In November 2020, just two weeks after the most divisive U.S. election of our lifetimes, billionaire Charles Koch published a book called Believe in People: Bottom-Up Solutions for a Top-Down World. A few days before that, on November 13, The Wall Street Journal published a story with the headline “Charles Koch Says His Partisanship Was a Mistake.” Koch, the article noted, wanted a “final act building bridges across political divides.”
The same day, The Washington Post headlined a puff piece about the book: “Charles Koch congratulates Biden and says he wants to work together on ‘as many issues as possible.’ ” The writer, political columnist James Hohmann, informed his readers that the chief executive officer of Koch Industries said “there is too much hate in the country and lamented how emboldened extremists have become” (Hohmann’s words). Nearly all of the major media outlets that reported on the book carried similar exclamatory quotes from Koch about his investments in the Republican Party: “Boy, did we screw up.” “What a mess!” “This is crazy! Are we going to have a civil war?”
Heaving a collective sigh of relief that the donor and strategist most responsible for the radicalization of the Republican Party had now committed to a mellow “final act,” news outlets told their audiences, in effect, that they no longer needed to worry about the Koch network. It had been tamed by the shock and horror of Donald Trump. But what mainstream news editors seemed to forget was that they were covering a specialist in strategic disinformation, who had perfected the practice of deceiving the public during his network’s three decades of climate change denial.
Koch, the single most influential billionaire shaping American political life, never changed course. And the head fake he pulled off in 2020 succeeded in securing for his vast donor network—and the hundreds of organizations they underwrite—the freedom to operate, virtually without scrutiny, over the two years since. In that time, far from ceasing their efforts to divide the country, they have ramped them up. Like a snake shedding its skin as it grows, Koch was merely rebranding—yet again after exposure—and grouping his numerous operations under a sunny new name: Stand Together.
In August, the Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) reported that Koch-funded organizations spent over $1.1 billion in the 2020 election cycle. At the same time his book claiming to have changed course was in press, Koch spent almost 50 percent more than the record amount the Koch network had raised in the 2016 cycle: $750 million. Koch did not endorse Trump, though his spending buoyed the top of the ticket and helped maintain a GOP Senate majority to secure Koch-backed policies and judicial nominees embraced by Trump.
One of these organizations, Koch’s Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a 501(c)(4) tax-exempt organization, claimed it was involved in more than 270 races in the 2020 election, reaching almost 60 million voters with door-knocking, phone calls, postcards, digital ads, and more. AFP also played heavily in the battle for U.S. Senate seats in Georgia, in January 2021—even as Koch was still getting favorable coverage for his supposed withdrawal from divisive electoral politics. AFP Action, the super PAC arm, alone raised and spent $60 million nationwide in that election cycle.
Meanwhile, other key organizing enterprises, think tanks, litigation outfits, campus centers, and more that were previously backed by the Koch network continue operating today, sometimes under new names, and with expanded funding. These include endeavors we consider unethical, only some of which we have the space to highlight here.
Take, for example, Koch’s longest running quest: enchaining democracy by rigging the rules of governance to free corporations from customary oversight and to prevent the will of the vast majority of Americans from securing federal, state, and local policies to improve their lives. With the connivance of Trump, the generalship of Federalist Society leader Leonard Leo, and the well-funded campaigning of Leo’s Judicial Crisis Network, the arch-right billionaire succeeded in capturing a supermajority in the U.S. Supreme Court. Koch had told his allied billionaire backers that this was one of his top priorities for the Trump Administration—along with the dramatic tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy that he also secured.
Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Democrat from Rhode Island, a climate hero and senior member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, exposes how they did it in a recently published book, The Scheme: How the Right Wing Used Dark Money to Capture the Supreme Court. The long effort to reshape the judicial system, going back to the notorious Lewis Powell Memo of 1971, culminated in the Trump Administration’s appointment of more than 230 “business-friendly” federal judges, including three Supreme Court Justices, in a project overseen by longtime Koch allies Leo and Donald McGahn, who served as Trump’s legal counsel until 2018. The 6-3 stacked court is already delivering bombshell decisions for the coalition that put it in power, from undermining our options for mitigating devastating climate change and limiting the power of agencies to regulate corporations, to revoking people’s Constitutional freedom to decide whether and when to bear children. The current court term with the Koch-backed faction in control is expected to soon overthrow affirmative action and other hard-won reforms.
The Koch-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) also continues its long campaign to shackle democracy on behalf of its corporate backers. Passing voter ID restrictions that make it harder for Americans to exercise their right to vote became a top ALEC priority after the United States elected its first Black President, Barack Obama. That measure was first voted on at an ALEC task force meeting co-chaired by the National Rifle Association in 2009.
With that mission largely accomplished in states controlled by the GOP, ALEC has now effectively outsourced its voter suppression efforts to Leo’s Honest Elections Project, which it works with on disinformation efforts to buttress so-called model bills.
The rule-rigging endgame of the Koch network has advanced significantly over the last few years: holding the first Constitutional convention since 1787.
ALEC long urged its state legislative members to use their power to “preempt” progressive local policies adopted by cities and towns, including popular living-wage measures. From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, that anti-democratic strategy became deadly, as ALEC legislators along with the State Policy Network, an umbrella group of state-level think-and-act tanks long supported by Koch, blocked sensible measures, such as masking, in Ron DeSantis’s Florida, Greg Abbott’s Texas, and other states.
Additionally, the rule-rigging endgame of the Koch network has advanced significantly over the last few years: holding the first Constitutional convention since 1787. The plan is to fundamentally transform government in the United States in ways desired by arch-right corporations, but unachievable through the democratic process—that is, without the consent of the majority of American voters. Common Cause has called the convention prospect “the most serious threat to our democracy flying almost completely under the radar.”
ALEC has played a central role in promoting the extremist groups pushing for a Constitutional convention, such as one that calls itself the “Convention of States,” led by a former Tea Party figurehead and gun-rights zealot, Mark Meckler. In a conversation with a friendly audience, he bluntly stated the goal of the convention movement: “to reverse 115 years of progressivism.” In December 2021, ALEC’s States and Nation Policy Summit hosted former Republican U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania Rick Santorum, who had joined the Convention of States that fall, to make the case.
To ensure that reactionary billionaires have the opportunity to rewrite the Constitution and tick off other items on their ambitious agenda, Koch-backed operations invested a fortune in supporting Republican candidates in the 2022 midterms and in get-out-the-vote efforts to put them in office.
Americans for Prosperity claimed to have knocked on three million doors as of October 6, 2022, and planned to hit six million total by Election Day. It also claimed to be involved in more than 450 federal and state races in October, almost twice as many as 2020. It has spent tens of millions of dollars to malign Biden Administration policies in swing states and is specifically targeting swing voters.
In the final weeks before votes were counted in the midterms, The Wall Street Journal reported, the Koch-backed AFP Action was bolstering its ground game in swing states with another $25 million “jolt” from the deceptively named umbrella initiative Stand Together. That brings the spending of that single arm of Koch’s political operations in the recent election cycle to at least $70 million.
In the last two years, the network has also become more involved in ginning up MAGA-associated bigotry, fear, and intimidation on multiple fronts to achieve its political ends. To borrow the language of Koch’s cynical claims of shock about national division in 2020, his grantees since then have deliberately amped up the “hate in the world” and “emboldened extremists.” (As The Progressive previously reported, Koch’s own extremist roots run deep.)
Most diabolical is the leveraging of the white supremacist reaction to the long-overdue reckoning set off by the murder of George Floyd through a dishonest campaign against the purported teaching of critical race theory (CRT) in public schools. Terrified that growing interracial commitment to redress structural racism would prove the value of government remedies, eager to distract Republican voters from Biden’s popular policies, and seeing an opportunity to advance the privatization of public education by tapping into pandemic-driven parental anxiety, the Koch network invested heavily in organizations that went on to attack teachers and school boards over CRT. (Koch’s Stand Together spokesperson claims that they did not support the attacks, though the Koch fortune has funded some of the groups that are driving them.)
On December 3, 2020, for example, the Koch-funded ALEC hosted a workshop titled “Against Critical Theory’s Onslaught,” which featured the Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo, who masterminded this CRT disinformation campaign. It was attended by thirty-one legislators from twenty states.
ALEC continued to include CRT in its efforts to push privatizing education at its winter 2021 meeting. On the same day that meeting started, the Manhattan Institute and the Heritage Foundation—both of which have received funding from the Koch fortune for years—published a letter calling for more “transparency” and rejecting CRT in schools.
Just as Koch-funded operations weaponize and intensify racism to secure political power, they also exploit and escalate misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia by any means to boost Republican power.
In October 2021, less than two weeks before the Virginia gubernatorial election, another Koch grantee, the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF), launched a website called ToxicSchools.org through its action arm, Independent Women’s Voice (IWV). The site used grossly misleading graphics to claim that Virginia schools were giving students access to pornographic materials. The strategy of inducing shock and outrage in parents to get them to vote for Republican candidates proved so useful in Virginia that it has become a template for an escalating nationwide campaign, one result of which is that embattled teachers are quitting in droves.
Just as Koch-funded operations weaponize and intensify racism to secure political power, they also exploit and escalate misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia by any means to boost Republican power. Few major for-profit media outlets—or public outlets funded in part by corporations, such as NPR—cover Koch funding for astroturfing anti-abortion, anti-feminist, and homophobic groups, which have been very active since 2020.
Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a Koch grantee, trained ALEC’s state leaders on abortion messaging in March 2022 and presented at other recent ALEC meetings. Meanwhile, Leo—the longtime Koch grantee, strategist, and a leader of the Federalist Society—helps to steer a host of anti-abortion groups, including Students for Life of America, which opposes exceptions for rape and incest in the abortion bans it promotes.
Other Koch grantees have seen the potential for a big vote harvest in attacking trans Americans, with IWF and IWV in the lead. Among IWF/IWV’s goals with its Orwellian “Women’s Bill of Rights” is the purported “right” of cisgender women to exclude transgender women from gender-affirming spaces, a position they promoted at their anti-trans event “Our Bodies, Our Sports” last summer.
The emphasis on women’s sports is opportunistic, because for most of IWF’s history it has attacked women’s rights in athletics, suing on behalf of men’s teams and most recently filing a brief against the equal pay claims of the U.S. women’s national team in soccer.
IWF/IWV also has an anti-trans “parental rights” video series that is being used to scaremonger with the imputation that public schools are pressuring kids to transition and then hiding it from parents. This comes from a group that ran advertising campaigns to back GOP Senate candidates who had notoriously claimed that women could not get pregnant from rape, but if they did, it was “God’s will.” Inventing phony threats, it has denied actual harms.
As chilling as these examples may be, they are only a few of the ways that Koch and his network of reactionary wealthy donors have continued to divide the American electorate. Having sown the seeds of the crisis in our democracy, Koch is demonstrably eager to reap the harvest. He and those he supports are using the courts and other levers of power to reclaim for corporations and rich individuals a power to dominate the majority not seen since the Gilded Age of the late nineteenth century—now, as then, in the name of liberty.
Far from having retreated from politics as he claimed in 2020, Koch is approaching victory in the goals he has pursued patiently and relentlessly for more than a half-century. And he is grooming his son, Chase Koch, as his successor to carry on this work, as reported by CMD, with a 501(c)(4) whose assets reached $1.3 billion in 2020. If the elder Koch continues to get mainstream news outlets and the public to look away, democracy in the United States may well be doomed.