Ralph Reed, the former executive director of Pat Robertson’s once powerful Christian Coalition, and the founder and current chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition,once told a reporter: “I do guerrilla warfare. I paint my face and travel at night. You don’t know it’s over until you’re in a body bag.” And he told Newsday that “We’ve learned how to move under the radar in the cover of the night with shrubbery strapped to our helmets. It’s like being a good submarine captain: You come up, fire three missiles and then dive.” While a relatively new entry into the Republican Party’s culture wars market place, the Chicago, Illinois-headquartered American Culture Project, doesn’t describe its work as colorfully as Reed once did, but it does have some twenty-first century stealth-like things in mind: secretive harvesting of personal data from millions of voters, and operating as a 501(c)(4) non-profit organization, so that it doesn’t need to disclose dark money donors.
The American Culture Project’s website says its mission is to “empower Americans with the tools and information necessary to make their voices heard in their local communities, statehouses and beyond.” In other words, change the narrative from a Party that appears to care only about its most conservative voters, to focusing on critical centrist voters in swing states, through the copious use of social media.
According to The Washington Post’s Isaac Stanley-Becker (https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/republicans-midterms-digital-influence/2021/04/03/391103a8-8c0e-11eb-a730-1b4ed9656258_story.html) “That goal, laid out in a private fundraising appeal sent last month to a Republican donor and reviewed by The Washington Post, relies on building new online communities that can be tapped at election time, with a focus on winning back Congress in 2022.” The appeal sent to Warren Stephens, a billionaire banker based in Arkansas who backed President Donald Trump’s reelection effort, “was inadvertently directed to someone who shared the communications with The Post.”
The appeal, titled “Reclaiming the Public Narrative,” states (https://www.washingtonpost.com/context/reclaiming-the-public-narrative-a-fundraising-proposal-from-the-culture-project/773e152e-8f1a-4ef2-bab9-1adc5e7c17d2/?itid=lk_readmore_manual_17): “We’ve created a persuasion machine that allows conservatives to reach, engage and move people to action like never before. Now is the time to expand and capitalize on this machine, setting the political playing field in advance of the 2022 election.” The appeal makes use of today’s popular conservative lingo; “cancel culture,” and “woke supremacy.”
Founded in 2019, Stanley-Becker wrote: “The project is led by an Illinois-based conservative activist, John Tillman, who also oversees a libertarian think tank and a news foundation that recently received grant money to highlight opposition to public health restrictions.” Tillman is founder of the Illinois Policy Institute, and is also “chairman of the Franklin News Foundation, a nonprofit media company that draws revenue from DonorsTrust, a donor-advised fund that backs conservative causes and allows its contributors to remain anonymous,” Stanley-Becker reported.
To accomplish its lofty goals, the American Culture Project aims to collect as much personal data as possible to target centrist voters, and win back control of the House and Senate in 2022.
In an email Tillman wrote: “We focus on reaching millions of Americans who can no longer rely on traditional media to become fully informed on a diversity of views on the issues of the day,” he wrote. “By reaching millions of Americans with a broader, more wide ranging set of issues and ideas, we think that voters will make decisions that will elect people, whether Democrat or Republican, that believe in America’s founding principles, and particularly the Bill of Rights.”
The Republican Party is a minority Party
Over the past forty-plus years, the Republican Party and its Religious Right partners have set up hundreds of organizations aimed at saving America from liberals and progressives, while siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars from its supporters. How is The American Culture Project different? While it goes without saying that the money raised by the Project will line the pockets of data collectors, digital ad makers, marketing research outfits and advertising firms, the question is: Will it be successful?
The Republican Party is a minority party. “Because of gerrymandering, Democratic candidates in 2020 defeated their Republican opponents by 3.1 percentage points nationally and yet lost a dozen seats in the House of Representatives,” the historian Heather Cox Richardson pointed out in a recent “Letters from an American” column.
“The Senate is even less fairly representative. It is currently divided evenly, with 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats (technically, 48 Democrats and 2 Independents who caucus with the Democrats). But the 50 Democrats represent 41.5 million more people than the Republicans do (the U.S. has a population of about 328 million).”
Richardson noted that, “Seventy-seven percent of us like the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, and yet not a single Republican voted for it. Eighty-four percent of us like background checks for gun purchases, and yet that policy is anathema to Republicans. Seventy-nine percent of us want the government to fix our roads, bridges, railroads, and ports. Seventy-one percent of us want the government to make sure we all have high-speed internet. Sixty-eight percent of us want the government to replace our lead pipes, the same percentage as people who want the government to support renewable energy with tax credits. Sixty-four percent of us want to pay for these things by increasing taxes on corporations and big businesses.”
Changing the narrative
The Republican Party’s answer to the American people? Change the narrative through sophisticated data gathering by the American Culture Project, which is set up as a social welfare organization – 501(c)(4) — so that it does not have to disclose its donors or pay federal income taxes.
Through Facebook pages, the American Culture Project has so far organized in at least five states– Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Ohio, and Virginia—under names like “Arise Ohio,” “Stand Up Florida,” and “Mighty Michigan.” It is seeking to expand to six more: Arizona, Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin.
The Washington Post’s Stanley-Becker pointed out that “what’s unusual about the American Culture Project, experts said, is how it presents its aims as news dissemination and community building. It touts transparency and civic engagement using an online network whose donors remain private — part of a bid to shape public opinion as local news outlets craterand social networks replace traditional forums for political deliberation.”
Noah Bookbinder, president of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told Stanley-Becker that the American Culture Project’s method of operation “puts the lie to the public presentation of these nonprofits as public welfare organizations that might happen to do a little politics. It shows the system is being abused in ways we knew were happening but you usually don’t see quite so blatantly.”
Interestingly, Charity Navigator (https://www.charitynavigator.org/ein/831575590) which assesses an organization’s transparency and community engagement in a number of areas, has no information about the American Culture Project.
Bill Berkowitz is an Oakland, California-based freelance writer covering right-wing movements. His work has appeared in BuzzFlash, The Nation, Huffington Post, The Progressive, AlterNet, Street Sheet, In These Times, and many other print and online publications, as well as being cited in several books.