- Special Projects
No matter who gets the presidential nominations and who gets elected president, the conservative movement will come out on top.
By conservatism, I don’t mean the Trump coalition, but rather the old-fashioned ultra-right ideas advocated by light hitters like Scott Walker and heavy hitters like the Koch brothers.
Especially the Koch brothers.
That’s not the story you get by listening to the pundits or anti-Trump Republicans.
That common story is all about mayhem within the Republican Party — a civil war.
According to the influential neo-conservative intellectual Robert Kagan, “The party cannot be saved, but the country can still be.”
The Democracy Corps report on its survey of Republican voters says that because of the Donald Trump candidacy Republicans are “headed toward a train wreck that will change our politics.”
These typical views ignore the influence of conservatives’ old friends and liberals’ old enemies, the Koch brothers.
In the din involving the Republican primary, concern within the Koch network, possibly the most efficiently organized and well funded political organization ever, has virtually disappeared.
Party organizations and volunteers get much smaller or disappear after elections. The Koch network will get stronger after the 2016 election because it has the resources to fill the vacuum.
Really? Why? All of a sudden the influence of plutocrats and dark money is not a big issue?
In fact, the Kochs have kept a relatively low profile, not publicly endorsing any Republican presidential candidate.
Still, they remain the billion-dollar elephant in the room and for good reason.
The Koch brothers oppose Donald Trump’s candidacy. That is no surprise. Trump and his coalition stand for many things the Kochs don’t care about or outright oppose.
What is likely more of a surprise is that they will continue to be just as influential even if Trump wins because he will hire Koch people.
But that is part of a longer story that involves taking a step back from the heat of the moment.
Let’s start with what happened to the Republican Party a half-century ago after the 1964 Goldwater debacle. That defeat did not wreck the GOP. It created the seeds for the emergence of a powerful conservative movement, Ronald Reagan, and today’s Republican Party that makes the Reagan administration look like Bernie Sanders.
You might think that Trump populists will be the passionate ones this time, but there is every reason to believe that this coalition will not be strong enough to counter the Kochs’ influence.
Theda Skocpol and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez’s recent path-breaking study of what they call “The Koch Network” shows why the Kochs’ version of conservatism is likely to prevail. They call it “the Koch Effect.”
It is not just the amount of money, though there is a ton of it. The Koch network has previously spent close to a half-billion dollars and is pledged to spend close to a billion dollars in the near future. Much of this is “dark money” from anonymous, untraceable donors.
But what makes the network influential is the comprehensive and innovative ways it uses the money — different from any traditional candidate or issue advocacy organization.
The Koch network is composed of many groups coordinated by the key organization Americans for Prosperity.
Even if a Democrat wins in 2016, this ultra-conservative opposition will be just as formidable as it has been.
The main goal is conservative movement building. It includes everything from traditional issue advocacy to voter mobilization.
According to the study, there are AFP offices in 34 states representing about 80 percent of the U.S. population. (Hawaii does not have a state office.)
A key part of this network is a twice yearly, invitation-only seminar that brings together operatives, candidates, potential candidates, advocacy organizations and business people.
Two network characteristics will have the most direct impact on the 2016 aftermath.
First, the network is far more stable and sustainable than any campaign operation or any state Republican Party. Party organizations and volunteers get much smaller or disappear after elections.
The Koch network will get stronger after the 2016 election because it has the resources to fill the vacuum.
Second, the network is very much intertwined with the Republican Party and with Trump himself.
Many people who work for AFP were previous Republican operatives who bring with them important connections to the states’ party organizations.
AFP recruits staff with GOP experience, giving the network valuable knowledge and connections to party circles within each state.
And Koch-network donors are playing important roles in every one of the Republican presidential candidates’ campaigns. An AFP staffer recently became head of Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign.
And then there is that anti-establishment populist, authoritarian, Republican train wrecker Donald Trump. Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, is a former and very successful head of AFP in New Hampshire.
As Skocpol and Hertel-Fernandez put it, “ (I) f any of these men ends up moving into the White House in 2017, he will surely tap Koch operatives and ideas to govern. That includes Donald Trump.”
But if the Republican train wreck does take place, why will the network rebuild the Republican Party? Why not just let it die?
The main reason is that the network needs the party and the party needs the network.
Skocpol and Hertel-Fernandez describe this relationship as parasite and host. The party needs the network in order to nourish itself, while in a two-party political system the Koch network needs the familiar Republican Party brand.
All this pours a deluge of rain on the liberals’ parade, including my own. Even if a Democrat wins in 2016, this ultra-conservative opposition will be just as formidable as it has been.
Thanks at least partially to the Koch network and its affiliates, especially the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Democratic Party has been hollowed out at the state level. A large majority of governors and the majority of state legislatures are Republican.
For those who see the emergence of a new, powerful authoritarian populism, remember this: The Koch network opposes a whole series of policies that the majority of voters, including a large number of Republicans, want.
There is no reason to think the voters’ wishes will overcome the network’s resistance.
Here is a liberal’s nightmare scenario: having to root for the ultra-conservative Kochs to stop the onslaught of Trumpian authoritarianism.
Compared to that, the Republican civil war is just a skirmish.