This essay originally appeared in the Chronicle of Philanthropy on Thursday, February 25, 2021
It was with a mix of bemusement and exasperation that I read Sarah Ruger’s recent op-ed Philanthropists Across the Political Divide Must Work Together to Cure Extremism (February 17). In bemoaning America’s polarization and the rise of extremism, Ruger, who is a director at the Charles Koch Institute, proposes solutions for healing America’s “seriously ill” body politic in the wake of the violent U.S. Capitol insurrection. But she fails to ask who and what is behind our “political malady.”
She starts by noting that the insurrection and the “deeply politicized impeachment trial” of former President Donald Trump put our national illness into “sharp focus.” This is true, but in using words like “politicized,” Ruger wants to have it both ways: to highlight a crisis without calling out the Republican Party for its primary role in creating it. The problem with the impeachment trial was not that it was politicized but that 43 Senators, for reasons of cowardice, malice, or perceived political gain, sided with the first U.S. president to ever attempt a coup.
None of this is surprising given that calling out the Republican Party would be inconvenient for someone associated with the work of Charles Koch and his late brother David, who over the past three decades arguably did more than anyone else to sully our national discourse and enable the rise of extremism within the GOP.
I had to stifle a laugh when Ruger called for a “nonpartisan” response to the “extremism threatening our democracy’s health.” It’s not partisan to say that right-wing white supremacists are the primary source of extremism in America — it’s a fact. According to a Department of Homeland Security report, “White supremacist extremists [are] the deadliest domestic terror threat” to the nation. The insurrectionists, inspired by Trump and willing to murder on his behalf, included neo-Nazis and other far-right groups.
Unfortunately, over the past four years, it became increasingly difficult to distinguish between these fringe elements and the mainstream Republican Party. Consider that only 11 House Republicans voted to remove Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia from committee assignments even though she has expressed belief in QAnon conspiracy theories and repeatedly indicated support for executing prominent Democrats.
While the Koch brothers refused to back Trump’s candidacy in 2016, they donated at least $100 million to aid the rise of the Tea Party movement and the Republican Party. Crucially, the Tea Party was not some innocent political force advocating for Libertarian ideals. As political scholars have noted, it was a clear precursor to the overt racism, xenophobia, and extremism of the Trump presidency. Before pursuing Ruger’s three-step approach to healing democracy, we must acknowledge the role Charles Koch played in making America sick to begin with.
The damage Koch has wrought extends well beyond supporting the Tea Party. For decades, he has advocated for policies that benefit the wealthy at the expense of the least powerful, the environment, and our democratic institutions. The Koch brothers were a leading force behind climate–change denialism — imperiling the entire world. Most insidiously, they ushered in an era in which money corrupts every aspect of government, seriously harming the health of our body politic.
I’m not sure how to square this legacy with Ruger’s suggestion that we “expose people directly to those with different ideas and political identities and empower them with both the space and tools to … engage in constructive debate.” I agree that “our institutions are ill but not beyond saving,” as she argues. However, the solution is not bipartisanship or nonpartisanship, nor is it a matter of listening to one another.
Philanthropy cannot help us heal if we do not do something about the underlying problem: that a powerful minority has co-opted our democracy to protect its status. Too many of our ultrarich citizens have enabled, abetted, or turned a blind eye to extremism; launched massive marketing campaigns to shape public opinion and prevent action on existential challenges like climate change; and otherwise used their influence to bend public policy to their personal benefit. That a representative of one such wealthy and powerful American now wants us to come together rings incredibly hollow. It’s akin to Trump supporters who condoned his actions to overturn the election results now asking the rest of us to prioritize unity over accountability.
I’m sure Charles Koch strongly condemns the violence of January 6. That doesn’t mean he bears no responsibility for creating the conditions that allowed it to happen. Nor do his immense charitable contributions make up for the harm he has caused, though Kruger seems to want us to believe that philanthropy can put the genie of corruption and bigotry back into the bottle.
Alas, Koch has dedicated much of his life to building the GOP into what it is today: the party that embraced Trump despite his administration’s lawlessness, cruelty, and disregard for truth. Even after he came close to ending the American experiment, the vast majority of Republicans, including those backed by Koch, continue to stand with the former president. America’s political illness has led to great suffering, death, and inequity. But its victims need justice, not polite debate. What’s your three-step plan for that, Sarah Ruger?