It might seem improbable that a low-profile family foundation in Wisconsin has assumed a central role in current struggles over American democracy. But the modern conservative movement has depended on leveraging the fortunes of wealthy reactionaries. In 1903, Lynde Bradley, a high-school dropout in Milwaukee, founded what would become the Allen-Bradley company. He was soon joined by his brother Harry, and they got rich by selling electronic instruments such as rheostats. Harry, a John Birch Society founding member, started a small family foundation that initially devoted much of its giving to needy employees and to civic causes in Milwaukee. In 1985, after the brothers’ death, their heirs sold the company to the defense contractor Rockwell International, for $1.65 billion, generating an enormous windfall for the foundation. The Bradley Foundation remains small in comparison with such liberal behemoths as the Ford Foundation, but it has become singularly preoccupied with wielding national political influence. It has funded conservative projects ranging from school-choice initiatives to the controversial scholarship of Charles Murray, the co-author of the 1994 book “The Bell Curve,” which argues that Blacks are less likely than whites to join the “cognitive elite.” And, at least as far back as 2012, it has funded groups challenging voting rights in the name of fighting fraud.
Since the 2020 election, this movement has evolved into a broader and more aggressive assault on democracy. According to some surveys, a third of Americans now believe that Biden was illegitimately elected, and nearly half of Trump supporters agree that Republican legislators should overturn the results in some states that Biden won. Jonathan Rauch, of the Brookings Institution, recently told The Economist, “We need to regard what’s happening now as epistemic warfare by some Americans on other Americans.” Pillars of the conservative establishment, faced with a changing U.S. voter population that threatens their agenda, are exploiting Trump’s contempt for norms to devise ways to hold on to power. Senator Whitehouse said of the campaign, “It’s a massive covert operation run by a small group of billionaire élites. These are powerful interests with practically unlimited resources who have moved on to manipulating that most precious of American gifts—the vote.”
An animating force behind the Bradley Foundation’s war on “election fraud” is Cleta Mitchell, a fiercely partisan Republican election lawyer, who joined the organization’s board of directors in 2012. Until recently, she was virtually unknown to most Americans. But, on January 3rd, the Washington Post exposed the contents of a private phone call, recorded the previous day, during which Trump threatened election officials in Georgia with a “criminal offense” unless they could “find” 11,780 more votes for him—just enough to alter the results. Also on the call was Mitchell, who challenged the officials to provide records proving that dead people hadn’t cast votes. The call was widely criticized as a rogue effort to overturn the election, and Foley & Lardner, the Milwaukee-based law firm where Mitchell was a partner, announced that it was “concerned” about her role, and then parted ways with her. Trump’s call prompted the district attorney in Fulton County, Georgia, to begin a criminal investigation.
In a series of e-mails and phone calls with me, Mitchell adamantly defended her work with the Trump campaign, and said that in Georgia, where she has centered her efforts, “I don’t think we can say with certainty who won.” She told me that there were countless election “irregularities,” such as voters using post-office boxes as their residences, in violation of state law. “I believe there were more illegal votes cast than the margin of victory,” she said. “The only remedy is a new election.” Georgia’s secretary of state rejected her claims, but Mitchell insists that the decision lacked a rigorous evaluation of the evidence. With her support, diehard conspiracy theorists are still litigating the matter in Fulton County, which includes most of Atlanta. Because they keep demanding that election officials prove a negative—that corruption didn’t happen—their requests to keep interrogating the results can be repeated almost indefinitely. Despite three independent counts of Georgia’s vote, including a hand recount, all of which confirmed Biden’s victory, Mitchell argues that “Trump never got his day in court,” adding, “There are a lot of miscarriages of justice I’ve seen and experienced in my life, and this was one of them.”
Mitchell, who is seventy, has warm friendships with people in both parties, and she often appears grandmotherly, in pastel knit suits and reading glasses. But, like Angela Lansbury in “The Manchurian Candidate,” to whom she bears a striking resemblance, she should not be underestimated. She began her political career in Oklahoma, as an outspoken Democrat and a champion of the Equal Rights Amendment. She was elected to the state legislature in her twenties, but then lost a bid for lieutenant governor, in 1986. She told me that she subsequently underwent a political conversion: when her stepson squandered the college tuition that she was paying, she turned against the idea of welfare in favor of personal responsibility, and began reading conservative critiques of liberalism. When I first interviewed her for this magazine, in 1996, she told me that “overreaching government regulation is one of the great scandals of our times.”