At 50, Heritage Foundation confronts the new right

“We need to use every ounce of state power, every ounce of federal power, to eliminate the Chinese from our economy.”

Dr. Kevin Roberts, Heritage Foundation president, doesn’t mince words.

He’s the new leader — as of last year — of a think tank now celebrating its 50th anniversary.

But Heritage isn’t settling into middle-aged respectability. At a time when a vanguard New Right has arisen to criticize older conservatives for failing to conserve anything except their direct-mail fundraising lists, Heritage has taken up the language and spirit of the populist insurgents — and some of their policies as well.

I recently interviewed Roberts about the political landscape at home, internationally and within the conservative movement.

Heritage was always hawkish during the Cold War, and Roberts is blunt about the need to separate the American economy from Chinese influence.

But he’s skeptical of open-ended commitments to foreign conflicts, including in Ukraine.

“I want Ukraine to have all of its territory back. I think Putin is one of the most evil men in modern history,” Roberts says. “It’s just that the establishment in DC has actively prevented a sober analysis of the ability of the Ukrainians to prevail.”

“This war,” he says, “has now dragged on much longer than the greatest, most brilliant advocates for Ukraine have suggested.”

Heritage wants an accounting — it supports Sen. Josh Hawley’s (R-Mo.) call for the creation of an inspector general to track how US taxpayer aid to Ukraine is used.

“The advantage of being the president of Heritage is — because we’re supported by half a million individual donors each year, almost all of them outside of the imperial city — we know where the movement is.”

While Heritage has come under fire from Republican hawks for not trusting Ukraine without reservation, Roberts replies, “some of these men and women who’ve been the most vocal against Heritage’s common-sense position will find themselves out of office.”

He is excoriating toward the German government, which has failed to meet its NATO obligation to devote 2% of its spending to defense.

Roberts with Sen. Marco Rubio at a Heritage Foundation event on the Ukraine war and China.
Roberts with Sen. Marco Rubio at a 2022 Heritage Foundation event on the Ukraine war and China.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Yet, says Roberts, “I have a difference of opinion with some of my friends on the New Right who are openly critical of NATO.” Heritage has not turned noninterventionist.

Indeed, the day I met with him, the think tank held an event with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) to herald its new report “Winning the New Cold War: A Plan for Countering China.”

I asked Roberts, who identifies as “a Hamiltonian,” whether America will have to embrace industrial protectionism to separate our economy from China’s. He agrees that it will, if only as a national-security exception to an otherwise predominantly free-trade policy.

“Some friends on the New Right want to push Heritage even further,” he says. “Doesn’t this mean that you want to endorse an industrial policy? Well, that’s like a four-letter word inside here. If you want to call it an industrial policy, that we’re confronting China through some economic policy changes, sure. But that’s the extent of it, I will say.”

Roberts embraces the idea that the GOP’s future lies with the working class.

Heritage is exploring new kinds of pro-family economic policies, taking note not only of the government-driven natalist initiatives Viktor Orbán’s pursued in Hungary but also of the varying degrees of market-oriented approaches taken by Singapore, Costa Rica and Israel.

And while Roberts acknowledges the historical importance of labor unions in mobilizing the working class, he is circumspect about the enthusiasm some on the right have lately developed for unions.

“I’m probably the stodgy one inside Heritage about unions,” he says. “And it’s because I grew up in one of the most litigious states in America, Louisiana,” where working-class men like his father had their opportunities curtailed rather than advanced by the power of Big Labor.

Heritage is not simply and suddenly Trumpian or New Right. But neither is it attempting to relive the glory days of Ronald Reagan.

Roberts on stage with former Vice President Mike Pence on October 19, 2022.
Roberts on stage with former Vice President Mike Pence on October 19, 2022.
Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Under Roberts, there’s actual thinking going on at a think tank.

There’s also, however, a spirit of defiance that is unmistakably of a piece with other recent developments on the right, even as it’s expressed in ways that reflect older conservative principles as well.

For Heritage, the fight over same-sex marriage, for example, is not over.

“We would like to see a court case go up to the Supreme Court and completely tear out, root and branch, Obergefell. Which means that — well, it could mean that marriage goes back to the states, but Heritage’s position, to be really plain, is that marriage is between one man and one woman, full stop.”

I ask if that means annulling existing same-sex marriages. Roberts doesn’t flinch.

“I hope so. That would be good for civil society. And almost — not every single but almost every single study that I have read, we’ve pored over here, about the effects of same-sex marriage on children being raised in those families is negative.

“And I know what I’m saying: There’s nothing against the human persons who are in those partnerships, certainly nothing against their children. It’s just that this is a really bad social experiment that we’re only beginning to see the rotten fruit of.”

Roberts wants Heritage to push the envelope of the possible. It’s a strikingly entrepreneurial vision for a now venerable, half-century-old institution.

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review.

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