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Pope-funded “libertarian” group continues slide toward Trumpism

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

For decades, groups funded by conservative mega-donor and one-time Republican politician Art Pope have proudly brandished the “libertarian” label when describing the philosophy they bring to public policy debates. This has been particularly true of the biggest such organization — the John Locke Foundation — a 30+ year-old nonprofit “think tank” that has principally championed “free markets,” tax cuts, and “small government” while largely steering clear of issues like racial justice, LGBTQ equality and reproductive rights.

To the group’s credit, Locke Foundation staffers once loudly endorsed the establishment of an independent redistricting commission in North Carolina (a position they’ve since abandoned) and have long spoken out against efforts to bestow economic development incentives on private businesses, even when it’s been Republican politicians doing the bestowing.

In 2016, longtime Locke President John Hood publicly described Donald Trump as “a contemptible human being.”

Since the advent of Trumpism as the dominant force in modern American conservative politics, however, there’s been an obvious and worrisome shift at Locke. Maybe it was Hood’s departure from day-to-day leadership or the addition of the Civitas Institute — a Pope-funded nonprofit that it absorbed in recent years and that had long taken a more aggressively right-wing stance on a variety of issues (like immigration and “election integrity”) that Locke largely ignored — but whatever the explanation, it’s clear that things have changed.

The new and disturbingly Trumpist Locke Foundation has been increasingly on display of late in several arenas — including the pandemic, where its staffers have repeatedly published absurd screeds attacking basic public health policies and, more recently, in its willingness to advance Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.

For a classic example of how this latter bit of nonsense has been seeping into Locke content, check out the group’s recent release surrounding a poll it conducted on the Republican U.S. Senate primary. While the poll itself has some interesting findings and, by all indications, some validity, check out this excerpt from the release itself:

Republicans will make their Senate choice at a time when nine out of 10 believe the country is on the wrong track, and eight out of 10 disapprove of the job Congress is doing. The poll shows they also have grave concerns about the integrity of elections. Nearly half – 49% – do not believe the 2022 general election will be free and fair. Thirty-one percent are unsure.

[Locke President and organizational #2 Donald] Bryson continued, “It’s not an understatement to say that the underpinnings of the American republic are at a flashpoint. When a near-majority of one of the major parties doesn’t believe in the integrity of our elections, then the public will question the legitimacy of any outcome. The Left will say this is a result of the Big Lie, but remember that the first ‘big lie’ was a 2016 Clinton campaign fabrication about Russian collusion that led to impeachment hearings designed to overthrow a duly elected president. The blame lies at the feet of the Left, and specifically attorney Marc Elias.” (Emphasis supplied).

You got that? The group that has long held itself out as one of our state’s leading conservative voices and defenders of “freedom” is now suggesting that the blame for the widespread skepticism about U.S. elections that has spread like a deadly virus amongst American conservatives is not the fault of the contemptible liar who sullied the office of the presidency from 2017 to 2021, but that of a Democratic lawyer of whom most people have never heard.

You really can’t make this stuff up.

As yesterday’s “Monday numbers” column reiterated for the umpteenth time, the legitimacy of the 2020 presidential election has been confirmed and reconfirmed scores of times. To imply, as the Locke statement does, that there is any validity to Donald Trump’s unhinged claims about that election is either a) a knowing and remarkably cynical exercise in feeding the paranoia of its readers, or b) an indication that the Locke Foundation has abandoned all past pretenses and as become a mere mouthpiece for the Trumpist authoritarianism that now threatens our democracy.

Either way, it’s a very sad state of affairs.

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