Freedom Isn’t Free

The PR campaigns to make Shaun McCutcheon, the Koch brothers, and other wealthy donors more famous and less infamous.

Shaun McCutcheon leaves the Supreme Court on Oct. 8, 2013, in Washington.
Shaun McCutcheon leaves the Supreme Court on Oct. 8, 2013, in Washington.

Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Shaun McCutcheon’s phone was ringing, but he couldn’t hear it. The Alabama Republican businessman was at work, walking through a Tennessee steel mill that he was helping get rewired for electricity. It was loud, as steel mills tend to be. McCutcheon’s PR team wanted to tell its client that he’d just won at the Supreme Court, which struck down the cap on aggregate donations to multiple political campaigns. Eventually, he checked his messages.

He luxuriated in his victory, then went back to work as he became nationally infamous. Democrats, who’d been expecting the court to strike down the donor limits, rotated between Washington’s many microphones to denounce this victory for the megarich.

“We have got to be very, very careful that we don’t let this great country that people have fought and died for become a plutocracy or oligarchy,” said Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse topped that line. “It’s a little bit ironic that we’re spending so much time and energy and effort trying to support Ukraine as it emerges from corrupt and oligarchic government,” he said at a press conference, “while we have a Supreme Court that is busily at home kicking down protections that protect American democracy from that same kind of oligarchic government.” At the same podium as Whitehouse, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer warned of a new and inevitable age of “robber barons.”

McCutcheon, who insists he’s “not even that rich,” found a reason to disagree. “Schumer has all the benefit of free media, of staff,” he said. “There’s no telling how much he’s raised in his war chest. He’s trying to tell us private citizens how and when to speak, but this is about disseminating ideas in the marketplace of politics. More free speech is a good thing. Elected people inside the government shouldn’t be talking about what people outside, private individual people, are saying in campaigns.”

As campaign finance laws and loopholes boost the power of wealthy donors, a sort of PR arms race accelerates. Democrats, blowtorched by millions of dollars spent on ads by Koch-funded groups, now portray the Republicans as a party owned by “out-of-state oil millionaires.” For most of March, and every day since, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has attacked the Kochs by name. Democrats have baited Republicans like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Louisiana Sen. David Vitter into defending David and Charles Koch.

“They’re fighting for our freedom,” said Vitter. “Forward, send,” typed Democrats.

The Kochs have been demonized for so long—at least since 2009 when liberal outlets wrote about the origins of large Tea Party groups—that they’ve invested in both defenses of their character and hypocrisy charges against the left. In 2011, after months of negative coverage, they sat for an interview with Weekly Standard reporter Matt Continetti. Liberals were simply deranged by the billionaire donors. “No amount of contrary evidence was enough to dislodge the left’s conviction that Charles and David Koch ran an empire hell-bent on America’s destruction,” he wrote. These men were called anti-science for their support of climate change skepticism, even though they “held master’s degrees from MIT and ran successful companies that refined oil, produced chemicals, and manufactured polymers.” The magazine’s cover portrayed the brothers literally burning at the stake.

In 2012 Continetti became the founding editor of a new Web mag, the Washington Free Beacon. Its coverage of the Kochs and their enemies has veered toward the heroic, with heaving dollops of sarcasm. “Koch Brother Donates Money to a Hospital, Liberals Protest,” read one recent headline. Another: “Poll—‘Un-American’ Koch Brothers More Popular Than Harry Reid.” On the right, the Kochs are self-evidently populist and patriotic donors, the twin sons of Hank Rearden who are being “smeared” by politicians, often in cahoots with the press.

The Kochs have company, and a strong narrative. In 2012, the Wall Street Journal started tracking the complaints and Internal Revenue Service issues of donors who’d given big to Mitt Romney. The Obama campaign criticized these donors, publicly. This, in the view of columnist Kimberley Strassel, was the direct descendent of Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.” The theory didn’t gain popular acceptance on the right until the IRS scandal of 2013. After that, it made perfect sense. Who did Americans want to side with? Private citizens, who just wanted to speak (in the form of expensive TV ads), or a government that wanted them to shut up?

The free speech argument is the focus of a new ad campaign from American Encore, a spinoff of the main hubs of Koch and Koch network money. In it, voters are warned that Democrats like Reid or Sen. Al Franken want to silence “free speech,” as represented by a video of suffragists and equal-rights marchers. Their base is sold. But the Democrats, who have exactly the same right to shake money from multimillionaire donors, aren’t as proud of it. That’s where another ad comes in, by another node of the Koch network. In American Commitment’s TV ad, Democrats are shamed for taking potentially $100 million from environmentalist investor Tom Steyer. It started running the same week that Steyer trekked to a New York fundraising event, in an attempt to fund a new anti-Koch campaign.

Democrats, by now, are used to being shamed for the support they get from labor unions, funded by mandatory dues. They are less ready to defend their tycoons. All they can say is that their rich guys are selfless, compared to the McCutcheons, or the Kochs, or this week’s oligarch.

“It’s an investment for them to have lower taxes, and to have weaker environmental laws, and to privatize Social Security,” said Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, a survivor of eight figures of PAC and super PAC spending in 2012. “Steyer’s not asking the people he supports to cut his taxes or to weaken environmental rules. That’s the difference.”

There has to be some difference, as long as wealthy donors are going to co-star in campaigns. The country does not lack for PR firms or publishers willing to varnish the reputation of a rich guy. The Kochs, for example, are collaborating with an official biographer to tell the story they prefer, as a few unofficial biographies start to hit the shelves. McCutcheon has been plugging away on an e-book, tentatively titled Outsider Inside the Supreme Court.

“I have already lived part of my version of the American Dream,” writes McCutcheon in the first chapter. “I worked hard as an electrical engineer to start and run a successful small business near Birmingham, Alabama. I believe passionately in freedom, the private sector, and free enterprise that made that possible for me and other Americans. But on that morning, I felt a public responsibility: one that had unexpectedly moved me into the national debate and spotlight.”