When Charles Koch Took on President Trump — And Won
In the reality TV star’s Washington, the industrial titan’s pro-business, anti-tax agenda faced a threat greater than any Obama ever posed
By April 2015, Charles Koch had meticulously prepared for the approaching U.S. presidential election. In a rare public telegraphing of his intentions, the billionaire industrialist explained his strategy to USA Today. Koch would be more engaged than usual in politics, he said. His donor network would, for the first time, seek to influence the field of Republican primary candidates. The plan was to spend $900 million on activities including campaign contributions, think tanks, and educational initiatives during the election cycle, an amount rivaling the Republican National Committee’s war chest. Five contenders had been singled out as potential winners of the all-or-nothing money, including Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and three U.S. senators. The disclosure was a none-too-subtle signal. Republican politicians stood to win an enormous financial prize if they hewed closely to Koch’s policy views; they could feast at a carefully set table of campaign donations. It was for the candidates to decide whether they wanted to attend the banquet.
That’s when hotelier and reality television star Donald Trump came along and flipped the table over.
Over several months, Trump mercilessly dismantled each of Koch’s favored candidates, dismissing them as puppets, echoing critiques typically meted out by liberals, and along the way mocking the Koch donor network on Twitter.
When Trump won and arrived in Washington, he posed a greater political threat to Koch’s political agenda than did Barack Obama eight years earlier. Like Koch, Trump sought to reshape the Republican Party and American conservatism itself.
But Trump was bending the GOP toward a populist, nationalist, “America First” philosophy that Koch found abhorrent. It offended Koch’s sensibilities as a true-blue ideologue with a very specific vision of how society ought to be organized.
Since at least the 1970s, Koch had patiently promoted an unbending vision, a political blueprint for a virtual retreat from any…