Driving into Rancho Mirage, a wealthy enclave just a few miles from Palm Springs, California, you’d never know that California faces a long term water shortage. The intense green of the finely manicured lawns, the fountains spewing water into the desert air and the bright flowers everywhere give proof to the power of the land developer and the illusion that the American dream is somehow still alive.
Look a little closer, though, and you can see the rotten inner core of this illusion oozing through the free market facade of this fantasy world. The man made waterways and fountains that envelop the deluxe downtown “River” mall reek of sewage. The huge empty parking lots and empty storefronts at the edge of town and the rows of foreclosed or unsold McMansions tell a story of unrequited dreams and the cruel realities of the first great recession of the twenty-first century.
This man-made oasis claims only 17,000 year round residents, yet boasts a long history as a playground for the rich and famous. Rancho Mirage is home to Frank Sinatra’s famous compound built to entertain Jack Kennedy after his election. (At the last minute JFK didn’t accept the invitation and “the chairman” was livid.) Lucy Arnez (I Love Lucy) served twice as the honorary mayor of Rancho Mirage.
It was here that defrocked evangelist Jim Bakker and wife Tammy Faye came to rebuild their empire in the aftermath of their 1987 scandal, with a vision for a $2 billion master-planned community that would recreate the ambiance of the Holy Land. The 1,700 acre project never broke ground. Jim went to jail for fraud. Tammy moved on to another wealthy husband. The make up industry cheered.
There is a certain other-worldness to the city, with broad avenues named after movie stars brimming with Beemers, Benleys and Jaguars. It was fitting that this was the locale for the Kochopus network of rightwing and libertarian groups to gather their monied friends for a strategy session aimed at furthering their agenda. Dubbed the “Billionaires Caucus” by critics, the Koch Bros’ meeting is also intended as a fund raising opportunity for the ultra-wealthy to fund far-right institutions and the network that ties them together. Robert Reich, former Labor Secretary in the Clinton administration, says that the confab represents “a threat to our democracy.”
A coalition of left-liberal groups lead by Common Cause agreed with that assessment and put out the call for a rally that would call attention to the behind-closed-doors gathering in this town at the edge of reality. It was here that we came, on Sunday, January 30th, seeking to confront the Koch’s ill-gotten, obscene wealth that has made the Tea Party and hundreds of right-wing abuses of our democratic system possible.
Political commentator Jim Hightower spoke to a kick-off event for in a crowded theater before the protest; saying that the problem the Kochs represent is what the 19th century populists used to call “the money power,” noting that the right to speak out against it is rooted in our “democratic authority” as citizens concerned with the general welfare of the country. (See Frank Gormlie’s report for the rest of the details about the protest here.)
Although the Koch brothers — Charles and David — have come under intense scrutiny recently for their role in helping start and fund groups involved in organizing the tea party movement (Americans for Prosperity), at the core of their quest is a systematic mechanism for the ultra-wealthy to their political giving to advance a conservative economic and regulatory agenda designed to further the interests of the modern day American oligarchy.
Koch industry operations include coal mining, thieving oil from Indian reservations, pipelines and refineries and formaldehyde soaked wood from clear cut forests. One of their companies even manufactured the carpets used for the last Presidential inauguration. Long recognized as major polluters—they contributed significant cash to last fall’s attempt (Proposition 23) by the oil industry in California to derail pollution standards—they’ve spent $25 million in recent years spreading the preposterous message that our best scientists are ideological fear mongers, who would use “climate change” to usher in World Government.
It should come as no surprise that the Koch family knows about “world government”, as big daddy Fred played a significant role in founding the John Birch Society, the ultra-rightist group that, among its other accomplishments, accused President Eisenhower of being a communist, fought against school integration through a campaign to impeach Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren and provided fodder for just about every right wing conspiracy out there. Big daddy learned all about communism and other things that go bump in the night while selling oil refinery equipment and expertise to Bolshevik leader Joseph Stalin, starting with a $5 million contract in 1929. Of course, he didn’t actually do anything about his great insights until after the post-Stalinist Russian government stopped doing business with his firm.
Today, the family plows mega-millions into right-wing organizations like Institute for Humane Studies, the Cato Institute, the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, the Bill of Rights Institute, the Reason Foundation, Citizens for a Sound Economy and the Federalist Society—all of them promoting the customary billionaire-friendly dreams of the free market, deregulation and smaller government.
Then there’s the Tea Party idea, a supposedly grass roots movement to tap the long simmering frustrations of people fed up with the government’s boot on their neck. With an ideological pedigree going back to what historian Kim Phillips-Fein dubbed the “Invisible Hands” – their corporate backers have financed the far right going back to the Du Pont brothers and their American Liberty League, which played a role in a 1934 attempt to bring down F.D.R. with a coup d’etat.
You can draw a straight line from the Liberty League’s crusade against the New Deal “socialism” of Social Security, and child labor laws that ends with the Koch (and pal Rupert Murdoch) crusade against our “socialist” president. Big daddy Fred Koch gave a 1963 speech warning of “a takeover” of America in which communists would “infiltrate the highest offices of government in the U.S. until the president is a communist, unknown to the rest of us.” The speech could be given “as is” at any contemporary Tea Party rally. And, just so you don’t have any questions as their motivations, when son David Koch ran as vice president on the 1980 Libertarian ticket, his campaign called for the abolition not just of Social Security, federal regulatory agencies and welfare but also of the F.B.I., the C.I.A. and all public schools – in other words, any government enterprise that would either inhibit his business profits or increase his taxes.
The Koch family’s foundations and their direct contributions amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars have filled the coffers of groups like FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity and other groups that have used and abused the Tea Party movement. In fact it’s hard to look at the right in the US these days and not find Koch money.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the Koch family was nice enough to provide the people who came to demonstrate against their Bilderburg-type confab with a personal appearance by the right’s living tribute to Don Rickles, one Andrew Breitbart. The one-time sidekick for the Drudge Report has gone into business for himself, building a media empire based on the finest bile, half-truths and innuendo that money can buy. He’s known for calling the late Senator Ted Kennedy “a special pile of human excrement,” shortly after his death.
In any case, without giving this asshat too much publicity, he did appear at the Ranch Mirage rally, wearing roller-blades and armed with a video camera. Despite spending most of his time trying to incite individuals in the crowd to acts of violence—you gotta give him credit, he knows how to sling an insult—Breitbart ended the day braying at the crowd to no avail. His ability to flit back and forth behind police lines when the going got tough left no doubt that he was as much a part of the entertainment as was the Riverside County Deputy Sheriff who recited the various sections of the penal code to the crowd as the police attempted to clear Bob Hope Drive at the end of the afternoon.