Donald Trump has good reason to feel confident after last week’s debate.
After all, he seems incapable of saying anything so inflammatory or dumb that it turns the Republican base against him. Indeed, even after being upbraided by Carly Fiorina for his ugly personal attacks, he continues to lead all polls.
The Republican establishment is hoping that someone will emerge to stop Trump. The Koch brothers’ favorite, Scott Walker, is now out of the running for the job. Tellingly, in his swan song, the Koch’s messenger boy called on the GOP to rally around an anti-Trump strategy. But efforts by party leaders to date to rein in Trump have only made him more powerful.
With Walker’s implosion, the Kochs aren’t looking especially fearsome in this week’s news cycle. That said, Trump should make sure to enjoy this moment while it lasts. Because when the Kochs – the GOP’s true power brokers – decide it’s time to put an end to this show, Trump’s bubble is likely to burst faster than he (or, in this case, the Kochs) can say, “You’re fired.” For all of Trump’s bluster, Charles and David Koch are the alpha dogs of the Republican Party. And the only thing more implausible than Trump’s hair is the notion that he can beat them at their own game.
As I detail in my new book, "Killing the Messenger," the Koch brothers have spent the last 30 years (and hundreds of millions of dollars) consolidating their control over our political system via what Charles has called a “vertically and horizontally integrated” strategy – in his words, the Kochs have their hands in everything “from idea creation to policy development to education to grassroots organization to lobbying to litigation to political action.”
The Kochs’ state-based infrastructure helped Republicans seize control of legislatures and governors’ mansions so they could gerrymander district lines, practically ensuring a GOP majority in the House until the next census in 2020. The Kochs’ attack ad factory helped demolish the Democratic Senate majority in 2014, handing the GOP complete control of Capitol Hill. And with a Koch-approved agenda already road-tested in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina, the only thing the brothers need to complete the hijacking of our democracy is a president they can call their own.
There are plenty of candidates who still aspire to that position. Jeb Bush’s Koch ties go back decades, pre-dating his first run for governor of Florida. Marco Rubio has taken special care to support every aspect of the Koch agenda, from opposing the Export-Import Bank to blocking a raise in the minimum wage. Ted Cruz is a longtime favorite speaker at Koch events. Even Carly Fiorina, a relative newcomer to politics, has been courting the brothers, hiring a former Koch Industries employer as her campaign manager.
One after another, these Republican candidates have strutted their stuff at private auditions for the brothers, as if they were interviewing for a job at Koch Industries (which, of course, they kind of are).
But with the exception of the fiery Fiorina, an implausible general election candidate, no one in the GOP field seems up to the task of taking on Trump—indeed, they’re all desperately trying to crowd themselves into Trump’s spotlight.
Donald Trump, however, doesn’t need anyone -- including the Koch brothers -- to help him get attention, and he hasn’t bothered to promise his fealty to their agenda during his rise to the top of the pack. And that’s why, sooner or later, the Kochs are going to try to destroy him, even if they have to do the job themselves.
Watching Trump do battle with the Kochs will be like watching the Joker go to war with Lex Luthor; I can’t say I’ll be rooting for it to be quick or painless. But in this battle of the super villains, I’m betting on the brothers to emerge victorious.
For one thing, while the Kochs are legitimate titans of industry, Trump’s own record as a businessman is checkered – he inherited his wealth, was bailed out of countless business flops by his father, and how rich he actually is remains something of a mystery. No one doubts that the Kochs will put their money where their mouths are. Not so with Trump.
For another, the Kochs aren’t winging it. They’ve spent decades patiently building infrastructure. They control media outlets, think tanks and even a grass-roots army, courtesy of Americans for Prosperity. They’ve proven their savvy in local, state and federal elections. As for Trump’s organization? Media Matters caught him paying supporters to show up for a rally.
Moreover, while Trump may enjoy the momentary attention that comes with leading the polls, the Koch brothers are in it for real. Their devotion to rolling back environmental regulations, dismantling worker protections and sheltering profits from taxation is an investment in their bottom line. Trump’s clumsy campaign, on the other hand, is actually costing him business, thanks to a concerted effort to punish him for his racist and sexist rhetoric by putting pressure on his partners to disassociate themselves from him.
There’s no doubt that Trump has thrown a wrench into the Kochs’ plan to focus on savaging Hillary Clinton while the battle for their favor played out quietly. And, it must be said, Trump is right when he charges that his GOP rivals are mere pawns, held captive by billionaire donors who wield the real power.
Indeed, he’s about to find out just how on point he is. Trump is famous for playing an omnipotent mogul on TV, the kind of guy who can dismiss subordinates and dismantle enemies with a wave of his hand. He’s about to find that the Kochs really are what he pretends to be.