David Koch: the billionaire who reshaped US politics

David H. Koch © Neilson Barnard/Getty Images

David Koch, who has died aged 79, was a kind and generous man, a great benefactor of charitable causes and the arts. But his influence on political life was resented by many.

Over five decades, Charles and David Koch grew their father’s company, Koch Industries, into a sprawling empire – operating oil pipelines and producing everything from fertilisers to paper cups, says the Financial Times. As the principal shareholders of the Wichita-based company (they latterly owned 42% each), the brothers became exceedingly rich. Last year, they were estimated to have a combined worth of $120bn, making them the world’s eighth and ninth richest billionaires. The death of David last month changes the fraternal dynamic, says The Economist. It has also cast a spotlight on plutocracy in modern America.

David Koch once referred to politics as “a nasty, corrupting business”, but that didn’t stop the Kochs from using their clout as owners of America’s second-largest privately held business to become “the most influential donors” in US conservative politics. Latterly, the brothers fell out with President Trump: as arch free-marketers, they were critical of his tariffs and trade wars. But the rise of “the Tea Party wing of Republicanism was in part attributed to Koch money”, notes The Daily Telegraph.

Detractors have blamed the Kochs and their extensive political network (dubbed the “Kochtopus”) for undermining any serious US political action on climate change. David Koch might have gained plaudits for his great philanthropy – he gave over $700m to medical institutions and was a generous endower of the arts in New York – but Koch Industries remained “one of America’s biggest polluters”. One report in 2011 accused it of emitting carbon dioxide equivalent to five million cars.

The brothers’ political and business instincts were honed at a young age growing up on a ranch in Wichita, Kansas, says the FT. Their father, Fred, was “a fervent anti-communist who was hard on all four of his sons”, putting them to work “in the 100-degree Kansas summers, uprooting dandelions, baling hay, milking cows and digging ditches”.

Business behemoth

David went on to MIT, where he majored in chemical engineering. But the brothers’ story proper began in 1967 when the father died and Charles took over running the firm, says The New York Times. Charles masterminded its overall expansion – transforming the firm that made his father a mere multimillionaire into the behemoth it is today – while David opened the division that became Koch Engineering.

In 1981, when Wall Street bankers offered the brothers “a windfall” for what was still then “an obscure, midsize energy company”, they refused – considering retaining control so vital that they fought a bitter civil war with their other brothers, Freddie and Bill, whom they eventually bought out. Charles’ knack for “entrepreneurial risk-taking” saw bold moves into fossil fuels, commodities trading, chemicals, paper products and fertilisers. And the brothers’ talent for lobbying ensured they maintained their advantage. Koch Industries “inserted itself into every aspect of daily life, raking in billions along the way”. The Koch’s political interests also date from the early 1980s, “when Charles reportedly pushed David to run as the vice-presidential candidate for the Libertarian Party” – having become concerned that the Republican nominee, Ronald Reagan, “would be too liberal”. The Libertarians won just 1% of the vote, but “paved the way for the family’s outsized role in politics”.

David is remembered by his family as “a kind and generous man” who “believed he had a responsibility to a world that had given him so many opportunities”. Maybe so, says The Economist. But his life also reflects “America’s enduring ability to generate huge fortunes”, its “concentrations of power” and “the many opportunities its diffuse and multi-layered democracy provides for influence-peddling”.