Solveig Torvik

We’ve reached a strange moment of unity in our nation’s political life: Democrats and Republicans alike admit they’re frightened by the front-running Republican presidential candidates.

Many Republicans fear they don’t have a winning candidate. Democrats fear that Republicans do. So who likely has the most to fear here, besides the citizenry? Probably the Republicans who think that Donald Trump or Ted Cruz at the head of the ticket will result in disaster for the Republican Party.

“Rarely has a party so passively accepted its own self-destruction,” Republican columnist David Brooks recently wrote in the New York Times. “Very few presidents are so terrible that they genuinely endanger their own nations, but Trump and Cruz would go there and beyond.”

He urged the Republican “establishment” to back another candidate. Instead, some of the prominent GOP old guard suddenly appear to be holding their noses, accepting the unthinkable and reluctantly backing Trump.

We’re witnessing a battle between the GOP establishment and the party’s anti-government zealots for control of the Republican Party. But the GOP establishment already may be irrelevant.

It reminds me of the hapless GOP establishment moderates at the 1984 Republican convention in Dallas, where the rising religious right insisted on including politically damaging, faith-based demands in the party’s platform. (This was in the era when Dan Evans, our Republican former senator and governor, was barred from being a national convention delegate by the state Republican Party because he wasn’t conservative enough.)

What did the Republican establishment do in 1984 about the right wing’s un-American platform demands? Declaring themselves powerless, they settled for wringing their white-gloved hands.

In the 1970s the Democratic Party struggled to accommodate demands of unruly, uncompromising social activists. Today the Republican Party is struggling to find comfortable seats in its big tent for voters with clashing perceptions of reality.

Anti-government appeal

The GOP has appealed to members with cultural and life experiences that seem to have little in common. Republicans range from educated, economically comfortable, business-oriented, mostly urban/suburbanites to less-educated, often deeply religious, economically strapped rural dwellers. And the party somehow has persuaded even those languishing in the bottom 10 percent economically that what’s good for the upper 1 percent is good for them.

That’s an impressive political feat.

However, aggrieved anti-government conservatives, angered by what they see as the GOP establishment’s betrayal of conservative principles, now are drawn to candidates like Trump and Cruz. To these voters “betrayal” means governing by compromise — the very foundation of democracy. Yet the compromises necessary to govern a multi-valued nation aren’t acceptable to the Republican anti-government contingent.

How did we get here, for pity sakes? Here’s part of the answer:

The ascendancy of the rabidly anti-government right over the GOP’s reality-based establishment was not entirely triggered by spontaneous combustion. There were quiet helpers.

Stealthy sowing of untraceable seed money in a secretive effort to sprout an anti-government culture in the United States has long been the handiwork of billionaires David and Charles Koch of Koch Industries.

Their investments (The Cato Institute, the climate change-denying Americans for Prosperity, etc., etc.) were made in the academe, elementary schools, think tanks, the arts and the media. They’ve been shaping American political values for 40 years, reports Jane Mayer in her new book: Dark Money, The Hidden Story of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.

What most matters about the Koch brothers is this: in 1980, after Ronald Reagan’s improbable election as president, they decided to spend vast sums to elect more conservatives — particularly those with robust anti-government sentiments — to office everywhere at all levels of government. But it was to be done by subterfuge and by obscuring their political agenda.

Why the secrecy?

By 2010, their financial investments had impressive results: state legislatures and governorships have become mostly Republican and so is the U.S. House of Representatives, a bastion of anti-government dysfunction. Though they certainly can’t claim all the credit for these political changes, the Koch brothers did understand how to play the long game.

The vehemently anti-government Koch brothers have every right to try to influence the nation’s politics. But why the secrecy? If their ideology can withstand public scrutiny, why hide their support of it? Hello?

Their father was a founder of the crackpot John Birch Society, which thrived on paranoia and gullibility. Both Koch brothers belonged to it early on, and Charles particularly admired its secretive organizing procedures, according to Mayer.

The society preached (though Charles did not buy it) that the man who won World War II for the Allies, Gen. and Republican Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower, was a communist. “Looney-Tune” American politics did not dawn with the Internet.

Mayer contends that widespread, interlocking Koch anti-government donor networks have succeeded in putting political donors, rather than elected officials, in charge of the Republican Party.

And, it would seem, in charge of our government.

An example: In 2011, Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner needed Republican votes to pass legislation to keep the government from defaulting on its debts. His Republican colleagues flatly refused to cooperate.

So what did the Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives do? He went to Manhattan to plead with David Koch for help to release the Republican Congressional votes that were needed to save the United States of America from financial default.

Oops.

Solveig Torvik is a former Washington, D.C., political correspondent for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. She lives in Winthrop.

Solveig Torvik lives in Winthrop.