Opinion writer

Jim DeMint, president of the Heritage Foundation. (Evan Vucci/Associated Press)

Among the most bizarre aspects of Donald Trump’s meeting with Republican lawmakers and ex-lawmakers was the attendance of former senator Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). Unlike the others, DeMint is now in a supposedly non-political role as president of the Heritage Foundation. This is not the first time that DeMint has played fast and loose with Heritage’s reputation or waded into political waters.

DeMint was apparently the only person from a conservative think tank, the only institutional leader to attend. What would bring him to attend an overtly political function, one designed to give Trump political legitimacy?

Wesley Denton, spokesman for Heritage, in a written statement said: “Heritage meets with officeholders and candidates as part of our ongoing work to promote conservative policy solutions and we will continue to do so. As a section 501(c)(3) organization, Heritage cannot participate in any political campaign in support of or in opposition to any candidate for public office.”

But, of course, the meeting was political in nature, and DeMint’s presence bestowed a conservative stamp of approval on Trump, who has derided conservative policy on everything from trade protectionism to isolationism to his refusal to reform entitlements. Denton insisted, “Heritage is a nonpartisan and educational organization that regularly meets with officeholders and candidates open to advancing conservative policy, and that does not require we agree on every issue.” But Trump departs from conservative policy routinely and in radical fashion, as respected conservatives — including his opponents like staunch conservatives Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) — have pointed out.

I asked whether Heritage had received complaints from donors or its own scholars. “The Heritage Foundation has over half-a-million members with diverse views united in an effort to advance conservative policies,” Denton responded. “Heritage has a longstanding policy that we do not comment on private donor or internal staff communications.”

DeMint’s conduct is almost inexplicable. At a time movement conservatives are struggling to prevent the implosion of the movement and make the case that Trump is anathema to the principles of the Republican Party, DeMint’s attendance is at best an instance of horrible judgment, and at worst, the sort of political opportunism that conservative thinkers and longtime activists disdain. It is bad enough that a popular gadfly such as Newt Gingrich would offer aid and comfort to Trump, but the Heritage Foundation? It speaks to the intellectual rot at the heart of a movement that is seen as easy pickings by Trump.

In the aftermath of the 2016 election, there will be plenty of people to blame for the Trump phenomenon. At the top of the list will be those who intentionally or not helped to mainstream Trump and those who refused to denounce him and his hateful rhetoric as beyond the political pale.