It's clear that Donald Trump and the Koch Brothers disagree on a vast array of issues. Trump threatens the economic libertarian hold over the Republican party the Koch's helped engineer - indeed, the entire right-wing hammer-lock that had become the primary focus of their spending.
They didn't want him to get the nomination. They still don't. So it was surprising that just as establishment Republicans began to gather up their energy for a belated, long-shot frontal assault on Trump, extending all the way to maneuvering for a brokered convention, the Koch's suddenly announced that they had no intention of supporting an effort to deny Trump the nomination. They off-the-record attributed this reluctance to their observation that, thus far, attacks on Trump have had no impact. (I'm skeptical of this - abstract laments of the strategic consequences of a Donald candidacy have certainly not worked - but under normal circumstances Trump's voting share should be soaring as his opponents drop out and some of them endorse him - which hasn't happened yet. Trump has not yet consolidated the party and probably wouldn't today. So I think the attacks on his credentials as a Republican and conservative are biting - just not deeply enough.)
But the Koch's also carefully kept their powder dry about what else they might do if he got the nomination. Which leaves you and I free to speculate.
As a practical matter, there are three possible outcomes. Trump wins a majority of the delegates, or close enough that he becomes the nominee without a bitter convention split. Trump wins a smaller plurality, and the party denies him the nomination. By that time, Trump's original option of running as an independent is very hard, because the calendar doesn't permit it - but he might still do something symbolic to ensure that his voters punish the GOP. Or with a small plurality Trump eventually prevails, but his enemies mount either an independent or third party challenge to him to give their down-ballot nominees safe harbor.
It is the third option that gives the Koch's an opening that has not attracted much attention. The pundits and analysts have focused on how hard it would be for a Republican alternative to have a shot at winning. But such a nominee could definitely up Trump's odds of losing. And by far the easiest pathway to get a Republican independent alternative to Trump on the ballot is the Libertarian party nomination. Indeed, for the Libertarian party (which chooses its nominee in late May), offering a candidate who is sufficiently credible and appealing that anti-Trump Republicans could rally around him/her is the Libertarian's best pathway to mainstream credibility. Republican power brokers can't dictate the Libertarian nominee. (Nor can the Koch's, even though David Koch ran for VP on their ticket in 1980.) But if, as most analysts believe, the GOP establishment realizes that no independent third candidate can get an electoral majority against Clinton and Trump, the GOP doesn't need to pick the nominee. The Libertarians simply need to give them a palatable harbor in the storm.
And for the Koch's, this could be a heaven-sent opportunity. It's hard for a Republican House, or legislative, candidate, not to endorse the Republican Presidential nominee. They need his coattails with the party base. They need his fundraising. They need the party apparatus. The Libertarians, as present constituted, offer no substitute, however dicey Trump is with key constituencies.
But if the Koch's turn their enormous campaign apparatus to the service of a Republican/Libertarian fusion movement, led by a palatable if not compelling sacrifice nominee, the safe harbor looks a lot more attractive. And the more down-ballot Republicans accept the offer of help, the deeper the Koch penetration of the Republican party becomes.
The machine is there. Why not use it to advance their agenda?
By using it the Koch's strengthen the libertarian faction of the Republican party, which serves their ideology and their interests. And if the ticket draws a lot mainstream Republicans, the Koch's could follow up in future elections by encouraging key states to adopt New York's fusion ballot, in which the Libertarian party ticket becomes available to the Koch's as leverage on Republican primary processes.
The Reagan Republican coalition had been splintering before Trump, and will continue to splinter whether he wins or loses. Reagan Republicanism was built by melding anti-communist militarism, low taxes, minimal safety nets, and patriarchal family attitudes. When Mexican day laborers replaced Soviet Commissars as the enemy, the business community began to pull away. They demanded in return that trade agreements that opened markets be succeeded by ones designed to accelerate outsourcing. The GOP was set up to make class warfare on itself. And when young Evangelicals turned out to live in the 21st century after all, "values voters" were replaced by the Tea Party.
The Koch's don't mind. David Koch, remember, ran against Ronald Reagan. Republican insiders were saying, as far back as 2012, that the real political battle they cared about was not the White House, but control of the future of a party about to fracture and be transformed.
And the Koch brothers have positioned themselves to take full advantage of the fracture. So what if the instrument of their moment is a candidate they loathe? That's what politics is often about.