It’s plausible to dismiss the current feud between Donald Trump and the mogul Charles Koch as merely an alpha-male ego-fest—in the words of the journalist and Koch-watcher Jane Mayer, “a plutocratic pissing match” for control of the Republican Party. Trump turned up the heat last week when he tweeted that the scion of the conservative donor network was “overrated,” which may be the first time that a president has used the same word to insult Koch and Meryl Streep.
But seasoned Republicans recognize that the feud is symptomatic of broader tensions within the party—Trump’s trade wars clash with the Koch network’s traditional free-market support for open trade—and that the last thing the party needs, in this tough midterm-election year, is to have Koch turn off the money spigot. Particularly at a time when dozens of House Republican incumbents are raising less than their Democratic challengers.
Granted, the Koch brothers (the ailing brother David has ceded the fight to Charles) never liked Trump. Two years ago, they deemed him the sole unacceptable candidate in the GOP field. Trump had no conservative pedigree, and Charles Koch clearly laments that the party’s elected lawmakers—many of them beneficiaries of Koch largesse—have embraced Trump’s heresies, thus betraying the core conservative principles that his fundraising network has lavishly financed since its founding in 2003.
That’s why Koch lashed out, at his network’s annual retreat on the last weekend in July, against the “rise in [trade] protectionism,” which is “perverting the key institutions of our society” and heightening the risk of a recession. Koch denounced the Trump GOP’s deepening of the budget deficit, as evidenced by the recent $1.3 trillion spending deal, and Trump’s plan to throw $12 billion in emergency federal aid to the farmers hurt by his trade wars. Koch also dislikes Trump’s immigrant bashing and build-a-wall rhetoric.
Meanwhile, the Koch network co-chair Brian Hooks singled out Trump (“The divisiveness of this White House is causing long-term damage”), and he has been seconded by Republicans who share Charles Koch’s displeasure with the party’s pro-Trump tilt. Rick Tyler, a GOP strategist and a former spokesman for Senator Ted Cruz, says Trump’s party rejects free-market economics. Tyler told me: “It’s not an ideologically driven party anymore. It has no ideological coherence. It now has the characteristics of a cult following.”
There were two ways Trump could’ve responded to the Koch team’s attack: Brush it off, or double down. He, of course, chose the latter, calling the Kochs “a total joke,” and on Thursday, the GOP chair, Ronna McDaniel, duly accused them of ill-serving their country. That may not have been the best course of action, given that the Koch donor network, composed of roughly 500 of America’s richest conservatives, has been planning to spend $400 million on politics and policy in 2018, and that, by Mayer’s estimate in her book Dark Money, the Koch network’s staff is three times larger than the Republican National Committee’s.
Is it smart for Trump to wield an axe at the Koch money tree and declare that “I don’t need their money or bad ideas”? Perhaps he’s motivated by personal envy. As Tyler told me, “The Kochs have a lot more money than he does. They give a lot of it away, and he doesn’t.” But it’s a dicey move, because Charles Koch and his senior aides have already signaled their reluctance to help the Senate and House candidates who support Trump’s policy apostasies. And at a time when the GOP is trying to hold the Senate, the Koch network is currently supporting only four of the party’s candidates and sitting out five of the eight races that are considered toss-ups—including red North Dakota, where the Republican challenger Kevin Cramer has a shot at toppling the Democrat Heidi Heitkamp.
Ed Rogers, a veteran GOP consultant since the Ronald Reagan era, says that Trump’s hostility to the Kochs is woefully shortsighted. He wrote the other day: “Charles and David Koch have been a huge net plus for the Republican party and the conservative cause. It is undeniable that the work they do creates more allies for President Trump in Congress and in state and local governments. But rather than nurture that asset, Trump is antagonizing the very people who can help Republicans in 2018 and 2020 … He can’t rely just on his piece of the coalition to win the next presidential election, let alone the upcoming midterms … Politics is all about addition, not subtraction. If the Koch organization is alienated, that subtracts money and people.”
In fact, President Reagan reputedly told his staff that “the person who agrees with you 80 percent of the time is a friend and an ally, not a 20-percent traitor.” And it does appear that Trump and the Kochs are 80-percent allies. As the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page tartly observed last Wednesday, “Pro-growth cuts in tax rates, deregulation and originalist judges have been the most successful parts of the Trump agenda. And they were Koch beliefs when Mr. Trump was still donating to Bill and Hillary Clinton.”
The Koch brothers have long been agitating for a conservative judiciary; now they’re getting the judges they want, at all levels of the judiciary. They’ve invested heavily in lawmakers who would deliver tax cuts; now, with Trump’s signature on the 2017 tax bill, they have a law that tilts to the upper brackets. They’ve spent eight years assailing Obamacare; now they have a president who’s sabotaging the law via executive action. They’re getting deregulation at the stroke of Trump’s pen. As fossil-fuel executives, they’ve funded junk science that questions the severity of climate change; now they have a president who champions fossil fuels and removes climate-change info from government websites. And Trump, breaching his pledge to “drain the swamp,” has hired prominent denizens of the Koch swamp—including Vice President Mike Pence, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
But since Trump and his allies typically insist on 100 percent fealty, tensions with Koch aren’t likely to dissipate. Indeed, when the Koch spokesman James Davis said Saturday on Fox News that the fund-raising team can’t simply “look at the short-term focus of the next election” because “we’re ambivalent about party lines,” he appeared to suggest that moderate Democratic candidates who support free trade could be perfectly acceptable. That jibes with Rick Tyler’s belief that “there’s an opportunity for the Democrats” to blunt the power of the Koch’s money by positioning themselves as “the party of the future—on race, on women, on job creation, on economic opportunity.”
Or the Democrats could simply sit back and enjoy the Trump-Koch feud, however long it lasts. As the commentator and former Bill Clinton speechwriter David Kusnet quipped the other day on social media, “Could we just have a good clean fight with no survivors?”