Fear of authoritarianism pervades Koch network seminar, as billionaire donors grapple with Trump

The following article by James Hohmann and Breanne Deppisch was posted on the Washington Post website January 30, 2017:

Mark Holden, general counsel for Koch Industries, chats with his boss Charles Koch. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)


INDIAN WELLS, Calif.—Charles Murray, the political scientist best known for his book “The Bell Curve,” spoke Sunday afternoon to 550 donors who have each agreed to give at least $100,000 a year to finance the conservative Koch network. He painted a pessimistic picture of decaying institutions, growing dependency on government assistance and the increasing isolation of the rich from the rest of society.

“Completely apart from the individual person of the president, I think we see an environment that is fertile for authoritarianism in the United States now,” he told some of the country’s most affluent business leaders, as they sipped lemonade and ate salad at a desert resort outside Palm Springs.

“As recently as 1960, both the left and the right were united in general support for what was called the American creed. The American creed was the basics of individualism and freedom and opportunity,” Murray explained. “And what we discovered last year was that the proportion of the American electorate on the right that is still devoted to those American creedal principles is way smaller than I thought it was. I’m not talking about how many doctrinaire libertarians there are. I’m talking about the degree to which people buy into what we’ve always considered, ‘This is what America is all about.’”

During a panel discussion later in the afternoon, billionaire industrialist Charles Koch – who has been convening these twice-annual seminars since 2003 – reiterated Murray’s point. “We have a tremendous danger because we can go the authoritarian route,” he said, “or we can move toward a free and open society.”

Koch, who has become a household name over the past few years, was not referring specifically to Trump. But he and others at the three-day conference, which continues until tonight, have warned in stark terms that the “disenchantment” which allowed Trump to become president shows how fragile freedom is in this country. “There’s some that like Trump. There’s some that like Bernie Sanders. But they didn’t like the status quo,” Koch said. “The struggle between opportunity and humanity and control and stagnation is eternal. We can never rest.”

— The comments come at a surreal moment for the Koch network. On the one hand, it has never been more powerful. Republicans have unified control of government, and no one else has invested more money since the start of this decade to make that happen. Some of their biggest dreams could soon become reality: repealing the Affordable Care Act, rolling back environmental regulations, overhauling the tax code, moving the Supreme Court to the right.

But the network, and the Koch brothers, didn’t support Trump. Several of Trump’s priorities are anathema to them. Yesterday the network, in its first formal break with Trump since the election, criticized his travel ban on some refugees and immigrants, calling it “the wrong approach.” Many here are alarmed that Trump is targeting individual companies, they’re nervous about new tariffs and they don’t like the idea of a big infrastructure package.

Matea Gold and I take a deep look at how the Kochs are recalibrating for the new era in a piece that just posted. We write about how the mixed emotions foreshadow a provocative role for the network in the age of Trump — as a potent resistance movement within the GOP, well-positioned to fight the president and his allies on Capitol Hill when they push policies that run counter to the group’s libertarian credo. But they’re also happy to back him up when he’s on the same page.

In the next two years, the network aims to spend $300 million to $400 million on policy and political campaigns — up from $250 million during the 2016 elections. The plan is to continue building an operation that has 1,600 staffers and thousands of activists spread across 36 states. (Read my story with Matea here.)

— The network is accustomed to taking on a Republican president. Koch convened his first seminar in 2003, partly driven by frustration with George W. Bush. Brian Hooks, the president of the Charles Koch Foundation, argued last night that Barack Obama’s presidency was only possible because Bush failed to govern effectively.

“Mike Pence, as a congressman, made a video with us. In it, he warns: ‘Beware unified government under either party,’” Hooks told the assembled donors. “When Pence was making that video with us, he was talking about the squandered opportunity of the 2000s. Frankly the promises of limited government and good reforms like tax cuts were overshadowed by the spending and regulatory policies that grew the size and scope of government by 60 percent. .. I’m not here to pick on the Bush people. I just want to tell you the truth. Policies like Medicare Part D, the steel tariffs and No Child Left Behind didn’t help people to improve their lives…

“Barack Obama was an extreme reaction away from the status quo of 2008,” Hooks continued. “Still frustrated, the American people have voted for change again. Donald Trump has made it very clear that’s what he’s offering. Many of the people who voted for President Trump also voted for Obama.”

Hooks, who is co-chairing the seminar, cautioned donors that Trump, too, could lead to a massive backlash. “If things don’t get better, then we should expect history to repeat itself,” he said. “We should expect that the political pendulum will swing with even more force to the other direction the next time. With people even further to the left than Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren! There are people right now who are prepared for the next four years to be a failure, people who cannot wait to be there to address the frustrated American people and introduce them to their own vision of radical hope and change. So the stakes are extremely high.”


— Trump blamed Delta Airlines for this weekend’s chaos and confusion:

Delta’s problems occurred Sunday evening, nearly two full days after Trump signed his order. The airline told Mark Berman that its IT systems went down at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, causing Delta to cancel 170 flights on Sunday evening and another 80 flights on Monday. The airline’s systems were restored after a few hours and all systems were back to normal after midnight, according to Delta.

— POTUS also said he will reveal his Supreme Court nominee tomorrow night: