support — unwittingly or not — individuals and organizations that have gone on to undermine the small-government, pro-freedom ideals they support. It’s as if they just can’t quit their support of conservatives and conservative causes. They should.
If anything, Jane Mayer’s warning about a Pence presidency should be a lesson for the Kochs. Backing the wrong horse — especially one of the Christian-conservative Trojan variety — is not likely to advance their agenda of limited government, free markets, and individual rights. Instead, they are only likely to elevate a politician who attempts and possibly succeeds in advancing a social conservative agenda that stands against their personal beliefs on social issues, while doing nothing to slow or reverse the growth of government.
Alternatively, the Kochs might see a better return on investment if, for example, they devoted their financial resources to, and made common cause with Democrats and others interested in, reforming our broken criminal justice system — a cause in the spirit of limited, rights-respecting government (whether liberals recognize it or not). The Democrats, rather than perpetuating their fear-mongering of the Kochs, should welcome such an alliance. After all, if the Kochs have the far-reaching financial influence from which Mayer recoils, such an alliance might actually have some success in galvanizing support for reform among like-minded individuals on the left and libertarian right who are not beholden to conservative social values and who seek measurable progress.
There are surely other areas of ideological overlap where partnerships might be possible. The Kochs — and the American ideals they support — might find more success in switching horses, at least on certain issues. Liberals fearful of a President Pence should look for a common saddle.