The Brothers Koch and Cuomo: Flipped Scripts
Although most Americans wouldn’t know the Koch brothers if they passed them on the street, they might recognize the duo of Andrew and Chris Cuomo, who get more TV air time. But would you ask for their autographs or heckle them? Do you consider either set of brothers un-American?
Those are not trick questions. They are a sign of the times. And the answer likely depends on whether you watch cable news, and if so, which network.
In recent weeks, the Kochs and their network have found themselves under verbal assault from President Trump and his former aide Steve Bannon, the fiery Trump whisperer who looks like an unmade bed and sounds like an unfiltered zealot. Charles Koch is a billionaire industrialist who, with his brother David, favors low taxes, free international trade, and minimal government regulation over business activity or private personal behavior. Notwithstanding their status as leading donors to conservative and libertarian causes, it was inevitable they’d run afoul of Donald Trump’s mercurial nature and tempestuous policies.
And so they have. The Kochs liked the president’s tax cuts. They loathe his tariffs. It surprised nobody, then, except perhaps Trump, when they expressed opposition to the various trade wars being launched from the White House. Speaking in direct terms, Charles Koch recently told a circle of fellow donors that the administration’s “embrace of protectionism” represents “a natural tendency, but it’s a destructive one.”
Trump, of course, escalated the rhetoric -- and made it personal. On Twitter, he called the “globalist” Koch brothers “a total joke in real Republican circles.” Trump said they are against “powerful trade,” whatever that means, adding, “I never sought their support because I don’t need their money or bad ideas.” Trump punctuated his tirade by saying, “I made them richer,” which is undoubtedly true -- and a refutation of his repeated claim that the GOP tax cuts wouldn’t be a windfall to him and his fellow billionaires.
Bannon got into the act, going so far as to tell Republican candidates that they’d be punished for accepting Koch brothers or Koch network donations. “You take Koch money, it's going to be toxic,” Bannon told CNBC. “We are going to let people know that if you take Koch money there's a punishment.”
Hearing this gave me a sudden sense of déjà vu. For years, Democrats shrieked that Koch money was undermining America. President Obama claimed that their political donations constituted a “corporate takeover of our democracy.” Bernie Sanders excoriated them by name in nearly every stump speech. Hillary Clinton joined in. So did Hollywood, which provided comic relief when NBC’s Chuck Todd asked George Clooney about the Democrats’ own fat cat donors. “I think there is a difference between the Koch brothers and us,” Clooney replied, without irony. (Yes, cooler clothes and better hair in Hollywood!)
But I digress. For the better part of six years, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid denounced the Koch brothers – often saying they were “un-American.” This suggests a political rule of thumb: If Harry Reid and Steve Bannon are both accusing you of ruining the country, maybe you’re doing something right.
Which brings us to the other set of brothers in the news last week. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is running for a third term in a state where a Democrat’s re-election should be a foregone conclusion. That may yet prove to be the case—Cuomo is leading his primary opponent, Cynthia Nixon, by a 2-1 margin. But if you wonder whether the pressure on Democrats to keep upping the ante with anti-Trump rhetoric has a self-defeating component to it, Gov. Cuomo is Exhibit A.
Apparently, he had never cottoned to Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan. “We’re not going to make America great again,” Cuomo told supporters at a bill signing ceremony Wednesday. “It was never that great.”
Sensing, perhaps, that he’d stepped on himself, Cuomo added: “We have not reached greatness. We will reach greatness when every American is fully engaged.” As you might expect, that pabulum didn’t mitigate the gaffe.
It was statesmanlike, however, compared to what his kid brother had said two days before. Over the weekend, counter-protesters showed up in Washington, D.C., and Charlottesville, Va., ostensibly to confront white supremacist marchers. Except that the alt-right mustered just a few dozen stragglers in both cities combined; their numbers were so dwarfed by their opponents that it was hard to find white racists to confront.
The counter-demonstrators’ ranks were bolstered by Antifa, a group claiming to be “anti-fascist” – as if fascism is still a salient political movement. Not to worry, Antifa does a convincing imitation of 1930s-style fascists. This includes wearing masks and black jackboots while engaging in thuggery in the streets. On Sunday, they shoved and berated journalists, cut camera cords, threw eggs and fireworks, and chased reporters and photographers.
This spectacle kicked off the very week in which 300 newspapers opinion writers and editors engaged in a coordinated effort to denounce Trump for characterizing journalists as “enemies of the people.” The editorial writers’ fear is that the president will incite his followers to violence. This is understandable, but the only people actually menacing journalists were “anti-fascists.” Rich irony, to be sure. Alas, it was lost on Chris Cuomo.
In a misguided on-air editorial, the CNN anchorman expressed empathy for Antifa.
“The bigots are wrong to hit. Antifa, or whomever, anarchists or malcontent or misguided, they are also wrong to hit,” Cuomo said. “But fighting hate is right. And in a clash between hate and those who oppose it, those who oppose it are on the side of right. Think about it: civil rights activist, were they the same morally as the bigots, as the racist with whom they exchanged blows?”
This remark displayed an ignorance about the American civil rights movement that was, well, Trumpian. Civil rights were won in this country by brave men and women who occupied the moral high ground, not those who sucker-punched protesters or journalists. That was a tactic of Jim Crow, not Martin Luther King. But Chris Cuomo wasn’t finished.
“When you punch me in the nose for being Italian and you say I'm somehow ‘less than,’ am I in the same moral place when I punch you back for saying that?” he said. “That's why people who show up to fight against bigots are not to be judged the same as the bigots, even if they do resort to the same petty violence.”
What’s that about? Who ever dared to punch this handsome, athletic man in the nose “for being Italian” – or any other reason? It’s probably uncharitable to compare them, but I’m old enough to remember the father of Andrew and Chris Cuomo. I interviewed him in Washington and I was in the hall at the Democrats’ 1984 convention in San Francisco when New York Gov. Mario Cuomo gave a blistering progressive rebuttal to Reaganism.
Addressing Ronald Reagan’s famous metaphor of America as a “shining city on a hill,” Cuomo said that from Reagan’s vantage point in the White House, the president wasn’t seeing the whole American city. For one thing, he was missing those who’d been left behind economically. It was an electrifying speech even if you liked Reagan. While building his case, however, Mario Cuomo made a point of saying he was speaking for ethnic groups “who want to add their culture to the magnificent mosaic that is America.”
We’re still doing it, adding to that mosaic. It’s a sign of greatness, as it always has been.
Correction: An earlier version of this column mischaracterized the Koch Foundation’s support of conservative/libertarian causes and misidentified which of the siblings are currently active in advocacy circles.