Behind “Make America Great,” the Koch Agenda Returns with a Vengeance

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At first glance, the victory of Donald Trump suggests that big political money has less clout than imagined in U.S. democracy. Not only are defeated Democrats consumed with blame-shifting and calls to deliver better messages to a supposedly crucial “white working class,” but pundits are portraying President-Elect Trump as a populist politician unmoored from the establishment or big donors. Some journalists even suggest that the hundreds of conservative millionaires and billionaires organized by Charles and David Koch lost relevance this time – because the two brothers personally refused to endorse Trump and their donor network cut back originally projected spending from almost a billion to a “mere” $750 million.

But we beg to differ. As researchers who have been tracking the long-term rise and recent impact of the Koch network, we see a very different picture. During the election campaign, Trump relied upon well-established conservative organizational networks that could reach into many states and communities. He made overt deals with the National Rifle Association and the Christian right, and he benefitted indirectly from Koch network operations centered in a nation-spanning, political party-like federation called Americans for Prosperity. Even more important, after his campaign squeaked through on November 8, an unprepared President-Elect Trump started to fall back on people and plans offered by the Koch network, which aims to dismantle not only Barack Obama’s accomplishments but much of what the federal government has done for 75 years to promote security and opportunity for ordinary Americans.

As we have detailed in a September 2016 research article, for many years the Kochs and their associates have orchestrated donations from hundreds of wealthy conservatives to build and support interlocked sets of free-market-oriented think tanks, advocacy groups, and constituency mobilization efforts. Growing since 2004 and now spanning three dozen U.S. states, the Koch centerpiece Americans for Prosperity (AFP) now employs hundreds of professional operatives, claims close to 300,000 affiliated volunteer activists, and spends some $150 million annually on electoral efforts and policy campaigns. Not surprisingly, AFP was very active in the 2016 election, surgically injecting massive resources of money and canvassing power into key Senate, gubernatorial, and down-ballot races.

The Kochs certainly did not want Trump to win the GOP nomination; they preferred the likes of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker or Florida Senator Marco Rubio. As the New York magnate made surprising headway, the Koch network shifted resources to Congressional and state battles, pursuing a strategy designed to maximize post-2016 leverage despite Trump. But now that Trump has actually prevailed, Koch cleverness hits the jackpot. Although widely unpopular with the mass public, the Koch policy agenda of tax cuts for the rich, union busting, Medicare privatization, business deregulation, and evisceration of environmental and global warming measures is ripe to be rammed through a GOP-dominated Congress and sent to the desk of a president who needs Koch-affiliated personnel, understands very little about policy issues, and will be looking for victorious bills to sign into law. The stage is perfectly set to advance the core Koch ultra-free-market agenda, even though the brothers avoided endorsing Trump and the candidate himself discussed almost none of the relevant policy shifts in his appeals to voters.

“Promise her anything, but give her Arpege!” Only readers of a certain advanced age will recall this playful perfume advertising ditty from the mid twentieth century. But it captures a similar, much more serious bait-and-switch unfolding right now in American politics. Worryingly, this switcharoo is poised to unfold without much citizen understanding or debate. Most media outlets have not noticed that the Koch network is now fusing with the emerging Trump presidency – a situation that leaves citizens in the dark about huge pending policy upheavals in federal programs most American families have long taken for granted.

How the Koch Network Played in Election 2016

Despite loud pronouncements from Charles Koch that his network would not support Trump, the Kochs’ massive political operation worked over many months to turn out Republican voters in key states. Above all, AFP was deeply involved in get-out-the-vote efforts, especially in the critical swing states of Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.

Publicly available numbers suggest that AFP’s grassroots organizing made a real difference – and indirectly helped Trump, who had little campaign capacity of his own. In Wisconsin, for instance, AFP claims that it reached over 2.5 million voters in phone banking and canvassing efforts. In North Carolina, AFP claimed over 1.2 million calls and 120,000 door-to-door efforts, or nearly the entire reported margin of victory for Trump. And in Pennsylvania, AFP claims it made over 2.4 million phone calls and knocked on over 135,000 doors, more than twice Trump’s margin of victory in that state. AFP’s grassroots efforts were especially pronounced in Florida, where AFP boasts that its people knocked on a record-breaking one million doors throughout the state to help re-elect Senator Marco Rubio. Hillary Clinton lost the state by just over 100,000 votes. In all four of these states AFP helped to re-elect the incumbent Republican Senator and make important down ballot gains. Obviously, given what we know about the decline of split ticking voting, most of the same citizens AFP mobilized for state and Congressional contests also cast ballots for Donald Trump.

Beyond AFP’s mobilization in the run-up to Election Day, Trump and other Republicans were likely buoyed by longer-term efforts pursued by the Koch network across the states. Enacting voter ID laws and legal measures to eviscerate the organizing and bargaining rights of labor unions have been two of ongoing efforts of the Koch network – which always prioritizes steps to undercut the fundraising and organizational capacities of liberals and progressives. AFP and other Koch groups have worked closely with other right-wing allies to enact “right to work” measures and laws that make it hard for unions to hold members or wield organizational capacities in elections and policy battles. Their efforts have paid off handsomely in the form of abrupt declines in union membership and clout in Wisconsin and Michigan, two states that Trump won by a hair on November 8. Observers also believe that Wisconsin’s voter ID law had a significant impact in lowering black voter turnout in Milwaukee.

An Unprepared President-Elect Turns to Koch Politicians

Having helped to elect Trump and a fully GOP-controlled Congress, the Koch network is now positioned to staff and steer much that happens in Washington DC. Trump won the presidency by dominating the media and borrowing get-out-the-vote networks from allies like the National Rifle Association, the Christian right, AFP, but after November 8, his own inner circles provided little in the way of expert allies to help him fill tens of thousands of federal government jobs and plan comprehensive policy agendas. Especially on the domestic side, Trump has responded by immediately outsourcing much of this work to experienced GOP officials, including key players in his emergent White House and in Congress who have long been groomed by the Koch network. That network, in turn, offers ideas and people to help Koch affiliated politicians shape the Trump administration and agendas.

For the emerging Trump White House, Vice President Mike Pence, long a Koch network favorite, was put in charge of transition planning for federal personnel appointments – and one of his senior staffers for this effort is his long-time associate, Marc Short, recent head of Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, the lynchpin of the Koch network’s fundraising operation. (Starting in 2011, Freedom Partners became the Koch network’s “political bank”, charged with collecting hefty contributions from some 400 to 500 conservative millionaires and billionaires who attend the twice-yearly “Koch seminars” that convene at posh resorts to plan strategies and channel resources to selected conservative think tanks, issue advocacy groups, and activist and voter mobilization efforts, especially those controlled by the Koch network itself.) In addition to Pence and Short, newly-named White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus has had strong ties to AFP’s chapter in Wisconsin – a chapter that has been central to all aspects of politics and policy in that state during the ascendancy of Governor Scott Walker.

Personnel is policy, as the saying goes. Significantly, our research tracking operatives’ careers in AFP shows that key Koch officials have, for years, regularly moved on to important positions on Republican electoral and governing staffs. In the past, those plum governing positions have been in governors’ offices and on Congressional staffs. Now the Trump White House personnel operation can recruit many AFP and other Koch-groomed operatives and place them throughout the federal executive branch. So far, the process is moving right along. For example, the newly designated CIA chief, Mike Pompeo, has close Koch network ties, as do other transition advisers like Kris Kobach, a hardline Trump advisor on immigration policy who may end up in some key post in the new administration.

White House and executive staffing through Koch networks is only part of the Trump story, however, because Pence and Priebus have ready-made bridges to Congressional GOP leaders who are themselves closely aligned with the Koch network. After apparently denouncing and opposing GOP House Speaker Paul Ryan during the election campaign, President-Elect Trump did a quick about-face to fully embrace Ryan and his radical government-shrinking policy agenda. Speaker Ryan has been a featured politician at many Koch donor conclaves over the years, and Washington Post reporter Matea Gold has described Ryan as “clearly a favorite of the Koch donor network.” It is not hard to see why. Ryan’s main priorities, already spelled out in budgets that House Republicans have repeatedly passed, include slashing federal funding for Medicaid, Food Stamps, and other parts of the social safety net for the poor; privatizing Medicare for future generations of American retirees; instituting large and regressive tax cuts rewarding corporations and the very wealthy; gutting what remains of labor regulations and union rights; and eliminating business and environmental regulations. Ryan’s budget plans, now ready to push through Congress to a Republican president’s desk, align perfectly with the Koch network’s ultra-free market libertarian plans to virtually dismantle the U.S. federal government as a domestic welfare and economic force. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has also developed deep ties to the Koch network, and has previewed his plans for undoing Obama-era initiatives in closed-door Koch donor meetings.

With all of these leadership ties in place, is it no surprise that specific plans have rapidly emerged to advance the Koch agenda in the new Congress that convenes in January 2017, perhaps enacting bills so quickly that opponents will be disorganized and most Americans will not understand what is happening. Within days of the election, Speaker Ryan announced plans to move forward with upward-tilting tax cuts and repealing ObamaCare – and, even more amazingly, with his own longstanding Koch-style plan to turn America’s very popular and economically efficient Medicare health insurance program into dwindling “premium support” coupons that older Americans would have to use to cover just part of the ever-rising price for private insurance. Trump barely mentioned Medicare during the election, only to suggest he would protect the established public program along with Social Security. But when President-Elect Trump decided to back Paul Ryan for Speaker, his transition website quietly changed its Medicare wording to signal support for the privatizing voucher plan.

Similarly in lockstep with Koch-aligned Congressional Republicans, Trump has denied the existence of global climate change and he and Congressional GOP leaders are targeting Obama-era initiatives to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and improve environmental protections. Withdrawing from – or subverting – the recently ratified Paris global warming compact is on the Trump-Ryan agenda, as are steps to disempower the Environmental Protection Agency as a tool to reduce carbon emissions and the unleashing of new rounds of oil and coal production. All of these goals have been pushed by the Koch network – even as the threats to humanity grow and most Americans, including Republicans, have come to believe that global warming is a real problem that needs a federal response.

Will a Bait and Switch Presidency Spark Backlash?

Back in August, an National Public Radio correspondent suggested that the Koch political network was “building a … wall against Trump.” By now it is obvious that this depiction is just plain wrong. Despite protestations to the contrary, Koch-backed efforts provided crucial electoral support for Trump and his eventual Congressional allies. And taking a longer and deeper view, the construction over recent years of a comprehensive interlocked network of Koch donor funded organizations – including the vast federation Americans for Prosperity – has put in place personnel and policy plans now very much needed by a very unprepared amateur-hour president.

The emerging Trump-Koch agenda will, of course, drive Democrats and liberal advocacy groups to new levels of frenzy – and that may be a feature, not a bug, for Trump’s closest advisors. By combining this agenda with attacks on minority and immigrant rights and a “clash of civilizations” foreign policy, the new administration probably hopes to overwhelm its opponents. Liberals and Democrats could be so focused on Trump’s racial and international policies that they fail to mobilize widespread American popular support to save programs like Medicare.

Ironically, however, the pending Koch-inspired eviscerations of the U.S. social insurance system are likely to disillusion many of Trump’s “make America great again” voters. Medicare is one of the most cost-efficient and popular government programs, ensuring affordable, consumer friendly heath care to all U.S. seniors across metropolitan, suburban, small town and rural areas alike. Replacing this program with vouchers will disproportionately hurt poor and middle-income seniors. And this change would also devastate the bottom lines of many hospitals and clinics, especially in non-wealthy areas of the country. In addition, eliminating ObamaCare funding for Medicaid and subsidies for lower-middle-income people who purchase private plans on the state exchanges would make health insurance either unavailable or unaffordable for around 22 million non-elderly Americans. Typically, Trump and others in the GOP rhetorically imply that ObamaCare beneficiaries are chiefly poor urban blacks and Latinos, but in fact many millions live in the nonmetropolitan places that voted overwhelmingly for Trump.

With total GOP control of Washington DC about to happen, the Koch network dream of an enfeebled U.S. domestic government is on the verge of realization. Unless Democrats learn to speak clearly and organize in many states and counties, no one will even be available to make the key changes visible or explain what is happening to disillusioned voters. In a Koch-ified America, corporations would hold unfettered sway and ordinary citizens would be left “free” to their own devices and local charity – no matter how difficult their economic circumstances. Should it come to pass, this aftermath to a supposedly “populist” presidency is going to come as a real shock to most Americans – and above all to those who rallied to Trump’s 2016 promise to uplift their struggling communities and “make America great” again for people like them.

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