Not long ago, a pal of mine asked whether I’d heard the latest scoop about Charles and David Koch, the right-wing billionaires currently overseeing capitalism’s final solution to the democracy problem. Did I know—did I know!?—their grandmother had been none other than Ilse Koch, the human-lampshade-loving wife of Buchenwald’s commandant? Cazart, as Hunter S. Thompson used to say. Overseeing final solutions just runs in the family.
My friend looked distinctly chagrined when I told her it wasn’t so. Like many liberal Americans, she hates the Kochs so much that no calumny strikes her as too far-fetched. But as it happened, I was midway through Daniel Schulman’s first-rate Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty, and I felt reasonably sure that Schulman wasn’t saving Ilse and her apocryphal lampshades for a Harry Potter gotcha toward the end.
Considering that Charles and David are worth more than $80 billion between them—and that there’s no real limit on how much of that they might spend advancing their political agenda—being scared witless by the Kochs’ rise makes perfect sense. But I do wonder at times whether turning them into the left’s ultimate boogeymen involves some unconscious sentimentality. Not, mind you, that they aren’t ideally cast for the role, from their ruthlessness to their legendary secretiveness. Most likely, not 1 in 10,000 Americans had heard of them until the Tea Party’s rise outed Americans for Prosperity—the 501(c)(4) hydra Charles and David founded in 2004—as the movement’s ATM.
Where the sentimentality comes in is that perceiving the Kochs as uniquely monstrous makes it easy to forget that they’re only the energetic catalysts of the 1 percent’s newly de-fig-leafed agenda. In Los Bros’ income bracket, their beliefs about how the country ought to be run—for their benefit, and the rest of us can go hang—aren’t outlandish. It’s just that putting those beliefs into practice used to seem like an impossible dream, but no more. All that distinguishes the Kochs from less enterprising oligarchs is their resourcefulness and industry in reconfiguring the American political landscape to create a regime that suits their priorities.
By now, that landscape wouldn’t change back if Charles and David vanished tomorrow. Yet whenever Harry Reid—not the world’s most convincing Capra hero, as we can all presumably agree—excoriates them on the Senate floor, he ends up implying that everything would be hunky-dory if these bad apples would just, y’know, buzz off. Oh, really? Tell it to John Roberts, pal. Or Amway creep Dick DeVos. Or casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, the clownish would-be Caligula—“Make my horse a consul, or else”—to Charles and David’s imperturbable, implacable Romulus and Remus.
In any case, imploring the Kochs to restrain themselves— which is all that Reid’s hectoring amounts to—is pure bathos. They’ve got the bucks, they understand better than Adelson ever will how the big casino we call American politics works, and don’t forget they’re acting on their most devoutly held principles. (Well, Charles is; so far as I can tell from Sons of Wichita, David doesn’t count for much except as Charles’s satrap, albeit a shrewd one.)
When we’re talking about fat cats this ideologically driven, not to mention Cheshire-brainy, to ask them to forswear a mission they were brought up to hold dear—namely, a quest for supremacy, one whose methodology makes no distinction between the marketplace and the marketplace of ideas—for the sake of a bunch of fuzzy-wuzzy ideals they’ve never even pretended to subscribe to is a nonstarter. True, neither Charles nor David has ever let the cat out of the bag as bluntly as Club for Growth founder Stephen Moore did back in 2009: “Capitalism is a lot more important than democracy.” But it’s not as if anyone in their crowd denounced Moore as an un-American lunatic, now did they?
Once upon a time, we had a dandy word for people willing to write off democracy as collateral damage in the name of the greater American dream—“kooks,” not Kochs. Yet from their perspective, the Koch brothers are perfectly reasonable men. One of Sons of Wichita’s achievements is to keep that fact disquietingly front and center; despite Schulman’s often-superb eye for the revealing and/or juicy detail, not to mention his lefty credentials as a writer for Mother Jones, he never stoops to caricaturing his subjects as the Koch Ness Monsters of popular lore.
Revealingly, that’s an image the brothers are said to be confounded by. Nonetheless, in all sorts of bleak or gaudy ways, living up to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dictum that “the rich are different” turns out to be a trait that does run in the family, starting with—doesn’t it always?—Dad.
Dad was Fred C. Koch, a boot-strapping MIT–trained chemical engineer and oilman who married up after meeting his genteel, majored-in-French better half at a Kansas City polo match in 1932. Fred’s idea of parenting was hard-nosed: “He was the type of father,” one relative says, “who taught his children to swim by throwing them into a pool and walking away.” It must have mortified him when his oldest son turned out to be a pantywaist.
The most elusive of the Koch brothers, Frederick still denies he’s gay. At his age, that’s downright endearing, but you could wish he’d been robustly het enough to suit Fred. His unsuitability for a dynastic role was what made second son Charles the logical heir with twins David and Bill Koch jockeying for position in Charles’s wake.
Yahoos they definitely weren’t. Frederick attended Harvard, the other three followed Fred Sr. to MIT, and one big squabble among the brothers in adulthood was over how to divvy up Dad’s art collection. Mom, nicknamed “Mighty Mary”—not that she was mighty enough to put a stop to more serious feuds later on—was the aesthetic enabler. Of the four, only Charles didn’t manifest much interest in culture, steeping himself instead in political and economic theory—the real stuff, not Ayn Rand, with Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek among his early Obi-Wan Kenobis. Say what you will about the decisive Koch brother, his free-market fanaticism rests on firmer (albeit unappealing) intellectual bedrock than, say, Ross Perot’s improvised gobbledygook.
Fred Sr.’s ferocious anti-Communism hadn’t stopped him from making a bundle in the 1930s building oil facilities for Stalin’s Russia. That let him claim he knew collectivism’s horrors first-hand. In 1958, the elder Koch was one of the John Birch Society’s founding members, and Charles either fell or hewed close enough to the tree to open a Bircher bookstore. But his passion was a brand of libertarianism hard-core enough to be called “anarcho-capitalist” by one dazed ideological confrere.
In the 1970s, by which time Dad was long gone, Charles and David put the family fortune to work to make libertarianism both respectable (hence the Cato Institute’s founding) and more than a flyspeck at the polls (hence David’s vice-presidential candidacy on the Libertarian Party’s 1980 ticket, with deep pockets being the self-acknowledged reason he got the nod). Even then, Los Bros couldn’t invest in a cause without wanting to customize it in their image, just as Koch Industries has never acquired a company without imposing its ethos. A dismayed libertarian purist coined the term “Kochtopus” to describe Charles’s takeover of a movement he wanted “to run … as other plutocrats run all the other political parties.”
Thanks to Charles’s rapacity and acumen, Koch Industries never stopped expanding. Today, outdone only by Cargill, it’s the second-largest privately owned company in the United States—and it’ll go public, as Charles has vowed, “literally over my dead body.” One tantalizingly unamplified explanation Schulman provides is an indiscreet assessment by Koch Industries’ top lawyer: “If this were a public company, all the officers and directors would be in jail.”
That’s what Bill Koch says the guy said, anyhow. But Bill, the zaniest Koch brother—he’s the id to Charles’s eyes-on-the-prize superego—spent two decades as the biggest thorn in his elder sibling’s side, launching lawsuit after messy lawsuit to disrupt his brothers’ control of the company. That’s when he wasn’t spending his millions on other forms of eccentricity, like deciding out of the blue to compete in the America’s Cup. Improbably, he won.
The family dynamic in play would tax the dramatic skills of a Kansan Eugene O’Neill: Frederick retreating into an aestheticism so quaint it seems lit by gas lamps, Charles emerging as pure, wintry will to power, and Bill’s twin David thriving on playing Charles’s Mini-Me while Bill hungers for a disapproval that would prove he’s gotten big brother’s attention. If anything, they come off as four compulsively overdeveloped facets of a single personality, and the key word is “compulsively.” Kochs don’t do things by halves.
So entertaining that he threatens to run away with the book—he was once saluted in Vanity Fair as a “man whose closet is free of skeletons in large part because they all seem to be turning somersaults in his living room”—Bill is the only one you’re at all tempted to like, not least because he’s devoted so much of his life to tearing Charles’s sangfroid into shreds. (Even when Bill, Charles, and David “reconciled” in 2001, lawyers were present, and a detailed peace treaty was drawn up for the brothers to sign.) Yet precisely because Bill is as uninhibited as his brothers are reserved, his shenanigans end up exposing the brutal sense of prerogative that Charles and David are at pains to keep muted.
The most bizarre episode in Sons of Wichita describes Bill’s flying a trio of executives from Oxbow, his own energy company, a couple of years ago to a reconstructed Wild West town he maintains as a private resort in Colorado. They were wined and dined, given a helicopter tour of the premises—and then detained against their will into the wee hours, with no communication with the outside world, to be interrogated about their suspected malfeasances. Because a Koch is a Koch is a Koch, Bill—a litigation addict himself—was “surprised and outraged” when one of the three filed suit for kidnapping and false imprisonment. The case is due to go to trial in November of this year—right around election time, funnily enough.
That coincidence is a reminder that Bill’s antics, however piquant, are a sideshow. Americans for Prosperity may not have gotten much return on the more than $400 million it sank into swaying the 2012 election—“the mother of all wars,” as Charles called it—but 2014 will likely be a different story. That’s not only because the lower and, on the GOP side, more ideologically driven turnout for midterm elections benefits Los Bros’ agenda; it’s because practice makes perfect. As one former Koch exec says, “They are smart people. They learn from their mistakes.”
Indeed they do. Much as we might wish that Charles had stayed dreamer enough to keep throwing away money on the Libertarian Party forever, for him and David to remain third-party outsiders was no way to get a seat at the big table—let alone dictate the menu. While the Kochs can’t control the GOP the way they once aspired to control the libertarian movement, their millions—however deleterious in effect—would count for less if winning elections was all Charles cared about. But it isn’t.
He thinks in corporate terms, and that means he’s all about investing in structures—interlocking ones, preferably. If Americans for Prosperity is the brothers’ instrument for influencing elections, once-sleepy George Mason University’s Institute for Humane Studies—among other Koch-funded R&D organs—is designed, or so Charles hopes, to turn out free-market theorists as relentlessly, as Schulman puts it, “as if manufacturing libertarian ideologues and widgets were one and the same.” Meanwhile, the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)— which the Kochs also help bankroll—churns out bills for state legislatures to adopt. Ideally, the upshot is a government of Koch-backed politicians passing Koch-approved bills based on Koch-generated intellectual premises. The top-to-bottom comprehensiveness of the scheme may be unprecedented.
Then again, Charles Koch is 78 years old. How much of this edifice will outlive him is anyone’s guess. Given his druthers, David would rather be remembered for other kinds of philanthropy; he’s spent a fortune on funding the arts in New York, which didn’t stop the lesser of the two evil brothers from getting booed at a 2010 performance of The Nutcracker he’d put up $2.5 million to fund. (Yeah, I feel bad for him too.) Though Charles’s son Chase is apparently being groomed to take over Koch Industries, whether he’ll also carry on his father and uncle’s political jihad is less clear.
Does it matter? In so many ways, the damage has been done—and the Kochs, as I’ve already suggested, are just the all-too-conveniently appalling poster boys for our transformation into an oligarchy in democratic disguise. That makes it naïve to demonize the Kochs exclusively. So long as we keep singling them out for perverting the system, pretty much every other member of their class with a hankering to do so can go on more or less undisturbed. As one of Bill Koch’s lawyers told a juror during one of the family’s interminable courtroom brawls, “There’s no poor people in this case. Everybody’s rich. That’s just the way it is.”
This review will appear in the July/August issue of The American Prospect magazine.