George Washington Didn't Have 'Too Much Influence—the Koch Brothers Do

The magnates attempt to re-found the United States more to their liking.

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"This is going to sound wrong, but what do you say to the Founding Fathers?" Rich Fink, political adviser to the Koch Brothers, says plaintively in a recent interview in The Wichita Eagle. "There was a very small group of people that were a minority that changed the whole country. You say George Washington had too much influence? We shouldn't allow them to do that? And we should have spread the influence around?"

Fink's comments appear in a long profile of Charles Koch in which the 76-year-old billionaire explains his decades-long crusade to install libertarian ideas at the center of American politics. The main theme of Koch's comments is the common but unbecoming self-pity peculiar to the rich and powerful. He and his brother David are being picked on, he says. President Obama and administration officials have questioned the tax status of their companies, referred to their political operatives as "contract killers," and said they were "going to call their BS." Sen. Frank Lautenberg spoke against them for three full minutes on the Senate floor, and read a list of their companies' consumer products into the Senate record. "It's frightening because you don't know what they're going to do," Koch complained. "They can destroy just about anybody, whether you are totally innocent or not."

Fink's comments about "the Founding Fathers" invite some reply from those who have studied the formation and history of the American Constitution. It is striking for its flawed view of history and for the glimpse it offers of the full extent of the brothers' far-right agenda.

To many Americans on the right, the "Founding Fathers" (the phrase, as Jill Lepore reports in her book, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History, was coined by that world statesman, Warren G. Harding) are gods. They have to be perfect, or America might not be perfect. That's why crackpots like Michele Bachmann insist that the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention were actually seeking to abolish slavery. There's no evidence of that; but, like the story of Joshua making the sun stand still, it just has to be true.

Let's take Fink seriously, though, and imagine he is talking about the actual historical figures who helped create the American republic in the 18th century. The fact that the Koch brothers are billionaires seeking to augment their fortunes doesn't, in and of itself, make them a different breed of cat than the Founders. Some of them (Jefferson, Adams) were old rich; others (Washington, for example) were new rich; and some (Hamilton, for example) wanted desperately to become rich. Economic interest -- the Virginians' dependence on slave labor, Washington's holdings in Western real estate, Hamilton's vision of wealth as a commercial lawyer -- influenced their vision of what the new country should become. The Koch brothers aren't morally pure, but neither were the "founding brothers" of the Revolution and federal period.

Political forces unfriendly to our form of government have begun to transform it from within

"This was a very small group of people that were a minority that changed the whole country," Fink says. No different from a SuperPAC, in other words. Except that's not exactly how it happened. Despite what some people imagine today, both the Revolution and the Constitution didn't just break out because some folks got tired of paying a tax on tea. They arose out of serious, prolonged, disciplined involvement with public institutions. The colonies moved from loyalty to independence, and then from independence to nationhood, within a framework of public debate and self-government. Over and over, the major Founders perceived a public need. They met privately to discuss what should be done, to be sure; but then they took their ideas public, and took responsibility for them. They didn't hire others to run for office; they ran themselves, and put their reputations on the line.

They did "spread the influence around."

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Garrett Epps is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He teaches constitutional law and creative writing for law students at the University of Baltimore. His latest book is American Justice 2014: Nine Clashing Visions on the Supreme Court.

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