Prime Target: Will Foundations Come Under Attack in the Age of Trump?

Well, that didn’t take long.

Last week, Breitbart.com criticized the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for its giving to progressive causes and statements made by the director of its racial equity work. The attack came as part of a broader campaign by Breitbart against the Kellogg Company, which recently pulled its advertising from the site. (A reporter mistakenly believed that WKKF was the company’s “nonprofit arm.”)

Attacks by Breitbart.com on progressive funders are hardly new. Type “Soros” into the search box of that media site and you’ll get, literally, 42,000 results.  Along with other right-wing media sites, Breitbart.com has been on the tail of progressive funders for years, and Soros is a favorite target as a Jewish billionaire from finance. But these sites have also gone after a range of other foundations, like Ford, Tides, Nathan Cummings, and so on.

Such attacks have long been little more than background noise, the mutterings of a right-wing populist fringe.  

Now things are about to get a whole lot scarier, and for a few different reasons.

First, and most obviously, the populist fringe is headed to the White House, with Steve Bannon—the former CEO of Breitbart—taking an office in the West Wing. We’re about to see something new in American politics: an administration with intimate ties to a powerful media propaganda machine. That machine can be expected to focus intense and sustained fire on Trump administration critics, and it will work in conjunction with an array of litigation groups, activist organizations, and think tanks on the right. Look no further than the two-year firestorm of attacks on the Clinton Foundation to see how these various players work together.

Second, if foundations do their jobs right, they inevitably will become top targets. With all branches of the federal government in conservative hands, progressive civil society will be a central locus of resistance to the Trump agenda, and innumerable groups, from the ACLU onward, are already mobilizing for battle. Who’ll be footing the bill for much of this work? Places like Ford and the Open Society Foundations, as well as top progressive philanthropists like Tom Steyer and the partners of the Democracy Alliance. Foundations like Robert Wood Johnson and Hewlett will also likely find themselves financing fights against a Trump administration that threatens key accomplishments of recent years. RWJF invested tens of millions of dollars to enact the Affordable Care Act. It now may be inclined to give heavily to defend that law, and in so doing, could become a target. Hewlett (and Packard), both avowedly non-ideological, would probably like nothing more than to keep their heads down right now, avoiding the wrath of the crazies, but that shouldn’t be a choice for two of America’s biggest climate funders who confront a president who has called climate change a “hoax.” If they properly rise to the challenge, both could face a degree of scrutiny they’ve never experienced before. An obvious strategy of the Trumpist right might be to try to intimidate funders into not backing the kind of hard-hitting opposition work that this moment requires.

Third, the strong defense by foundations of historically marginalized populations makes them all the more enticing of a target for an emboldened white nationalist movement with a strong foothold in Washington. Take a look at the recent attacks on W.K. Kellogg and you’ll see the race-baiting dimension. Here and elsewhere, right-wing media has played up foundation support for Black Lives Matter, essentially accusing progressive funders of complicity in fostering “riots” and attacks on police officers. You’ll also find hysteria about transgender rights, feminism, and so on. Antisemitism is another through-line, and George Soros isn’t the only top Jewish philanthropist backing progressive causes. There are many others, including Michael Bloomberg, and the more these donors step forward to do battle with Trump, the more the white nationalists are likely to attack them with viral messages that tap into ugly views about Jews and shadowy elite power.

Yet a fourth reason things will get scarier is that we’re not just talking about media organs and Twitter mobs potentially coming after foundations and philanthropy. The federal government could join that attack, too. We have a president-elect with an open contempt for democratic and constitutional norms, who has appointed a hardline U.S. Attorney General. We also have the same members of Congress who have spent years endlessly investigating Benghazi, Hillary Clinton’s emails, and the Clinton Foundation. It’s not a stretch to imagine that the right’s newly bolstered inquisitorial state apparatus will come to fix its attention on the philanthropic left. It’s hard to say what form such persecution would take, but now’s a good moment to brush up on events of 1969, which is the last time the foundation world foundation came under fire in a major way in Congress. A good account of what happened can be found in Waldemar Nielsen’s indispensable 1972 book, The Big Foundations. What you’ll learn is that the attack was orchestrated by a populist Texas Congressman named Wright Patman—a common kind of figure on Capitol Hill today (but without Patman’s concern for the little guy.)

The broad appeal of a populist critique of philanthropy is a fifth reason that foundations could face a tough few years. After all, the rising influence of private funders is pretty unsettling, especially with all the dark money sluicing through both political and philanthropic channels. Wright Patman was making a lot of good points in the late 1960s about the need for reforming philanthropy, and it’s easy to imagine new critics in Washington gaining traction with an updated message—even if their real agenda is intimidating opposition in civil society. As I’ve written before, thanks to its failure of self-regulation, the philanthropic sector has increased its vulnerability to a populist backlash, one that could win wide legitimacy among a public that’s grown ever more distrustful of elites of all kinds. Now may be the moment that this reckoning finally comes.

Or maybe not. It could well be that we don’t see an attack on liberal funders and philanthropy writ large in coming years. This sector is remarkably good at flying below the radar, with most Americans clueless about what foundations do. Pushing philanthropy onto the demagogic front burner might be hard because it’s just not an area that resonates with most people. The unfamiliarity of foundations offers them important protection.

What’s more, there are good reasons that conservatives in government won’t be interested in joining any attack on foundations. The right has as much to lose as the left from a curtailment of philanthropic freedom, and maybe more in the long term. The Kochs and DeVoses, along with other top philanthropists and political donors on the right, are unlikely to look kindly on a broad assault on a key means by which the wealthy wield power in America. In effect, the deterrence here to a partisan attack on philanthropy is akin to mutual assured destruction: once you go down this path, both sides could suffer.

Whatever the future may hold, a final point to keep in mind is that foundations are well-equipped to handle attacks. They have plenty of money to lawyer up, hire PR firms, and even pay for private security if it comes to that. Their leaders and boards can’t be ousted by voters or shareholders. They don’t have products to boycott. If ever there were a time to be thankful for the insularity and unaccountability of philanthropy, it is moments like these.

Foundations need to keep in mind just how secure their fortress of wealth really is in the next few years. The question is not whether anyone has the power to truly intimidate them­—because nobody does. The question is whether foundations will allow themselves to be intimidated.

Let’s hope not.

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