ARLINGTON, Va. >> The rise of Donald Trump, with his hostility toward free trade and vow to protect entitlements, is a sharp rebuke to the free-market principles long championed by the billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch.
But if the Koch brothers have lost the battle for conservative values in 2016, they are also quietly preparing for a long war.
Their secret weapon is the Grassroots Leadership Academy: a training program dreamed up by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, the political education arm of the Koch network, and intended to groom the next generation of conservative activists to shape the future of the Republican Party.
Taking inspiration from icons of the left like Saul Alinsky, the Marxist-inspired Frankfurt School, and even President Barack Obama’s Organizing for Action, the academy offers classes like “Messaging to the Middle” (about reaching not just the conservative base but also persuadable voters), community organizing and how to wage a successful public protest, complete with costumes.
The goal is not just to equip activists to compete with the left, but also to help rebuild the conservative movement in the wake of a Trump loss — or even a Trump victory.
The Kochs will be key figures in any discussion about what direction the party takes after 2016, and they are determined to steer it toward their free-market vision. A band of trained volunteers focused on elections further down the ballot could help raise their standing for 2018 and beyond.
The network hopes that these activists will learn how to make a compelling, personal pitch to win over new converts to the cause, and that if volunteers are grounded in a strong philosophical understanding of free-market principles, they will be better prepared not only to explain their beliefs but also to ward off candidates, like Trump, who do not espouse their vision.
“We want a cultural shift of people being able to know what they want and how to talk to the people in their communities, so that in the future, when there are political leaders that want to demagogue free-market issues, they do hit resistance,” said Levi Russell, the director of public affairs for Americans for Prosperity.
After Americans for Prosperity spent more than $100 million during the 2012 election yet failed to take back the White House or the Senate, the Koch network undertook a major self-assessment and overhaul. It is spending $3 million on the training initiative, which officially began in February 2015, and plans to expand it next year.
The effort has taken on newfound urgency because Trump has shown that Republican voters will support a candidate who denounces trade agreements and rejects the free-market doctrine the Kochs have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to push.
“This Republican nomination battle for president has demonstrated that no issue is ever fully won,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity. “You must keep competing and explaining. For example, why free trade is better, why entitlement reform is necessary.”
The group has held training sessions in roughly three dozen states so far, and about 10,000 people have attended an academy program.
The academy offers three tiers: two six-week courses and, for those who have completed the first two levels, a final, intensive three-day training at Americans for Prosperity’s headquarters here, with hotel and travel underwritten by the group.
The first level introduces trainees to the principles of economic freedom and prepares them, for example, to lobby their representatives about a particular issue.
The second level of training seeks to turn the attendees into community activists, the sorts of people who could recruit and mobilize others.
The curriculum is likely to intensify criticism of the Kochs, whose fortune is based largely on oil and petroleum, from liberals who view the brothers’ political work as stemming largely from their financial interests. One of the sessions, called the “Moral Case for Fossil Fuels,” teaches attendees to argue that “a turn away from fossil fuel use would ultimately be disastrous to humanity — especially the poorest of the poor.”
Slade O’Brien, vice president of the Grassroots Leadership Academy, said he had learned two big lessons from studying Democratic tactics. “It was incredibly relationship-driven; it was truly at the grass-roots level,” he said. “And they didn’t have to agree on everything to agree to work on something — that incremental victories matter, and they would work on those rather than swing for the fences and try to hit a home run.”
In Bethlehem, Penn., the second session of the late-August training program was held in a conference room over the beer and liquor section of a Wegmans grocery. Fifteen people munched on turkey wraps and miniature cannolis as they listened to Mary Conway, a Republican organizer who worked for Sarah Palin, run briskly through a series of slides with labels like “The Left Is Highly Organized” and quotes from Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals.”
With the fast-paced intonation of a motivational speaker, Conway urged her students to focus on what makes a successful movement. “Successful or Unsuccessful,” read slides listing various movements, one of which was the civil rights fight of the 1950s and 1960s. “One thing the civil rights movement was very good at was capturing the new media,” Conway said.
Several attendees were activists from local Tea Party groups. One was a political blogger. They offered their views on successful political movements — and, during a break, on the presidential race. It was a reminder that the network cannot always control who shows up.
Charlie Knight, 70, a Philadelphia-based electrician who supports Trump, said he had come to the training because he wanted to be around “like-minded people.”
“There’s only one person that I could possibly support, because the other one’s nothing but a liar,” Knight said.
O’Brien, the Grassroots vice president, said he hoped the program would pay dividends over the long term. “You can’t just show up at somebody’s door six weeks before an election and build a relationship with them,” he said. He added that Obama’s grass-roots wing was “magnificent at building up their volunteers and relationships over a period of time, and you have to give them credit.”
The leadership academy program still has some work to do.
Though the Kochs have tried to make the conservative base more diverse, in a recent training session near Washington, the class of roughly two dozen was mostly older and white. While some of the budding activists seemed equipped to return home and wage a successful local-issue campaign, others seemed generally befuddled and uncomfortable with even the basics of social media, like Twitter and digital video.
At one point, a man briefly dozed off during a session on the legislative process.
“The big question going forward is what are the programs that these people get plugged into once they’re ready to get involved in politics,” said Sasha Issenberg, author of “Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns,” a book the program’s leaders have consulted. “What the left has been very good about doing is taking enthusiastic activists, giving them training, but then plugging them into systems where their energy is well directed.”
Near the end of a Friday session in Arlington, the trainees divided into several teams. Each team had a designated “builder,” whose goal was to recreate a small widget out of building blocks using only descriptions from his teammates, relayed from one person to the next in what was, basically, a giant game of telephone.
Some teams did better than others, but the description became increasingly garbled as it passed from person to person.
The real point of the exercise, a moderator explained, was that “you constantly have to be working on communication skills if you want to be a grass-roots leader.”
But when he asked the group what the lesson was, someone shouted out a message perhaps even more aligned with the project’s stated aim: “Cut out the bureaucracy!” the attendee said, to laughter.
“Yeah, cut out the middle man and just say it right to the builder,” the moderator conceded.