The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Conservative populism might finally be getting the intellectual heft it needs

Russ Vought, then-acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, speaks during a news briefing at the White House in March 2019. (Evan Vucci/AP)

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Donald Trump entered his presidency with a clear set of instincts, but little in the way of detailed policy proposals. That cannot continue if the conservative-populist alliance that many on the right envision is to grow and flourish. Thanks to Russ Vought, who served as Trump’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, help is on the way.

Vought announced this week that he is starting a new think tank, the Center for American Restoration (CARe), that seeks to fill that void. His endeavor will focus on the full panoply of Trumpian priorities, from immigration to trade to a revised view of U.S. global power. It will also address questions of culture, such as the role of America’s Judeo-Christian heritage in public life and the rise of “cancel culture.” This amounts to a full-court press on the wide range of issues that animate the new populist conservatism, making CARe unique among all other center-right think tanks.

CARe will also have an issue advocacy subsidiary, American Restoration Action. Organized as a 501(c)(4) under federal tax law, ARA would be able to engage in public campaigns for its ideas. The organization’s legal classification would allow it to run issue ad campaigns linked to candidates for federal office, either by asking people to congratulate someone for supporting good ideas or (more commonly) calling them out for backing bad ones. It would also be able to recruit supporters across the country and encourage them to take action through coordinated activity. Americans for Prosperity, a similar advocacy group founded by the famous Koch brothers, has become an influential player on the right through its ability to mobilize grass-roots volunteers and activists in all 50 states. ARA could easily rise to this level of power given the huge numbers of enthusiastic backers of Trump’s agenda.

Conservative populism has long needed institutions such as this to flesh out the ideas that a serious governing movement needs. Parties do not have the incentives or infrastructure to engage in serious policy development; think tanks and universities play that role in both parties, and the paucity of conservatives within academia makes think tanks a crucial source of policy depth for Republicans.

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Most conservative policy experts, however, are part of the establishment that conservative populism opposes. They have developed the neo-libertarian economic policies that need correcting. They helped create the overextended American empire that fights too many foes with too few resources. And they have neglected the questions of culture and religion that are so important to a modern center-right. Accordingly, the center-right’s institutions are largely silent when it comes to supplying serious ideas to politicians who voice populist conservative ideals.

Vought’s background suggests he’s the right man for the job. OMB is one of the most important federal agencies. Its role in producing the president’s annual budget means Vought has a broad understanding of all federal activities. Before OMB, Vought served as policy director for the House Republican Conference and as executive director of the Republican Study Committee, giving him deep experience in creating policy and working with legislators. He also spent seven years as a vice president at the advocacy arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation. This combination of policy chops and grass-roots experience is exactly what a group such as CARe needs.

Independence from Trump’s own orbit is also crucial to the conservative-populist cause. Beltway insiders often view Trump as sui generis, failing to recognize that his power stems from the fact that he voices preexisting concerns rather than manufacturing them out of whole cloth. Those who want this type of movement must build something separate from the former president’s own ambitions that informs people directly and educates policymakers who have their own aspirations.

Vought’s group is not the only one tilling this soil. Oren Cass’s think tank, American Compass, does fine work in economic policy, and two quarterly intellectual journals — Julius Krein’s American Affairs and Yuval Levin’s National Affairs — produce must-read articles on a panoply of issues from a conservative and populist bent. Other institutions feature the work of often solitary voices that push ideas firmly of the right but outside mainstream conservative consensus. Together, they are making the case for a conservative reformation that, if it bears fruit, is also likely to generate political realignment and national renewal.

Trump’s own future is the talk of today’s political class. Underneath the radar, however, the real story is the development of a Trumpian future, shorn of his eccentricities and bad character and married to a deep longing in the American soul for a meaningful and inclusive vision of citizenship. Vought’s CARe and groups like it will play a crucial role in bringing this dream to fruition.

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