The “movie premiere” wasn’t supposed to happen at all. Instead, it happened a little late. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi both endorsed a screening of Koch Brothers Exposed: 2014 Edition in one of the basement rooms of the Capitol Visitors Center. Republicans spied a possible ethics violation—how could this movie, an hour of agitprop from Robert Greenwald’s Brave New Films, not be “political”?
The screening wasn’t canceled. Nobody had enough to gain from canceling it. Instead, on Tuesday night, Brave New Films set up chairs and a screen and waited for late votes to end in Congress so their special hosts could show up.
To bide time, Greenwald showed the first scenes from his movie. Rapid-fire scenes of poverty alternated with images of fancy cars and champagne. The Koch brothers’ combined wealth, $81.4 billion, was offered as another symbol of this inequality. Two hurried-looking cartoons of Charles and David Koch shoved dollar bills into a funnel, which spurted its contents into piggy banks named Americans for Prosperity ($32 million) and American Future Fund ($13 million) and Center to Protect Patient Rights ($114 million).
Beneath all of this, a pounding synthesized soundtrack that resembles what Batman might hear when he’s in hot pursuit. But to soften the tone, there was the voice of Jim Hightower, the Texas politician-turned professional liberal. He twanged out some zingers about “the Koch boys” and how “even a dog knows the difference between being stumbled over and being kicked.”
“What I hate about narration is the voice of God,” Greenwald told me. “You know—I know better than you do, the voices on those documentary channels that put you to sleep at night. Hightower’s got that amazing voice and he manages to take ideas and put them in a folksy, more human way.”
He’s got competition. Koch Brothers Exposed is being released right before Citizen Koch, a Kickstarter documentary by two frequent collaborators of Michael Moore. The Greenwald screening happened the very same day that Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty was released. Mother Jones editor and first-time author Daniel Schulman spent three years writing it, which allowed him to beat Koch biographer Chris Leonard to the shelves. And everyone’s competing with a media that’s devoting resources to Koch stories and a Democratic campaign infrastructure that’s investigating the Kochs as if they were candidates.
The response from the Kochs falls a little bit short of what a combined net worth of $81.4 billion could buy. Ever since 2010 stories in New York and The New Yorker alerted America to the influence of the Kochs, Koch Industries has run a pugnacious press shop—KochFacts—that insists on correcting the record when the Kochs are blamed for a particular evil.
There’s just so much “record” to correct now, and only so much time. Elaine Lafferty, an author who got to know Kochworld spokeswoman Nancy Pfotenhauer during her stint on the McCain-Palin campaign, is writing a book with the Kochs’ reported participation. And the tone of that work got previewed in an exclusive 2010 story Lafferty wrote after Jane Mayer’s New Yorker profile of the Kochs. “The news alert that a businessman with a personal net worth estimated at nearly $18 billion might wield political influence seems to have shocked, shocked, the media,” wrote the future court biographer.
But that book is way off on the horizon. There are less than six months to go before a midterm election that the Democrats have made, largely, about the Kochs. They are writing the story, and their incessant framing of the Kochs has inspired a little media derision and a lot more heat. On Tuesday, when Pelosi, Reid, and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders finally got to the Greenwald screening, they celebrated the progress so far.
“Keep wages low,” said Pelosi, summing up the “personal aggrandizement” behind the Kochs’ campaign spending. “Stop regulation of clean air, clean water. Climate issues. All of those things are harmful to our planet, to our workers, to our children’s future. That’s why when people hear the name, Koch brothers, it has a negative connotation by 2–1.”
Libertarians and Republicans generally posit two responses to this. One: The left has its own tycoons, like environmentalist and hedge funder Tom Steyer. Two: Unlike those tycoons, the Kochs don’t want anything from the state, like that Steyer guy who wants his investments in solar panels to pay off. (They do talk a lot about Tom Steyer.)
The Kochs’ actual motivations are both shadowy and almost poetically simple. Schulman’s book, which is carefully researched and exquisitely told, traces the family’s ideology and fortune to patriarch Fred C. Koch. It’s true, as Greenwald’s film reports, that the elder Koch got rich off a $5 million contract building oil-cracking stills in the Soviet Union. He never pretended otherwise. He returned and became an ally of the John Birch Society, writing A Business Man Looks at Communism and becoming obsessed with the red threat. “What I saw there convinced me of the utterly evil nature of communism,” Koch wrote in a 1964 letter to the Washington Post.
Koch, as seen by Schulman, becomes comically Manichean. “When you contrast the state of mind of Germany today with what it was in 1925,” Koch once wrote, “you begin to think that perhaps this course of idleness, feeding at the public trough, dependence on government, etc., with which we are afflicted is not permanent and can be overcome.” It might be important to note that he wrote that the month after the signing of the Munich Pact.
Koch’s sons, who build the business into an empire, were more idealistic yet less naive. “What I find interesting is how misunderstood their politics actually are,” said Schulman in an interview. People seem to think they’re traditional Republicans, but their ideology is libertarian. Charles Koch back in the late 1970s was slamming the business community for seeking corporate welfare, while at the same time advocating against welfare for the poor. He thought it was the worst kind of hypocrisy. It’s interesting to see him and David be embraced by Republicans—I think the Democrats did a lot to legitimatize the Kochs in the eyes of Republicans who had been wary of them.”
Indeed, the Kochs spent decades working outside of traditional party politics. David Koch ran for vice president as a Libertarian Party candidate for the same reason Charles Koch considered the Republican Party dead-ended. The Kochs went on to seed think tanks such as the Cato Institute, the Mercatus Center, the Reason Foundation. (Disclosure, I worked at Reason magazine, published by the foundation, from 2006 through 2008.) They also funded activist groups like Citizens for a Sound Economy, but did relatively little to aid Republicans. (CSE eventually split into Dick Armey’s FreedomWorks and the Kochs’ Americans for Prosperity.)
The reason, teased out by Schulman, seems to be that they did not consider what they did to be traditional rent seeking. Yes, Koch organizations lobbied hard against the Clinton-era BTU tax that was going to cost the industry. Yes, the industry was better off in the low-regulation Reagan era than in the Clinton years, when it kept getting ensnarled in investigations. But for years, the brothers seemed content to spend on think tanks and lobbying.
Schulman points out that the Kochs’ policy conferences, now heavily protected affairs from which muckrakers fight to obtain secret documents, started out as snoozers. The first, a 2003 confab in Chicago, attracted just 17 people. They only picked up when Richard Fink, the Kochs’ in-company political guru, “began to spice up the tedious conferences with conservative celebrities and high-profile Republican lawmakers.” The Republican Party’s base had moved right, as had its political class—in no small part because of the influence of the research funded by the Kochs. The people hired by the Kochs to understand politics urged the brothers further and further into the arena.
It worked, in part, because the brothers were so unspecific in their goals. In his 1980 acceptance speech at the Libertarian convention, Koch called the party the “best hope for human freedom since the American Revolution.” Thirty-one years later, having helped install a Republican majority in the House of Representatives, he told ThinkProgress reporter Lee Fang that it was “probably the best grassroots uprising since 1776.” The Libertarian Party’s agenda was, as Democrats have rediscovered, far more radical and specific than anything modern Republicans were willing to say. But once the brothers’ ideology became populist, and once it had allies in mainstream politics, they had minimized the threat of profit-killing reform and regulation.
Getting to that point took decades. Start counting from Fred Koch’s trip to Russia, and it took nearly 90 years—start counting from the brothers’ first stabs into politics, and it took nearly 40. For almost all of that time, their goals and their story were obscure. They’ll never be obscure again.