In some ways, Trump and Heritage were an unlikely match. Trump had no personal connection to the think tank and had fared poorly on a “Presidential Platform Review” from its sister lobbying shop, Heritage Action for America, which essentially concluded that he wasn’t even a conservative. (“Despite his rhetoric, Trump’s history suggests a reluctance to engage in debates over protecting civil society from the imposition of left-wing values,” it read in part.) After Trump mocked John McCain’s P.O.W. experience in Vietnam, Heritage Action’s chief executive, Michael Needham, called the candidate “a clown” on Fox News and said “he needs to be out of the race.” Trump claimed to want to shake up the Washington establishment. The Heritage Foundation is a Washington institution. Its large, stately headquarters sits just a few blocks from Capitol Hill.
And yet Heritage and Trump were uniquely positioned to help each other. Much like Trump’s, Heritage’s constituency is equal parts donor class and populist base. Its $80 million annual budget depends on six-figure donations from rich Republicans like Rebekah Mercer, whose family foundation has reportedly given Heritage $500,000 a year since 2013. But it also relies on a network of 500,000 small donors, Heritage “members” whom it bombards with millions of pieces of direct mail every year. The Heritage Foundation is a marketing company, a branding agency — it sells its own Heritage neckties, embroidered with miniature versions of its Liberty Bell logo — and a policy shop rolled into one. But above all, Heritage is a networking group. It has spent decades fashioning itself into the hub of a constellation of conservative individuals and organizations united by their opposition to government regulations — from taxes to gun control to environmental protections — and socially progressive causes like same-sex marriage.