Let’s forget about Donald Trump.
For just the next 10 minutes.
For just as long as it takes to read this.
I know, I know: it’s not easy, what with his threatening to launch nuclear weapons at North Korea and hiring lunatics and firing lunatics and breaking up with other, more evil lunatics and defending white supremacists, Neo-Nazis, Neo-Confederates, the KKK, and other “very fine people” like this fellow from the march in Charlottesville.
But we really need to forget about him for a moment. Or at least not pay attention to him—and that means not hanging on his every tweet or obsessing about his connection with Russia or his incoherent hate rallies, because if we mute the whole Donald Trump catastrophe, we just might have find time to focus on something a whole lot worse.
In her latest book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, historian Nancy MacLean shines a light on that something a whole lot worse: Charles Koch. But more importantly, she traces the development of the billionaire’s libertarian ideology and political strategy back to one man: the late Nobel Prize-winning economist James McGill Buchanan.
Buchanan and Koch’s brand of libertarianism prizes economic freedom and unfettered capitalism above all else. As such, its adherents are significantly less than chuffed when the federal government makes them pay taxes for things like public schools, health insurance, unemployment benefits, food stamps, and social programs.
But here’s the kicker: Buchanan knew that American Democracy—the fact that a majority of Americans would never choose to eliminate all those social programs and cut taxes for the wealthy and basically bow down before a bunch of rich white guys—was standing in the way of his Libertarian Paradise. So, Buchanan devised a solution: a way to quietly subvert democracy—a very long game, but one that Charles Koch was more than happy to play and fund.
The Millions chatted with MacLean over the phone about the Koch Brothers, Donald Trump’s general incompetency, the nightmarish prospect of President Pence, and where America goes from here.
The Millions: Most people know about the Koch Brothers machine, but are unaware of its origins in terms of political philosophy. Can you give a quick-and-dirty rundown of how school desegregation in Virginia and James Buchanan came to shape not only Charles Koch’s vision but much of American politics today?
Nancy MacLean: I first came across James Buchanan in the context of the State of Virginia’s massive resistance to Brown v. Board of Education in the mid-1950s. Virginia was leading the wider South in fighting the Brown decision, calling it a federal overreach [and] unconstitutional. Buchanan came to Virginia in 1956 just as that was happening to set up a new outpost for free market economics in higher education. He had been trained at the University of Chicago and got this post at Virginia. And he arrived just as the state was fighting the federal government over this decision.
I discovered that, as this fight went on—even though there had been the NAACP’s fight, a mobilization of moderate white parents, and two court decisions—in 1959 he tried to keep the fight going with a push to what we today would call privatize public education. He and his colleague issued a report to the State Legislature calling for that.
And that put him on my radar. And, to make a long story short, I started following the trail of his life’s work and found myself with Charles Koch. Beginning in the 1970s, the two started working together on various projects. And then I learned that Charles Koch’s main research and design center/academic base camp, was set up at George Mason University in 1997. And that was James Buchanan’s last institutional home.
Essentially what I learned through this research is that—as we know well from the work of some incredibly talented journalists, among them Jane Mayer—Charles Koch has provided the money for efforts to transform our politics in recent years. And he’s convened a number of wealthy donors to do that. But, it’s actually James Buchanan’s ideas that are making that money successful.
TM: If you had to describe Buchanan and Koch’s vision of ideal America, how does that look?
NM: It’s a libertarian vision…That libertarian vision says that economic liberty is the highest value and that government is an agent of coercion of individuals’ private liberties, and therefore that government’s only legitimate roles are three: to provide for the national defense, to ensure the rule of law, and to maintain social order.
To the libertarian perspective—at least the libertarians involved in organizations like the Cato Institute and a whole slew of others funded by Charles Koch and using James Buchanan’s ideas—to them, all the other functions that government has taken on are illegitimate. That includes economic regulation of corporations. That includes Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance. That includes environmental protections. That includes measures to ease the burden of care work on women and families [and] federal anti-discrimination legislation.
Basically, all the things that social movements have pushed for the government to do over the course of the 20th century and into the 21st—all of those things are illegitimate to these libertarians.
TM: A lot of those are relatively popular programs. In that libertarian vision, the will of the majority is viewed as an oppressive force that needs to be stopped, correct?
NM: That’s ultimately the position that they reach. And it was James Buchanan who taught Charles Koch that for capitalism to thrive—the kind of pure capitalism libertarians believe in—democracy must be enchained.
And what I found in my research for this book—and what I think is its single most important contribution to our public understanding—is that this libertarian cause failed repeatedly to achieve what it wanted, it failed openly and it failed repeatedly.
The best example of that is Barry Goldwater in 1964. He was the first candidate to talk about privatizing Social Security, to talk about turning Social Security into individual accounts, adopting a flat tax, selling off the Tennessee Valley Authority to private utilities, undermining labor unions…And he was a disaster. The only places he won, besides his home state of Arizona, were the five states of the Deep South that practiced massive voter suppression. Then Ronald Reagan talked the talk, but didn’t walk the walk. He said, “Government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem,” which was encouraging language for libertarians. But as soon as Reagan understood that the libertarian who designed his first budget, David Stockman, planned to inflict massive cuts to Social Security and other popular programs, he drew back.
There was this repeated experience of failing to get what they wanted when it came to the test of majority approval. And it was that repeated failure that led Charles Koch to look for what he called “the technology” to break through. And he is a much smarter man than his critics have allowed. He’s got three engineering degrees from MIT. He’s a voracious reader. He’s someone who has played the long game, both in his business and his politics.
He was investing in intellectuals for three decades before he really shoved in his stack at George Mason. And when he did that, he said he had found the technology—again, that’s his word for the ideas that would enable this breakthrough for liberty.
TM: When you say the technology, what are some examples of that technology?
NM: Buchanan basically taught that the reason government expanded is that organized citizens kept putting pressure on government to expand. And also corporate lobbyists, he would say, but he wasn’t as motivated on that front…The idea was that citizens make demands on government for things that involve tax revenues, and that leads to, in his terms, “exploitation” of the wealthier taxpayer.
Towards the end of his life, he actually started using the language of “predators” and “prey.” The predators were all those people who looked to government for collective projects, whether it was unemployment insurance or environmental protection or family and medical leave. And the prey were the taxpayers, the wealthier taxpayers and corporations who will pay the bill. He was always concerned with the rights of that particular minority—not other minorities.
The many fronts on which this cause is seeking to enchain that majority include—as we saw in Wisconsin beginning in 2011 under Scott Walker—measures to try to decimate public sector unions, and vehement attacks on teachers’ unions to try to eliminate their power as lobbyists, as people who might push for larger public budgets. We’ve seen massive voter suppression measures…Gerrymandering to over-represent rural, conservative interests. And that was something going on in the Virginia of the 1950s when Buchanan set to work. Deregulation has been important, other actions along what [Buchanan] depicted as “the spectrum of secession:” advocating to corporations that they use decentralization, federalism, privatization, etc. to essentially engage in coercive bargaining with states to drive down taxes and spending on public programs. They’re all interlinked and they’re all being promoted by these dozens of national organizations funded by Charles Koch’s donor network.
TM: What aspects of our government and society are the most vulnerable right now?
NM: I’m in North Carolina. It was one of the states completely controlled by this radicalized Republican Party. And that’s half of the states, with both houses of the legislature and the governorship controlled by the Republican party. In those states, we have seen really radical changes.
Wisconsin is an example, North Carolina, Kansas, Louisiana: devastating cuts to public education; sending public monies off to charter schools that are under no obligation to teach students anything; private, for-profit charter schools. Rejecting Medicaid expansion as part of the Affordable Care Act. Radical changes to labor union rights and to unemployment insurance, changes to environmental protections. All of these radical things are being rolled out at the state level.
The Trump administration, by some counts, has now 70 percent of its senior appointees from Koch-affiliated organizations. So, that includes his vice-president, Mike Pence. That includes the director of management and budget Mick Mulvaney. That includes Scott Pruitt at the EPA. That includes Mike Pompeo in the CIA. That includes the White House liaison to Congress Marc Short. There are all these Koch-affiliated operatives now in the White House and in various government agencies that are pushing this radical agenda.
TM: How does Trump fit into all of this? He didn’t need any of the Koch Brothers money to run. And some of his positions aren’t—or weren’t—libertarian. But he’s surrounded by all these Koch operatives. Does he have any idea what’s going on?
NM: That is a mystery to me. And I think that is something that future journalists and historians will have to sort out because he’s so surrounded with these Koch people [and] whether he’s aware of it or not, this agenda is moving through in significant ways under his administration.
And he is so clueless about how government works, what’s in the Constitution, that certainly [Koch’s people] can run circles around him. But it’s not clear to me what he knew and when he knew it. Having Mike Pence as his vice-presidential candidate, and then having Mike Pence run his transition team and staff positions, that certainly enabled the Kochs to get a lot of the people in place. And Trump is not really carrying through on a lot of his rhetoric…He made it sound like was going to resist corporate control and resist all these special favors. And yet he’s done more than anybody else to corrupt the process with the kinds of appointments he’s making. So, the jury’s still out and we don’t have enough information.
TM: A lot of people think if we could just get Trump out of office, everything would be okay again. I doubt you’re one of those people. Which is scarier: President Trump or President Pence?
NM: It’s such an important question. What’s been very frustrating to me—having done this 10 years of research and come to understand how the Koch network and its apparatus of organizations are operating—I cannot believe that so much of the mainstream media seem to have attention deficit—this notion that somehow the Koch story was last year’s story, and this year’s story is Donald Trump all the time. And that is not helpful to us at all.
I understand why some people would like to see him, if he has done anything impeachable, be impeached. But they’re not thinking very clearly about what the consequences of that would be…Domestically, I would certainly be much more afraid of a Pence presidency at this point, because Pence is more competent. He’s been in Congress. He’s been in these policy institutes. He has worked in Koch-related organizations over the years. He would be very determined, and he’d probably be pretty successful in pushing through change in a way that Trump has not been as successful.
We’re just in really troubling territory. And the most important thing is to alert Americans to what an incredible turning point we’re at. I’m a historian; I teach the history of social movements in the United States going back to the Revolution. And I truly believe that we are at one of these fundamental national turning points now— that is like the 1860s, that is like the 1930s, or that is like the 1960s. And the choices that we make now will determine the future for the next few generations.
The most crucial thing is to alert Americans to the scale of the transformation this Koch network is trying to push through. But that would, again, require paying less attention to the president’s antics and more attention to these other operations and what they’re achieving.
TM: Usually we end these interviews by asking what Americans need to do to survive Trump? That no longer feels like the most pertinent question. So, what do Americans need to do to survive Charles Koch?
NM: What Americans need to understand is that Trump is really, in a sense, not the problem. He is the symptom of a much deeper problem that has been developing for a long time. And it involves this Koch operation, the donors being able to take over one of our major political parties—the Republican Party—and turn it into a delivery vehicle for their agenda by changing the incentives and punishments in politics, which is exactly the kind of thinking that would come from James Buchanan. By creating these big pools of dark money, they are able to punish any Republican candidate who does not toe the line for them. And we already saw them threatening that on the healthcare bill. And, by doing that, they have made Republican elected officials answerable to these extreme-right billionaire donors, rather than to Republican voters.
I would urge people to just avert their eyes from Trump. Just do an experiment even for one week. Ignore all the news about Trump, ignore all his tweets, all his provocations, and start paying attention to these other things. And start paying attention to this strange transformation of the Republican Party, in which it’s not responding to the majority of Republican voters. It is responding to these donors.
There’s a huge need for citizen education and rebuilding the institutions of civil society, the kinds of organizations that we had in the mid-20th century that protected democracy. It’s not just a question of who occupies the White House.