A Federalist Society for all things: Dark money enters the culture wars

Donald Trump's so-called Supreme Court whisperer wants to expand his success to other parts of American society

By Lucian K. Truscott IV

Published March 18, 2023 8:00AM (EDT)
Updated March 20, 2023 6:44PM (EDT)
Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump, Mitch McConnell, Neil Gorsuch, Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

One of the most successful right-wing organizers in this country's history, Leonard Leo, is now out to "crush liberal dominance and wokeism" across a broad range of American cultural, journalistic, and political life. 

Leo, the longtime godfather of the Federalist Society, has a history of crushing liberal influence. He helped to transform the Supreme Court from its generally middle-of-the-road past into a hard-right hammer bent on bludgeoning the law back into what the Federalist Society considers its proper roots. He helped to arrange the appointments of right-wing theocrats to federal judgeships across the country. Judge Matthew Kacsmaryk, from Amarillo, Texas, who just held a hearing on a lawsuit to ban the abortion drug mifepristone, is a Trump appointee and one of Leo's, and the Federalist Society's, most prominent success stories. Now, having wrapped the federal judicial system in the robes of the Federalist Society, Leo wants to create little outposts of right-wing activists that can, in his words, "roll back" the dominance of liberals in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, New York investment banks, and academia.  

Named the Teneo Network, Leo's 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charitable organization is a little opaque at this point, since Teneo keeps secret nearly everything about itself, including its donors and who its members are. Leo, however, is sitting on a pot of $1.6 billion that was recently donated by a Chicago businessman to a conservative group run by Leo called Donor's Trust. In 2021, Leo turned around and gave $3 million to Teneo, and he made a fundraising video in which he laid out his plan to transform the group into a kind of Federalist Society for all things. According to ProPublica, which got ahold of more than 50 hours of previously-unseen internal videos and confidential documents about Teneo, in the fundraising video, Leo referred to his success with the Federalist Society and plans for Teneo this way:  "I just said to myself, 'Well, if this can work for law, why can't it work for lots of other areas of American culture and American life where things are really messed up right now?'"

ProPublica found that Teneo has attracted a number of big-time conservatives to its cause such as Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, Ohio Senator J.D. Vance and New York Representative Elise Stefanik. Three senior aides to prospective presidential candidate Ron DeSantis have also joined the organization, along with several conservative federal judges and Republican state attorneys general. There are probably others, but the membership is secret. (A consulting firm of the same name has no relation to Leo's organization.)

One of the co-founders of Teneo, Evan Baehr, made a video to recruit prospective members in 2020 that was viewed by ProPublica. In the video, Baehr explained how he has determined that the "Left" has taken over certain cultural and other American institutions. He asked his viewers to imagine that there is a group of people having lunch at the Harvard Club in midtown Manhattan: "A billionaire hedge funder, a film producer, a Harvard professor, and a New York Times writer."

Here's how the liberal conspiracy works, according to Baehr: "The billionaire says: 'Wouldn't it be cool if middle school kids had free access to sex-change therapy paid for by the federal government?' Well, the filmmaker says, 'I'd love to do a documentary on that; it will be a major motion film.' The Harvard professor says, 'We can do studies on that to say that's absolutely biologically sound and safe.' And the New York Times person says, 'I'll profile people who feel trapped in the wrong gender.'"

Leonard Leo seeks to apply the same system he developed over 30 or so years in dealing with the legal profession and the judicial system more broadly to encompass the fields he has expressed displeasure with.

The problem with that paranoid scenario is of course that it's not the way the liberal conspiracy works.

Here is a brief synopsis of how it does work: Young people, many of them high-achievers from colleges and universities, some of which are Ivy League, want interesting and lucrative careers when they leave college.  So, they pull strings through their parents, or college professors, or other students they went to college with, and they get interviews at investment banks or publishing houses or newspapers or Hollywood studios or with senior faculty at their own or other colleges, and they apply for jobs. Many of the managers and senior executives of the organizations where they want to work have liberal politics. The applicants are either offered jobs or they are referred to other people within the same fields, like, say, publishing or newspapers, and they get jobs there. As the years go by, these people become senior editors or partners in banks or deans of collegiate departments, and they have the job of reviewing and interviewing applicants, and so forth and so on.

Who you know and where you come from and where you went to school are keys to employment in many fields, including the law, of which the Federalist Society is all the evidence you need that this is true. Leonard Leo seeks to apply the same system he developed over 30 or so years in dealing with the legal profession and the judicial system more broadly to encompass the fields he has expressed displeasure with. But there are two problems. The path for conservatives in the legal profession is a fairly vertical pipeline: You get out of law school, you start out as an associate in a law firm or as a clerk to a federal judge and you join the Federalist Society, and its members move you along the pipeline one step at a time until you end up with jobs like Assistant U.S. Attorney or you work in the Department of Justice under Republican administrations, or you work in conservative law firms, and from those jobs, your connections in the Federalist Society lead you to be considered for federal judgeships or appeals courts or even, as we saw three different times during the Trump years, for seats on the Supreme Court.

All the Federalist Society needed to do, really, was to replace retiring liberal judges with conservative ones.

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Even though businesses like publishing and newspapers and Hollywood are also organized vertically, there are different criteria for moving up. In publishing, for example, even though quite awful books are published every year, you at least have to be able to write cogently to be able to write to get a book contract. You have to be able to edit books to get jobs as editors. The same is true in newspapering: Although there are many useless reporters working on newspapers and writing for web magazines, you can't be a talentless hack and get a job at the New York Times or the Washington Post or with Politico or Axios; nor can you be a talentless hack and get jobs as editors at those places. 

What the Federalist Society proved to the world is that you can be a talentless hack and get a federal judgeship, or even a seat on an appeals court or on the Supreme Court during Republican administrations. administration Dozens of Trump appointees to judgeships were found to be "unqualified" by the American Bar Association. Some applicants for judgeships under Trump had never been inside a courtroom, tried a case, or even had significant jobs as attorneys in private practice. And yet, there they are on the bench, like Trump-appointee Judge Aileen Cannon in Florida, whose decisions on the Trump classified documents cases got slapped down not once but twice by an appeals court because she was so far outside the mainstream of the law or just outright incompetent. 

Talent is not a criteria for either membership in the Federalist Society or for the jobs that result from association with it. All that is necessary are reliable Republican votes in a Republican-controlled Senate. That's it. If the votes are there, the Aileen Cannons of the world get on the bench. Good grades in law school and a position as an editor on the law review? Not necessary. Graduate of a Christian law school that barely qualified for accreditation? Not a problem. But membership in the Federalist Society? There you go. 

Named the Teneo Network, Leo's 501(c)(3) tax-exempt charitable organization is a little opaque at this point, since Teneo keeps secret nearly everything about itself, including its donors and who its members are.

What little is known about the Teneo Network is that Leonard Leo and his right-hand man Evan Baehr – a disciple of Peter Thiel, by the way – intend to replicate the Federalist Society model. They want to set up a web of what amount to private clubs that will be able to influence the way decisions are made about who gets to work in professions like journalism, publishing, Hollywood screenwriting and directing and producing and academia. And you know why, too, don't you? Because of all that liberal wokeism. Why, there are books that have been written about a child with two dads! The horror! There is a show on television that is nearly exclusively about drag queens! In colleges, they are teaching young people about nasty stuff like slavery and the Jim Crow years and the systemic racism that produced all-white suburbs with red-lining, and the inequities of the judicial system that punished a Black person with 40 years in jail for a vial of crack while a young white man got probation for a half-gram of coke!

Leo and his fellow Teneans – yes, that's what they call themselves – want a world in which liberal stuff like gender fluidity and the history of Stonewall and reminders of such nastiness as segregated schools are not part of whatever section of the culture they want to control, like schools and movies and television and books and those awful newspapers that do things like reporting the news. They would like hand-picked conservatives to be making the decisions about what movies Americans get to see, what books they can and read, and what they are permitted to learn about in schools.

This is not the first time that a conservative movement has tried to influence cultural institutions.  

Way back in 1993, I was invited to a conservative conference at the Harriman Estate in New York put on by an organization I have forgotten the name of, but it had the words "free speech" in its title.  You're going to love where the money came from for this thing:  the cigarette company Philip Morris. 

It turned out to be a symposium that was supposed to discuss free speech in the media, but it emerged that what Philip Morris was really interested in was getting advertising for its products back on television – from which they had been banned since 1971 – and restrictions lifted from print advertising.  They called such advertising "commercial speech," and there were several prominent conservatives on the panel, like a couple of federal appeals court judges and some conservative lawyers, who were all for it.  On the so-called "liberal" side was the famous First Amendment lawyer Floyd Abrams and a Hollywood contingent consisting of yours truly, a director, and an entertainment lawyer. 

They flew the Hollywood types out from L.A. on MGM Air, an all-first class luxury airline that only flew between New York and L.A. The planes had individual seats facing dining tables, a cocktail lounge, and lots of brass and fake gold fixtures.  They picked us up from the tarmac at JFK Airport – yes, they could do that in those days – and flew us by helicopter to the retreat at the Harriman Estate, where they had a grand banquet and put us up in rooms in the gigantic manor house of the estate.

The symposium turned out to be a grievance session by conservatives lamenting the liberal influence on every aspect of the culture – the whole Leonard Leo list, minus the Wall Street aspect.  Book publishing?  Too many curse words and sex scenes.  Hollywood?  Forget about it.  Gay characters hadn't even made their way onto either the silver or television screens, but they knew it was only a matter of time.  Everyone there had memories of when college campuses were overrun by anti-war demonstrators, so the rad-lib influences on campus were a given.

They would like hand-picked conservatives to be making the decisions about what movies Americans get to see, what books they can and read, and what they are permitted to learn about in schools.

After lunch, somehow most of the complaining became focused on the Hollywood contingent.  Why weren't there any "family values" shows on TV?  Why was there so much sex and violence in the movies?  I heard the words "family values" so many times, I finally challenged everyone to come up with a "family values" TV show.  I gave them a short precis of how the system worked:  a writer, or writers, worked up a pitch for a show or a movie, took it to a network or studio, pitched the executives, and if they liked it, they bought it and they made a pilot, and if the pilot did well enough, maybe they would make the series, or the movie.

So, let's come up with a pitch for a family values show, I said.  There are a lot of smart people around the table.  You guys go ahead and pitch a family values show to us.  We're the Hollywood experts.  We'll tell you what we think.

Silence.  A lot of nervous glancing around, one to the other, like hey, we didn't come here for this!  When I didn't get any nibbles, I said, okay, I'll pitch a family values show, and you tell me if you think it will get on the air:  There's a family living in the suburbs, a mom and dad and two kids, and they get up in the morning, and mom fixes breakfast, and dad, because he's a good guy, helps make the lunches for the kids.  Everyone except mom goes off to do their thing.  Dad goes to work, and he's having a problem with shipping, and by three-quarters through the episode, he's solved it.  The younger kid gets bullied, and the older kid defends him, not with violence, but by appealing to the better nature of the bully.  Back at home, mom goes to the store and runs into a friend and they come up with an idea for next week's book club (I came up with some vanilla title from the day's best-seller list).  She goes home and starts supper. When everyone sits down that evening to dinner, dad listens to the kids describe the bullying episode, mom says she'll bake some cookies to take to school the next day, and make sure you give one to the bully, and dad reminds the kids that you can defuse almost any awkward situation with reason and kindness. 

The people at that Philip Morris symposium weren't there to form a Teneo-style crush-liberalism group, but the tenor of their statements and questions was exactly that. Now here we are 30 years later, and they're still at it.

Leo is going to find that influencing what reaches the silver screen or is found on bookstore shelves is a tad more difficult than recruiting candidates and lining up conservative Republican votes for judges, but he was willing to work for 30 years  — but it took him that many years to get Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett and the rest of the conservatives on the court, not to mention the many Aileen Cannons he managed to put on lesser courts. 

It would not be advisable to sell short either Leonard Leo or this Teneo Network, whatever the hell it is.  They've moved in on the courts and they've already got a head start on what's taught in schools and colleges with all the anti-woke shit being pushed by GOP Governors Ron DeSantis in Florida and Greg Abbott in Texas and the rest of slime-bellied swamp crawlers out there. 

Buckle up. They play the long game.


By Lucian K. Truscott IV

Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He has covered stories such as Watergate, the Stonewall riots and wars in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels and several unsuccessful motion pictures. He has three children, lives in rural Pennsylvania and spends his time Worrying About the State of Our Nation and madly scribbling in a so-far fruitless attempt to Make Things Better. You can read his daily columns at and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.

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