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How FreedomWorks Paved the Way for Trumpism—and for Its Own Demise

The once influential libertarian group was built on rage and small government. Guess which one prevailed?

J.D. Vance stands on stage with two others in front of a screen reading "FreedomWorks."
Andrew Spear/Getty Images
JD Vance speaks at the FreedomWorks Forum for Ohio's Republican Senate candidates on March 18, 2022 in Columbus, Ohio.

If you’d known what to look for, you could have seen it coming miles and miles away: the demise of movement conservatism in the face of Trumpism. The only thing surprising about the collapse of FreedomWorks, the loud and splashy libertarian astroturf outfit, is that it hadn’t happened sooner. On Wednesday, the group abruptly announced that it had been dissolved by its board.

Born in 1984 as part of the Koch brothers’ group, Citizens for a Sound Economy, FreedomWorks split from the political network of billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch in 2004. By 2008, the organization was poised to lead the backlash against the election of Barack Obama, helping to create and grow the anti-government Tea Party movement. In the 2010 midterm elections, FreedomWorks aimed to change the DNA of the U.S. Senate, and proved to be a powerhouse in seating the candidates it backed. But with the takeover of the Republican Party by former president Donald J. Trump, its power is no more.

Movement conservatism grew from several constituencies, the religious right mighty among them. But the so-called philosophical underpinnings of the movement are libertarian: small government, low (or no) taxes, and deregulation of all businesses. For instance, Barry Goldwater, the 1964 Republican nominee for the presidential election, expressed his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act in libertarian terms. The government, he said, had no right to tell business proprietors whom they must serve. See, it was about principles—right?—and not at all about race.

Libertarianism has never been about much more than greed and disregard for those unable to access the means to improve their lot in life; to facilitate such would interfere with the “freedom” of those who already wield power. Its rationale is cast in the language of fairness, sounding very high-minded, as in concern for the moral hazard of helping people, lest you make them lazy and dependent.

Because libertarianism offers no examination of the lives of those who would suffer under a libertarian regime, it deals in philosophical abstractions that ultimately dehumanize the presumed undeserving who just can’t cut it without a handout. With its definition of “freedom” as a lack of responsibility for the health of the society, libertarianism simply accrues more power for those who already have it. With its largely unspoken underpinnings of rage, greed, and resentment, the libertarian strain of movement conservatism paved the way for Trump, thereby causing its own destruction. Trump dispensed with any hifalutin principles, stripping it all down to the animating force of animus. Trump spoke the unspoken, tarring Mexicans and Muslims as rapists and terrorists, speaking of Blacks in demeaning terms (“where’s my African American?”), and denigrating women. MAGA Republicans, many of whom were active in the Tea Party movement, just don’t care about the $8 trillion deficit left by Trump when he reluctantly left the White House. Tariffs? Great! A big government doing Trump’s will? Hell, yeah!

In an essay I published eight years ago (“Donald Trump and the Twilight of Movement Conservatism”), I asked readers to imagine movement conservatism as a candy bar with a sweet and fluffy coating of ideals and principles wrapped around a salty nougat of rage and greed. Trump stripped the coating and served a double helping of the nougat and rode that saliferous rocket fuel to the White House.

The problem is, some self-described libertarians still believe in that small government stuff, while others have taken the predictable route to power by backing Trump. That divided the donor base and membership of FreedomWorks, its president, Adam Brandon, told Politico, essentially leaving the organization without a brand. Last year, the group laid off 40 percent of its staff.

If the path to authoritarianism is smoothed by gateway drugs, libertarianism is surely one of them. By its very ideology, it is designed to just screw everybody but those who have the footing to thrive absent government regulation. Once you’re willing to screw everybody except those who already hold economic and social capital, and then promote this as an aspirational goal for the hoi polloi, you’ve begun the propaganda work of bringing regular folks into the fold via their resentments against others they see as undeserving. And stripped of its abstract principles in the face of a MAGA movement based on nothing but the rage, libertarianism loses its reason for being. Over the last two years, Brandon told Politico, the donors were falling off. FreedomWorks revenue declined by half—to about $8 million—since 2022, according to Brandon.

The Tea Party Movement that Brandon and his comrades helped to form framed itself in opposition to Obamacare, painted by FreedomWorks and the Koch-affiliated Americans for Prosperity as a big government takeover of your health care. FreedomWorks organized disruptions of the regular town hall meetings hosted by members of Congress in their districts, targeting those who would likely vote for the creation of a national healthcare marketplace.

At anti–health care events attended by people organized by FreedomWorks and AFP, signs with racist representations of Obama popped up here and there. In 2009, FreedomWorks played a crucial role in taking on the logistics for the first big right-wing march on the nation’s capital, the 9/12 Project, which was heavily promoted by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News. At that march, I saw a large sign that depicted Obama as a “parasite.”

In addition to mobilizing its masses of angry white people—angry about the 2008 financial crisis, angry about the election of a Black president—FreedomWorks was instrumental in creating the Senate of today.

In the 2010 midterm elections, FreedomWorks packed Utah’s state Republican Party convention with Tea Party activists, who came to bounce incumbent U.S. Senator Bob Bennett from his seat in favor of the right-wing neo-libertarian Mike Lee. The trick worked; Bennett came in third in the convention vote, leaving Lee to duke it out with businessman Tim Bridgewater in the caucuses, where he won.

FreedomWorks’s ultimate aim appeared to be to destabilize Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. In McConnell’s home state of Kentucky, FreedomWorks, working with Jim DeMint, then the junior senator from South Carolina and leader of the Senate Conservatives Fund, launched the insurgent candidacy of Rand Paul for the nomination, in opposition to the more establishment candidate Trey Grayson, who was anointed by McConnell. Rand Paul prevailed. McConnell got the message, and began his bend further to the right.

In 2010, I interviewed Adam Brandon, then FreedomWorks’s communications director before his ascendance to the organization’s presidency, about FW’s aim with its backing of insurgent Senate candidates. America needed more senators like DeMint, who opposed health care, energy reform, and labor unions, he said, in order to create something of a caucus—“a new power center,” Brandon called it.

In those consequential midterms, FreedomWorks also backed Senate newcomers Marco Rubio of Florida and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania with hundreds of thousands of dollars. Of their six Senate insurgency endorsements, only one candidate failed to win: Sharron Angle of Nevada. All of those victorious 2010 FreedomWorks-backed senators later voted to acquit then-President Donald J. Trump on his first impeachment; all but Toomey voted the same in Trump’s second impeachment trial. (Last year, Toomey, who voted to convict, declined to run again.) Rubio, meanwhile, is hoping to become Trump’s running mate in this year’s presidential election.

Ultimately, FreedomWorks’s power center didn’t quite hold, and now its leader has all the freedom in the world. “This has been my life for so long and to turn the lights off, it’s a real emotional thing,” Brandon told Politico’s Luke Mullins. But don’t worry. He’ll be all right. According to the tax filings of FreedomWorks Foundation and its sibling organization, FreedomWorks Inc., between 2019 and 2021, Adam Brandon earned annual monetary compensation of over $400,000. He can probably coast for a while—with no moral hazard in sight.