What is the Charlemagne Institute, and why did Kim Crockett work there?

By: - October 12, 2022 9:28 am

Crockett, now the GOP nominee for secretary of state, was vice president of the Charlemagne Institute for 10 months. Photo by Deena Winter/Minnesota Reformer.

For nearly two decades, Bloomington has traced the political path of other inner-ring suburbs of the Twin Cities, its residents becoming more diverse and progressive, sending a stream of Democrats to the state Legislature. 

So residents of Bloomington might be surprised to learn that their city is also home to a highly influential right-wing think tank that reaches millions of people every month while fending off accusations of antisemitism, xenophobia and racism. 

In 2018, the right-wing nonprofit blog Intellectual Takeout changed names to become The Charlemagne Institute and merged with conservative think tank the Rockford Institute, longtime publisher of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture. Back in 1989, the conservative Christian cleric, the Rev. Richard John Neuhaus, who worked for Rockford at the time, called Chronicles nativistic and “insensitive to the classic language of antisemitism.”

Though the institute has been largely unknown outside of right-wing intellectual circles, Charlemagne’s one-time vice president Kim Crockett is in the spotlight since winning the GOP nomination for Minnesota secretary of state.

Crockett was hired at Charlemagne soon after John Elliott was fired there in 2019. He was dismissed after a tranche of racist emails were revealed in which Adolf Hitler was such a common topic of adulation that Elliott and his colleagues had a coded phrase for Hitler: “our good friend.” 

Elliott was hardly an outlier at Charlemagne, however. Charlemagne Institute staff have been accused of racism and antisemitism multiple times in recent years. A regular columnist for the Charlemagne Institute’s magazine Chronicles has publicly affiliated with the criminal neo-fascist organization Golden Dawn. The magazine’s editor-in-chief was a mentor to white supremacist activist Richard Spencer, and once claimed to have helped Spencer coin the term “alt-right.”

Nor was Crockett out of place at Charlemagne. Before and since, she’s shown an affinity for white supremacist ideas and antisemitic tropes. A Crockett campaign video at the Republican state convention in May used an antisemitic canard to criticize arch-liberal billionaire George Soros, DFL Secretary of State Steve Simon and Democratic Party election lawyer Marc Elias. All three men are Jewish.

After the Republican Party apologized on her behalf, she sent out a fundraising letter that referred to “contrived and bogus political attacks” and showed an image of her apparently lounging lakeside, with sandaled feet and a Tucker Carlson book. 

Neither Crockett nor Charlemagne responded to interview requests. 

Although Charlemagne and its one-time vice president are enjoying a moment of prominence, their strand of nativist paleoconservatism was once all but extinguished, “consigned to the fever swamp,” as Neuhaus said. 

Neuhaus — Father Neuhaus after converting to Roman Catholicism — was a leading figure in the development of a relatively globalist, pluralist, and secular brand of conservatism. After severing ties with Neuhaus, Rockford established itself as the custodian of a more nativist and anti-democratic conservative tradition. Though arriving on the scene later, the Charlemagne Institute and Crockett are heirs of that tradition.

Rockford Files

In their reporting on the 1989 split between the Rockford Institute and Neuhaus, The New York Times characterized the incident as a dramatic expression of the “deep divisions between two major strains” of conservatism.

One of Rockford’s funders quoted in the article contrasted Neuhaus’ “forward-looking” free-market conservatism with the conservatism of the larger organization. “Rockford, particularly its magazine Chronicles, is somewhat critical of free markets and spreading democracy. It looks back to agrarian society, small towns, religious values. It sees modern times as too secular, too democratic,” he said.

“Agrarian society” in that quote is a reference to Chronicles’ romanticism of the antebellum South. The editor at the time was Thomas Fleming, who is closely linked to the neo-confederate movement, which minimizes the horrors of chattel slavery, its central role in Confederate seccession, and its festering influence on modern-day American life.

Before taking control of Chronicles, Fleming founded another magazine, Southern Partisan. In a 2000 essay, the historian Edward Sebesta called the two magazines “the major publications” of neo-confederacy, and notes that, for a time, every editor of Chronicles was a member of the neo-confederate organization the League of the South. 

Here’s what Fleming wrote in Chronicles in 1996, in an essay called, “The Illusions of Democracy”: “Whatever trust we are to put in race and IQ correlations, Black achievements both in Africa and North America give little indication that black people, taken statistically en masse, possess the kinds of abilities that are required for success in the modern world.” 

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Chronicles maintained a position of influence among prominent paleoconservatives such as Pat Buchanan and Texas U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, who spoke at a Rockford Institute conference moderated by Fleming in 2006. This, despite the magazine’s ongoing displays of extremism.

Defending Mel Gibson in a 2006 Chronicles essay after some of the actor’s antisemitic comments became public, Fleming wrote: “Theories of history are matters of fact and reason. The fact that so many troublemakers of the past 150 years have been of Jewish extraction — Marx, Freud, the Neoconservatives — is certainly no argument in their favor. Jewish ‘intellectuals’ continue to be in the forefront of the movements that aim to destroy our religion and culture.”

In 2008, the magazine inaugurated a regular column by Taki Theodoracopulos; best known as the founder of Taki’s Magazine. At the time, Taki’s Magazine was edited by white supremacist activist Richard Spencer. It later served as the launching pad of the Proud Boys. Theodoracopulos was born in Greece and once called the violent neofascist Greek party Golden Dawn “my party.”

In a 2006 Chronicles essay, Serbian ultranationalist Srđa Trifković called the well-documented massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys by the Bosnian Serb army at Srebrenica a “myth … to feed would-be suicide bombers.” In 2011, he was refused entry to Canada for this and other acts of genocide denial. The next year, Chronicles made him its foreign affairs editor.

Fleming retired in 2015. A Chronicles write-up of the announcement reads, in part: “Dr. Fleming is an intellectual giant, and American conservatism’s unsung hero,” said Rockford Institute Board Chairman Raymond Welder. “The proof is in his consistently excellent work: 30 years of writing a monthly Perspective, each as hard-hitting as it is erudite; 30 years of producing the best-edited magazine in America; 30 years of setting the tone for conservative intellectual discourse.”

Chronicles, Buchanan and Trump

In 2009, a handful of staff and board members from the Golden Valley-based conservative think tank Center of the American Experiment founded a blog called Intellectual Takeout. Nine years later, Intellectual Takeout was renamed The Charlemagne Institute and merged with the Rockford Institute.

Since the merger, Charlemagne has emphasized continuity with the Fleming years. Its website features glowing testimonials from Pat Buchanan, Ronald Reagan and Tom Wolfe. Theodoracopulos’s column still appears in every issue. Trifković is still foreign affairs editor. Long-time contributor Paul Gottfried was given the editor’s desk.

They also kept the racial politics. In a recent article for their website, Buchanan took aim at the “defining dogma of liberal ideology”: egalitarianism; the notion that all people are created equal. Buchanan describes a handful of racial disparities and concludes by asking, “What if an inequity of rewards in society is predominantly a result of an inequality of talents and abilities?” Buchanan leaves the answer, and its racial implications, unspoken.

Multiple writers have traced a line from Buchanan’s 1990s presidential campaigns to the Trump-era alt-right. Several have drawn that line straight through Chronicles. Buchanan used to dine once a month with regular Chronicles contributors Sam Francis and Joseph Sobran, “forerunners of the alt-right,” Sam Tanenhaus wrote for Esquire

Writing for The Week, Michael Brendan Dougherty said a Chronicles piece Francis wrote about Buchanan “reads like a political manifesto from which the Trump campaign springs.” 

The magazine’s connection to the alt-right is not mere historical trivia. The Jewish online magazine Tablet called current Chronicles editor Gottfried the “Jewish godfather of the alt-right” and described him as a mentor to Richard Spencer. 

The term “alt-right” first appeared in print in Taki’s Magazine, in the Spencer-penned headline of a Gottfried article. 

Gottfried is quoted in the Tablet article disavowing white nationalists in general and Spencer in particular: “Whenever I look at Richard, I see my ideas coming back in a garbled form.” In a later piece, however, Gottfried characterized his split with Spencer as being driven by “strategic differences.”

Far from being a fever swamp of isolated racism, Chronicles is one of the foci around which a far-right political movement draws itself. Given its prominent, decades-long role on the American right, it might seem odd that an obscure Minnesota blog would be handed the reins. Like Chronicles, however, Intellectual Takeout is only obscure outside of conservative circles.

In the May 2019 issue of Chronicles, then-editor Chilton Williams explained the merger between the Charlemagne Institute and the Rockford Institute. There were a host of practical reasons. 

First was Devin Foley, one of the founders of Intellectual Takeout and CEO of the merged organization. Foley has a track record as a fundraiser. He was the Center of the American Experiment’s director of development for nearly a decade, and secured more than $800,000 for Intellectual Takeout in its second year. He also brought relationships with wealthy conservatives. For example, he secured a $90,000 grant from the Koch-connected Donors Capital Fund early in Intellectual Takeout’s life.

Foley would “keep us on increasingly firm ground financially,” Williams wrote.

Second, Intellectual Takeout was a conservative internet powerhouse. Foley and his team brought the experience necessary to modernize Chronicles for always-online millennials. At the time of the merger, Intellectual Takeout had 700,000 Facebook followers and 9 million annual visits to its website. Williams noted, “We are excited to introduce Chronicles to this audience.”

Third was the Alcuin Internship, administered by Intellectual Takeout. The internship is one channel of the pipeline that pumps talented college students into the conservative intelligentsia. At the time, it was run by Charlemagne staffer John Elliott, a longtime contributor to Chronicles. 

Practicalities aside, the organizations were in near-perfect ideological alignment. “Conveniently, The Charlemagne Institute has the same cultural interests as the former Rockford Institute, dedicated for 44 years to the preservation, promotion, and advancement of Western civilization,” Williams explained.

While this mission sounds innocuous, it can be disturbing in practice, as illustrated by two incidents that unfolded just months after the merger.

The terms of the merger between Charlemagne and Rockford include a list of 13 members who would have ultimate authority over the merged entity: seven affiliated with Rockford and six with Charlemagne. Of those affiliated with the pre-merger Charlemagne, two are former staff of the Center of the American Experiment and three are current Center directors. 

In 2019, Crockett, then vice president and general counsel of the Center of the American Experiment, said things to a New York Times reporter that were widely denounced as racist. The reporter was working on a story about xenophobia and anti-Muslim political organizing in St. Cloud, and Crockett provided the headline quote: “These people aren’t coming from Norway.” 

Despite its connections to Chronicles, the Center avoided the naked racism on display at Charlemagne and used rhetoric more palatable to mainstream Minnesota conservatives. The Center suspended Crockett vocally and publically, and she never returned to work there.

A few months later, journalist Hannah Gais revealed racist emails between Elliott and several of his former mentees. In the emails, Elliott proposed a slate of code words, using “Hawians” and “Alaskans” in place of slurs against Jewish people and Black people, respectively. 

Charlemagne fired Elliott within 24 hours, and hired Crockett a couple weeks later. Her title at Charlemagne was the same as it had been at the Center: vice president and general counsel. These positions do not seem to have existed before Crockett was hired, and they do not seem to have been filled when she left 10 months later. 

She wrote a handful of articles for Chronicles and Intellectual Takeout, but all are dated after she left the organization. (Including one in which she compared voting by mail during the pandemic to being “a lab rat.”

For whatever her limited role and short tenure at the Charlemagne Institute, Crockett’s time there showed a loyalty to a distinct political movement — of which the Charlemagne Institute is a small but forceful player. 

That movement is explicitly nativist and anti-democratic, and at least willing to entertain white supremacism and antisemitism, if not fully embrace them.

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Logan Carroll
Logan Carroll

Logan Carroll is an independent journalist reporting on Minnesota's right-wing media ecosystem and co-host of the Unbalanced.MN podcast.