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The Inadvertently Libertarian Trump

David Koch in 2012 (Brendan McDermaid/Reuters)
The Kochs like the Trump administration’s policies, but don’t read too much into that.

Jonathan Chait wrote Monday, “The latest development in the relationship between the Kochs (right-wing heirs to a business fortune) and Trump (also the right-wing heir to a business fortune) is that the former have thrown the weight of their massive organization unhesitatingly behind the latter. . . . Whatever points of contention remain between the two have been reduced to squabbles between friends.”

A conclusion like this is easier to come to if you strongly dislike both President Trump and the Koch brothers, and you find it difficult to distinguish among those you disdain.

A lot of coverage of this year’s Koch-network winter meeting — which Chait did not attend — focused on the Koch brothers and their network’s applause for a lot of the results of year one of the Trump presidency, and their pledging of close to $400 million to defend their allies in Congress and state governments. This generated a lot of sloppy not-really-accurate headlines, including one in Salon declaring, “The Koch brothers are now happily aboard the Trump Train.”

No, they’re happy with the policy results of the Trump administration so far, and they want to keep Republican majorities in the House and Senate in order to keep that going.

USA Today’s Fredreka Schouten and CNN’s Rebecca Berg were closer to the mark. One of the reasons the Koch network is so worried about the midterms is that they’re worried their allies will be dragged down by the president’s historically low approval ratings. The Koch network of donors is not really a diehard Trump crowd, and it’s supremely unlikely you’ll ever hear Charles Koch sing the praises of Donald Trump’s character or personality.

The Kochs are libertarians, and a particular kind of communitarian libertarians, if that doesn’t seem too contradictory. Their passions are for reducing the size of government, promoting entrepreneurship, solving social problems through community organizations, and, particularly this year, criminal-justice reform and anti-recidivism programs in prisons.

Some traditional libertarian causes aren’t really on their radar screen. There wasn’t a word spoken about government surveillance, the joys of legal drugs, the Second Amendment, or gun rights at the winter meeting; those topics just aren’t their thing. It’s also not clear how uniformly socially conservative their donors are; if you drew a Venn diagram of the Koch-network donors and the attendees of, say, the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual meeting, you probably wouldn’t see a huge overlap.

The Koch agenda aligns with Trump’s on the surface, but strongly contradicts it in some key policy areas. The Kochs fought the proposed Border Adjustment Tax tooth and nail last year, criticized the so-called Muslim ban, and aren’t supportive of reducing future levels of legal immigration. Charles Koch periodically refers to the need to recognize the dignity in all human beings and to treat them with that dignity. Whatever you think of the Trump presidency, it is safe to declare that “treat everyone with dignity” is not its mantra.

The dirty little secret that neither Trump’s strongest supporters nor his loudest opponents want to admit is that so far, President Trump’s actual governing policies are pretty different from what Candidate Trump promised. Once you look beyond the Twitter tirades, the controversial off-the-cuff remarks, the fuming about the Russia investigation . . . this administration doesn’t look all that populist.

Right now the border wall consists of eight prototypes standing outside San Diego. Deportations are up, but pretty modestly: about 61,000 from January 20 to September 30 in 2017 (in the same period of the final year of the Obama administration that was about 44,000). Last year, Immigration and Customs Enforcement made 143,470 arrests, an increase of 25 percent from 114,434 a year earlier. Recall that this is out of an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants. You may recall Hillary Clinton predicting that Republicans would round up masses of illegal immigrants and put them in “boxcars.”

The only trade deal that’s been torpedoed is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and even Hillary Clinton was pledging to scrap that. NAFTA is intact; Trump still talks about repealing it but Republican senators increasingly think this is intended as a negotiating tactic. Trump did impose tariffs on washing machines and solar panels, and he could impose broader tariffs, but so far, the president’s protectionist instincts have largely been held in check.

Candidate Trump rarely if ever indicated any interest in the burgeoning criminal-justice-reform effort in Republican circles; his view on police and justice issues was largely summed up with “we need law and order.” Now in this year’s State of the Union address, Trump declared, “this year we will embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance.”

As a candidate, in May 2016, Trump said that under his plan, “the taxes for the rich will go up somewhat.” Obviously, the majority of wealthy Americans — and many Americans in general — will keep more of their money under the tax cuts Trump signed into law.

Trump’s big-spending infrastructure deal is still on the drawing board.

If you lean libertarian, the Trump administration is giving you a lot of what you like — lower taxes, repealed regulations, your preferred kind of judges — and hasn’t yet delivered on the campaign promises that worried you. This may not be what Trump promised, planned, or intended, but perhaps this was predictable when you have a president who isn’t that focused on policy details, who staffed his administration with mostly traditional conservative Republicans, and who has to work with a Congress that has mostly traditional conservative Republicans.

If you lean libertarian, the Trump administration is giving you a lot of what you like.

Aside from the president’s behavior, the Koch network should be happy with the policy results of the Trump administration so far, and it’s unsurprising they’re genuinely worried about what a Democratic House or Senate would do. But to characterize their differences as “squabbles between friends,” as Chait does, is to miss the mark by a mile. Trump and the Kochs aren’t friends, they’re allies of convenience. And if the Kochs start to believe Trump endangers their vision of a society of maximized freedom and minimal barriers to pursuing the American dream, that alliance will break quickly.


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