Charles Koch Wants to Be the Next Bernie Sanders

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Charles Koch
Feel the Koch.Photo: Patrick T. Fallon/2015 The Washington Post

He’s an old white man who’s mad as hell about our “rigged economy” and the way it leaves the poor behind. He thinks “personality politics” is distracting Americans from the issues that really matter. And he wants to inspire the people to rise up and tell the political Establishment it’s time for real change — like abolishing the postal service, erecting artificial barriers to clean-energy adoption, protecting white-collar criminals from legal accountability, and eliminating all Social Security benefits. Per the Associated Press:

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Billionaire Charles Koch, one of America’s most influential conservative donors, said he is fed up with the vitriol of the presidential race and will air national TV ads that call on citizens to work together to fix a “rigged” economy that leaves behind the poor.

A libertarian billionaire — who has spent hundreds of millions of dollars advancing policies that have no constituency outside of the Ayn Rand Institute’s summer retreat — is fed up with the vitriol of the political debate in a country where, he himself acknowledges, the poor are suffering from an economy rigged by the powerful and well-connected.

Look around: America is divided. Between success and failure. With government and corporations picking winners and losers. Rigging the system against the people. Creating a two-tiered society,” the voice-over bemoans, as the video switches back and forth between shiny McMansions and foreclosed properties, smiling Wall Street executives and sad African-American schoolchildren. “It’s time to remove the barriers, to end the divide, to replace winner-take-all with a system where we all can win.”

In a democracy, every political interest group will give its policies a populist sheen. And the Koch brothers’ brand of market populism has a long pedigree in the United States. But it’s hard not to hear echoes of a certain Vermont senator in Charles Koch’s AP interview and his new ad campaign. And there’s reason to think this mimicry is calculated.

Last month, the National Review reported that the Koch brothers were refocusing their political efforts away from electoral politics and toward their “educational and advocacy work.” According to Koch allies who spoke with the magazine, Bernie Sanders’s campaign helped inspire this shift:

Koch allies say the brothers took tremendous interest in Bernie Sanders’ unlikely success — particularly his resonance with young voters who represent the future of the electorate — and drew stark conclusions about their own efforts. “Dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into elections doesn’t persuade enough people to achieve lasting change,” one Koch confidante says. “To achieve lasting change, the effort has to begin much earlier.”

It’ll probably take more than co-opted signifiers of economic populism to convince debt-burdened millennials that deregulating the energy industry is the cure to what ails them. But you can’t blame the Kochs for trying. This is a rough time for subscribers to the Ludwig von Mises Institute newsletter. Donald Trump has revealed that the tea-party movement was inspired less by a grassroots passion for Friedrich Hayek than it was by one for white identity politics. And now most Americans under 30 suddenly want a socialist to be their president. And poor Paul Ryan has to pretend that letting investment professionals rip off their elderly clients is an “anti-poverty” policy rather than a means of keeping Atlas from shrugging.