Death of a denialist

David Koch, the energy magnate and philanthropist who was one of the richest people in the world, died last week from prostate cancer at the age of 79.

Both Koch and his surviving elder brother Charles donated generously to a range of worthy and non-political causes. But what made them famous was their political activism, which funded a large number of organisations and helped to create the strange world that is American politics today.

Koch was a libertarian; he ran for vice-president on the Libertarian Party ticket back in 1980, and he always professed – and there is no reason to doubt his sincerity – a belief in maximising human freedom, both social and economic. He strongly supported such causes as drug legalisation, free movement of people, criminal justice reform and a more peaceful foreign policy.

The organisations that the Kochs funded, of which the Cato Institute is probably the most important, have done (and still do) a great deal of good work in those areas and more. And the sympathetic obituaries for Koch tend to stop at about that point. But there is more to the story.

Koch’s activism was driven not just by his beliefs but by his self-interest. One obvious case is taxation: Koch funds went to promote not just lower taxes, but specifically lower taxes on the very rich. No doubt that would have become the priority of the Republican Party anyway – it contains a lot of rich people apart from the Kochs – but their influence was certainly a factor in the resulting distortion of the tax debate.

But the more dramatic instance is climate change. Having built a fortune in the fossil fuel industry, the Kochs became passionate opponents of the science of climate change, pouring money into campaigns to deny its reality and oppose measures to combat it.

The less sympathetic obituaries have focused on this side of Koch’s work. Emily Atkin, for example, in the New Republic, says that today’s “planetary conditions mimicked closely what scientists had tried to warn the public about 30 years ago, when they first sounded the alarm on climate change. They were also the warnings Koch worked most of his career to make sure the American public never accepted, nor did anything about.”

For those who (like me, and most sane people) accept that climate change is a serious problem, it’s entirely fair to blame Koch. But the really significant thing is that even if you disagree with that, and agree with Koch’s view of climate science, it’s still true that his activism did more harm than good.

We all have to take the political and ideological world, to some extent, as we find it. No doubt Koch would have liked to build up a powerful political movement that mirrored his own beliefs – hostile to climate science and to taxes on the mega-rich, but otherwise genuinely devoted to freedom.

But the political context of turn-of-the-century America did not permit that. The activists and politicians who were most receptive to Koch’s obsession with climate denial were not libertarians. They were conservatives.

So Koch money flowed steadily to those who were hostile to most of the libertarian parts of Koch’s agenda. White supremacists, religious fundamentalists, opponents of immigration and gay rights, imperialist hawks. As long as they served the interests of the fossil fuel industry, Koch backed them against more moderate Republicans and against the Democrats. The “tea party”, which brought racism back into the mainstream of political discourse, was largely a creation of the Kochs.

Perhaps Koch had some uneasy moments in contemplating what he had done. He was probably appalled at some of the antics of the horribly misnamed “Freedom Caucus”, and he was certainly no friend of the Trump administration. Earlier this year the Koch vehicle Americans for Prosperity announced that it would consider supporting Democrats in the coming election cycle, primarily in reaction against Donald Trump’s trade policies.

The damage, however, had already been done. Koch’s supporters have been outraged in recent days at the suggestion that he bears some responsibility for the advent of Trump. It’s quite true that the Kochs spoke out against Trump in 2016 and refused to endorse him. But nor did they endorse his opponent, Hillary Clinton, or contribute any of their vast wealth to her campaign.

More generally, it’s undeniable that the Kochs had helped to create the environment in which Trump was able to flourish. As the authentic heir of “tea party” conservatism, he reaped where the Kochs had sown.

As I wrote three years ago:

The lesson of Trump is that irrationality cannot be quarantined: a party that has collectively decided to ignore evidence, pander to tribalism and promote moral panic has no defence left against a dema­gogue who chooses to exploit those things even more ruthlessly.

Let that, rather than fine words about philanthropy, be Koch’s epitaph.

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