How Conservative Think Tanks Helped Create the Age of Trump

If you follow politics, whether on cable news, newspapers or online, you’ve seen experts from conservative organizations like the Brookings Institute, the Center for American Progress or the American Enterprise Institute commenting on matters of foreign relations, domestic policy and the economy. While these “think tanks” play a large role in shaping our nation’s public policy and political discourse, most Americans know very little about these organizations and what they do. In my new book, Right Moves: The Conservative Think Tank in American Political Culture Since 1945, I wanted to demystify think tanks and their role in U.S. politics.

What I found was, not only have these conservative think tanks had a huge influence on our politics – they’ve fundamentally changed the way we discuss public policy. In many ways, these changes helped pave the way for the candidacy of Donald Trump and the fractious 2016 election season.

What Are Think Tanks and Why Do They Matter?

My interest in conservative think tanks was sparked in 2003, when I saw President George W. Bush give an important pro-Iraq war speech at the American Enterprise Institute. It was a clear and direct call for military intervention in Iraq, and made the case that Saddam Hussein was “building and hiding weapons that could enable him to dominate the Middle East and intimidate the civilized world.”

I was curious about why such an important address about going to war was happening at a think tank and not the Oval Office or in front of Congress. Attempting to answer this question set me down a path that I would be on for many years, researching the history of think tanks in the United States at the Hoover Institution, the Library of Congress and the Barry Goldwater Archives, among others. What began as a Ph.D. dissertation evolved into Right Moves, a book I hope will help Americans understand think tanks and the role they’ve played in creating our current political climate.

The Evolution of the Think Tank in American Politics

Think tanks initially formed as academic- and research-focused institutions that would help the policy makers create and disseminate policy. The earliest think tank (and still one of the most successful and prestigious) is the Brookings Institute, which was founded in 1916. Brookings and other early think tanks were formed around the idea that you could create policy in a technocratic way; there was a belief that politicians should rely on researchers and experts to help plan the proper policies. Think tanks would educate policymakers on the correct policies that should be implemented and politicians would go forth and implement them. In this way, think tanks were almost regarded as research adjuncts to Congress.

However, there was a shift in the late 1960s and early 1970s, where explicitly conservative institutions begin to insert themselves into policy debate and the political world in a new way. These conservative think tanks rejected the technocratic, empirical and objective approach to social science and public policy, claiming that it was liberally biased. In its place rose a forthrightly ideological way of debating policy.

The “Marketplace of Ideas”

Instead of judging public policies on the rigorousness with which they had been researched and written, these conservative think tanks reframed policy debates as a marketplace where the identity of the policies being debated mattered most. In such a world, then, conservative think tanks saw themselves as “balancing” forces in this new marketplace of ideas. In particular, they positioned themselves as the necessary foils for liberal research institutions, academia and the federal government itself. In this way, they could now enter political debates less on the merit of their ideas but simply on the positioning of their policies as conservative.

News Media and the Pursuit of Balance

Largely, the media and other organizations that disseminate political debate seized onto this new framework that prized balance above all else. There was probably a lost moment in the 1970s where conservative think tanks could have had revolutionary power in opening up political debate in America in a new way. There were ways in which the older think tank model based around technocratic consensus in policy debate was extremely limiting. A truly open marketplace of ideas, where all sorts of political identities and political policies were welcome, would have been a fantastic thing. But this is not what happened.

What happened was the notion of a marketplace of ideas was employed in a much narrower way. The idea of “balance” became paramount, which only required that two positions (conservative and liberal) were represented. It was as if public debate was a teeter-totter; as long as the teeter-totter was equally balanced by conservative and liberal views – regardless of how valid these positions were.

Media organizations bought into this way of thinking about and debating policy. Ironically, the media organizations that are most often painted as liberally-biased like the New York Times, NPR and PBS bought into it the most. More than most, it is these organizations which often uncritically turn to conservative think tanks in order to diminish the charge that they are “liberally biased.” As the speed of media and news cycles increases, this simple binary model of discourse has grown even more popular.

Think Tanks and the Age of Trump

Many people want to suggest that Donald Trump represents the emergence of a new extreme in American conservatism. I’m not going to suggest that there’s no truth to that, but I see Trump as less of a new phenomenon than most. In many ways, Trump is merely benefitting from the world created by conservative think tanks. The institutions I study created a world in which no underlying foundation to conservative policy making was needed. There was no need for rigorous, underlying research to the policies that they were disseminating – they only needed to put forth a conservative viewpoint.

How can we not see Donald Trump as a logical emergence and product of that idea? He is fundamentally disinterested in policy making. The policies that he advocates are outside of the realm of empiricism and research. I think that’s a natural endpoint of creating a world in which policies do not need to have this underlying rigorousness. Of course Donald Trump emerged out of that world; how else could that be?

In writing Right Moves, I hope I can shed some light on the history of the conservative think tank movement and how it played a role in getting us to where we are today. While not all the information that comes out of think tanks is necessarily incorrect or bad, it’s important to bring a healthy amount of skepticism to their research products.

Image Source: Andrew Cline /

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Jason Stahl

About the Author

Jason Stahl, Ph.D.

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