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A New Leader Has Transformed Heritage. Now He Wants to Transform Conservatism.

Under Kevin Roberts, the influential D.C. think tank has moved away from the Reagan legacy and toward Trumpism. But Roberts has bigger ambitions still.

The Heritage Foundation building in Washington
Andrew Harnik/AP

On the day Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts had the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag raised above the think tank’s Washington headquarters. Over the next several months, Heritage researchers and experts pumped out reports and essays backing U.S. assistance to Ukraine. “Without question, supporting Ukraine is in U.S. and European interests,” argued one paper. Another urged “an enduring and systematic approach to providing weapons, training, and medical care to Ukrainians.”

Eighteen months later, two of the experts who wrote those reports had left Heritage — and Roberts declared in a column that Americans were “fed up” with the “expensive, far-off war effort.” “It’s time to turn off the tap,” he wrote. “People are tired of Washington’s shady backroom deals cut with their money. Until Biden presents a direct and immediate path to end the conflict in Ukraine, and Congress comes up with a way to ensure that our aid is responsibly distributed, the Heritage Foundation will stand firm and demand that not another cent is spent fighting this war.”

It was a quick about-face for Heritage, and part of a larger shift that goes well beyond Ukraine. The venerable think tank — which once provided the blueprint for the “Reagan Revolution,” celebrated the passage of NAFTA, and warned against Donald Trump’s protectionist tendencies — has become skeptical of free trade, suspicious of foreign military entanglements, even open to government intervention to help American families.

For Roberts, 49, it’s all part of a larger ambition to reshape conservatism. “Decades of frustration and failure have shown us that the old Washington red team of free marketers, neoconservatives and evangelicals alone” — the so-called three-legged stool that made up the Reagan-era coalition of conservatives — “is simply not enough,” Roberts told an audience that gathered to celebrate Heritage’s 50th anniversary last April. “The conservative promise must be more than simply free markets and free trade, cheap credit, cheap imports or cheap foreign labor. We’ve been there and it didn’t work.”

Speaking to another conservative gathering in August, Roberts said: “As great as tax relief is, as great as budget cuts are, as important as a strong military is, none of those are going to solve” the “new existential problems” of today — namely, “cultural Marxism, corporate anti-Americanism, an increasingly weaponized federal government, anti-parent schools, family disintegration, and the crisis of boys.”

And just this month, Roberts delivered what he called “a little truth syrup” to the annual World Economic Forum, telling the assembled global capitalists, “The very reason that I’m here at Davos is to explain to many people in this room and who are watching, with all due respect, nothing personal, but that you’re part of the problem.”

This new and different energy emanating from Heritage has been well-received by many conservative members of Congress — especially advocates of the populist, nationalist style of conservatism associated with Trump. Roberts “is somebody I rely on a lot who has very good advice, very good political instincts,” Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance told me. “My overall sense of Heritage, pre-Kevin Roberts, is that it was a relatively vanilla D.C. think tank that wrote policy papers, but it didn’t engage meaningfully in some of the big debates that were happening on the right or in the country, at least for the last 10 or so years. … With Kevin, they’re participating in some of the fights that really matter on the right, not just sort of right-versus-left, but intra-Republican debates about where the party should go.”

“Sometimes when I have an idea and I want to run it past somebody, I’ll just give Kevin a call and get his take on it,” Utah Sen. Mike Lee told me. “Pretty much unfailingly every time, I’ll get some new insight from him, some new way of thinking of it that I hadn’t previously considered. … Heritage has as much trust right now among conservatives … as they have in the 13 years I’ve been here.”

“Kevin has been a stabilizing influence on Heritage,” said Texas Sen. John Cornyn, alluding to recent leadership changes at the organization. In November, Cornyn enlisted Roberts’ help in building support for a measure to require firms to notify the government of certain investments in adversarial nations like China.

And yet, while today’s Heritage clearly harmonizes with a trending brand of Trumpian national conservatism, Roberts — at least to hear him tell it — has undertaken a more complicated and ambitious project than simply staging a nat-con takeover of the think tank. Since the rise of Trump, the conservative movement has been tearing itself apart as various wings of the Reagan coalition react to and, in some cases, reject Trumpism. The way out of this ideologically unstable environment, Roberts argues, requires something more than one type of conservatism vanquishing the others. He aims to restore Heritage to its presiding role over the movement by pointing the way toward a new fusion of conservative factions — one that aspires to both replace the old Reagan coalition and replicate its electoral success.


In 1973, Heritage co-founder Edwin Feulner conceived of a policy shop that would counter liberal arguments by being quick on the draw with timely scholarship that could be aggressively marketed to political leaders and reporters. It would use direct mail fundraising to build support with the conservative base. Eight years later, President Reagan handed out copies of a hefty Heritage policy tome to members of his cabinet. By the end of Reagan’s first year in office, his administration had enacted nearly half the Heritage agenda, and the 1,093-page published version of the policy manual, “Mandate for Leadership,” became a Washington Post paperback bestseller.

Today, Heritage is one of the best-funded think tanks in America, with $106 million in annual revenues, according to its most recent tax filings. In comparison, the conservative American Enterprise Institute reports revenues of $69 million; the libertarian Cato Institute, $46 million; and the liberal Brookings Institution, $119 million. Heritage raises more money from grassroots donors — more than 500,000 paying members — than do many think tanks, which speaks to its bond with the conservative base.

Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts
Roberts once considered himself a “robust” neocon, but his views have shifted. “I think,” he said, “it’s perfectly OK for conservative leaders, when they realize that a past position on policy did not adhere to conservative principles, to say so.” Jess Rapfogel/AP

But Heritage was going through a turbulent period when Roberts was invited to interview for the top job in 2021. He would be the third president in four years. The foundation, like conservatives in general, was trying to find its footing amid a series of events that sent shockwaves through the right, from the election of Barack Obama and the rise of the Tea Party to the advent of Trump, the murder of George Floyd and the cultural and economic havoc of the pandemic.

Feulner had been succeeded in 2013 by Jim DeMint, the former Republican senator from South Carolina. DeMint lasted until the Heritage board unanimously requested his resignation in 2017, citing what board chair Thomas A. Saunders III at the time called “significant and worsening management issues.” (Feulner and DeMint did not respond to requests for comment.)

DeMint was replaced by Kay Coles James, a member of Heritage’s board. In 2020, in the wake of Floyd’s killing and subsequent protests, James, who is Black, published a column that asked, “How many more black people must die. … How many more committees will have to be formed until America admits that racism is still a problem in this country?” This acknowledgment of persistent racism enraged many conservatives. Tucker Carlson — who already was blasting Heritage for not taking on Big Tech — called James’ essay “a long screed denouncing America as an irredeemably racist nation” and added that he hoped his audience had given money to Heritage “for the last time.” James, who declined my request for an interview, stepped down the following year.

Roberts’ assignment was to help Heritage recover its mojo and its intimate connection with a conservative movement in flux. “So much had changed on the American right during the Trump years. So much had changed in America, period,” he told me recently. “Every member of the search committee of the board, including Kay, said that the opportunity for the next leader of Heritage is to build on the foundation that exists here and position Heritage in a way that makes it more relevant than it has ever been.”


Roberts grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana, in a poor family that he has described as “besieged by the early signs of our nation’s social decay.” His grandparents helped raise him after his parents split when he was 4; his teenage brother took his own life when Roberts was 9. His mother qualified for subsidized housing, and Roberts received free or reduced-price lunches in the public schools.

I asked if his personal experience led him to value the social safety net that is typically associated with liberal policies. “As a conservative, not a libertarian, I believe — and we at Heritage believe — in the safety nets,” he said. “What became a real vital part of my conservatism — maybe the second most important part after my faith — is that those programs work really well when they work in conjunction with healthy institutions of civil society. Of course, the most important institution I didn’t have, which is the nuclear family. But I had the church, I had my extended family … the Boy Scouts. … My biggest motivation as a conservative, far more important than anything I have to say on national security, at least as far as I’m concerned, is rehabilitating those things. … That’s the America I want to rebuild, and that’s an America where I think very diverse peoples can flourish. … That’s my big passion as a conservative, from that boyhood experience.”

As a high school senior in 1992, Roberts helped organize a Louisiana rally for Pat Buchanan, who was challenging incumbent President George H. W. Bush in the GOP primary with an insurgent anti-trade, America First, culture war message. The crowd of 600 ate crawfish étouffée and many wore ashes from that morning’s Ash Wednesday services, the Chicago Tribune reported. A few months later, Roberts finagled his way onto the GOP convention floor in Houston where Buchanan delivered an instantly controversial address. “There is a religious war going on in this country,” Buchanan declared. “It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.” Roberts still quotes that speech, and there is more than a little Buchanan both in his conservatism and in that of the latter-day America First populist-nationalists inspired by Trump.

After getting undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and Virginia Tech, respectively, Roberts entered the prestigious history department at the University of Texas at Austin for his Ph.D. in 1999. He was an unapologetic conservative who enjoyed the give-and-take with his liberal classmates and professors. “He was just wonderful to talk to about politics,” said James Sidbury, Roberts’ dissertation supervisor, who is now a history professor at Rice University and does not share Roberts’ politics. “He had a complete understanding of why other people believed other things, and he engaged with it in a completely fair way and asked you to do the same.”

The topic of Roberts’ dissertation wasn’t the first you’d guess of a future president of Heritage. “Kevin is literally the only conservative I know who has ever written about the culture of enslaved people,” Sidbury told me. Roberts’ 2003 study, “Slaves and Slavery in Louisiana: The Evolution of Atlantic World Identities, 1791-1831,” broke new ground in the field, Sidbury said, using novel evidence including Catholic baptismal records to show how enslaved people constructed forms of daily resistance within the confines of their oppression.

When Kevin went to Heritage,” said Greg Sindelar, who succeeded Roberts as head of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, “what it signaled to me, as somebody outside the D.C. bubble, is a shift in the center of gravity of the conservative movement.

The work was strong enough to land Roberts a tenure-track position at New Mexico State University. In 2006, he published “African American Issues,” a volume in a series of ethnic studies texts for high school and college students. In it, Roberts takes up still-burning issues including reparations for slavery, criminal justice, affirmative action, school choice, standardized tests, welfare to work, and election reform. Each issue is framed in a formulaic both-sides structure. On the question of whether racism remains systemically present in parts of society, he cites opposing advocates and draws no conclusions.

Since then, Roberts has joined the conservative chorus bashing critical race theory at every opportunity. He told me he used his expertise as a historian to give a personal thumbs-up to Florida’s new standards for teaching Black history, following Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signing of the “Stop WOKE Act” restricting how race can be discussed in classrooms. Roberts also now regularly attacks higher education in general as a bastion of woke intolerance, despite his own flourishing in the belly of the beast. Sidbury shakes his head at such tirades: “Despite what he says about what we want to do in higher education, what most of us really want to do is help people get better at what they do. And he’s gotten really good at what he does.”

Roberts surprised Sidbury when he forsook a career as an American historian and returned to Lafayette in 2006 to found John Paul the Great Academy, an independent pre-K-12 Catholic school. Roberts had decided he would prefer being an administrator to being a professor. The move also coincided, Roberts told me, with a dramatic deepening of his and his wife Michelle’s Catholic faith. They now have four children and belong to a parish in Springfield, Virginia; he also attends daily Mass at a church near Heritage’s headquarters on Capitol Hill.

One evening around 2010, when he was still the academy’s headmaster, Roberts was sitting in bed after dinner in Lafayette, thumbing through one of his favorite magazines, The Weekly Standard. The Standard was considered the bible of foreign-policy neoconservatism, the philosophy of promoting democracy abroad, including via military intervention. Roberts considered himself a “robust” neocon, the kind who passed around articles from the Standard and got into passionate debates with more liberal friends. That evening in bed, he lingered over yet another article justifying the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq. Suddenly, he realized the arguments were beginning to ring hollow. He turned to his wife and said, “Michelle, they’re just wrong.”

“And so that evolution began,” Roberts recalled to me. “Like your guardian angel telling you for years, ‘You’re wrong about this, you’re wrong about this,’ and that was finally the moment that I listened.”

For Roberts, this epiphany, which made him a “lapsed neocon,” wasn’t just about geopolitics, and it certainly didn’t turn him into a liberal. Rather, it was about refining his understanding of what it means to be conservative. “I think,” he explained, “it’s perfectly OK for conservative leaders, when they realize that a past position on policy did not adhere to conservative principles, to say so.”

He got the chance to move back into higher education when Wyoming Catholic College hired him as president in 2013. While there, his stand against participating in federal student-aid programs to avoid government regulations on same-sex marriage and birth control earned coverage from The New York Times and Tucker Carlson.

In 2016, he landed the No. 2 job at the Texas Public Policy Foundation — one of the nation’s top state-level conservative think tanks — and soon rose to CEO. His five years at TPPF were a prequel to the style of conservatism he would bring to Heritage. “When Kevin went to Heritage,” said Greg Sindelar, who took over as head of TPPF after Roberts left, “what it signaled to me, as somebody outside the D.C. bubble, is a shift in the center of gravity of the conservative movement.”


Upon arriving at Heritage, one of the first things Roberts did was sketch his vision in a December 2021 essay in National Review. “Conservatism again seems in disarray,” he wrote. “Conservatism finds itself as something of a question mark in a political culture of exclamation points.” Trump had offered part of an answer by showing “that a burgeoning, working-class, pan-ethnic conservative majority exists in this country.” And yet: “Trump also showed how difficult it will be for that majority to reform our government without a unified plan to govern our country.” Convening the conservative movement to craft such a plan would be “our mission at Heritage.”

The effect was jarring. In his first year, at least 51 employees left the think tank, while 73 were hired, according to numbers reported by The Dispatch and confirmed to me by Roberts. The departures included several of Heritage’s defense and foreign policy specialists, reportedly over the organization’s stance on aid to Ukraine. Unlike most think tanks, Heritage has long adhered to a “one voice” policy, where positions on key issues are decided internally, and then no public dissent is allowed. In 2022, Heritage Action, the think tank’s political lobbying arm, opposed a $40 billion supplemental aid bill, contrary to the thinking of some of its Ukraine and Russia specialists.

The change has been just as pronounced on other issues. As recently as a few years ago, Heritage was still churning out bulletins with titles like “Trump’s Trade War Is Causing Long-Term Damage” (2018), “A Major Threat to Our Economy — Trump’s Trade War with China Is Neither Good nor Easy to Win” (2019) and “Decreasing U.S.-China Trade Is Worrisome” (2020).

By contrast, Heritage’s latest thoughts on China fill a 137-page report published last March, direly headlined “Winning the New Cold War: A Plan for Countering China,” which advised, “The U.S. government should be less risk-averse in selectively implementing and enforcing tariffs to punish Chinese predatory behaviors.” “With strong conservative leadership,” Roberts told attendees at a gala for The American Conservative magazine in October, “China would never see another dime’s worth of American investment, consumer spending, or access to our markets.”

In the same speech, Roberts said that NAFTA had “gutted America’s industrial Midwest and lit the fuse on an illegal immigration bomb still exploding to this very moment.” Long gone was the Heritage of the 1990s that published a paper titled, “The North American Free Trade Agreement: Ronald Reagan’s Vision Realized,” which crowed: “The Heritage Foundation is proud of the role it has played in articulating President Reagan’s vision of free trade in Latin America and around the world.”

Meanwhile, many new arrivals at Heritage come from the Trump universe. They include Michael Pillsbury, a China hawk who advised Trump; Robert Greenway, architect of the Abraham Accords in the Middle East under Trump; Max Primorac, a former Trump foreign affairs official; Victoria Coates, a former Trump deputy national security adviser; and Mario Loyola, a former Trump environmental quality official.

Another notable addition: Christopher DeMuth, who for more than two decades was president of Washington’s other most prominent conservative think tank, AEI — and who now chairs the National Conservatism Conference, which periodically convenes the ascendant wing of conservatism that dovetails with the preoccupations of the new Heritage.

Project 2025
Heritage organized Project 2025, a coalition of 80 groups that is providing a “conservative LinkedIn” of vetted talent for the next Republican president. Charlie Neibergall/AP

Roberts is in high demand for speeches and media appearances, pens regular commentaries for Heritage’s website, and maintains an active social media presence while wearing a second hat as head of Heritage Action. “He is probably the most Swiss Army knife think tank leader I have ever seen,” said James Carafano, a foreign policy expert and senior counselor to Roberts, who has served under four Heritage presidents. Roberts also holds forth every week in a podcast, “The Kevin Roberts Show” (motto: “It’s time to go on offense”), inviting conservative guests for folksy chats. One recent guest congratulated him for placing Heritage in “beast mode.”

“What he brings to Washington and Heritage both is that healthy dose of Texas rancher and Louisiana roughneck, and then you combine that with this refined acumen — a Ph.D.,” said Andrew Olivastro, Heritage’s chief advancement officer. “He delights in being disagreed with, but he has no patience for shallow or weak thinking.”


Even as Roberts stocks Heritage with former Trump officials and leads the think tank in a more nationalist direction, he insists that the new conservative fusion he is seeking would include Trumpism without surrendering to it. “It’s not my job to referee every policy dispute between all these factions of hyphenated conservatives,” Roberts said in an August address on “unhyphenated conservatism” in Colorado. “It is the job of the president of the Heritage Foundation … to unify and lead the conservative movement out of this division. The nat-cons, the free-cons, the so-cons, the MAGA-cons, the neo-cons, the paleo-cons all have different points of emphasis. But for us as a movement to move forward and win the hearts of the American people, we must agree on certain fundamental principles that make conservatives conservative.”

What does that mean in practice? In foreign policy, Roberts speaks of a “third way” between the interventionism of neo-conservatives and the disengagement of isolationists. He cites Heritage’s position on Ukraine, which would not cut off U.S. funding completely but does set a higher bar for more aid. “As much as we want the Ukrainians to win,” Roberts told me, “let’s be sure that our policymakers are articulating the right strategy. … There’s a lot of territory between a blank check to Ukraine and not a single other dollar.”

That’s a middle ground between Vance (who opposes more Ukraine spending) and Cornyn (who has been more supportive). “On the Ukraine question,” Vance said, “my sense is that Kevin is not where I am, but … I think he’s closer to where I am than most D.C. foreign policy establishment types.” Cornyn said: “It’s a respectful conversation. … We all agree that the primary obligation is the safety and security of the United States and our allies around the world.”

On the economy, Roberts also sees a “third way” between what he has called “this false dichotomy … that there are only these two options between total unfettered free market and common good capitalism.” His willingness to think outside the old conservative box on the free market is striking. It was on display during a wide-ranging dialogue at the Reagan Institute in 2022 with Oren Cass, executive director of American Compass, a conservative think tank that is questioning the old free-market dogma. Cass asked Roberts if conservatives should favor providing more government support for families with children. “Philosophically, we’re there, but the devil is in the details,” Roberts replied. He said Heritage scholars were studying the financial impact.

At Heritage, we are extremely grateful to President Trump for his policies. If he’s the nominee and president-elect, of course we will work with him,” Roberts said during a Q&A in August. “But the problem has always been with any political movement in this country … when that becomes a movement around a personality … when it becomes about what’s right for them and their political future rather than about principles, even if we like that man or woman, that’s not sustainable in the long term.

Roberts is aware of how unorthodox such musings might appear. When I asked him recently if Heritage had reached a position yet on the type of policy Cass raised, he said, “I think where you were going with that question is, ‘A little odd for Heritage to be flirting with that.’ Well, I understand what you’re saying, but we also realize that circumstances have changed. One thing I can foreshadow is that Heritage will not be proposing a big, statist kind of family policy. But the charge that I did give our domestic policy scholars, including our libertarian economist, is we can’t ignore a) that these demographic circumstances have gotten bad in the country or b) that some [other] countries have experimented with this. … Our guys are still crunching the numbers.”

One of the first major research reports published under Roberts came in early 2022. Called “Combating Big Tech’s Totalitarianism: A Road Map,” it proposed that part of the solution is big government: “Congress should target areas in which current antitrust laws and enforcement are inadequate to address Big Tech companies [sic] anti-competitive behavior and harm to users.” Just three years earlier, in 2019, Heritage had argued practically the opposite: “Free Enterprise Is the Best Remedy for Online Bias Concerns.”

The revised attitude stems from a conviction that Big Tech wields undue influence over the daily lives of Americans. “When you’re trying to reconcile the tension between public power and private power, 99 or 98 times out of … 100, conservatives and Heritage and Kevin Roberts are going to be on the side of private power,” he told me. However, “we believe that the government also exists in a very limited way to help us, if nothing else, to remind us of what the common good is.”

Most of all, Roberts seems to want Heritage to facilitate and participate in hard conversations about the spaces between various conservative views. “Kevin clearly sees the wisdom in serving as the platform where important debates need to happen, as opposed to being some kind of enforcer of some existing line that everybody … needs to stick with,” Cass told me. Under Roberts, he added, Heritage is headed toward a “post-Trump conservatism that certainly wants free markets to be the basic framework of the economy but recognizes … the role that public policy is going to have to play in generating good outcomes.”

Yet for all his talk of nurturing unity among the various factions of hyphenated conservatism, it’s clear toward which hyphen Roberts leans. In 2022, addressing the National Conservatism Conference in Miami, he said, “I come not to invite national conservatives to join our conservative movement, but to acknowledge the plain truth that Heritage is already part of yours.” In October, at The American Conservative gala, he extolled “the new, populist, nationalist conservative movement … the post-neoconservative, post-globalist, post-corporatist, post-libertarian American right.” Sitting in the audience, John Burtka, president of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, an organization that educates young conservatives, felt inspired — and amazed: “It would have been unimaginable, you know, certainly 20 years ago, but 10 years ago, five years ago, for the president of Heritage to go to TAC and give a speech like that,” Burtka said. “And to do it with such passion!”

Representatives of the other hyphens are wary. “Ukraine is the tip-off,” said Bill Kristol, co-founder of The Bulwark, an anti-Trump political news website, and a founding editor of The Weekly Standard. “He’s very much part of a kind of Tucker Carlson populist-nationalist movement. This is not Reaganite conservatism.”

Roberts “claims to be against hyphenated conservatism, but in fact, he is for it,” said Avik Roy, president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity. “He just has a particular side that he’s on. … It’s this weird kind of gaslighting thing where he’s trying to say, ‘We are neutral and it’s only these little people who are fighting about this stuff,’ but in fact, he is on one side.”

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Roy has organized more than 250 conservatives and libertarians around a manifesto they call “Freedom Conservatism,” which praises free enterprise, fiscal restraint and immigration among other principles. Roberts, in his talk on unhyphenated conservatism, critiqued the free-cons as “friends and allies” who nevertheless “seemed to double down on many of the elite misjudgments that led the right to its current diminished state.”

“There’s two great mistakes I think Heritage is making under Kevin,” Roy told me. “The first is that economic freedom is the engine of supporting families and communities and the country. If you displace and suppress economic freedom … that’s not going to make America stronger.” The second mistake, according to Roy, is failing to acknowledge that “all families matter,” not just Judeo-Christian heterosexual families. “By basically making clear that there are certain kinds of Americans who they want to exclude from the conservative tent, they are going to make the constituency for their ideas smaller rather than bigger.”


Ahead of the 2024 presidential election, Roberts is returning to the savvy tactic that made Heritage’s reputation in the Reagan years. The latest, 887-page, version of “Mandate for Leadership,” a policy manual for an incoming conservative administration, was released last April. In addition, Heritage organized Project 2025 — a coalition of 80 conservative groups directed by a former Trump administration official now at Heritage — to provide a “conservative LinkedIn” of vetted talent for the next Republican president.

At Davos, Roberts was asked by a panel moderator what the early days of a second Trump administration would look like. Alluding to Project 2025’s roster of conservatives ready to step in, Roberts called for dramatic “civil service reform so that the president can fire a good number of the unelected bureaucrats in the administrative state,” which he said is “the greatest threat to democracy in the United States — and we need to end it.”

Given that Trump will most likely be the GOP nominee, Project 2025 inevitably ties Heritage to Trump. Roberts told me that he and Trump “have a good personal relationship.” He defends the former president against critics and has invited Trump, like all the GOP primary candidates, to Heritage’s Mandate for Leadership speaker series, where DeSantis appeared for an on-stage interview with Roberts.

Roberts, however, also dares to suggest that today’s conservative movement is bigger than its most popular figure. During a Q&A at the end of his August address in Colorado, an audience member lobbed a grenade of a query: “How do we elevate the dialogue with people who have supplanted the cult of personality that is Trump for conservative principles?”

“Oh boy,” said Roberts as a few audience members chuckled. “I feel the weight of that question.”

“At Heritage, we are extremely grateful to President Trump for his policies. If he’s the nominee and president-elect, of course we will work with him,” Roberts said. “But the problem has always been with any political movement in this country … when that becomes a movement around a personality … when it becomes about what’s right for them and their political future rather than about principles, even if we like that man or woman, that’s not sustainable in the long term.” He continued, “We are not going to win very many more national elections, if any, if the conservative movement is focused on one person, whoever he or she may be, rather than on the permanent things of our ideals.”

It may be surprising to hear Roberts separating himself from the Trump personality cult when it seems so obvious that he has skillfully positioned Heritage to exercise influence during a second Trump administration. But given the scope and ambition of his vision for Heritage, his comments may make perfect sense. The three-legged stool of Reagan-era conservatism, after all, outlasted Reagan’s presidency by decades. Who’s to say a new version pioneered by Heritage couldn’t outlast Trump by many years as well?

David Montgomery is a freelance writer who covers politics and culture. He is a former staff writer for The Washington Post Magazine.