Jin Liangkuai/Xinhua, via Associated Press
Jin Liangkuai/Xinhua, via Associated Press

The infamous Koch brothers have become an almost institutionalized part of American politics. The choice on election day is nearly always between a Koch brothers shill and a George Soros shill. While they are characterized by the media as “libertarians”, they have little affinity to real libertarian philosophy. Mostly they fund the beltway think thanks that would more accurately be described as “Republican Lite”.  Their spending is motivated by “economic freedom for me, but not for thee”. Certainly, I appreciate having a couple of billionaires around who operate in opposition to George Soros, but we shouldn’t have any delusions about who these guys are. Their actions in this campaign may be less obvious, but are far more dangerous than in previous elections.

First, it is important to understand just who the Koch brothers are, and which special interest group they fit into. They are oil tycoons, and tend to lobby for fewer regulations, lower taxes, and more opportunities for the oil industry. I have nothing against fossil fuels or reduced taxes and regulations, but I do have objections to crony capitalism and special privileges for any industry. The biggest issue for the oil industry currently is the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The Ohio Democratic Party reports that Koch Industries has spent up to $42.9 million lobbying for the TPP. We may have to take that one with a grain of salt, but recently House Speaker Paul Ryan spoke out strongly in favor of the TPP at a Koch event.

The TPP has been criticized for a variety of reasons. Some argue that it will ship jobs overseas, or give up US sovereignty. The truth is that very few people really know much about about it. The agreement is massive, and until recently was not available for the public to read. I’m not going to claim to be an expert on it, only extrapolate from the movement of players around the agreement. What has been known for quite some time is that it is a trade agreement between 12 countries. Conspicuously absent from this list of nations is China.

Those who have been following international news (or my blog), and not just the latest Trump gaff, may be aware of the tensions between the United States, China, and other nations in the South China Sea. The conflict mostly revolves around the free movement of ships through the area’s extremely busy shipping lanes. There are also questions of fishing rights, as well as rights to other resources in the area. If it was just a question of allowing trade, however, there would be no confrontation. It is in nobody’s interest to disrupt the commerce in the area.

The United States has positioned itself as the white night defending poor fisherman from Chinese bullies, but more likely the resources are what is of interest to individuals such as the Koch brothers, as well as the Chinese and American governments. The South China Sea is home to what could be one of the world’s largest untapped oil reserves. The TPP may be sold as a “free trade” agreement, but free trade could be established with a single sentence: “We hereby remove all barriers to trade”. In reality, it is more like an agreement between pacific rim nations in opposition to the Chinese.

Obama may seem like the kind of president who wouldn’t want to kick that particular hornet’s nest. I seem to recall an aversion to fighting wars over oil by those on the left. Unfortunately, he has only escalated the situation, and pushed strongly for the TPP. Back in May, Obama lifted the arms embargo on Vietnam, one of the countries included in the TPP. Yesterday, Vietnam started deploying missile platforms in the South China Sea in response to Chinese oil drilling. These weapons were allegedly provided by Israel, no doubt with US backing.

Hillary Clinton was one of the main proponents of the TPP, but switched positions as soon as it became politically expedient to do so. Virginia Governor and long time Clinton friend, Terry McAuliffe, said in an interview that he believes that Clinton will change position on the TPP after she is elected. Clinton’s own comments don’t reflect a strong opposition to the TPP, just a wish for it to meet the “high bar” she has set. Clinton is clearly the candidate who has the best chance of getting this bill passed, which is likely why the Koch brothers have voiced support for her.

Gary Johnson is the most sympathetic candidate in this political race for many. A relative outsider with a cringe worthy moderate view which he describes as “socially liberal, and fiscally conservative”, he is the only candidate who openly supports the TPP. While he is running as a libertarian, he clearly knows nothing about libertarian philosophy. Johnson entered the race with over a million dollars in debt from his 2012 campaign. Bringing Bill Weld onto the ticket was admittedly all about money. The Koch brothers pledged millions of dollars to the Johnson campaign, but the libertarian ticket denies having received that money. Actions can sometimes be revealing, however, and Johnson and Weld have avoided attacking Hillary Clinton, even calling her a “wonderful public servant” and “a nice kid”.

Although Donald Trump has vocally opposed the TPP, his vice presidential candidate, Mike Pence, is a Koch brothers funded candidate. The decision was clearly an outreach to the establishment conservatives who Trump alienated during the primary, if not directly to the Koch brothers. It isn’t hard for me to imagine Trump “making a deal” and passing some form of the TPP once he is in office. He doesn’t seem to be apposed to all “free trade” deals, just bad deals. The fact that the Koch brothers still refuse to support him seems like an indication that he may be harder to buy than other politicians, however.

In some ways, the fact that the Koch influence on this race is not obvious is more disturbing. Leading up to the election, when golden boy Scott Walker was in the race, the Koch’s indicated that they had $889 million earmarked for the election. Now, they claim to not be spending ANY money on the presidential bid. Color me skeptical. Of course, there is more than one way to buy an election.

Even if they aren’t funneling money into campaigns through shell corporations or middle men, they are certainly still involved with congressional races. My state Senator in Wisconsin, Ron Johnson, spoke at the RNC. As one might expect, he had favorable things to say about Trump, and some not so nice things to say about Hillary Clinton. Coincidentally or not, he had his funding pulled by the Koch brothers the next day. Ron Johnson has refused to take a position on the TPP, but given that the Koch brothers renewed their support several days ago, I fully expect him to come out in favor of the bill. I can’t help but wonder if Gary Johnson’s milquetoast pandering to Clinton is motivated by similar concerns.

While there is no open funding of Hillary Clinton, Gary Johnson, or Donald Trump by the Koch brothers, I can’t help but suspect background political maneuvering at work. I’ve speculated quite a bit in this article, and I understand if my readers are skeptical. I just call it as I see it. The Kochs are clearly interested in having the TPP passed, likely in hopes of gaining access to the oil rights in the South China Sea. Hillary Clinton is their best shot at that outcome. They may have sympathy with the libertarian philosophy, but money is motivating their political actions. By pushing a policy which escalates a potential conflict with China, they are gambling with American lives. I am not willing to bet that the Chinese will blink, or that Hillary Clinton will.