In recent years, America’s democracy has faced countless challenges. Some seemed to materialize out of thin air, but many have been the fruit of secretive networks such as the 40-year-old Council for National Policy. Here are 10 individuals who have sown the seeds of disruption and disinformation—and who are setting their sights on the 2024 presidential election.
President, Hillsdale College
For decades, Michigan-based Hillsdale has served as an academic partner for the religious right. The college has had a close relationship to the Council for National Policy, the secretive Christian right umbrella organization that directs so much right-wing activism, through Arnn and his predecessor, George Roche III (who left in a cloud of scandal). Hillsdale’s major donors have constituted a who’s who of the radical right, including the Koch network and leading figures from the CNP. Arnn has expanded Hillsdale’s role as a platform for the CNP’s network of megadonors, fundamentalist activists, and media outlets, providing their policy prescriptions with a thin veneer of academic respectability. The college enrolls around 1,500 students, but its leaves an outsize footprint in political messaging. Its highly politicized publication Imprimis is sent to more than six million recipients. Hillsdale operates the Kirby Center in Washington, D.C., where it has groomed young conservatives at the Capitol Hill Staff Training School, run by the Leadership Institute (see Morton Blackwell, below). Hillsdale is also playing a role in the current disruption of public education, which has been used for political leverage in Virginia and beyond. In 2020, Donald Trump appointed Arnn chair of the 1776 Commission, to promote a “patriotic” rebuttal to the 1619 Project’s racially inclusive approach to U.S. history. Hillsdale has led an ongoing campaign to politicize public schools, promoting anti–critical race theory campaigns and assisting in the launch of “affiliate” charter schools in 11 states.
CEO, Right Side Broadcasting Network
RSBN serves as the equivalent of a Trump-specific C-SPAN that has carried nearly every Trump speech, rally, and town hall since July 2015, as well as full coverage of the pro-Trump Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). It also broadcasts a show called The Right View, with Trump daughter-in-law Lara Trump. On January 6, it livestreamed Trump’s speech inciting the march on the Capitol, and it gave live coverage to the Florida “Freedom Rally to Show Support for President Trump and January 6th Political Prisoners” a year later. In July 2021, RSBN was temporarily suspended by YouTube, but the network looked to its own app and the new pro-Trump platform Rumble to continue to carry Trump’s rallies. The radical right has been assiduously constructing a parallel media system in recent decades. RSBN, Rumble, and Trump’s new Truth Social platform complement other media initiatives, ranging from traditional fundamentalist broadcasters like American Family Radio to social sites like Gettr and Parler, in the ongoing construction of an alternate political reality for millions of followers. In March 2022, after the height of the Ottawa truckers’ protests, RSBN promoted a truckers’ convoy roundtable hosted by Representatives Matt Gaetz and Marjorie Taylor Greene, and it has offered ongoing amplification of Trump’s false election fraud claims. We can be sure that whatever Trump fabricates for future news cycles, RSBN will be repeating it.
Co-founder and publisher of The Daily Caller
The Caller website was launched in 2010 by Patel and Tucker Carlson, his college roommate, with a $3 million investment from Patel’s fellow CNP member Foster Friess. (Carlson served as editor in chief until 2016 and left the publication in 2019, when Patel bought him out.) The site claims more than 20 million monthly readers, and the Daily Caller News Foundation licenses its content free of charge to almost 300 outlets. Patel has used the site as a platform for voices of the radical right, including Jason Kessler, the white supremacist who organized the Charlottesville rally, as well as climate denial and disinformation, such as a falsified “nude” photo of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The site favors members of the CNP, including Supreme Court spouse Ginni Thomas (a Caller “special correspondent”) and Turning Point USA’s Charlie Kirk. The Daily Caller has recently launched a Facebook video platform called American Voices, with three million followers, that partners with media platforms of the religious right. It also boosts Carlson’s Fox News broadcasts. The Caller’s YouTube channel features additional Carlson content, comedy and sports programming, as well as regular attacks on Joe Biden, Anthony Fauci, and CNN. It has given ample space to Trump’s false claims of election fraud, and positive coverage of voter suppression legislation.
Jenny Beth Martin
Co-founder and CEO, Tea Party Patriots
Martin launched the Tea Party Patriots in March 2009 in collaboration with Amy Kremer and Mark Meckler, with funding from FreedomWorks, a “grassroots service center” founded with Koch backing. The Tea Party Patriots spent the Obama administration organizing various “spontaneous” anti-government, anti-tax rallies. Martin, Meckler, and Kremer also joined the CNP; by 2020, Martin had risen to the executive committee and Meckler to the status of Gold Circle member. Martin’s Tea Party Patriots became the meeting ground for the secular Koch brothers and the Christian nationalist CNP. She became the go-to woman for organizing campaigns, including political canvassing and public protests. Martin was a key point person for the CNP in Trump’s reelection campaign. In April 2020, she organized “100 Business Executives” in support of Trump, along with fellow CNP members Adam Brandon of FreedomWorks and Lisa Nelson of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Trump acknowledged Martin by name in his speech before the CNP on the eve of the 2020 GOP convention. On November 4, 2020, Martin announced that her organization was going to hold “Protect the Vote” rallies in swing states. On December 30, she tweeted that she would be speaking at the January 6 Stop the Steal rally: “We must demand Congress to challenge the Electoral College votes and fight for President Trump!” (Martin was present at the rally, but didn’t end up speaking.) Most recently, Martin has spoken out in support of the Canadian truckers’ protest. “We are all truckers now,” she told The Hill in February.
Founder, America’s Frontline Doctors
Gold was an emergency physician in Los Angeles who was tapped by the CNP leadership to serve as a point person for a massive Covid disinformation campaign. The plan was advanced on a conference call in May 2020, while the pandemic was first raging, and after Trump held his increasingly erratic press conferences that included CNP president William Walton and Trump aide Mercedes Schlapp. The goal was to use physicians to persuade the public that the economy could be opened up in time to benefit the Trump campaign. Gold began a series of appearances on media platforms run by CNP members, disparaging the idea that Covid was a “huge medical crisis,” pushing the false hydroxychloroquine “cure,” and attacking Anthony Fauci. On July 27, 2020, Jenny Beth Martin introduced Gold and a dozen colleagues standing before the U.S. Supreme Court building, repeating a litany of falsehoods about the virus. Their statements, livestreamed by Breitbart News, quickly went viral, and the video was enthusiastically retweeted by Donald Trump. On January 6, Gold joined the mob that breached the Capitol. She was recorded in the Rotunda denouncing the Covid vaccine as “an experimental biological agent deceptively named a vaccine.” She was charged with violent entry and disorderly conduct (she pleaded guilty in March and will be sentenced in June). Over 2021, she appeared in a series of “Health and Freedom Conferences” across the country, sharing the bill with Michael Flynn, Sidney Powell, and Mike Lindell. In 2020, she set up a profitable online prescription service for bogus Covid “cures.”
Founder and president, the Leadership Institute
Blackwell, Paul Weyrich, and Richard Viguerie were young Goldwater activists when they joined forces in the 1960s. Together, they helped to create a constellation of conservative groups, including the CNP umbrella organization and its partner CPAC. Blackwell took on the task of training future generations of right-wing political candidates and activists. His Leadership Institute, launched in 1979, claims that it has trained more than 200,000 people over its history, many of them in county- and state-level sessions in battleground districts. The courses include fundraising, speechwriting, social media, and candidate development. Graduates of the institute include Mike Pence, Representative Jim Jordan, and Project Veritas founder James O’Keefe. The institute’s training is ongoing, especially in contested states. In 2021, the GOP, noting that it needed to net only five congressional districts to take the House, targeted 47 districts, five of them in Texas. That year, the Leadership Institute blanketed Texas, scheduling around 40 training workshops between March and November 2021—many months before the midterm elections. The national Democrats, in contrast, have tended to enter the state campaign arenas a few months or even weeks before the elections, offering minimal training on the ground, limited digital campaign tools, and poorly coordinated data. The institute’s menu of courses reflects the right’s current initiatives, including School Board Campaign Training and a School Board Activist Workshop.
Mitchell is a longtime member of the CNP board of governors. More recently, she appeared on panels at 2020 CNP meetings speaking on “Election Integrity: Securing the Ballot Box” and “Election Integrity: Action Steps.” Mitchell also serves on the board of directors of the Bradley Foundation, run by fellow CNP board member Richard Graber. Following Biden’s victory, Mitchell tweeted that the Georgia recount was “A FAKE!!!” She traveled to Georgia as a volunteer legal adviser for Trump’s campaign and helped to file a December 2020 lawsuit challenging the returns. According to The Washington Post’s Robert O’Harrow Jr., “On December 30, Mitchell wrote to [then–White House chief of staff] Mark Meadows and offered to send some 1,800 pages of documents purporting to support claims of election fraud.” On January 2, Mitchell took part in Trump’s infamous call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, of whom Trump famously demanded, “I just want to find 11,780 votes.” The call was leaked, and when Mitchell’s role was disclosed, she was obliged to resign from her position at the Foley & Lardner law firm. But Mitchell continues her work through her strategy sessions at the CNP, her board membership at the Bradley Foundation, her Apple podcast Who’s Counting?, and her November 2021 appointment to the Board of Advisors of the federal Election Assistance Commission, which certifies voting systems—including voting machines—and advises local officials on compliance with federal regulations.
CEO, Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation
This Milwaukee foundation has assets of some $900 million. Graber is a member of the board of governors of the CNP, while CNP election strategist Cleta Mitchell is one of the foundation’s 11 board members. The Koch network and the DeVos family philanthropies may have received more attention, but the Bradley Foundation’s strategic, longtime focus on state-level politics has allowed it to make a major impact, using its home state of Wisconsin as a laboratory. In 2012 to 2013, the foundation spent more than $8 million on a network of groups promoting a right-to-work law also supported by then-Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (a fellow CNP board member) and attacking Wisconsin trade unions. The resulting right-to-work law crippled the unions and contributed to Wisconsin’s shift from a Democratic to a swing state. In 2021, the Bradley Foundation earmarked $600,000 for the American Legislative Exchange Council’s voter management campaign software and other activities, bringing its ALEC contributions to $5.4 million over the previous decade. In 2020 and 2021, the foundation gave $200,000 to the Claremont Institute. Claremont has played a critical role in the radical right’s promotion of false claims of fraud and the efforts to rewrite voting laws in advance of the 2024 elections; John Eastman, who drafted the infamous six-point memo used by Trump to challenge the Electoral College on January 6, is a Claremont senior fellow. The foundation also contributed $300,000 to the Public Interest Legal Foundation (chaired by Cleta Mitchell) and $175,000 to the Heritage Foundation’s election law initiative, both of which promoted Trump’s false claims of fraud.
CEO, American Legislative Exchange Council
Nelson came to ALEC in 2014 after previous stints on Newt Gingrich’s staff and at GOPAC, the Republican state and local political training organization. ALEC was co-founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich, also a co-founder of the CNP. ALEC convenes corporate sponsors and Republican state legislators to “collaborate” on model bills—including legislation to oppose environmental regulation and gun control. In April 2020, The Washington Post reported that Nelson, Jenny Beth Martin, and Adam Brandon were leading an effort to organize a group of businesspeople to help Trump “jump-start” the economy in the depths of the Covid epidemic. Nelson continued her efforts over 2020 and doubled down after the Biden’s victory. From December 2 to 4, 2020, ALEC hosted a secret “process working group” for Republican state legislators, election commissioners, and attorneys to develop strategies on election oversight and redistricting. In July 2021, ALEC hosted and financed an “academy” under the rubric of the “Honest Elections Project” in conjunction with its annual meeting, with panels featuring Cleta Mitchell and other CNP strategists. Nelson offered a preview of their project to rewrite election laws at the CNP’s May 2021 meeting: “We’ve been targeting our efforts on those states that have had issues—Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, Florida to a certain degree.” Currently, Republicans control 30 state legislatures, including Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. If successfully implemented, the independent state legislature initiative could determine the outcome of the 2024 elections, regardless of the popular vote.
Daniel J. Schultz
Attorney and founder, Precinct Strategy
Schultz was an early proponent of the idea that Republican-controlled legislatures could overturn election results—later promoted as the “independent state legislature doctrine.” In some interpretations, Republican-controlled state legislatures could nullify the popular vote and send their own electors to put Trump in office. The key to his strategy? Purging from the Republican Party inconveniently ethical officials like Brad Raffensperger, starting at the precinct level. “We can take over the party if we invade it,” Schultz told Steve Bannon on his podcast in February 2021. Over the following months, there was a surge in candidates for precinct chairman positions across the country. Schultz has pointed to the strategy’s success in Arizona as a model. ProPublica reported that in one Maricopa district, the precinct roster grew by 63 percent in less than six months. Schultz’s website asks: “Can we get 3/10 of 1% of the 74 M Trump America Firsters to Become Republican Precinct Committeemen? To TAKE OVER The Republican Party? To Save the Republic?” He points out that precinct committeemen are the ones who elect the state party leaders and are the only ones who can vote to endorse primary candidates; in some states, they are the only ones who can nominate candidates to fill vacancies in state legislatures. The logic is that full slates of pro-Trump precinct chairs could guarantee pro-Trump candidates on the Republican state-level ballots in 2022, who could be activated to enact the independent state legislature doctrine in 2024—subject to judicial review. Donald Trump approves. On February 27, 2022, he issued a statement endorsing Schultz’s project.