The New Republic recently ran a chilling article. It was titled “Ten People You’ve Never Heard of Who are Destroying Democracy,” and it reminded me of Cold War allegations about the mechanisms of communist “fifth columns” working to undermine the U.S.
Wikipedia defines a Fifth Column as “any group of people who undermine a larger group from within, usually in favor of an enemy group or nation…Clandestine fifth column activities can involve acts of sabotage, disinformation, or espionage executed within defense lines by secret sympathizers with an external force.”
The problem with suspicions of a Fifth Column, of course, is the credibility of the charge. After hearing from QAnon nutcases about pedophiles controlling the Democratic Party and the presumed evil intentions of the “deep state,” prudence dictates a healthy skepticism when such assertions are encountered.
That said, The New Republic is neither Fox nor OAN, and I actually was familiar with one of the ten I supposedly never heard of–and what I knew about that particular “soldier” of the Far Right was all too consistent with the article’s report.
The lede was worrisome enough:
In recent years, America’s democracy has faced countless challenges. Some seemed to materialize out of thin air, but many have been the fruit of secretive networks such as the 40-year-old Council for National Policy. Here are 10 individuals who have sown the seeds of disruption and disinformation—and who are setting their sights on the 2024 presidential election.
I encourage you to click through and familiarize yourself with the entire list, but the very first entrant was the President of Hillsdale College–a deeply ideological institution I had previously encountered.
For decades, Michigan-based Hillsdale has served as an academic partner for the religious right. The college has had a close relationship to the Council for National Policy, the secretive Christian right umbrella organization that directs so much right-wing activism, through Arnn and his predecessor, George Roche III (who left in a cloud of scandal). Hillsdale’s major donors have constituted a who’s who of the radical right, including the Koch network and leading figures from the CNP. Arnn has expanded Hillsdale’s role as a platform for the CNP’s network of megadonors, fundamentalist activists, and media outlets, providing their policy prescriptions with a thin veneer of academic respectability. The college enrolls around 1,500 students, but its leaves an outsize footprint in political messaging. Its highly politicized publication Imprimis is sent to more than six million recipients. Hillsdale operates the Kirby Center in Washington, D.C., where it has groomed young conservatives at the Capitol Hill Staff Training School, run by the Leadership Institute (see Morton Blackwell, below). Hillsdale is also playing a role in the current disruption of public education, which has been used for political leverage in Virginia and beyond. In 2020, Donald Trump appointed Arnn chair of the 1776 Commission, to promote a “patriotic” rebuttal to the 1619 Project’s racially inclusive approach to U.S. history. Hillsdale has led an ongoing campaign to politicize public schools, promoting anti–critical race theory campaigns and assisting in the launch of “affiliate” charter schools in 11 states.
Some years ago, I was contracted to write a history of an Indiana libertarian organization–the Remnant Trust. The Trust has collected first editions of rare and important historical books and manuscripts, and has created an educational display featuring those materials that it shares with colleges and universities around the country. Early in that effort, it had contracted with Hillsdale in a sort of joint venture (I no longer recall the details), and the Executive Director regaled me–at considerable length–about Hillsdale’s bad faith breach of that agreement in what he claimed was an effort to enrich the college at the expense of the nonprofit organization. He had been stunned and blindsided by behavior he hadn’t expected from an institution trumpeting what he’d thought were similar values.
Later, I had a couple of students who had matriculated at Hillsdale; their recollections (albeit far less accusatory) confirmed much of the New Republic’s description. I’m also one of the six million people who gets Imprimus (in my case, the slick publication goes straight into the trash.)
Most recently, I’ve been alarmed by the news reports that Hillsdale is establishing a nationwide network of charter schools.
Others on the list of ten “Fifth Column” actors were the CEO of Right Side Broadcasting, the Daily Caller (Tucker Carlson and Neil Patel’s publication), the CEO of Tea Party Patriots, the founders of organizations called “America’s Frontline Doctors” and “The Leadership Institute,” and the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation.
Bottom line: there are a lot of “underground” people and organizations that have been working hard to undermine America’s social safety net, and reverse any progress toward goals of equality and inclusion.
Some Fifth Columns, it turns out, are real.