The Leadership Institute: Conservative PR school

Trumpism, most unfortunately, is still with us—as is The Leadership Institute with its arch right-wing operation, now extending globally.

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We’re familiar with Fox, the TV propaganda arm of the Trump administration remaining a far right-wing outlet under Rupert Murdoch and his mission of using media to push an arch-conservative agenda.

And we’re becoming aware of other radical right efforts to use media to indoctrinate people. There’s the right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group seeking to buy up more local TV stations to deceive and lie from, and One America News and Newsmax TV. 

As the headline of a recent article in The New York Times declared: “Pro-Trump Media Keeps the Disinformation Flowing.” 

Much has to be done about this radical right drive to destroy the ideal of media being an independent monitor, a watchdog taking on power—not a partisan handmaiden. 

Use of anti-trust regulations and implementation of Federal Communication Commission broadcast rules are on the top of the list.

But largely flying under the radar has been the training operation for right-wingers to be taught how to work the media, infiltrate government and otherwise promote a right-wing agenda in the United States and in recent years extending itself through the world especially to Europe.

It’s called The Leadership Institute and since it was set up in 1979 “has trained,” according to its website, “more than 200,000 conservative activists, leaders and students.” 

One proud graduate of The Leadership Institute is Mitch McConnell, minority leader of the U.S. Senate, who on its website, below his photo, declares: “Thanks to you (Morton) and everyone who has served on your staff. There are countless conservatives making a difference in public policy across the country. As one of your earliest students, I know firsthand what a wonderful foundation the Leadership Institute’s education provides for someone involved in public service.”

The “Morton” he is referring to is Morton C. Blackwell, who founded The Leadership Institute, and remains its president and runs it. 

Another graduate is now former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence.

As The Leadership Institute says on a page about its “Mission” on its website: “The Leadership Institute’s mission is to increase the number and effectiveness of conservative activists and leaders in the public policy process.”

“Institute programs prepare thousands of conservatives each year,” it says. And from it, “Conservatives learn how to…Succeed in the competitive field of broadcast media, Run successfully for elected office…Communicate a conservative message using the media…Formulate policy as elected officials or key staff members. The Leadership Institute is the center of conservative activist training. No other organization provides more training to conservative activists each year.” 

Describing under “Headquarters” The Leadership Institute’s “facility” in Arlington, Virginia, the website says it includes “a training center, professional multimedia studies, dormitories.” 

Blackwell’s trajectory through the years has been allied with the most conservative streams in U.S. politics as detailed on The Leadership Institute’s website. 

“Mr. Blackwell was Barry Goldwater’s youngest elected delegate to the 1964 Republican National Convention in San Francisco,” it says. “He was a national convention Alternate Delegate for Ronald Reagan in 1968 and 1976, and a Ronald Reagan Delegate at the 1980 national convention. In 1980, he organized and oversaw the national youth effort for Ronald Reagan. He served as Special Assistant to the President on President Reagan’s White House Staff 1981-1984. Mr. Blackwell is something of a specialist in matters relating to the rules of the Republican Party….He serves now on the RNC’s Standing Committee on Rules and has attended every meeting of the Republican National Conventions’ Rules Committees since 1972.”

The biography also notes that The Leadership Institute’s total revenue since 1974 is $274 million. It currently has revenue of over $16.9 million a year and a full-time staff of 70.” 

Despite its political purpose, The Leadership Institute has received 501(c)(3) non-profit status from the U.S. Internal Revenue Service.

In recent years, The Leadership Institute has extended its reach worldwide, especially to Europe.

The British-based organization openDemocracy (yes, the “o” is not capitalized and the words are combined) which seeks “to educate citizens to challenge power and encourage democratic debate across the world,” conducted an investigation that resulted in a report it published in October of last year. 

It was headlined: “Undercover with the US conservatives who trained Mike Pence. This is how the architects of America’s culture wars are trying to export their tactics to Europe.” 

Its authors, Adam Ramsay and Joni Hess, write: “Our host via Zoom, the Leadership Institute, exists to ‘place conservatives in the government, politics and media’– and it says its graduates include Trump’s vice-president, Mike Pence. Like a multi-level marketing scheme, the workshop taught us to recruit students to right-wing activism, who would in turn recruit others. Blair stressed a growing marginalisation of conservative ideology on college campuses, and a ‘moral obligation to save the U.S.….Over several hours, we were taught to polarise discussions, to war game public debates, to reframe ‘anti-worker’ policies as ‘right to work’, to characterise pro-choice activists as ‘hating babies’.”

Under a subtitle, “The U.S. culture wars go global,” they continue: “This bare-knuckled politics is no longer confined to the U.S. The Leadership Institute has spent around $350,000 bringing its agenda to Europe since 2016, according to a new investigation by openDemocracy. There has been a marked increase in its European activities in recent years—and it spends more money in Europe than anywhere else in the world, outside the U.S. openDemocracy’s research also reveals that the organization has worked with controversial ultra-conservatives in Europe including a Lega politician in Italy, the Spanish far-right group CitizenGo, Croatia’s anti-LGBT ‘In the Name of the Family’ coalition and the neo-feudalist Tradition, Family and Property movement’s branches in Austria and France, as well as across Latin America.”

“The Leadership Institute has also worked with a number of conservative groups and politicians in the UK—including Tim Evans, a former lobbyist for privatised healthcare; a former chair of the conservative Bow Group think-tank; and Matthew Elliott, chief executive of the Vote Leave campaign in the Brexit referendum campaign.”

It continues: “Speaking to openDemocracy, the prominent UK LGBT rights activist Peter Tatchell accused the Leadership Institute of ‘a form of cultural imperialism’. ‘It is exporting culture wars to subvert our democracies and influence our politics. We [didn’t] even know it is happening, until now,’ he said.” 

The piece goes on: “Leadership Institute was founded by its current president Morton Blackwell in 1979. Since then, it says it has trained thousands of U.S. conservatives, from high-school students to senior politicians, in skills from email marketing to how to get jobs on Capitol Hill. In our workshop, we were told that Blackwell thought 1964 Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater was ideologically correct, but saw that that didn’t help him win. So he and other Goldwater supporters launched some key institutions of U.S. conservatism: the anti-abortion and gun-rights movements, the Heritage Foundation think tank and the Leadership Institute, which works behind the scenes, recruiting, training, connecting—pushing allies onto the front lines of U.S. politics. In the future, they swore, they’d win. And they have: their alumni, in addition to Pence, include George W. Bush’s strategist Karl Rove and Republican senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.”

Blackwell received the “Titan of Conservation Award” from the Heritage Foundation this past December. A Heritage Foundation press release said the entity’s president, Kay C. James, “who calls Blackwell a personal mentor,” asserted: “Morton Blackwell is a living legend of the conservative movement.” 

Trump is most thankfully gone. Trumpism, most unfortunately, is still with us—as is The Leadership Institute with its arch right-wing operation, now extending globally. 

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