How does one eulogize a villain? It’s a question I find myself asking today after reading the news that David H Koch has died. What else can we really call a man who spent his entire adult life enriching himself at the expense of the world around him, leaving in his wake millions of destroyed lives, a planet on the brink of ecological catastrophe, and a nuclear superpower governed by a far-right political party?
Koch went by many titles — billionaire industrialist, businessman, philanthropist, entrepreneur, conservative activist, libertarian vice presidential candidate — and I expect we’ll see many of those thrown around today. But “villain” is the one that suited him best.
Indeed, such is the appropriate term for a profoundly wealthy man who relies on a shadowy network of political advocacy groups to sell unpopular, detrimental policies to unsuspecting voters for the purposes of personal gain.
Along with a 42 per cent stake in Koch Industries, David inherited what could be described as a pathological distaste for government from his father, a founding member of the far-right John Birch Society and a man who reportedly once built an oil refinery for Nazi Germany. Together with his brother Charles, David would use both to reshape America for the worse.
David and Charles, colloquially known as the infamous “Koch Brothers,” poured money into causes like climate change denial to ensure their fossil fuel empire remained profitable for as long possible. They went after public education, throwing their cash behind voucher programs in states like Arizona, which ranked 47 in the nation for its public schools last year. They went after unions through proxies like former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. They targeted Social Security for privatization. According to one report, they even tried to hamper cleanup efforts after Hurricane Katrina.
And these are just some of the worthy causes David Koch and his brother used their vast fortunes to pursue. The reality is, given the porous nature of America’s campaign finance laws, there is no way of truly knowing the complete extent of their political ventures.
David Koch’s legacy is truly one of injustice. For as much injustice as there was in how he lived, there is much more in how he died. Rather than slip into obscurity, forgotten by the generations that will hopefully do the work of undoing the damage he caused the planet, Koch finds unearned immortality in infamy.
If not for our human need to learn from the mistakes of our past, this man ought to have no legacy. But the world he left behind is undeniably impacted by his actions and riddled with inequities, many of which he should have answered for in life, but instead will have to do so in the books of history.
Want to read the other side of the argument? Read Caleb Franz on Koch's legacy