The DeVos Dynasty: A Family of Extremists

Betsy Devos' family has a history of supporting extremist, right-wing views.

Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 17, 2017, at her confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 17, 2017, at her confirmation hearing before the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. (AP/Carolyn Kaster)

On Tuesday, Betsy DeVos appeared in front of the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions to be considered for the country’s next secretary of education. In her hearing, DeVos tried to present herself as a run-of-the-mill school advocate and a thoughtful visionary who uses a research-based approach to improving schools and enhancing children’s wellbeing. But a closer look at DeVos’s background—and the transcript from Tuesday night’s hearing—shows that she instead represents an extremist, right-wing perspective.

To be certain DeVos comes to her world view honestly. Betsy’s husband, Dick DeVos, for instance, has pushed for creationism to be taught in schools. Her late father, Edgar Prince, helped start the fundamentalist Family Research Council, a known anti-LGBT, or lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender, hate group. And her mother Elsa Prince, also an extreme fundamentalist, was once called a “portrait of Christian hate” by the Daily Kos. This is not to say that DeVos should be judged on the character of her relatives. After all, we don’t critique Jimmy Carter for his brother’s controversial behaviors.

The DeVos family’s radicalism goes back more than a century. DeVos’s father, Edgar Prince, made his fortune in manufacturing and soon began using his profits to fund far-right organizations. Most notably, Edgar Prince was a founder of the Family Research Council, which argues that homosexuality is a type of perversion. In 1999, an FRC staffer wrote, “Gaining access to children has been a long-term goal of the homosexual movement.” The comment helped put the group on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate group watch list.

Betsy’s mother, Elsa Prince, has shown the same dedication to far-right extremism. She has been one of the biggest contributors to campaigns to ban same-sex marriage in the country, working against the civil rights issue in California and Michigan.

What’s more, both Edgar and Elsa Prince advanced their right-wing cause using backhanded tactics. For instance, the Prince’s family foundation tried to evade lobbying restrictions by reclassifying their lobbying efforts as “prayer warrior” networks. In other words, the Princes claimed that they asked politicians to “pray” for particular policies as opposed to actually lobbying policymakers for the policies.

The family’s extremism doesn’t stop there. Erik Prince, Betsy DeVos’s brother, is also deeply steeped in far-right militancy. As the founder of Blackwater USA, now Academi, a private military company, Prince headed the organization when it infamously massacred 17 Iraqi civilians in 2007. (In attempt to escape blame and litigation, Prince fled the USA and resettled in Abu Dhabi.)

Today, Erik Prince continues to supply mercenaries for right-wing autocrats as well as espouse bizarre, far-right political views. Just days before the election, for instance, Erik Prince appeared on Breitbart Radio to allege that Hillary and Bill Clinton laundered money and frequented a “sex island” that was home to “underage sex slaves.” Although there is not a smidgen of evidence for this outlandish theory, Prince argued that the Clintons were using intimidation to bury these stories.

Which brings us back to Dick DeVos—Betsy DeVos’s husband. The heir to the Amway fortune, DeVos ran for governor of Michigan on an extremist platform. During his campaign, he pushed for teaching creationism in schools and for voucher programs that would allow parents to send their children to religious schools with taxpayer dollars. With these views, it’s not surprising that Dick DeVos lost the governor’s race, despite having invested the most money ever spent on a gubernatorial seat in the state.

With these sorts of views, one might think that Betsy DeVos might distance herself from her family. But she’s done the opposite, often pushing views even more extreme than those of her relatives. She’s argued that public schools are a “dead end.” And DeVos once contended that she aims reform schools in order “to advance God’s Kingdom.”

Like the rest of her family, Betsy DeVos has also argued that her deep pockets simply entitle her to political advantage. “I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence,” DeVos wrote in a 1997 piece in Roll Call. “Now I simply concede the point. They are right. We do expect something in return.”

Or just consider that Betsy DeVos has contributed to groups that oppose campaign finance reform, and she’s supported the litigation efforts that led to the disastrous Citizens United U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Betsy DeVos has never shied from her family’s fanaticism and Tuesday night offered a brief glimpse when, among other comments, she backed Trump’s proposal to eliminate gun free zones on schools in case a grizzly bear wanders in. She refused to say she’d continue to investigate sexual violence on college campuses, dodged a question about whether she believes in climate change, and avoided voicing opposition to predatory for-profit colleges. Indeed, she’s worked hard to advance a host of radical far right-wing causes that her family hold dear. In this case, the apple simply hasn’t fallen far enough from the tree.

Catherine Brown is the Vice President of Education Policy at American Progress. Ulrich Boser is a Senior Fellow at American Progress, where he examines education issues.

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Catherine Brown

Senior Fellow

Ulrich Boser

Former Senior Fellow