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Looking Back At David Koch's Impact On American Politics


Billionaire David Koch has died at the age of 79. David Koch, along with his brother Charles, poured their money into libertarian causes that gave rise to the Tea Party movement, which helped push the Republican Party to the right. Jane Mayer is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and she has written extensively about the Koch brothers. She joins me now to look back on David Koch's impact on American politics.


JANE MAYER: Thanks so much. Great to be with you.

CHANG: David and Charles Koch are often referred to as a single unit - the Koch brothers. But what distinguished David Koch, especially when it came to his involvement in politics?

MAYER: There are actually four Koch brothers, but it's two that they talk about as the Koch brothers, and that's Charles and David. Charles is really the person that has driven the business growth and the Kochs' political involvement. But David's been much more the public face. He was more of a glad-hander. Charles stays very much in the background and lives in Kansas. David lived in New York City, where he was the richest resident of New York.

CHANG: I mean, like, his name is all over buildings in New York.

MAYER: Yeah. He's been a very active philanthropist to arts and science. He's been active in the Lincoln Center, Natural History Museum. He's given to hospitals. And that's the public side of his giving. But what interested me as a political reporter, starting in around 2010, was the discovery that he and his brother were pouring huge amounts of money - hundreds of millions of dollars - into American politics much more stealthily. And they were not carving their name into buildings on that. They were doing it kind of behind the scenes.

CHANG: How did these two brothers make their fortune? About how big was it, first of all?

MAYER: They each are worth about $42 billion. The company was founded by their father, and it began with oil refineries and pipelines. And David and his brother used the company to just create a much larger fortune. The company makes almost everything you can think of, if you're wearing Lycra, you're wearing a product that's made by the Koch brothers. If you've got a seat belt on when you're driving, it's made by the Kochs - paper towels and Dixie cups and carpeting and the oil that's refined and the gas in your car. They're in so many different kinds of industries. People sometimes wanted to boycott their products, but they almost can't.

CHANG: Their roots in the oil industry - how did those roots shape the causes that they wanted to invest in?

MAYER: I would say, if I was looking back at the legacy of David and Charles - and David in particular now - I would say his largest accomplishment politically was they took fringe ideas that were ideas that were helpful to their industry - the oil industry. And they took those fringe ideas that were laughed at in the 1970s, and they put so much money behind promoting them that they are now the heart of the Republican Party and, in many ways, the heart of American politics. So those...

CHANG: Yes. You once wrote that the Koch brothers used their money to, quote, "impose their minority views on the majority." Tell us, how did they achieve that?

MAYER: What they were interested in was fighting the environmental movement and environmental regulations and fighting taxes. They wanted to, early on, abolish the IRS. They demonized government as big government. And back in the 1970s, these ideas were laughed at. Conservatives like William F. Buckley called the Koch brothers anarcho-totalitarians because they were so close to being anarchists and so anti-government.

But what they did was take their fortune and kind of clandestinely fund an idea factory and a movement. They were at it for decades. And they've built up so many organizations that pushed their ideas - think tanks and academic departments. And they have a on-the-ground political group, Americans for Prosperity, that is a rival to the Republican Party in size and in budget at this point. So they basically became a kind of private political movement.

CHANG: Now, the Koch brothers, even though they promoted cutting taxes, slashing regulation, they have their differences with President Trump, particularly over free trade. Do you believe that their influence has waned?

MAYER: I mean, they certainly are not wholehearted supporters of Donald Trump because they differ with him on trade and immigration. But on the other hand, they have won so much of the policies that they've wanted, and there's so many people that are allied with the Kochs who are in high positions in Trump's administration in areas such as environmental policy, tax policy - Vice President Pence has long been a close ally of theirs. They've got people all over the Trump government, and they've got a lot of policies that they've sought. I think what they have shown is extreme donors with extreme amounts of money can buy just an amazing amount of influence in this country.

CHANG: Jane Mayer is the author of "Dark Money: The Hidden History Of The Billionaires Behind The Rise Of The Radical Right."

Thank you so much for joining us today.

MAYER: I'm glad to be with you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.