Undercover with the US conservatives who trained Mike Pence

This is how the architects of America’s culture wars are trying to export their tactics to Europe.

Adam Ramsay Joni.jpg
Adam Ramsay Joni Hess
31 October 2020, 8.27am
Mike Pence speaking at a campaign rally in Arizona, US.
Gage Skidmore

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 Young Americans for Liberty; 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.

Our host via Zoom, 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.

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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".

Morton Blackwell, founder and president of the Leadership Institute
Gage Skidmore

Now, openDemocracy’s analysis of the Leadership Institute’s financial filings in the US shows just how active it has been in exporting its methods overseas. Over the past decade, it has spent at least $800,000 in Europe and $700,000 in Latin America.

Its operations are clearly designed to help its allies expand. Its international fundraising school, which has taken place in London, Madrid and Vienna in recent years, includes “four days of intensive training in every aspect of raising funds taught by the world’s top conservative fundraising experts”.

Last year, it advertised how it can bring its training “to your country”, with photos of events in France, Germany, Canada and Austria – where, openDemocracy understands, the Leadership Institute had planned to open an office last year (it is unclear what happened to those plans).

And some of its support for foreign groups and activists won’t be counted in its overseas spending – because it happens in America. The Leadership Institute also organises international conferences within the US, training-up conservative activists from around the world.

It claims that, since 2015, it has taught 6,458 non-US “leaders, activists, candidates and potential candidates at 100 programs around the world”.

Activists trained by the Leadership Institute have also intervened directly in European politics. The organisation has supported the prominent US anti-abortion activist Lila Rose, for instance – it even gave her grants while she was still at school. Rose’s 2013 lectures in Croatia have been credited with helping ignite an anti-abortion movement in that country, and she played a high-profile role opposing Ireland’s 2018 abortion referendum.

The amounts spent by the Leadership Institute are much smaller than those of other US Christian conservative groups exporting their politics around the world – as revealed by openDemocracy this week.

But the organisation’s significance lies in the fact that it brings “years of experience with the US Christian right to Europe with workshops on fundraising, conservative coalition-building and political strategising for European far-right and ultra-conservative actors,” says Neil Datta, secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum on Sexual and Reproductive Rights.

‘Far-Right partners’

In public, the Leadership Institute presents itself as centre-right, but the international partners in its training programmes reveal a different picture. Speakers at international events have often included activists with the Tradition, Family, Property network, which idealises the Middle Ages and has advocated the return of aristocracies and ‘traditional elites’ – and the director of the Spanish ultra-conservative campaign groups HazteOir and CitizenGo, which have close ties to far-right parties across Europe.

In both 2017 and 2018, Leadership Institute international director Ron Nehring spoke at a European Advocacy Academy in Brussels alongside the anti-LGBT Croatian politician and activist Željka Markić. In 2018, activists from Markić’s ‘In the Name of the Family’ group said to one of us that they were opposing the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention against gender-based violence because the treaty accepts that trans women are women.

Neither Markić nor ‘In the Name of the Family’ answered openDemocracy’s questions about their connections to the Leadership Institute.

A rally in Croatia led by Željka Markić, against the Istanbul convention on gender based violence
Branko Radovanović

Alongside Nehring and Markić, another speaker at these Brussels events was from Alliance Defending Freedom. This US Christian right legal advocacy group has defended a law in Belize under which LGBT people can be imprisoned for up to a decade, and has been labelled a ‘hate group’ by the Southern Poverty Law Center – which it disputes.

At a 2018 summer training school in Rome – run in collaboration with ultra-conservative Spanish network CitizenGo – headline speakers included Simone Pillon, a senator for the Italian far-Right Lega party.

Neil Datta said: "The Tradition, Family, Property network and CitizenGo are far-Right organisations. If the Leadership Institute really is a centre-Right, mainstream conservative group, they should be nowhere near them.”

Polarising the youth

In the US, the Leadership Institute claims its student network extends to 2,030 campuses – though it was able to attract only six people (apart from us) to the free youth training seminar we attended last weekend.

Despite claiming to campaign for freedom of speech on campuses, it will pay students for tips about “liberal bias” at their college. The group’s allies at Turning Point also run a professor watch-list, denouncing academics who “advance leftist propaganda”.

It will fly youth groups, for free, to training seminars. It offers grants to invite speakers to campuses. It employs sixteen regional field coordinators to recruit students, and staff journalists to run its national student paper. Earlier this year, the RightWingWatch website revealed that one of the institute’s campus services team had, under a pseudonym, been running a White nationalist blog at the same time as working for the Leadership Institute.

Data compiled by the Conservative Transparency project research group in the US show that the Institute’s donors have included several prominent right-wing family foundations including those of the Koch brothers. In the youth workshop attended by openDemocracy last weekend, the training’s host talked about meeting and securing funding from “the sixth richest man in the world” (but he wouldn’t name who he was referring to).

The workshop offered some traditional campaign advice: don’t sit behind a stall, stand up, approach people; don’t get dragged into debate on your opponent’s terms, stick to your message; recruit, recruit, recruit.

Alongside these basics – familiar to campaign groups across the political spectrum – was an insight into US conservative politics. When approaching members of the public while campaigning, trainees were encouraged to ask “a polarising question”, such as “What do you think about abortion?” or “What do you think about guns?”

On other issues, we were taught to moderate our language. “I want to eliminate the IRS,” said Blair, referring to the US government’s tax collection service, the Internal Revenue Service, “but most voters don’t. But if you say ‘Do you want tax reform?’ voters are completely in favour of it.” He also suggested framing attacks on workers’ rights as “right to work”, rather than “anti-worker”.

Screenshot 2020-10-31 at 08.18.07.png
A slide from the training

Ultra-conservative groups have long depended on their ability to spend huge resources ensuring that debate is polarised along exactly the axes they choose. But as a generation of young Americans sees through them, it seems they are looking for new audiences. If their candidates are rejected at the polls next week, Europe mustn’t become the refuge for their ideas.

The Leadership Institute, Atlas Network and CitizenGo didn’t respond to openDemocracy’s requests for comment.

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