Leonard Leo’s New Group Wants to Remake America in its Own Image

Remember back in the good old days when Hillary Rodham Clinton went on the electric television set and told us that she and her husband’s administration were the targets of a “vast, rightwing conspiracy,” and everybody thought that was hilariously funny, if not deeply paranoid? And we all had a good laugh?

As the years have gone by, and as a misbegotten Supreme Court decision has turned the brackish tide of corporate money in our politics from a steady stream into a biblical flood, HRC now appears to have low-balled the whole thing.

The good people at ProPublica have given us a thorough examination of the latest iteration of what she was talking about—another project from the laboratory of dark money sorcerer Leonard Leo, this one called Teneo. ProPublica describes an attempt by Leo and his henchpeople (who include, this time, Peter Thiel) to do to the general culture of the United States what they’ve managed to do to the federal judiciary.

Now, Leo declared in a slick but private video to potential donors, he planned to “crush liberal dominance” across American life. The country was plagued by “woke-ism” in corporations and education, “one-sided journalism” and “entertainment that’s really corrupting our youth,” said Leo amid snippets of cheery music and shots of sunsets and American flags. Sitting tucked into a couch, with wire-rimmed glasses and hair gone to gray, Leo conveyed his inspiration and intentions: “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?’” Leo revealed his latest battle plan in the previously unreported video for the Teneo Network, a little-known group he called “a tremendously important resource for the future of our country.

Just what we all needed: Brett Kavanaugh or Matthew Kacsmaryk as our new cultural czars, Peter Thiel as headmaster and hall monitor.

ProPublica and Documented have obtained more than 50 hours of internal Teneo videos and hundreds of pages of documents that reveal the organization’s ambitious agenda, influential membership and burgeoning clout. We have also interviewed Teneo members and people familiar with the group’s activities. The videos, documents and interviews provide an unfiltered look at the lens through which the group views the power of the left — and how it plans to combat it. In response to questions for this story, Leo said in a statement: “Teneo’s young membership proves that the conservative movement is poised to be even more talented, driven, and successful in the future. This is a group that knows how to build winning teams.”

So did Genghis Khan. So who’s on this team? Glad you asked.

The records show Teneo’s members have included a host of prominent names from the conservative vanguard, including such elected officials as U.S. Sens. J.D. Vance of Ohio and Missouri’s Josh Hawley, a co-founder of the group. Other members have included Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, now the fourth-ranking House Republican, as well as Nebraska’s attorney general and Virginia’s solicitor general. Three senior aides to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, are members. Another is the federal judge who struck down a Biden administration mask mandate. The heads of the Republican Attorneys General Association, Republican State Leadership Committee and Turning Point USA — all key cogs in the world of national conservative politics — have been listed as Teneo members. Conservative media figures like Ben Shapiro of the Daily Wire, several pro athletes and dozens of executives and senior figures in the worlds of finance, energy and beyond have also been members.

Apparently, Teneo began as a thought experiment over lunch by Thiel, one of his tech minions named Evan Baehr, and Hawley, who had not yet left the private sector to become sprint champion of the United States Senate. These three members of the American elite commiserated about how beset they were by powerful liberal interests like the ACLU and the Harvard modern lit department.

But the project languished until Leo showed up with his unerring gift for shaking the wingnut money trees. The founders looked at the way Leo had fashioned the Federalist Society into a conservative juggernaut, and they wanted that for Teneo. That worked so well that, according to ProPublica, the group’s annual revenues reached $5 million in 2021. Some of the money came from the massive, $1.6 billion bequest that Leo received from a Chicago tycoon. The rest came from some traditional conservative sugar daddies, including the Charles Koch and Bradley foundations.

Read the whole thing and you’ll see that Leo’s messianic conservative vision extends far beyond placing larval Scalias all over the courts. These people are playing for it all.

“When you’re fighting a battle for the heart and soul of our culture, you want to know you’re in the trenches with someone you can trust, someone you know, and someone who will have your back,” Teneo’s “Community Vision” report quotes Leo as saying. “We don’t win unless we build friendship and fellowship with other people — and that’s what you’re doing here with Teneo.”

Marching, as to war.

Headshot of Charles P. Pierce

Charles P Pierce is the author of four books, most recently Idiot America, and has been a working journalist since 1976. He lives near Boston and has three children. 

Bessie Venters

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