“At present, the best thing the president of the United States can do is to convince the parties, using his power and credibility, to conclude a peace deal – today.” He respects Hungarian history, is concerned about the state of America and in his view, the war in Ukraine would not have happened had Trump been president; Kevin Roberts, President of the influential conservative Heritage Foundation spoke to our magazine.
The Heritage Foundation was established in 1973 by conservative activists of the time. In the eighties, during Ronald Reagan’s presidency, the foundation gained in influence, their activities and views determined the Republican politics of the decades ahead. According to widely-held views, it is among the most influential think tanks in the United States, and even in the world. Kevin Roberts has been President of the Heritage Foundation since 2021; the historian defining himself as a proud Texan recently paid a visit to Budapest at the invitation of the Danube Institute and also met with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. This is our interview with him.
What do you regard as the mission of the Heritage Foundation?
The Foundation which is the largest public policy organisation in the United States, all organisations of different orientations included, has operated for almost half a century. We have grown this big and this influential not because we are based in Washington, near the Capitolium, but because of the way we operate: every year, we are supported by hundreds of thousands of US citizens. The fact that such an extensive community supports us with smaller or larger donations means that we are very much in touch with ordinary Americans. If we did not function in this manner, if we were just like many other similar organisations in the United States on the Right and on the Left, sponsored by a handful of wealthy persons, we would not be able to fight on behalf of the American people. We usually say that we are America’s outpost in Washington.
We take part in the wording and drafting of bills for both the federal Congress and the legislatures of the member states of America. We help elected politicians to enable them to communicate aspirations that we ourselves support. In addition to theoretical and professional divisions, for a decade we have also had a political one called Heritage Action for America. Our main goal is to put our ideals into practice in order for them to be eventually signed by US presidents as law.
What is the relationship like between the Heritage Foundation and the Republican Party?
Amicable, but tense. Amicable due to the clear ideological overlaps; evidently, the Republican Party is the more conservative of the two large American parties. I’ve been a Republican all my life, I’m grateful that the Republican Party exists. But above all I and the Heritage Foundation are primarily conservatives. As per US law, our organisation is impartial, we are unable to enter into a formal alliance with a political party. Especially in the past 10 to 15 years when the Democratic Party has shifted very much to the Left compared with its earlier positions, and so in most cases, we work together with the Republicans.
However, our relationship is tense at the same time because too many senior Republican politicians are not brave enough.
Also in the past few days, what happened was that twelve Republican senators – twelve of fifty – voted together with the Democrats in order to elevate same-sex marriage to law in the United States. Some may think this is a good idea – we at Heritage don’t think so – but we proposed a compromise: the protection of freedom of religion should be guaranteed one hundred per cent for people – myself included – who don’t believe that marriage can be anything other than a bond for life between a man and a woman. Yet, twelve Republican senators rejected this. So there is some tension between us and the Republicans. And Republican politicians in Washington hate the accountability that we define for them day in, day out.
I read your biography, you come from the American South.
I was born in Louisiana, near the border of Texas, and went to school already in Texas. I became an adopted Texan, I and my family regard Texas as our home.
Now that I’m talking to the leader of the Heritage Foundation, how did your Southern, Texan roots shape your views of the world?
Oh, very much indeed. I think what the Hungarians may think about Texas is true. This is a land full of opportunities, with 31 million self-confident, even cocky citizens who have reason to be cocky. Texas is the best state of the United States. It works bests, it’s the freest, but at the same time also diverse. This is the ethnically, religiously and linguistically most diverse state of America – yet, conservative at the same time.
Texas is the place where the American dream can be best lived.
Whether you live in Texas’s dry, Western oil-producing areas or in Houston, one of the world’s most diverse cities, you meet happy people. They’re happy because of their faith, or if they’re not religious, because of the welfare and opportunities they can achieve. But it’s also true that if you’re not a person of initiative, Texas is not for you. Texan mentality definitely shaped my conservatism.
On one occasion, The New York Times described you as “a cowboy Catholic”. What was that story about?
In those days, I was the head of the Wyoming Catholic College in the Rockies, and that’s an orthodox Catholic institution.
We sued the American state due to the Obama Administration’s infamous health care law.
We would have been obliged to go against the teachings of the Catholic Church on the issue of birth control. I as president of the college would have been required to push this through, but as a faithful Catholic, I refused to do so. Then I started worrying so much about what the administration could do to us in the future that we eventually quit the state system of student loans and grants, and started financing ourselves.
So you severed your bond with the state, did you?
Yes, in every respect. And at the time, The New York Times sent out a reporter to write an article about me and the college. We told the nice guy they sent to have a wander about the place, from the classrooms to the canteens, to speak to students, and to tell us at the end of the day what he had heard. He was then surprised that he didn’t meet a single student or college employee that objected to the college having quit the state system or having sued the Obama Administration. On the way out, the journalist told me: “I believe you are a cowboy Catholic.”
And this was true: I have boots and a hat, I have horses, and I have dozens of firearms, so that’s true.
Let’s go back to national politics: America has just had midterm elections. What do you think of the results?
First of all, I thought the Republicans would do better in the elections. Eventually, they only gained a majority in the House of Representatives. For us at Heritage, this was disappointing; while we are impartial, we do believe we would have been able to better implement our views and policies in practice had the Republicans gained a majority in both houses. Secondly, in the spirit of eternal optimism, we could also say that some good results were achieved. Several governors won with a margin of more than 10 per cent, including Ron DeSantis in Florida, Abbott in Texas and Kemp in Georgia. They are highly successful governors in very important states who were able to win. They govern as conservatives as Donald Trump did as president. They always said what they were going to do, and were also able to implement their plans, especially DeSantis. We’re very happy about that.
These governors represent the future of the conservative movement.
Thirdly, all year I’d been telling the Republican leaders of Congress, Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell that they must tell the American people what their goals, their visions are in connection with the future of America. But they didn’t do so. And this is why they lost. They didn’t outline a vision for the American people, even though that’s a rule of thumb in politics.
At present, however, Joe Biden and the Democrats control the United States. What do you think about their performance in the past two years?
Well, I wish the president all the very best, plus many happy years in retirement and a single-term presidency. (Laughs.) I didn’t think it possible, but this is what happened: the state and reputation of America have been falling apart for two years now. This is equally true of the economy and foreign policy. You – our friends in Hungary – know this very well. The new ambassador of the United States to Hungary himself tells us all we need to know about this. The incumbent US administration relies on activists, not experts. There would be no problem with the ideological differences, but this has been taken to a whole new level.
The new US ambassador to Budapest embodies the Biden Administration which is all about emotions and wokeism, rather than about real content. In foreign policy, Biden sometimes seems very strong and firm, while at other times the complete opposite.
What do the American people think about Democratic governance?
What I’ve noticed in the past two years as a person living in America is my compatriots’ pessimism. They’re very concerned about the ideal of the American dream. For the first time in my life, I’ve heard from many Americans, including from the Left, the Right and the Centre, that they’re no longer sure about a bright future. Earlier, I didn’t use to agree with pessimists, but now I’m concerned about the fact that we have a president who is not fit for the job.
However, this is the most important question for the future for the Republicans: with or without Trump? The representation of Trumpism or something else? As president of the Heritage Foundation, you evidently concern yourself much with this issue these days.
Yes, this is an enormous question. You must be aware that we at Heritage are not forbidden from endorsing any individual politician, from supporting them in an election. What I’m about to say does not qualify as an official endorsement or rejection. Heritage and I are very grateful to President Trump whom I also know in person. We’re grateful for all that he did for America. He now announced that he would again run for the presidential candidacy. What everyone should know is – whether he will be the Republican candidate or not, and whether he will win or not – that one thing will remain for certain: at this time, American conservatism is very Trumpian. There is a question now among US conservatives: “What’s the time in America?” And we will learn from Trump “what time” it is now. At the same time, the presidential candidacy field is broad and will most likely include Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former Governor of South Carolina Nikki Haley, Governor of South Dakota Kristi Noem, a range of strong personalities…
…Is this what you see from within, as President of the Heritage Foundation? That there will be a multi-actor race for the Republican presidential candidacy?
Yes, I do. And this race makes some people anxious – it certainly makes Trump’s inner circles anxious. I respect Trump very much. Even if he doesn’t become candidate or changes his plans, or he becomes candidate but doesn’t win, Trumpism very much exists.
The elected Republican leaders want to use their power. Governors DeSantis, Abbott and Noem and a number of other representatives and senators have ambitions, and also want to use their political power. This is Trump’s legacy.
But is Trumpism only about power politics, or something more?
Definitely something more.
It’s certainly not about fiscal restraint. But it’s true that it’s also about rediscovering American values, for instance, in schools, rejecting critical race theory. In foreign policy, it’s about representing – in contrast to earlier presidents – American restraint, while Donald Trump was a great leader of the free world. I can tell you that since Trump, the American conservative movement’s set of views has shifted in that direction. And the most important thing that Trumpism stands for is that Washington doesn’t have all the answers. Trump started the process of handing power back to the member states, from Washington to the member state capitals. The careers of the many successful governors have been the results of this since.
Had Trump won the 2020 elections, he would have started dismantling bureaucracy, the deep state.
This process is now unfinished because unfortunately he didn’t win the elections. But whoever will be the next conservative president, whether Trump or someone else, they will focus on dismantling the deep state. And I think they will do so mostly with success. This is what lies at the bottom of Trumpism: having faith in the American people, rather than in bureaucrats.
We are now here in Central Europe, at the end of a difficult year that has been defined by the war in neighbouring Ukraine. What is your position regarding the war?
We are very grateful for the heroism of the Ukrainian people. We naturally support their sovereignty. Eight to ten months before the beginning of the Russian invasion, the Heritage Foundation urged the Biden Administration to send military aid to the Ukrainians – in the hope that this will help to avoid the war and to preserve peace. Eventually, this didn’t happen as we now know. And partly due to Biden’s slowness. Here, I have to tell you what I also told Trump himself:
I don’t think the invasion would have occurred had Trump been president. Putin was scared of Trump.
Eventually, the invasion did occur, and the overarching question in America became whether our country should provide large-scale, wide-ranging assistance for Ukraine. The Heritage Foundation opposed this. Not because we stand against the Ukrainians or because we don’t want to help them, but because there was no debate on the strategy – about what our assistance should extend to – either in Congress, or on the part of the Biden Administration. Eventually, despite our objections, a package supporting Ukraine was adopted, a third of which was not even military aid, but supported programmes serving social justice. This happened in March, and at the time, Heritage wasn’t popular because of its position on the matter. By now, however, ever more people agree with us, and at the beginning of next year, support could well be limited to military assistance – to that which we have always said it should be limited, that at this time we should only provide military support for Ukraine.
Do you see any strategy at present for a way to end the war? What could be America’s position on this?
At present, the best thing the president of the United States can do is to convince the parties, using his power and credibility, to conclude a peace deal – today. If this happened, we wouldn’t have to debate the issue of military assistance either. Central Europeans, our Hungarian and Ukrainian friends shouldn’t be concerned about dying due to the conflict. I don’t understand why President Biden is so stubborn, why he hasn’t yet taken action on this matter. The Heritage Foundation’s foreign policy tenet is that we stand for that which we think is best for the American people. The same as your government does, looking out for the Hungarian people’s interests.
And ordinary American and Hungarian people have an interest in the war coming to an end.
Yet, we allow the conflict to keep dragging on. The leadership of the United States doesn’t have a clear position on this.
We are here in Budapest now where you also met with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. I believe you also spoke about the above questions.
This was the first time I met with Mr Orbán, we spoke about many things. I can tell you that I very much looked forward to meeting with him; I think what he’s done so far is not only good for Hungary, but is a lesson for the whole world to learn. I even told him frankly: I love your country, your history – I’m a historian myself – and find it ironic that a landlocked country of ten million has become a model and a reminder for the Americans as well as for other countries of what the American principles are. I believe that this is also a sign of divine providence – and I told him so. The Heritage Foundation and American conservatives will be on his side and Hungary’s side so that we take joint action against forces of centralisation, be those in Brussels or Washington.
You may find the original version of this interview on Mandiner here