Heritage Foundation, Once Reputable, Veers Toward Far-Right Fringe
The conservative think tank once defined conservative politics. Now Heritage is turning to the right-wing fringe in an attempt to recapture its glory days.
The right-wing think tank The Heritage Foundation has increasingly used fringe, extremist media outlets to spread its message as it struggles to maintain its central position in the conservative movement. Its staff and fellows have appeared on the conspiracy theory network Infowars, on the show of a Hitler-praising antisemite, and on MAGA-aligned fringe programs defined by their nativism and commitment to spreading disinformation — all while Heritage fights to keep its spot atop the conservative policy world.
Founded in 1973, Heritage took center stage in the conservative movement in the following decade during the administrations of President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Since then it has consistently been one of the most cited think tanks in the country. It also has a long history of pushing right-wing ideas, including denying the reality of climate change, opposing LGBTQ rights, and promoting for-profit prisons and harsher sentences throughout the 1980s and ‘90s.
Heritage’s role in determining policy has historically extended beyond just the Republican Party. It helped to shape what became known as welfare reform under former President Bill Clinton, causing deep and extreme poverty to skyrocket. Heritage also popularized the idea of including an individual mandate in health insurance reform, first during Mitt Romney’s time as governor of Massachusetts and later during debate over the Affordable Care Act.
The think tank saw its stock rise during former President Donald Trump’s time in office, but since his loss in 2020 it has faced stiff competition from new organizations looking to define and control the messaging and policy of the MAGA wing of the Republican Party. Still, with revenue of at least $102 million as of 2021 — significantly more than similar organizations like the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute — it's still a major force in conservative politics.
Heritage is a longtime sponsor of the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, and it’s organizing a massive effort to staff the next Republican administration. Its more than 115 fellows and employees are often cited as subject experts in mainstream media outlets, and they show up across cable news channels as well. Heritage also acts as a publisher of faux-intellectual policy papers — the thrust of which are often later debunked — as well as more broadly targeted op-eds and social media content.
For as much as Heritage attempts to present itself as respectable, the presidency of Joe Biden appears to have ushered in a new era at the organization as its personnel increasingly appear on fringe, extreme right-wing programs. As Media Matters has previously reported, Tom Homan — a Heritage visiting fellow and former acting director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement — appeared on a Hitler-praising antisemite’s show and pushed the racist “great replacement” theory. Media Matters also reported that Heritage research fellow Peter St Onge recently appeared on Alex Jones’ Infowars network and repeated a debunked conspiracy theory that falsely claims the Department of Justice designated conservative parents at school board meetings as domestic terrorists.
One recent example shows how Heritage seeds radical ideas in far-right media, creating its own content to further amplify its messages. On October 18, Lora Ries, the director of Heritage’s Border Security and Immigration Center, published an op-ed at The Daily Signal (a media outlet run by Heritage) opposing Palestinian refugee resettlement to the United States. This issue is largely a moot point, as Israel — with the help of Egypt — has maintained a complete siege of Gaza. Even if Palestinians in Gaza were allowed to leave in large numbers, many are reasonably fearful that they will never be allowed to return and would face the prospect of a second Nakba, the term for the forced dislocation of roughly 750,000 Palestinians in 1948.
“To import a population of pro-Hamas Palestinians would be certain suicide for Americans,” Ries wrote, adding, “This population has no interest in assimilating into American culture and governance, or in expressing loyalty to America or American allies.”
Ries has spread anti-immigrant messaging more generally on Just the News, hosted by John Solomon, a conservative writer with a history of spreading false information; One America News, a far-right Fox News competitor; and No Spin News, hosted by disgraced former Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly.
The immigration center Ries runs at Heritage also lists Mark Morgan, former acting commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, as a visiting fellow. Like Ries, Morgan has been a guest on Solomon’s show — he went on to implicitly demonize Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim communities by suggesting they are harboring terrorists — and fearmongered about migration levels with Sebastian Gorka. (In addition to his perch at Heritage, Morgan is also a senior fellow at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as a hate group.)
Morgan has also appeared on War Room, the podcast of former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and a hotbed of anti-migrant demonization and election denialism — and Heritage personnel. In addition to Morgan, Bannon has also hosted Heritage President Kevin Roberts; distinguished fellow in economics Stephen Moore (for an episode titled “Stolen Elections Have Consequences”); and research fellow E.J. Antoni, among others.
Where Bannon is the standard-bearer for Trump-style nativism, Heritage fellows have found a receptive audience among the more explicitly Christian right as well (Bannon’s occasional ecclesiastical rants notwithstanding). Roberts and Antoni have both also been guests on The Charlie Kirk Show, whose host has increasingly embraced Christian fundamentalism. Moore — the economics fellow — has been on Huckabee on TBN, and Heritage senior legal fellow Sarah Parshall Perry has appeared on Dr. James Dobson’s Family Talk, both of which are televangelist programs.
One of Heritage’s most active figures is Hans von Spakovsky, who manages the think tank’s election law reform initiative, which in reality means he spreads myths about voter fraud that have been debunked and discredited. He has appeared numerous times on Fox News, One America News, and streaming programs including The Dan Bongino Show, Just the News, and America First with Sebastian Gorka. On April 28, 2022, Von Spakovsky appeared on the The Jenna Ellis Show “to discuss election litigation”; on October 24, 2023, Ellis pleaded guilty to one felony count for her role in Trump’s attempt to overturn the 2020 election.
Heritage no longer dominates the conservative policy world the way it once did, but its deep pockets and long history means it still wields considerable influence. Yet by all appearances, Heritage has fully embraced the far-right fringe of the movement it attempts to define, further delegitimizing itself in the process.
Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.
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