David H. Koch spoke at a Defending the American Dream summit hosted by Americans for Prosperity last year. Credit Paul Vernon/Associated Press
ARLINGTON, Va. — The rise of Donald J. Trump, with his hostility toward free trade and vow to protect entitlements, is a sharp rebuke to the free-market principles long championed by the billionaire brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch.
But if the Koch brothers have lost the battle for conservative values in 2016, they are also quietly preparing for a long war.
Their secret weapon is the Grassroots Leadership Academy: a training program dreamed up by the Americans for Prosperity Foundation, the political education arm of the Koch network, and intended to groom the next generation of conservative activists to shape the future of the Republican Party.
Taking inspiration from icons of the left like Saul Alinsky, the Marxist-inspired Frankfurt School, and even President Obama’s Organizing for Action, the academy offers classes like “Messaging to the Middle” (about reaching not just the conservative base but also persuadable voters), community organizing and how to wage a successful public protest, complete with costumes.
The goal is not just to equip activists to compete with the left, but also to help rebuild the conservative movement in the wake of a Trump loss — or even a Trump victory.
The Kochs will be key figures in any discussion about what direction the party takes after 2016, and they are determined to steer it toward their free-market vision. A band of trained volunteers focused on elections further down the ballot could help raise their standing for 2018 and beyond.
The network hopes that these activists will learn how to make a compelling, personal pitch to win over new converts to the cause, and that if volunteers are grounded in a strong philosophical understanding of free-market principles, they will be better prepared not only to explain their beliefs but also to ward off candidates, like Mr. Trump, who do not espouse their vision.
“We want a cultural shift of people being able to know what they want and how to talk to the people in their communities, so that in the future, when there are political leaders that want to demagogue free-market issues, they do hit resistance,” said Levi Russell, the director of public affairs for Americans for Prosperity.
After Americans for Prosperity spent more than $100 million during the 2012 election yet failed to take back the White House or the Senate, the Koch network undertook a major self-assessment and overhaul. It is spending $3 million on the training initiative, which officially began in February 2015, and plans to expand it next year.
The effort has taken on newfound urgency because Mr. Trump has shown that Republican voters will support a candidate who denounces trade agreements and rejects the free-market doctrine the Kochs have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to push.
“This Republican nomination battle for president has demonstrated that no issue is ever fully won,” said Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity. “You must keep competing and explaining. For example, why free trade is better, why entitlement reform is necessary.”
The group has held training sessions in roughly three dozen states so far, and about 10,000 people have attended an academy program.