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Tea Party Redux: How the Koch Network Funds and Fuels the Anti-Lockdown Movement

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A new report titled “How The Koch Network Hijacked The War On COVID” reveals how a right-wing network linked to billionaire Charles Koch has played a key role in fighting public health measures during the pandemic, including mask and vaccine mandates, contact tracing and lockdowns. The groups include the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the American Institute for Economic Research (AIER), Donors Trust, the Hoover Institution and Hillsdale College. We speak about the contents of the report with co-author Walker Bragman, who says the right-wing network’s attack on public health is designed to “maintain corporate profit at the expense of human life.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

“How The Koch Network Hijacked The War On COVID.” That’s the headline to a new report looking at how a right-wing network linked to billionaire Charles Koch has played a key role in fighting public health measures put in place by governments during the pandemic, including mask and vaccine mandates, contact tracing and lockdowns. The institutions with ties to Koch include ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council; the American Institute for Economic Research; Donors Trust; the Hoover Institution; and Hillsdale College.

We’re joined now by reporter Walker Bragman of The Daily Poster. He and Alex Kotch co-wrote the new investigation, which was produced by The Daily Poster in partnership with the Center for Media and Democracy.

So, lay out, Walker, what you found.

WALKER BRAGMAN: Thanks for having me.

So, we found that this vast, opaque, right-wing network of nonprofits has been funding and promoting anti-lockdown, anti-public health activism, research and messaging. They employed the same model that was used during the — to create the tea party. That model was laid out by Jeff Nesbit, who’s a former communications official at the FDA and in George H.W. Bush’s White House. And that includes an academic network to support the movement intellectually, policy networks in every state, a grassroots alliance, a propaganda arm and a national coordinating group to make it all run smoothly. So, our focus was primarily on the academic network, but we also talked a little bit about the grassroots movement, as well.

So, as early as April 2020, you see groups like FreedomWorks, which was instrumental in the tea party protests in 2009, begin promoting protests against lockdowns. Americans for Prosperity, the American Legislative Exchange Council were calling on Trump to keep the country open. AFP started in March 2020, like really shortly after the virus arrived stateside. And Trump was receptive to those messages. On March 24th, he said that he was going to — that he wanted to reopen America by Easter.

In addition to those efforts, Koch-backed groups have funded and supported academic research that is against lockdowns and other public health measures. The Great Barrington Declaration, which arose in October 2020, came out of a conference hosted by the Koch-backed American Institute for Economic Research. That —

AMY GOODMAN: In Great Barrington, Massachusetts.

WALKER BRAGMAN: Yes, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. That document recommended that countries around the world, governments around the world, adopt a strategy of herd immunity through natural infection, where only focused protection is implemented to protect the most vulnerable, but, otherwise, the virus should be allowed to rip through the younger, healthier populations.

That document was extremely influential in a number of countries, including the United States. Obviously, Trump was very interested in the quick fix it promised to his pandemic woes during his reelection campaign. And his senior officials in his White House were promoting the document to him, like Scott Atlas, his COVID adviser —

AMY GOODMAN: Of Stanford.

WALKER BRAGMAN: Yes, Scott Atlas was a Stanford professor. He’s a neuroradiologist, not a public health expert, but he was the head of Trump’s COVID team. And he promoted the Great Barrington Declaration and its message.

And over the — you know, we’ve seen this strategy sort of play out and fail everywhere where it’s been implemented, here in the U.S., in the U.K. Boris Johnson was — Prime Minister Boris Johnson was really slow to react to the virus. That has been attributed to his support for herd immunity through infection. Sweden adopted a herd-immunity-through-infection strategy. And in all of these places, they have seen extreme numbers of deaths and cases. Florida and Texas, two states in particular that pushed reopening very quickly, accounted for one-third of all U.S. COVID deaths this summer. A new report out of the U.K. Parliament found that Boris Johnson’s sluggish response to COVID caused thousands of unnecessary deaths. Sweden has seen more deaths and cases than its immediate neighbors. In August, 11 out of — as of August, 11 out of every hundred people in Sweden have been infected with the virus.

AMY GOODMAN: Walker Bragman —


AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Hillsdale College, the conservative Christian institution with connections to the Trump administration?

WALKER BRAGMAN: Absolutely. So, Hillsdale College is a small, conservative college in Michigan. It was founded in 1844, and it’s been a bastion of conservative thought ever since. And Justice Clarence Thomas actually called it a “shining city on a hill.” And the president of Hillsdale College chaired Donald Trump’s 1776 Commission, which, as you will recall, was the effort to craft American history curriculums around America’s strengths as opposed to its sort of dark past. It was sort of a response to The 1619 Project.

So, Hillsdale College is now setting up a new Academy for Science and Freedom, which features as its initial fellows two of the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, as well as Scott Atlas, that Trump adviser who pushed the herd-immunity-through-infection strategy. And yeah, that’s sort of where we’re at. It’s the latest effort to provide an academic cover to this sort of fringe theory of public health.

AMY GOODMAN: And the Mercatus Center, where does that fit in?

WALKER BRAGMAN: So, the Mercatus Center is another Koch-funded institution, out of George Mason University. And in June, Mercatus started funding the research of professor Emily Oster, a Brown University economics professor and parenting blogger who has been really prominent throughout the pandemic calling on schools to reopen. She’s been amplified by The Atlantic, and Rolling Stone did a feature on her. Her views have been controversial. She was calling to bring children back into classrooms before we even vaccinated teachers, saying there’s very low risk and it doesn’t spread in schools. And, you know, her ideas, as well, I mean, have been shown to be wrong. I mean, when Delta first arrived in the U.S., one of the first places it spread were schools. And now we’re seeing again Oster reemerge. And her research is being funded by this Koch-backed institution.

Now, the reason why the Koch brothers are so — or, not the Kochs, sorry — Charles Koch is so interested in keeping everything open is because the demand for oil fell in early 2020 when all of these — when the pandemic first hit and all of these public health measures were put in place. So, it doesn’t work for his business. And on the other side of it, there’s the ideological aspect, where if the government does what it should have been doing all along, which many of the epidemiologists I’ve spoken to have suggested a more interventionist approach by the federal government, including paying people to stay home, providing hazard pay to essential workers, providing paid sick leave — if that approach were adopted by the federal government, the entire basis for the neoliberal ideology that Koch pushes falls away. You know, Reagan said that the nine most terrifying words in the English language were “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.” But we’ve seen, through this pandemic, that the truth is the nine most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government, and you’re on your own.”

AMY GOODMAN: Walker, can you talk more specifically about the Koch network’s approach to workers, to workers’ rights during also the pandemic?

WALKER BRAGMAN: Yeah. So, the Koch network, obviously, is very opposed to measures that would benefit workers, that would create a — that would eliminate some of the insecurity that many workers in America feel. Today, people have to decide between risking their health and making an income. That is a situation that fosters — that people are sort of stuck in. And Koch opposes the — sorry. They oppose any kind of intervention, paid sick leave, vaccine mandates. Anything that could eliminate some of that insecurity, they oppose it. I’m not sure I answered your question.

AMY GOODMAN: Yeah, you answered the question. Just finally, what most shocked you about your investigation, Walker?

WALKER BRAGMAN: You know, I was surprised to see Oster’s name come up. Obviously — and we’re not saying that everybody who is being backed by the Kochs is doing so — is espousing the views that they espouse because they’re getting funded. But it is interesting to me that all of these people who have been pushing sort of this return to normalcy, get back to that pre-pandemic normal, are being backed by this network.

And we see that sort of through — again, through the lens of trying to maintain corporate profit at the expense of human life. I mean, we have lost 800,000 Americans, by the official count, and those numbers are, according to the epidemiologists that I’ve spoken to, an undercount. And I think the CDC, as well, says that those numbers are — there’s probably a 30% — that they’re off by 30%. So —



AMY GOODMAN: Walker, we want to thank you for being with us. We’re going to link to the piece that you wrote for The Daily Poster. Also, you’re co-founder of OptOut. The new piece called “How The Koch Network Hijacked The War On COVID,” the investigation produced with The Daily Poster in partnership with the Center for Media and Democracy.

When we come back, the Kellogg’s strike has ended with workers declaring victory. And then we look at the military’s new guidelines for dealing with white supremacy. Stay with us.

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