The Conservative Movement’s Long Way Home

It is a pleasure to be with you tonight—though to be honest, it’s also a little intimidating. Over at the reception and sitting down at individual tables, you only catch glimpses of some of the luminaries in attendance tonight. Leaders. Writers. Philanthropists. But from up here, you can see the whole rodeo. And let me tell you: this dinner I’m looking at is a neocon’s worst nightmare. 

In fact, I don’t think there has been such a collection of common-sense, populist, nationalist, conservative guts and intellectual horsepower in this ballroom since Pat Buchanan dined here alone.

So it is an honor to join you tonight to honor, in turn, the men and women who make The American Conservative the indispensable journal it is.

As you know, tonight’s program has already showered thanks and praise on TAC’s founders, its masthead, and its writers. And with good reason.

The American Conservative’s first issue in October 2002 came at a time that was fashionably called the end of America’s “holiday from history.” Today we know that moment is better understood as the middle of the American Right’s holiday from conservatism.

A generation hence, it must be said: the globalist, ideological hubris that overtook the Washington Republican establishment at the end of the Cold War—and still dominates elite institutions today—was wrong from the beginning. It was never strategically sound. It was never recognizably conservative. It never won a mandate from the American people. And it never overcame its inexcusable blind spot for—and indifference to—the struggles besetting working American families.

It must also be said—including, with some humility, by me, as a recovering neocon and now president of The Heritage Foundation—that for the last 20 years, there has been one major institution on the Right consistently driving us back to our conservative roots: The American Conservative.

It is a testament to TAC’s intellectual rigor and tenacity that in the last few years, the ideas of international realism, constitutional sovereignty, and economic patriotism have leapt from the pages of a bimonthly magazine to the center of American politics. No publication has so driven the national debate or won so many converts this past year. None has guided so many conservatives home to the principles and people our movement has always served and fought for. 

But even as we celebrate and thank TAC for its unprecedented successes these past twelve months, I come to this gala tonight not simply to praise the TAC family…but to challenge it. You know I do so as a friend and a supporter. And, as I have written in TAC itself, I do so as someone whose own misunderstandings about the proper conservative national security approach found his way largely because of persistent soundness of the arguments found at TAC. 

Thus my challenge is not to change what you’re doing or who you are–but to do more of it. Because I believe the most important work this magazine ever does will come in the nexttwelve months.

From Ukraine to Israel, from the Southern border to Iowa and New Hampshire, from Brussels to Beijing, from Big Tech to small towns, America’s trajectory for the next decade—maybe the next generation—will be set in motion before TAC’s next annual gala.

The same issues that for 30 years have tempted the United States to abandonits founding values and vital interests will reemerge with greater force than ever before. The same voices of globalism, elitism, and materialism that squandered our victory in the Cold War and severed the sacred bonds of trust between Americans and their government will again try to smear, marginalize, and demonize dissent, especially from their Right.

In these coming fights, it will not matter that The American Conservative was—as its tagline says—“right from the beginning.” What will matter is whether TAC’s writers, editors, and contributors are ready to help lead the post-neoconservative, post-globalist, post-corporatist, post-libertarian American Right that TAC helped create.

That the conservative movement has taken the long way home to ideas this magazine has espoused all along is a vindication, to be sure. But it is precisely in moments of vindication that we are most vulnerable to the pride and complacency that threaten everything that went into bringing out those moments in the first place.

We know this, first, as students of human nature. But we know this, too, as observers of our own movement over the last thirty years.

Those same temptations will soon confront the populist, nationalist Right as it finally takes its hard-won place at the head of the conservative movement and the Republican Party—at this uniquely dangerous moment in history. Success, then, requires the men and women in this room to see this moment not as a victory or vindication at all, but as an opportunity. Theopportunity that generations of conservatives fought for so long.

It is an opportunity that may never come again and which we cannot afford to miss, like our last generation of leaders did, plunging us into three decades of decadence, debt, and defeat.

Remember just how this story began.

In November 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, President George H.W. Bush’s public approval rating hit 70 percent. Soon it would reach 80 and even90 percent. In November 1991, Saturday Night Live aired a skit about prominent Democrats smearing themselves in a debate parody titled, “Campaign ’92: The Race to Avoid Being the Guy Who Loses to Bush.”

Yet a little over two months later, a syndicated newspaper columnist named Patrick Buchanan won 37 percent of the vote against the president in New Hampshire’s Republican presidential primary.

Buchanan’s Granite State ambush was immediately dismissed by the press and the establishment as a fluke—the death rattle of an old, backward, conservatism of the past. Little did they know that it represented in fact the first breaths of a new, forward-looking conservatism of the future. As a young man living in Louisiana at the time, I knew this full well, having volunteered for his campaign.  

The official narrative of the 1990s says that it was driven by personalities:Bill and Hillary Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Al Gore, Monica Lewinsky, and the rest. But the superficial, partisan soap operas of that era obscured—and distracted the public from—tectonic shifts in federal policy that upended our national life. All of them were shamefully bipartisan. And most of them deliberately excluded the American people from providing meaningful input and accountability.

First, there was President Bush, in the lead-up to the first Gulf War, unilaterally declaring a “New World Order” to be governed by the United Nations and policed, at its behest, by the United States Armed Forces.

There was the North American Free Trade Agreement, which gutted America’s industrial Midwest and lit the fuse on an illegal immigration bomb still exploding today.

The next year, another treaty created the World Trade Organization, wherein Washington surrendered America’s economic sovereignty to globalist bureaucrats just as our working-class communities stood to cash-in their share of the Cold War peace dividend.

Not that peace was on the menu, either.

In 1993, Clinton sent U.S. troops into Mogadishu to referee the Somali civil war, to infamous results in the Black Hawk Down debacle. He orchestrated a bombing campaign over the former Yugoslavia.

All along, Clinton and his Republican counterparts on Capitol Hill turned most-favored-nation trading status with communist China into a bipartisan article of faith.

And all along, the voices of America-First nationalism, economic patriotism, and social conservatism were ignored, dismissed, or belittled.

The same Washington establishment that celebrated serial predators in the Oval Office and the United States Senate condemned America First conservatives as beyond the pale.

And all this was before George W. Bush, his team of neocon mediocrities, and their dog-eared copies of The Weekly Standard strutted America into the successive catastrophes of Iraq, the financial crisis, No Child Left Behind, the Great Recession, and the presidency of Barack Obama.

Less than a generation since middle-American hard-hats and homemakers delivered the West’s greatest international victory since V-J Day, America’s economy, democracy, culture, prestige, and confidence lay in ruins…

Just as “Buchanan conservatives” had warned themall along.

In his speech announcing his rogue presidential campaign in 1991, Buchanan implored the Republican Party:

“We call for a new patriotism where Americans begin to put the needs of Americans first.”

“When we say we will put America First, we mean also that our Judeo-Christian values are going to be preserved, and our Western heritage is going to be handed down to future generations, not dumped into some landfill called multiculturalism.”

At his convention speech the following summer, Buchanan implored his party: “There is a religious war going on in this country. It is a cultural war, as critical to the kind of nation we shall be as was the Cold War itself, for this war is for the soul of America.”

He—and conservatives around the country—warned of the “raw sewage of pornography” before the Internet. They warned of illegal immigration beforeNAFTA and of the China shock before we poured trillions into a weaponized rival economy aimed right at our middle class.

They questioned the Iraq War—and were declared traitors for it.

On every major policy dispute in this era, populist, nationalist conservatives pleaded with the Republican establishment to remember who and what they were supposed to defend.

And at every turn, Washington elites sided with Wall Street, K Street, and Silicon Valley—and against the working men, women, and communities who comprised the party they led.

And so today, our nation is beset by unprecedented crises around the world, and of course here at home. Along our borders, on our crime-ridden streets, in our gas, grocery, and utility bills. In our toxic and atomized culture. In our exploding national debt and falling birthrates and life-expectancy. In our empty churches, fatherless neighborhoods, failing schools, and overflowing prisons and mental health facilities.

The bad news is, neither the Republican Party, nor the conservative movement, nor the American people can take mulligans on any of the failures that led us here.

But the good news is, we do have the opportunity now to learn from those mistakes, as we work to forge a new governing agenda, coalition, and vision for America’s future.

This work is essential on its own terms. Mandates should be earned, not counterfeited.

But it will also answer, once and for all, that most insidious of all the slanders the establishment hurls at conservatives. Not that the ideas are wrong. Nor even that we ourselves are “deplorable.” Rather, the cowardly, self-righteous lie that populist, nationalist, anti-establishment conservatives are uninterested in governing at all. That we don’t have an agenda, just a grievance. That we are a nihilist peanut gallery, content to criticize the Swamp’s “yes-men in the arena” from the safety of our backbench caucuses, think tanks, and magazines—one magazine in particular.

Just because this slur is false does not mean we should ignore it. On the contrary, we should obliterate it. 

If the Republican establishment really thinks we cannot produce a positive agenda or lead the national coalition they have misled for 30 years, bring it on.

Conservatives, armed with our dog-eared copies of The American Conservative, stand ready to meet them anytime, anyplace to debate any issue they please. As the presidential primary of 2016, the speaker’s races of 2023, and the clear direction of legislative and electoral momentum on the Right demonstrate, we are in the fight and already holding more than our own.

This should not be the surprise it apparently still is to the Washington establishment. After all, our vision for America’s future—The American Conservative’s vision—is and has always been America’s vision, too. 

The American people never asked for NAFTA and the WTO. They never asked to import illegal immigrants or export manufacturing jobs. They never asked to surrender our sovereignty to the Supreme Court, the Administrative State, or international organizations of anti-American frauds and bigots. They did not ask for same-sex marriage, boys playing girls sports, defunded police departments, corporate bailouts, or a woke war against America’s history and heritage. 

These ideas were never proposed in open debate. They were imposedbehind closed doors. Because leaders in both parties knew all along their vision of elitist, authoritarian globalism could never have won a mandate from the American people.

Ours can. Ours will.

 For ours is a vision of peace in the world, freedom at home, sovereignty under our Constitution, and solidarity with our fellow countrymen. We reject the default tyrannies of collectivism and cronyism favored by the Washington uni-party. We demand a government that serves its people—not just some of them, and not the other way around.

To those skeptics in the Republican party who declare our values outside the boundaries of acceptable Reaganism, I would remind them of Reagan’s words at his 1980 nominating convention, describing the GOP as “a party ready to build a new consensus with all those across the land who share a community of values embodied in these words: family, work, neighborhood, peace and freedom.”

The American Conservative and those in the conservative movement are ascending not because of our vibes, but because of our values. We are inheriting the Party of Lincoln because we embody the Spirit of Reagan.

It is precisely Reagan’s spirit—humble, patriotic, loyal to “Ideas over Ideology and Principles over Party”—that we will need to lead our coalition and nation effectively. To succeed where a generation of Reagan’s successors failed.

Ironically, the substance is the easy part. We don’t need to start from scratch to develop the agenda that will help realize our popular, patriotic vision of 21st century America. The American Conservative has for 21 years hosted the constructive, conservative policy debates that Republican leaders mostly ignored. Policy shops like the one I run are already working with elected leaders like Senator J.D. Vance to turn these proposals into policy.

A more realistic national security policy is not rocket science, after all. All we need to do is reorient our international strategy toward our national interests. A generation of American globalism has made our world more dangerous and our nation less secure.

Europe is at war. The Middle East, too. Asia is dominated by a genocidal, totalitarian superpower, now making strategic inroads in the Western hemisphere. Migration crises are destabilizing five continents. Yet the institutions that were supposed to manage our New World Order spend most of their time and budgets shrieking hatred at Viktor Orban, Brexit, and of course, our Jewish brothers and sisters. 

Spare us any more establishment platitudes about norms and rules-based-order and U.N. and E.U. resolutions. In this moment, it’s the party of the status quo that is reckless, dangerous, and extreme. 

And yet, true to form, this crowd who in 2003 read Iraq-skeptics out of polite society are now trying to do the same to anyone who asks what America’s strategy in Ukraine might be. In lieu of presenting such a plan, President Biden and Mitch McConnell want to tie U.S. aid to Israel to another blank check to Kiev. 

But I have good news on this front of national security realism: in spite of all their barbs, name-calling, intellectual dishonesty, fear-mongering, and finger-wagging…they’re losing, and we’re winning. 

The reason why is obvious: the American people are on our side. And they always have been. Consider, for example, President Reagan’s wisdom—dare I say “populism”?—in his January 1989 Farewell Address: “Ours was the first revolution in the history of mankind that truly reversed the course of government, and with three little words: ‘We the People.’ ‘We the People’ tell the government what to do; it doesn’t tell us. ‘We the People’ are the driver; the government is the car. And we decide where it should go, and by what route, and how fast. Almost all the world’s constitutions are documents in which governments tell the people what their privileges are. Our Constitution is a document in which ‘We the People’ tell the government what it is allowed to do. ‘We the People’ are free. This belief has been the underlying basis for everything I’ve tried to do.”

Indeed, as Reagan would remind us, to govern is to choose, and once again Washington is choosing not to serve the nation’s values, but to leverage them against us.

Frustrating as uni-party globalist mischief like this may be, we must remember that it is not a perpetual motion machine, like entitlement programs or teacher union contracts. As we saw under President Donald Trump, national sovereignty and national security can be corrected – quickly—to make our nation stronger and safer. It really is just a matter of will.

So, too, is economic reform. If presidents from Bush to Biden found it easier to make globalist policy unilaterally through treaties and regulations, so too is it easier to unmake it in the same way. 

With strong conservative leadership, China would never see another dime’s worth of American investment, consumer spending, or access to our markets. Every American oil rig worker—my people, quite literally—could be back at work tomorrow, and every woke busybody in the federal bureaucracy could be fired. The Southern border could be secured, and sanctuary cities and states defunded. Critical Race Theory could be—What’s the word? Oh, yes.—canceled at American schools, government agencies and contractors, and our military. A president could, in an afternoon, leave unfavorable trade agreements, and sovereignty-sapping international organizations.

The federal government that has for so long put its thumb on the scale for Big Business, Big Banks, and Big Tech against working families could finally remove that fat thumb, getting out of the way of the plans, dreams, and initiative of everyday Americans. 

And despite the Establishment’s shameful inaction, there is much elected conservatives can do to use the power they have to heal America’s cultural rot as well. Again, the public stands with us and against elite lethargy and indifference.

On pornography and Big Tech’s conspiracy to addict our kids to screens and smut. On drugs and crime on our streets. On the sexualizing and grooming of children in our schools. On parents’ rights and girls’ and women’s safety. On freedom of speech and religion. On the Second Amendment right to self-defense. On the need for more and better options than a bachelor’s degree from “Woke U.” and $60,000 in student loans.

We can revamp the welfare and tax systems to stop penalizing marriage, kids, and stay-at-home moms, and start incentivizing them for the benefits they provide to society. 

The Heritage Foundation is proud to work together with TAC on these major issues through Project 2025. Some of you know this story, but all of you should. Informed by five decades of the “Mandate for Leadership,” Heritage set out to create a program of goals, policies, individuals, and programs for the next conservative administration based on three initial observations.

First, that the magnitude of the challenges we face requires a transition plan larger in scope than anything we had ever done before.

Second, that a project this large could not and ought not be the product of a single organization. Heritage could coordinate, but Project 2025’s work required a coalition of partner organizations almost as large as the conservative movement itself. We’re proud to say that coalition has grown to 75+ strong—a true representation of the movement.

And third, we knew that if we wanted Project 2025 to succeed as a political and intellectual endeavor, one of those partners had to be The American Conservative.

Thank you, Emile, for your wisdom and guidance in this indispensable work.

If the policy battles ahead are the easy part in this moment of opportunity for the Right, the hard part will be staying true to the ideas and especially to the people that got us here. Going forward, conservatives, so accustomed to being ignored by the Republican Party, will increasingly be in charge of it.

With that success will come temptation: complacency, entitlement, hubris.

That is the story of the last generation—how our own leaders sold out our republic’s Cold War triumph for a mess of globalist pottage. But it is not the end of the story. And in the long arc of history, it may end up only being a footnote toit.

Every day, more conservatives are turning their back on the leaders who betrayed them, and returning to the fold, joining this fight, against the Marxist Left and the globalist elite. The Right is not lost. It never was. It has just taken the long way home.

The “long way home” is how Pat Buchanan described his own endorsement of George H.W. Bush at the 1992 Republican Convention in Houston. His speech, which I cheered on from the convention floor as a college freshman—is mischaracterized today as “declaring” a culture war in America, when everyone—then as now—knew he was only describing a war already well underway. A war of choice launched by the Left and the GOP elite againstthe working families their New World Order would leave behind.

The decades that followed saw Republicans win control of Congress and dominate it since. They won the White House, twice, and even, finally, secured a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. But look at our nation and our world: winning elections isn’t enough.

Neither is simply “being right.” There are no referees handing out awards to conservatives for winning Twitter debates against woke fanatics or Republican insiders. 

The great task remaining before us remains—“to bind up our nation’s wounds,” to rescue her sovereignty, Constitution, and rule of law. To restore her social solidarity and economic opportunity. To secure our borders from an illegal invasion, and our culture from woke theocrats and globalist usurpation. And to do it all with the grit and humility few successful political movements ever retain after tasting success.

That is why The American Conservative’s crowded hour is still ahead. And why the new, populist, nationalist conservative movement it helped create needs its flagship journal more than ever. 

And we know there is no institution or publication more able—or, thank God, more willing—to tell us the hard truths we need to hear when we least want to. Like its founding editor—Mr. Buchanan, who could not be with us tonight—TAC has made its mark in the world by being a thorn in the side of elites who badly deserved one.

As TAC ascends to its moment of opportunity and influence, it will need that same friendly thorn, that same filial correction, that same honest, incisive analysis.

Just as the political establishment lost our trust over the last generation, this magazine has earned it. Through each issue. Each fight. Each neocon barb and establishment purge. We reached this moment for one reason: they were wrong, and you were right.

The establishment already proved the first point; soon we will have the chance to prove the second. We can, and I believe we will, as long as American conservatives stay true to The American Conservative, and The American Conservative stays true to itself, its vision, and to us.

Together, we can show our movement and our country that the long way home was just the beginning of the right way forward.

Thank you, and God bless America.

Originally found on American Conservative. Read More

Similar Posts