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The Paranoid Style in Liberal Politics

The left’s obsession with the Koch brothers

Apr 4, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 28 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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As last year’s midterm elections approached, the White House singled out the Kochs for attack. President Obama relied on innuendo: “They don’t have to say who exactly the Americans for Prosperity are,” he said in August. “You don’t know if it’s a foreign-controlled corporation. You don’t know if it’s a big oil company, or a big bank.” Obama’s lieutenants were more direct. Also in August, an administration official, later identified as the economist Austan Goolsbee, delivered a background briefing to reporters in which he falsely alleged that Koch Industries paid no corporate income tax. (An inspector general is now investigating whether anyone in the Obama administration accessed confidential tax information prior to the attack.) The Kochs, former White House adviser David Axelrod wrote last September, are “billionaire oilmen secretly underwriting what the public has been told is a grass-roots movement for change in Washington.”

But that was just for starters. Liberals in the media turned into Koch addicts. They ascribed every bad thing under the sun to the brothers and their checkbooks. Pollution, the Tea Party, global warming denial—the Kochs were responsible. The liberals kneaded the facts like clay until the Kochs resembled a Lovecraftian monster: the Kochtopus! Its tentacles stretched everywhere. “Their private agenda is really the eradication of the federal government in almost all of its forms, other than the parts of it that protect personal rights,” New Yorker writer Jane Mayer told NPR’s Terry Gross. Anonymous, the hackers’ collective, accused the Kochs of attempting to “usurp American Democracy.” The Koch brothers manipulated the Tea Partiers, according to Keith Olbermann, by “telling them what to say and which causes to take on and also giving them lots of money to do it with.”

“They have an interest that is hard core ideological, hard core conservative. And dad’s money to pursue that agenda, it turns out, goes a long, long way,” said Rachel Maddow. Another left-wing radio host, Mike Papantonio, called them “inheritance babies who don’t want to pay taxes.” “The billionaire Koch brothers spent millions to have a seat at the Republican table in Washington,” said Ed Shultz, also of MSNBC, “and let’s be upfront about this now, folks. Now, they are the table.” For Paul Krugman, “What the Koch brothers have bought with their huge political outlays is, above all, freedom to pollute.” Frank Rich called them “fat cats.” Howard Dean was blunt: “We don’t want the right wing buying elections.” The Kochs, wrote a group of liberal bloggers, are “the billionaires behind the hate.”

By the time the rhetoric trickled down from the president of the United States to MSNBC talking heads to anonymous email writers, any pretense to civility or actual fact had vanished. The emails that showed up in Melissa Cohlmia’s inbox each morning were unhinged. Cohlmia is director of corporate communication for Koch Industries. Every day when she arrived at work, the first things she’d read were emails with subject lines like “This is the result of the hate you’ve been spewing,” “Corrupt Polluting Scum,” “I am boycotting Koch Industries,” “Treason,” and “Eat s—t you jerks.” 

Koch Industries has a target on its gargantuan back. The brothers are the latest victims of the left’s lean, mean cyber-vilification machine. Cohlmia spends her time trying to debunk the falsehoods being spread about her bosses and her company. It may be a losing battle. There’s just too much junk. And every so often Cohlmia has to stop and wonder: How on earth did it come to this?

Market Science 

The Kochs’ grandfather, Harry, immigrated to the United States from the Netherlands in 1888. He settled in Quanah, Texas, where he bought a newspaper and printing company. His son Fred was born in 1900.

Fred Koch graduated from MIT, where he studied engineering. In 1925 he moved to Wichita. There he developed an oil refining process that led to bigger yields and helped smaller, independent oil companies. This made him few friends in the industry. Instantly, the major companies sued. Koch spent years fighting 44 different lawsuits. He won all but one—and that verdict was overturned when it was revealed that the judge had been bribed.

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