Fox News' Megyn Kelly had the opportunity Thursday night to sit down with plutocrat-industrialist Charles Koch, who looms large in our contemporary collection of political hack-billionaires who buy and sell candidates as if our electoral system were a Red Bull-and-Krokodil-fueled fever dream generated in the DraftKings boardroom. As you might imagine, for Koch, the Fox interview experience turned out to be a bit of a sponge bath!
There's a lot to say about this interview, of course. For instance, Koch calls corporate welfare a "disaster for this country" that's created a "permanent underclass" that's "corrupted the business community" as if he didn't have his wick dipped deeply into the corporate welfare font himself, as The New York Times' Joe Nocera reported just last week. (A "Koch Industries spokesman" told Nocera that "Koch Industries has consistently opposed and actively lobbied against all forms of corporate welfare, including those we currently benefit from," though he went on to add, "we will not put ourselves and our employees at a competitive disadvantage in the current marketplace." Someone please save these members of the "business community" from the "corruption" they decry, before this tragedy repeats itself as farce!)
But the most remarkable part of this interview is the repeat-revelation that Charles Koch ... does not take criticism well. At all! And he is hurt and aggrieved by anyone who has a disparaging word to say about his and his money's highly public involvement in everyone else's lives.
Kelly more or less set up this framing from the start, saying "the left" holds Koch to be emblematic of all that's wrong with "money in politics," and then enumerating all the money that's been spent on "attack ads" against him. So ... money in politics is real bad, at least when it's being used to point out how bad money in politics is!
The Fox News host went on to perplexingly attempt to downplay Koch's role in the political firmament, describing him as a "titan of industry" whom "some say is a GOP kingmaker" -- a cute construction that ignores the fact that as a "titan of industry," you're not likely to get a ten-minute hagiography-slash-book promotion on a prime-time Fox News without also being a GOP kingmaker.
Eventually, the interview gets around to an extended bit about Koch being utterly gobsmacked that he's ever been criticized for his political activity. His dumbfoundment is well enabled by Kelly's line of questioning, which inquires whether criticism from President Barack Obama is "beneath the dignity of the office," and whether Koch thinks the Democrats have made him out to be a "bogeyman." It's all variations on a theme: "Why do people pick on you so much, I don't get it?"
Koch describes himself as flabbergasted by the criticism and attention, equating the attack on his person with an attack on "private citizens." (And no, it's never explained whether this applies to "private citizens" who are not simultaneously an unending conveyor belt of special-interest boodle.) He goes on to insist that he's not at all "fond of politics," a world in which he implausibly describes himself as having been "dragged" into "kicking and screaming." Campaign finance reformers -- who have found Koch to be more apt to kick and scream when being dragged out of politics (or at least, when dragged further into the open) -- will surely be interested to hear this.
At this point, Koch has made his grievances crystal clear, but Kelly's not yet done carrying this brief for him, not by a long shot. She keeps lobbing the softballs, asking if Harry Reid is mean to have mentioned the Koch brothers "89 times from the Senate floor," or if being on Democrats' "enemies lists" is hurtful.
"That's very sad that's what we've come to," the veteran funder of attack ads replies.
But if it's really hard to fathom that partisan criticism and attack ads are authentically of searing concern to a man who can buy and sell his critics a hundred times over, it's a further astonishment to watch Kelly ask Koch about the fact that even he, as an employee of Koch Industries, gets an employee review. Here, Koch plays it off as if he were actually good at facing criticism:
KELLY: Aren't you afraid of a bruised ego?
KOCH: No! Here's the thing, I think all of us need this attitude: do you want to have your feelings hurt a little bit because you got some negative feedback or do you want to continue down the disastrous track you're on and have a huge disaster? Talk about a bruised ego!
This is what we call a "study in shifts of self-awareness."
Bottom line, Koch wants you to know that he needs your pity after all that he's been through. I find myself feeling bad for Fox News, which can't even claim an exclusive over this emo outpouring because Koch had already lamented his outcast state in the Wall Street Journal back in April 2014. That was the moment when he more or less perfected his "I am just trying to raise up the people, but the 'collectivists' keep on assassinating my character, man" schtick:
Instead of encouraging free and open debate, collectivists strive to discredit and intimidate opponents. They engage in character assassination. (I should know, as the almost daily target of their attacks.) This is the approach that Arthur Schopenhauer described in the 19th century, that Saul Alinky famously advocated in the 20th, and that so many despots have infamously practiced. Such tactics are the antithesis of what is required for a free society—and a telltale sign that the collectivists do not have good answers.
Jonathan Chait gave good side-eye at the time, saying, "In the kind of 'free and open' debate he imagines, Koch would continue to use his fortune to wield massive political influence, and nobody would ever say anything about him that makes him unhappy."
But the reality of how the Koch brothers are received by polite society is best expressed by Charles' brother, David, who seems to be the less-given-to-whimpering of the two. Not long ago, The Baffler's John Summers had the opportunity to describe a triumphant David H. Koch receiving the adulation of a collective of good, high-society, Democratic Party-funding Boston liberals for founding the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT (a moment that transpired in tandem with Koch Industries' industrious lobbying of the Department of Health and Human Services to not "add formaldehyde to the government’s list of 'known carcinogens'”). Per Summers:
How gratifying for him to attend the dedication of an institute that bears his name and to bathe in all that gratitude from the first woman president of his alma mater. Just six months before the dedication, Koch had had to quietly discontinue service on a board of the National Institutes of Health after The New Yorker called adverse attention to the conflict of interest involved in his participation. Koch betook himself to MIT, which emblazoned his name on a building.
“I read stuff about me and I say, ‘God, I’m a terrible guy,’” the baron told the New York Timesabout his prestige in Cambridge. “And then I come here and everybody treats me like I’m a wonderful fellow, and I say, ‘Well, maybe I’m not so bad after all.’”
I think the real story here is that it was David, and not Charles, who got all of the family's thick skin.