Marginalized in academia for much of the twentieth century, conservatives built their own apparatuses to develop ideas. Here’s a guide through the alphabet soup of conservative think tanks, and what role they’ll play in Trump’s administration.
- American Enterprise Institute (AEI)
Founded in 1938, for decades the AEI viewed its role as an objective “research adjunct” to policymakers. By the time Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” had come and gone, it sought instead to counter liberal influence in the “marketplace of ideas.” The think tank soon began receiving millions of dollars from conservative foundations and business interests. Paul Ryan has called the think tank “one of the beachheads of the modern conservative movement.”
While the AEI has been far from complimentary towards him, Trump has admitted that he seeks out AEI Senior Fellow John Bolton for foreign policy advice. Besty DeVos, Trump’s choice for education secretary, is on the think tank’s Board of Trustees, and ExxonMobil — whose CEO Rex Tillerson is Trump’s pick for secretary of state — has provided it $1.9 million since 2007. The AEI quickly declared Tillerson “the right choice” for the position. It has laid out a range of policy recommendations for 2017, including boosting charter schools, rolling back fuel efficiency regulations and “reforming” entitlements.
- Center for Immigration Studies (CIS)
The CIS, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has called “the anti-immigrant movement’s think tank,” was founded in 1985 by John Tanton, a retired ophthalmologist bent on maintaining “a Europe-and-American majority” in the US. Since 1995, the CIS has been headed by Mark Krikorian, who believes the government is undertaking “social engineering” through a policy of “mass immigration.”
The Trump campaign consulted with the CIS on immigration policy during the election, and Krikorian was one of sixteen people who met with Trump at his home in August for a foreign policy briefing.
- Center for Security Policy (CSP)
The CSP was founded in 1988 by former Reagan administration Pentagon official Frank Gaffney, a far-right Islamophobic neocon who was behind the rumors that President Obama is a Muslim and that Hillary Clinton confidante Huma Abedin is a covert operative for the Muslim Brotherhood.
Gaffney was reported by multiple outlets to be serving on Trump’s transition team, but he quickly denied it. Nonetheless, Gaffney’s relentless anti-Muslim conspiracizing fit neatly with Trump’s campaign, and Gaffney has publicly praised Trump. Trump’s call for a Muslim ban closely mirrored a tweet by Gaffney made around the same time, and Trump even cited a bogus CSP poll to justify the policy. Trump’s CIA director, Mike Pompeo, also has ties to the organization.
- Family Research Council (FRC)
The FRC is a Christian right think tank founded in 1983 by James Dobson and other conservatives, focusing on issues like homosexuality, abortion, sexual behavior, stem cells and, increasingly, the dangers of Islam. The FRC is virulently anti-gay, advancing false claims that gay men are more likely to be pedophiles. Its president also praised a Ugandan bill that would have sentenced gays to death.
Dobson, who continues to have ties to the FRC, joined Trump’s executive evangelical advisory comittee in June and endorsed him a month later. Trump, in turn, was the first GOP nominee to ever address the FRC’s Values Voter Summit. The domestic policy chair for Trump’s transition team is an FRC senior fellow, and several more team members have ties to the organization.
- Federalist Society for Law and Public Policy Studies
The Federalist Society started in 1982 to counter what three conservative law students viewed as liberal dominance in the legal world. By 2010, there were more than 45,000 lawyers, judges, academics, and others involved in the Society’s various activities. It has produced four Supreme Court justices over its lifetime.
With Trump eager to assure the GOP establishment of his conservative bona fides, the Society looks to retain its influence under his administration. Trump promised that his judges would be “all picked by the Federalist Society” and met with its executive vice president to discuss filling the vacancy left by Antonin Scalia. Nine of the names on Trump’s shortlist later appeared at the Federalist Society’s annual national convention.
- Foundation for Excellence in Education (FEE)
The FEE was started by Jeb Bush in 2008, largely to advance the education reforms he had implemented as Florida governor. This includes promoting charter schools and digital education, issuing taxpayer vouchers for private schools, and grading school performance on an A to F scale.
While a think tank founded by Trump’s mortal enemy might seem a strange fit with the new administration, its policy proposals are ones that conservatives have long championed. On top of that, Betsy DeVos has served on its board, and various DeVos family foundations have donated to the FEE and continue to do so. ExxonMobil has also been a consistent donor.
- Heartland Institute
The Heartland Institute is a free-market think tank founded in 1984, advocating for rolling back taxes on tobacco (a product whose health concerns it has downplayed), spreading climate denial, pushing for private schools, and more. It has a full-time staff of 38, and works with a network of more than 200 elected officials.
Steel manufacturer Nucor donated $502,000 to Heartland in 2011 and 2012, the think tank’s largest single donor for the period. Until 2014, Nucor was run by Dan DiMicco, who was one of Trump’s fourteen economic advisors during the campaign. Rebekah Mercer, a hedge fund heiress who has been a major donor to Heartland and other conservative groups, has used her connections to influence Trump’s transition effort. Heartland also received $736,500 from ExxonMobil between 1998 and 2006, though it has ceased to make its donors public since then.
The think tank’s Action Plan for Trump includes policies like withdrawing from the Paris climate deal, approving Keystone and other pipelines, rolling back various EPA regulations, repealing and replacing Obamacare, and block granting Medicaid.
- Heritage Foundation
Founded in 1973, Heritage became the leading fountainhead of conservative ideas and policies by the 1980s, with its Mandate for Leadership serving as the policy blueprint for the Reagan administration. The think tank has continued to serve as the premier conservative intellectual voice ever since.
In the words of one defense consultant, it has now similarly “positioned itself as the intellectual foundation for a Trump administration,” while the Wall Street Journal has called it “an administration-in-waiting for Mr. Trump,” with dozens of current and ex-staffers either floated for posts or working on the transition. This follows a shift by Heritage to an increasingly more antagonistic relationship with the GOP, epitomized by the think tank’s push for Republicans to defund Obamacare at the risk of government shutdown.
Heritage has received tens of millions of dollars from conservative foundations and corporate donors over the years, including Dow, General Motors and the Scaife Foundations. Some of these donors have a direct line to the incoming Trump administration: the DeVos family has deep ties to Heritage, supporting the think tank for the last ten years. Trump’s transportation secretary Elaine Chao also served a fellowship there, while Tillerson’s ExxonMobil has given nearly $800,000 to the think tank since 1998.
- Hoover Institution
Founded by former president Herbert Hoover in 1919, the Hoover Institution was focused chiefly on anticommunism in its first few decades, as well as pushing the public and lawmakers towards “individual liberty.” The think tank came into its own when Glenn Campbell took the reins in 1960, pushing Hoover to focus more on advocacy for the latter. By the time he died in 2001, Hoover was called “one of the world’s most influential conservative research groups” by the New York Times, producing conservative-leaning research and housing various right-wing intellectuals.
Like other think tanks on this list, Hoover has been the recipient of large donations from conservative foundations and corporations, as well as maintaining connections to the GOP. ExxonMobil has given it nearly $300,000 over the last nineteen years. Numerous Hoover staffers joined AEI personnel to work on the 1964 Goldwater campaign, while others later joined the Reagan and Bush administrations. Trump’s secretary of defense, James “Mad Dog” Mattis, has been a visiting fellow with the institution for the last two years. Three of the members of Trump’s transition team — Peter Thiel, Williamson M. Evans, and Edwin Meese III — also have close ties to Hoover.
- New Century Foundation
The New Century Foundation is a white nationalist think tank founded in 1994 by Jared Taylor, a Yale graduate and former West Coast editor of PC Magazine. Its chief function is putting out the magazine American Renaissance, which argues in favor of eugenics and for the existence of a link between race and intelligence. The New Century Foundation has also published The Color of Crime, a book arguing that racial bias by police is negligible, that race is connected to criminality and that black on white crime is a serious problem.
The New Century Foundation has no direct links to the Trump administration. However, its fortunes and the movement it represents have seen an uptick since Trump’s victory. Having been granted the status of a non-profit, the group has, along with three others (including the NPI) raised $7.8 million to spread their beliefs.
- Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF)
The TPPF was founded in 1989 by James Leininger, a conservative Christian activist who made his name through campaigns against same-sex marriage in Texas, promoting school vouchers and through his giving to various conservative politicians. The TPPF counts itself today as “America’s largest free market state think tank,” and describes its mission as a “fight for freedom” for which it is developing “workable ideas for elected officials.” These ideas range from tax cuts and tightening government spending to “school choice” and scaling back federal regulations. Like Trump, one of its chief targets is the EPA’s Clean Power Plan.
Trump’s Department of the Interior transition team is being led by Doug Domenech, head of the TPPF’s Fueling Freedom Project, which aims to explain “the forgotten moral case for fossil fuels” and push back against EPA regulations. Trump’s energy secretary pick Rick Perry also has ties to the organization, which receives thousands of dollars from billionaires like the Koch brothers, conservative foundations and various businesses. One of these, unsurprisingly, happens to be ExxonMobil.