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Op-Ed | The Nation | May 8, 2024

The Right's Partners In Weaponized Policymaking

Ethics in Government

How Jim Demint’s think-tank network is setting the stage for a second Trump term.

This article was originally published in The Nation. Read on the original site here.

In remarkably short order, Donald Trump has gone from the face of a hard-right insurgency in the GOP to the caretaker of the party’s future. This transformation has been anything but accidental; it’s the result of strategically deployed donor support, the MAGA takeover of key institutions such as the Republican National Committee—and, in the nexus of these shifts, the rise of a new policy establishment made over in Trump’s political image.

One key organization has presided over this development: the Conservative Partnership Institute (CPI), a network of closely affiliated think tanks, legal groups, and training centers dedicated to the thorough makeover of the federal government—and by extension, the American social order—to advance a hard-right, Christian nationalist agenda. CPI, founded in 2017, is oriented around “deliver[ing] real, tangible results for the conservative movement. Our team arms, trains, and unites conservative leaders in Washington and across the country to take ground and win.” It’s amassed a $36 million annual budget to pursue this agenda—mostly from big-ticket conservative donors such as the Koch family and David Uihlein. 

Variations on this refrain have long circulated through the corridors of hard-right policymaking. That, too, is no accident. CPI’s director and founder is Jim DeMint, the former South Carolina senator and previous head of the Heritage Foundation, the multimillion-dollar rightwing think tank that has been core to the GOP policy agenda since Ronald Reagan came to power. In his role at CPI, DeMint has effectively broken down (and expanded) the Heritage model into a network of issue and tactic-specific satellite operations ranging from personnel recruitment shops to litigation clearinghouses. The seven groups under the CPI umbrella maintain their own executive boards, staffs, and missions, but remain focused on realizing key elements of the MAGA agenda. 

Take the best known group in CPI’s orbit, the American Accountability Foundation (AAF) for example. The group has mounted a long series of smear campaigns that have successfully toppled Biden nominees to key executive branch posts. It spurred Sarah Bloom Raskin, the spouse of Democratic Rep. Jamie Raskin, to relinquish her nomination to the Federal Reserve Board after the group orchestrated a push to publicize her utterly benign commitments to climate mitigation and clean energy to oil and gas interests. AAF was also instrumental in the racist and sexist character assassination of Saule Omarova when she was nominated to be comptroller of the currency. AAF also helped spearhead the homophobic and misogynistic attacks on Gigi Sohn when she was nominated to the Federal Communications Commission. Each of these candidates was committed to advancing policies that serve the wider public interest—which posed a potential threat to the interests of CPI’s nexus of billionaire funders and corporate backers. And at the end of the AAF smear campaigns, each withdrew their names from consideration.

American Moment, another CPI franchise, specializes in the cultivation of right-wing ideological recruits to serve in congressional offices and the executive bureaucracy, much as the Federalist Society has done in its capture of the courts. The group has accordingly worked closely with key congressional panels like the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and forged personnel alliances with leading right-wing lawmakers such as Sens. Josh Hawley of Missouri and Marco Rubio of Florida. Like other groups in CPI’s orbit, American Moment is a partner organization to the Heritage Foundation’s notorious Project 2025 initiative, which lays out an extreme far-right agenda to be carried out in a second Trump administration. 

Other CPI-affiliated groups pursue a litigation strategy to further right-wing causes—an effective strategy in view of the right’s ongoing makeover of the federal court system. Often partnering with high profile Republican attorneys general, America First Legal is led by known white supremacists such as the fiercely nativist Trump consigliere Stephen Miller, and Gene Hamilton, another former Trump official who worked tirelessly to end the popular program to phase in citizenship for the US-born children of undocumented immigrants. From their perches atop AFL, Miller and Hamilton have fought to thwart incremental border reforms under Biden while pushing to restore the brutal border crackdowns advanced by Trump. The group has mounted key test cases to roll back basic rights at the border, to expand state-level denials of reproductive freedom, and to challenge core protections against discrimination for queer and trans-identifying people from discrimination in the fields of medicine and education

Meanwhile, CPI’s Center for Renewing America—another partner in Project 2025—is a far-right think tank run by Russell Vought, Donald Trump’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget and a diehard Christian nationalist. CRA closely follows Vought’s own portfolio of hard-right policy interests, including attacks on critical race theory and diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives, vaccine mandates, and draconian crackdowns on immigration. 

CPI also takes a more direct hand in the staffing of a resurgent MAGA GOP. The group boasts that it has placed trainees in more than 132 congressional offices, and it has also held special training events for legislative directors to help draft and pass the pet legislative and policy initiatives of the right. 

Yet CPI has proven most effective in spreading its influence indirectly via its network of advocacy groups. This fractured model allows the network to pursue short-term and long-term goals of the conservative movement simultaneously. Its member groups can move nimbly through the executive branch, Congress, and the courts to gut long-established regulatory regimes, while its lead policy wonks and litigators can carry out what theorists of New Left politics used to call “the long march through the institutions”—ensuring that true-believing apparatchiks of the right take permanent control of the administrative state. 

The Center for Renewing America, for instance, recently released a policy paper encouraging state governors to take over the country’s southern border, and the corresponding suite of policies overseeing border enforcement, via, their states’ national guards. That policy intervention was calculated to help legitimize Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s bid to claim unilateral sovereignty over border enforcement. Another CPI group took the baton from there, with supporting statements issued by State Freedom Caucus Network (SFCN) affiliates, such as the Idaho Freedom Caucus. Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton mounted the legal defense of Abbott’s power play— a natural extension of Paxton’s earlier collaborations with America First Legal Services to attack even piecemeal efforts to reform immigration policy. 

CPI uses the same basic playbook on a host of policy fronts. The American Accountability Foundation’s crusade against Biden nominees is a case in point. In coordination with the group’s identity-based personal attacks, Republican attorneys general, like Idaho’s Austin Knudsen, quickly took up and repeated their smears. U.S. senators such as Josh Hawley and Marsha Blackburn fell into line, while mainstream media outlets covered the AFL-generated attacks by interviewing AFL’s own leaders. CPI has used the same plug-and-play script on issues ranging from financial regulation to broadband access to progressive jurisprudence. 

All of which serves as a likely preview of a second Trump administration. Inside players like CRA’s Vought and 2020 coup plotter Cleta Mitchell are already seeking to use CPI’s imprimatur to regain clout in the federal government. Long before Project 2025 made its debut this past winter, CPI was staking out the serious business of commandeering the shock troops to bring the long-term Trump agenda to fruition. 

Ethics in Government

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