Undercover with the US conservatives who trained Mike Pence

Our trainer, David Blair, led youth engagement for the Trump 2016 campaign. “From Trump Tower,” he bragged.

The trainees – Nickolas from the conservative controversialists Turning Point; Alyssa, an intern with the right-wing Atlas Network in Ohio; Michael from the Young Americans for Liberty group; Caleb, youth campaigner for Orange County’s pro-Trump congresswoman; two flatmates sniffing for internships; a high-school senior in New Mexico; and us, undercover openDemocracy reporters – joined over Zoom.

Our host, the Leadership Institute, exists to “place conservatives in the government, politics and media” – and it says its graduates include Trump’s vice-president, Mike Pence. Like a multi-level marketing scheme, the workshop taught us to recruit students to right-wing activism, who would in turn recruit others. Blair stressed a growing marginalisation of conservative ideology on college campuses, and a “moral obligation” to save the US.

“The media doesn’t like us,” he added.

Over several hours, we were taught to polarise discussions, to war game public debates, to reframe “anti-worker” policies as “right to work”, to characterise pro-choice activists as “hating babies”.

The US culture wars go global

This bare-knuckled politics is no longer confined to the US. The Leadership Institute has spent around $350,000 bringing its agenda to Europe since 2016, according to a new investigation by openDemocracy. There has been a marked increase in its European activities in recent years – and it spends more money in Europe than anywhere else in the world, outside the US.

openDemocracy’s research also reveals that the organisation has worked with controversial ultra-conservatives in Europe including a Lega politician in Italy, the Spanish far-right group CitizenGo, Croatia’s anti-LGBT ‘In the Name of the Family’ coalition and the neo-feudalist Tradition, Family and Property movement’s branches in Austria and France, as well as across Latin America.

The Leadership Institute has also worked with a number of conservative groups and politicians in the UK – including Tim Evans, a former lobbyist for privatised healthcare; a former chair of the conservative Bow Group think-tank; and Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the Vote Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum campaign.

Speaking to openDemocracy, the prominent UK LGBTIQ rights activist Peter Tatchell accused the Leadership Institute of “a form of cultural imperialism”. “It is exporting culture wars to subvert our democracies and influence our politics. We [didn’t] even know it is happening, until now,” he said.

Conservative cadres

The Leadership Institute was founded by its current president Morton Blackwell in 1979. Since then, it says it has trained thousands of US conservatives, from high-school students to senior politicians, in skills from email marketing to how to get jobs on Capitol Hill.

In our workshop, we were told that Blackwell thought 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was ideologically correct, but saw that that didn’t help him win. So he and other Goldwater supporters launched some key institutions of US conservatism: the anti-abortion and gun-rights movements, the Heritage Foundation think tank and the Leadership Institute, which works behind the scenes, recruiting, training, connecting – pushing allies onto the front lines of US politics. In the future, they swore, they’d win.

And they have: their alumni, in addition to Pence, include George W. Bush’s strategist Karl Rove and Republican senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.

McConnell is quoted on the Leadership Institute’s website as saying: “Thanks to you… there are countless conservatives making a difference in public policy across the country. As one of your earliest students, I know firsthand what a wonderful foundation the Leadership Institute’s education provides for someone involved in public service”.

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