The Secrets of Charles Koch’s Political Ascent

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tags: John Birch Society, Charles Koch



In a recent round of interviews, Charles Koch, the billionaire industrialist and political patron, has been stressing that he only recently became involved in politics. As he put it in an interview with Megyn Kelly on October 15, “I’ve never been that fond of politics and only got dragged into it recently kicking and screaming.” But according to what appear to be two never-before-seen documents—a paper Charles wrote in1976 and an unpublished history of Charles’ political evolution—Charles began planning his ambitious remaking of American politics 40 years ago, transitioning from libertarian ideologue to conservative power broker. For his new movement, which aimed to empower ultraconservatives like himself and radically change the way the U.S. government worked, he analyzed and then copied what he saw as the strengths of the John Birch Society, the extreme, right-wing anti-communist group to which he, his brother David and their father, Fred Koch, had belonged. Charles Koch might claim that his entry into politics is new, but from its secrecy to its methods of courting donors and recruiting students, the blueprint for the vast and powerful Koch donor network that we see today was drafted four decades ago.

By the 1970s, Charles had broken from an early political influence—the John Birch Society (of which his father had been a founding member)—over his opposition to the Vietnam War. Charles had also been skeptical of the group’s more far-fetched conspiracy theories, which included a belief that many prominent Americans, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower, were communist agents.

In contrast, Charles had been drawn to a radical libertarian thinker with a checkered past named Robert LeFevre, who opened what he called the Freedom School in Colorado Springs, Colorado, offering immersion courses in “the philosophy of freedom and free-enterprise.” The school had numerous ties to the John Birch Society, but its preoccupations were slightly different. LeFevre, who called himself an “autarchist” because he didn’t like the label “anarchist,” was almost as adamantly opposed to the modern American government as he was to communism. Charles Koch was a major funder and trustee of the school by 1966. Brian Doherty, who chronicled the rise of American libertarianism in his book Radicals for Capitalism, described the school as “a tiny world of people who thought the New Deal was a horrible mistake.” The school taught a revisionist version of American history in which the robber barons were heroes, the Gilded Age actually was the country’s golden age and the Civil War shouldn’t have been fought. In 1965, the New York Times described the school as so implacably opposed to the U.S. government, it was proposing that the Constitution be scrapped in favor of one that limited the government’s authority to impose “compulsory taxation.”






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