Tax cuts, deregulation, and opposition to abortion remain as important to the conservative movement as when Ronald Reagan was president, but much else has changed. Immigration, trade, foreign policy, and even broader questions about whether government power should be used to advance traditionalist ends are being debated as never before.
Some younger conservatives question whether the old movement was successful at conserving anything. They are disproportionately drawn to former President Donald Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), the two leading prospects for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
“Some legacy organizations, if you will, don’t even want to have the conversation with a New Right,” Roberts told the Washington Examiner. “I mean, our sponsorship of the National Conservatism Conference last year was a signal there. We didn’t agree with everything that was said.” But he said he thought the conversation was important.
Tucker Carlson is keynoting the 50th-anniversary celebration. In the statement announcing this, Roberts described Carlson as “a fearless American who is unafraid to challenge the Washington regime, ask tough questions, and hold the ruling elite accountable.” DeSantis is speaking twice. How to deal with Big Tech is on the menu alongside perennial issues such as taxes and federal spending.
Part of what distinguishes the so-called New Right from its elders is as much attitude as any policy position, which is why Trump, DeSantis, and Carlson are dominant figures.
“We want to be civil wherever and however we can,” Roberts said. “But I think my experience with the radical Left and academia and policy here in D.C. shows they don’t play by the rule. And so reestablishing the rules means figuratively, we got to bust them and bloody their noses sometimes.”
It isn’t all attitude, however. Roberts penned an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal calling for greater scrutiny over U.S. aid to Ukraine and implying there should be some limit to Washington’s commitment, even as he denounced Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion. “The war in Ukraine may finally force conservatives into the intramural foreign policy debate they have put off for more than 30 years,” he wrote.
“Calling for that doesn’t mean we want the Ukrainians to lose,” he told the Washington Examiner. “Quite the opposite.”
It’s a familiar debate.
“When I say that I’m a recovering neocon, I mean that’s an understatement,” Roberts said when asked about David Frum’s 20-year-old piece denouncing prominent conservative critics of the Iraq war as “Unpatriotic Conservatives.” “I remember that National Review piece. Well, I thought that, you know, my childhood political hero, Patrick Buchanan, was wrong about that. I thought Robert Novak was just a luminary who was wrong on that one issue, but I still respected him.”
“How right I thought they were,” Roberts said of former President George W. Bush’s team, “and you know what, they were dead wrong. I don’t get into imputing motive. I just know that in hindsight, we can look back and say that was wrong.”
Roberts doesn’t see this acknowledgment as a break with mainstream conservatism, however.
“Some people … believe that the only way to implement Reagan’s peace through strength is for the United States to be interventionist, but neither Reagan nor Eisenhower would have called for that, that scale of involvement, and beyond that, each era is different,” he said. “You know if Russell Kirk were here and listening in on this conversation, he would say remember that conservatism has these eternal principles, but there’s a certain politics of prudence, which is the recognition of the age you’re in.”
Nevertheless, Roberts does concede that a lot has changed on the Right since the invasion of Iraq.
“I give great credit to President Trump, to Gov. DeSantis, any of the other political leaders, Sen. [J.D.] Vance (R-OH), many members of the House who have the courage and face a lot of gratuitous criticism in D.C.,” he said.
The Trump-era conservative movement still has a long way to go before accomplishing anything on the scale of ending stagflation or winning the Cold War. It took nearly the entirety of Heritage’s existence to overturn Roe v. Wade, handed down the year the think tank was founded, though the abortion debate is not over.
Heritage’s 50th-anniversary celebration launched on Thursday with a summit. It will conclude with a gala on Friday night.
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