George Washington Didn't Have 'Too Much Influence—the Koch Brothers Do

The magnates attempt to re-found the United States more to their liking.

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Library of Congress

"This is going to sound wrong, but what do you say to the Founding Fathers?" Rich Fink, political adviser to the Koch Brothers, says plaintively in a recent interview in The Wichita Eagle. "There was a very small group of people that were a minority that changed the whole country. You say George Washington had too much influence? We shouldn't allow them to do that? And we should have spread the influence around?"

Fink's comments appear in a long profile of Charles Koch in which the 76-year-old billionaire explains his decades-long crusade to install libertarian ideas at the center of American politics. The main theme of Koch's comments is the common but unbecoming self-pity peculiar to the rich and powerful. He and his brother David are being picked on, he says. President Obama and administration officials have questioned the tax status of their companies, referred to their political operatives as "contract killers," and said they were "going to call their BS." Sen. Frank Lautenberg spoke against them for three full minutes on the Senate floor, and read a list of their companies' consumer products into the Senate record. "It's frightening because you don't know what they're going to do," Koch complained. "They can destroy just about anybody, whether you are totally innocent or not."

Fink's comments about "the Founding Fathers" invite some reply from those who have studied the formation and history of the American Constitution. It is striking for its flawed view of history and for the glimpse it offers of the full extent of the brothers' far-right agenda.

To many Americans on the right, the "Founding Fathers" (the phrase, as Jill Lepore reports in her book, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the Battle Over American History, was coined by that world statesman, Warren G. Harding) are gods. They have to be perfect, or America might not be perfect. That's why crackpots like Michele Bachmann insist that the delegates to the Philadelphia Convention were actually seeking to abolish slavery. There's no evidence of that; but, like the story of Joshua making the sun stand still, it just has to be true.

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Let's take Fink seriously, though, and imagine he is talking about the actual historical figures who helped create the American republic in the 18th century. The fact that the Koch brothers are billionaires seeking to augment their fortunes doesn't, in and of itself, make them a different breed of cat than the Founders. Some of them (Jefferson, Adams) were old rich; others (Washington, for example) were new rich; and some (Hamilton, for example) wanted desperately to become rich. Economic interest -- the Virginians' dependence on slave labor, Washington's holdings in Western real estate, Hamilton's vision of wealth as a commercial lawyer -- influenced their vision of what the new country should become. The Koch brothers aren't morally pure, but neither were the "founding brothers" of the Revolution and federal period.

Political forces unfriendly to our form of government have begun to transform it from within

"This was a very small group of people that were a minority that changed the whole country," Fink says. No different from a SuperPAC, in other words. Except that's not exactly how it happened. Despite what some people imagine today, both the Revolution and the Constitution didn't just break out because some folks got tired of paying a tax on tea. They arose out of serious, prolonged, disciplined involvement with public institutions. The colonies moved from loyalty to independence, and then from independence to nationhood, within a framework of public debate and self-government. Over and over, the major Founders perceived a public need. They met privately to discuss what should be done, to be sure; but then they took their ideas public, and took responsibility for them. They didn't hire others to run for office; they ran themselves, and put their reputations on the line.

They did "spread the influence around."

Were they seeking to create a Koch-style libertarian utopia -- a country where established wealth helps itself to public resources and the common people deferentially tug their forelocks? Hardly. The roots of "American exceptionalism" lie in the idea that ordinary Americans would be masters of their destinies -- not serfs to a hereditary nobility, not servants of established wealth. If you want a picture of the Founding generation's nightmare, consider the election packet recently sent to 45,000 employees of Georgia-Pacific, owned by the Koch Brothers. In no uncertain terms, the packet explains which candidates in national and state races employees are to vote for.

This spectacle -- of working people dependent on rich employers who presume to dictate their politics -- troubled the serious thinkers among the Founders. They believed that a self-governing republic requires economic security and independence for its people so they could use their best judgment about public issues. That was the reason for the property qualifications a number of states maintained in the early Republic. Property owners would be immune from pressure and "corruption," they thought. That was a repellent way to ensure independence. But the idea that two secretive old brothers should not be able to threaten 45,000 citizens over their franchise flows directly back to the early Republic.

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"You say George Washington had too much influence?" Fink asks. If it was okay for George Washington to be influential, why shouldn't the Koch brothers be, too? Well, let's ask ourselves (after a deep breath) why Washington had so much influence. Washington married money, he enjoyed money, and he wanted more. Whenever he had a chance, he devoted himself to trying to make more money, whether by farming tobacco with slave labor, speculating in Appalachian real estate, dealing in mules, or running America's largest distillery.

But that was only when he could. Over and over in his life, Washington dropped his private affairs to move into the public sphere, openly and with accountability -- and he did so without any particular desire for gain. As commander of the Continental Army, Washington accepted no salary. Though he billed Congress for expenses, no one doubted he might have made more at home at Mount Vernon. After Yorktown, he returned his sword to Congress and retired from public affairs. That unprecedented spectacle -- of a successful general yielding power to an elected body -- made Washington a revered figure in the United States. More than that: as historian Gordon Wood explains in his book Revolutionary Characters: What Made the Founders Different, it made Washington the greatest figure in the Western world --the eighteenth century equivalent of Nelson Mandela.

So, no, Mr. Fink. George Washington didn't have too much influence. Charles and David Koch do. There is nothing in their careers that makes them remotely comparable to a figure like Washington.

The quote does, however, give us a glimpse into what may really be on the minds of the lords of the super PAC. Washington founded a new nation. The Kochs seem to want to re-found it to their liking. As James Fallows (a far more temperate figure than I) has explained recently, the last decade or so has begun to seem like a slow-motion coup d'état. Political forces unfriendly to our form of government have begun to transform it from within. Political institutions are being crippled by hostile federal courts and paralysis-minded office-holders; the right to vote is being sharply cut back; workers' ability to resist employer domination is being destroyed; secretive money is coming to dominate electoral politics; state courts are increasingly handmaidens of insurance companies and mining interests; women's hard-won gains will be reversed. If these trends continue, the America of 2025 will look nothing like the republic we lived in when the coup began in 2000, with the Supreme Court's decision in Bush v. Gore.

The Kochs may actually be the founding fathers of this new nation. God save my grandchildren from living in a republic "founded" by such as these.

Garrett Epps is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He teaches constitutional law and creative writing for law students at the University of Baltimore. His latest book is American Justice 2014: Nine Clashing Visions on the Supreme Court.


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