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Oligarch of the Month: Charles Koch

Has this latter-day John D. Rockefeller found his inner peacenik?

Bo Rader/Wichita Eagle/Getty

For nearly four decades, Koch Industries has spent its time quashing the labor movement, besieging the environment, and stealing oil from the Osage Indians in Oklahoma. But in June, The Boston Globe reported that Charles Koch is teaming up with liberal-donor stalwart George Soros to fund a new antiwar think tank, the Quincy Institute, due to open in September. Has this latter-day John D. Rockefeller found his inner peacenik?

Charles’s biography may hold some clues. He’s widely considered the brains behind the family business that he took over from his father, Fred, a founding member of the John Birch Society and one of the few American industrialists who openly admired Hitler. In 1983, together with his brother David, who died this month, Charles bought out the other two siblings—Frederick, a philanthropist, and Bill, a collector of luxe art and other billionaire baubles, such as bottles of wine that he was told once belonged to Thomas Jefferson. Under Charles, the company expanded from oil refineries into lumber, coal, chemicals, Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups, and more. He’s now worth an estimated $54 billion.

Building an empire that large required a guiding philosophy, something beyond the writings of his preferred free-market fundamentalists, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Though Charles was more interested in selling paper than in writing books printed on it, his personal libertarian credo was simple: Be opportunistic. This mandate often meant profiting off wars, not working to end them. Koch subsidiaries recently signed two military contracts worth a combined $500,000 (the same sum the Kochs gave Quincy). On the other hand, in 2017, Charles helped fund university centers run by dovish professors; he genuinely hates government spending, and his partnership with Soros has an added advantage—it’s sure to rankle the man in the White House. The Kochs have a fraught relationship with Donald Trump. After they refused to fund his 2016 presidential run, Trump escalated their feud by kicking David off his West Palm Beach golf course.* So jointly seeding a think tank with Trump’s Public Enemy No. 1 is more than just good business.


* A previous version of this article misstated the golf course that Trump ejected David Koch from.