Rump Trumpocracy? The Conservative Party at the Heritage Foundation
Oliver Dowden is the latest Conservative MP to address the Heritage Foundation – an organisation accused of tampering with democracy and undermining women’s rights
Chairman of the Conservative Party Oliver Dowden addressed the radical-right think tank the Heritage Foundation on the subject of ‘cancel culture’ today, joining Home Secretary Priti Patel, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, former International Trade Secretary Liam Fox and the resigned MP Owen Paterson on the list of Conservatives to speak to the controversial group.
The MP condemned the “social media mobs” that will “cancel” people who challenge “the left’s fashionable nostrums”. He spoke of a “pernicious ideology” shared by “social justice warriors” who “promote an ideology inimical to freedom.”
This “ideology is now everywhere,” Dowden said, including in universities, schools, corporations and in the sciences. It is a “dangerous form of decadence,” he added, that “threatens to sap our societies of their own self-confidence when we should be showcasing the vitality of our values” at a time when “rogue states” are destabilising the wider world. He accused the left of “embracing the doctrine of woke.”
Dowden’s speech on cancel culture is the latest example of how the modern Conservative Party is becoming a ‘rump Trumpocracy’, as MPs take on so-called culture war issues to appeal to their base. It also reveals the closeness of leading Conservatives to an organisation pushing radical right ideas on everything from the climate crisis and Brexit, to abortion and LGBTIQ rights.
The event comes as the UK signals its support for the latter with a proposed ban on conversion therapy and by hosting the global LGBTIQ rights Safe to Be Me conference. This is in contrast to the Heritage Foundation, which published an article claiming conversion therapy bans “hurt” children and “fail to take into account important concerns about individual freedom.”
As well as its views on gender and sexuality, the Heritage Foundation has waged a campaign against election fraud and claimed that election integrity – or lack thereof – is a key issue in the US today. Such claims helped to fuel the “Big Lie” that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and led to violent scenes in Washington D.C on 6 January 2021.
Although the Foundation condemned the violence on 6 January, it maintains that election integrity is one of the “biggest issues” the US faces and that “voter fraud is a very real example.”
No surprise then that the Foundation has platformed disinformation and conspiracy about the events that day. On its Daily Signal podcast, the organisation interviewed “6 Jan truthseeker’ Julie Kelly, who told her host the FBI is “the Gestapo basically for the Democratic Party.”
Senator Josh Hawley, the Trump-supporting Republican who led the effort in the Senate to contest President Biden’s election victory, has also spoken on the podcast. He famously raised his fist in salute at the crowds gathering outside the Capitol.
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Heading up the Foundation’s Election Reform Initiative is Hans von Spakovsky, who worked with President George W Bush’s Justice Department on efforts to use the Voting Rights Act to prosecute purported fraud by black voters and election officials. From there, von Spakovsky was appointed by Trump to oversee a Presidential commission on election integrity. The commission was disbanded due to little evidence of voter fraud.
That lack of evidence has not prevented the Heritage Foundation and other radical right groups, such as the Federalist Society, Turning Point USA and the Honest Elections Project from pushing the belief that US democracy is under threat – all while the Republican establishment takes an increasingly anti-democratic turn.
The organisation’s grassroots arm Heritage Action is accused of rewriting America’s election laws, taking credit for three separate voting rights bills in Arizona. The group’s Executive Director Jessica Anderson said in a leaked video: “We’re moving four more through the state of Arizona right now . . . simple bills, all straight from the Heritage recommendations.”
Writing in the New Yorker, investigative journalist Jane Meyer explained how organisations like the Heritage Foundation “have relentlessly promoted the myth that American elections are rife with fraud, and, according to leaked records of their internal deliberations, they have drafted, supported, and in some cases taken credit for state laws that make it harder to vote.”
Such moves, says Democrat Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, are “tampering with democracy.”
One of the Bills mentioned by Anderson was authored by Jake Hoffman, who runs a digital-marketing company called Rally Forge contracted by Turning Point USA which bussed protesters to the attempted insurrection at the Capitol from around the country, encouraging attendees to “save America” and “fight for this President”. Hoffman is now an Arizona state representative for the Republican Party.
Voter fraud has become a key interest to the Conservative Party, which has put the issue front and centre in its Elections Bill despite little evidence that it is a problem in the UK. Policies such as introducing voter ID come straight from the Trumpian playbook, and are accused of suppressing the vote of marginalised groups.
Freedom for Who?
The Heritage Foundation is critical of abortion rights, with members calling Roe vs Wade – which recognised abortion as a constitutional right – as “disastrous” and calls on “pro-life” Americans to “do everything in our power to ensure that we protect innocent life, especially the unborn”. The Foundation’s President Kevin Roberts says the organisation “will continue to lead on pro-life issues.”
Appearing recently on the Daily Signal podcast was former Trump lawyer and attorney at the American Centre for Law and Justice Jay Sekulow. The centre’s European arm the ECLJ has campaigned against reproductive and sexual rights across the region, including in Poland.
Other guests included Kara Dansky, the self-identified radical feminist who has worked with a number of right-wing anti-gender organisations including Alliance Defending Freedom, Concerned Women For America, and the Family Policy Alliance. Dansky was formerly part of the radical feminist WoLF group which worked with the Foundation and the FPA to author a Gender Resource Guide described by the FPA as part of their efforts “to preserve parental rights and protect children from the dangers of the transgender trend.”
Anti-racist movements have also come under attack, with the Heritage Foundation accusing Black Lives Matter of having a “leftist agenda” and taking aim at race in education. A video titled “The Truth About Critical Race Theory”, inaccurately claims the aim of CRT is to “erase the history of ideas that created Western culture and this included American culture.”
There was no sense of irony when Oliver Dowden explained to his audience how the Conservative Party had made it illegal to teach the concept of white privilege at schools.
Radical Right Funding
The Heritage Foundation has long been in receipt of funding from radical right interests – including from those engaged in the “big lie”. Its Election Reform Initiative has received funding from the Bradley Foundation which has also funded groups that constitute “a network of election fraud conspiracists and undertook legal efforts to overthrow the 2020 election”, according to investigative journalists at The Intercept.
Back at the Foundation’s inception, The Scaife Family Charitable Trust donated $195,000; with $10 million more pouring into the coffers over the years. Richard Mellon Scaife’s forebears were in oil, banking and aluminium, and in his self-published memoir he described himself as “the dark spirit behind right-wing causes” – funding causes such as low taxes, deregulation, and ‘family rights.’
According to the Heritage Foundation’s historian Lee Edwards, The Scaife Foundation had “particularly in mind the disintegration of the family, an issue which became a major Heritage concern.”
Alongside Scaife and Bradley money, the Heritage Foundation has benefited from donations from fossil-fuel billionaires and disaster capitalists the Koch Brothers via their Claude R Lambe Foundation, as well as from the Donors Trust. The Koch brothers have donated millions of dollars to Donors Trust through the Knowledge and Progress Fund.
The alliances with anti-gender activists, the focus on so-called “illegitimate” voters, and the partisan criticism of anti-racist movements raise questions about whose freedom is prioritised by the “freedom-loving” organisation and its associates, and whose voices are truly being “cancelled.”