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Avik Roy, a longtime fixture in Republican policy-wonk circles, made a splash this summer when he organized a manifesto pushing back on the nationalist, market-skeptical tendencies on the new, Trump-era right. The document, signed by Jeb Bush, Grover Norquist, George Will, and a couple hundred other conservative worthies, generated a decent amount of inside-the-Beltway buzz when it launched in July.

It wasn’t just that Freedom Conservatism: A Statement of Principles highlighted a family feud within the movement. It was the very fact that its pities about the majesty of capitalism were even controversial — an indication of just how far conservative economic theology had drifted.

An even bigger indication came early this month. That’s when Joel Griffith and Peter St. Onge, two scholars from the Heritage Foundation, reached out to Roy to ask that their names be removed from the document.

“They both emailed me at the tail end of Labor Day weekend saying that they had been required by Heritage to take their names off the signatory list,” Roy told me. Unlike many think tanks, Heritage has a longstanding policy requiring that employees vet their publications to make sure they don’t contradict the foundation’s official stance — a rule the pair had apparently fallen afoul of.

But what Roy said he couldn’t figure out was just what aspect of the manifesto represented a problem for Heritage, once the brightest star in Washington’s Reaganite policy firmament.

“We launched this document in mid July,” he said. “Both Joel and Peter signed on after that, within several days. And here we are more than a month later and this order came through over the weekend. So what’s happened in that four-plus week period? Has Heritage’s position changed over those four weeks? If so, how?”

They’re not saying. St. Onge did not respond to a request for comment, and Griffith referred me to Heritage’s communications staff, who in turn pointed me to detailed explanations of the foundation’s “one voice” policy and cited recent statements from Heritage President Kevin Roberts decrying “hyphenated conservatism,” the impulse to subdivide the movement and define rivals out of it.

Rather than anything in the actual document — which populist types initially dismissed as anodyne claptrap — it appears to be a matter of the company the Heritage scholars were keeping: A bunch of mostly anti-Trump types created the statement as an implicit response to 2022’s National Conservatism: A Statement of Principles manifesto, a much more MAGA document full of culture-war broadsides and refrains against globalization that was signed largely by Trump-friendly bigwigs.

In an internal civil war that has grown increasingly tribal, it’s less about the words in the statement than the names underneath it.

And in 2023, if you’re trying to stay out of hot water with donors and activists on the Trumpy right, best not to line up with the establishment crowd, even if their statement is a bunch of mom-and-apple-pie stuff.

Heritage’s partisans put a more highbrow spin on it — saying it’s the “FreeCons” who are trying to decide who’s acceptable. “The point of the freedom conservatism statement is not for anyone to precisely tease out the hidden meaning,” said Saurabh Sharma of American Moment, a National Conservative-aligned group that sits on a Heritage advisory board. “It’s for the organizers of that letter to establish the tent of acceptable opinion and therefore the tent of acceptable people.”

Given Heritage’s status as a “mothership,” Sharma said, “part of the goal is to have good relations with all factions of the conservative movement. So it makes no sense under the coalitional attitude to be allowing staff to sign on to a document trying to banish from the conservative movement a faction that they don’t like.”

He’s not necessarily wrong. It’s actually a pretty clever trap — create a document that says you love freedom, effectively dare your rivals not to sign it, at which point you can say, “Oh, so you’re against freedom?” The public unsigning enables Roy and his allies to cast themselves as free-speech martyrs against the Trumpy Political Correctness of the far-right.

But in terms of disingenuousness, the Heritage position is much wackier. Under Roberts, who took over in late 2021, the organization has rapidly changed its posture on a variety of issues where it used to get in trouble with conservative populists. Rather than sanctimoniously eschew hyphenated conservatism, the leadership has gleefully flayed the old establishment and emphasized populists and nationalists.

While Heritage people didn’t sign the National Conservatism manifesto either, Roberts made his allegiance clear in a speech at last year’s convention of the faction: “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.”

“There is no such thing as a conservative cosmopolitan,” he said in a recent speech. So much for not banishing people or dividing the sacred movement.

In that same speech, which came between the Freedom Conservatism manifesto’s publication and the Heritage staffers’ asking to remove their names, Roberts also criticized Roy’s group, saying it “seemed to double down on many of the elite misjudgments that led the Right to its diminished state.”

“Today, we face many different challenges,” he said, explaining the foundation’s evolution. “Cultural Marxism, corporate anti-Americanism, an increasingly weaponized federal government, anti-parent schools, family disintegration, and the crisis of boys. And the fact is that tax relief, budget cuts, and a military buildup are not going to solve these new existential problems.”

Fair enough. Circumstances change and opinions should be able to change, too. Consistency is not always a virtue. Heritage’s rules about getting your statements vetted are no secret. But the dramatically changing party line and the multiple abrupt departures of dissenting staffers and a theatrical shunning of erstwhile allies lends a Politburo vibe to the whole atmosphere.

“It’s like we’re back in City College in 1938 with Alcove 1 and Alcove 2 and the Trotskyites and the Stalinists,” mused Tevi Troy, a veteran of Beltway conservative policy debates and someone who has written thoughtfully on the meaning of think tanks themselves. It was a time and place of rather different politics, but a similar sense of peril — and a similar fetish for manifestos.

Go ahead and dismiss the signature showdown as a bunch of policy wonks playing intellectual-gladiator dress-up, but consider this: With Heritage assembling a massive database designed to staff the next GOP administration — the $22 million “Project 2025” has been likened to a conservative LinkedIn — the question of who’s in and out of favor is important well beyond the world of think tank denizens.

In a statement, Heritage Chief Advancement Officer Andy Olivastro dismissed the issue as “small ball,” saying that, “We keep our eye on the task at hand: unifying and galvanizing the conservative movement for the betterment of our nation and world. The stakes are incredibly high, so we must band together to stop the Left’s force-feeding of cultural Marxism down Americans’ throats.”

But for all the talk about keeping its eyes on the fight against the left, Heritage has actually thrown itself into battling conservative dissent against Trumpism. Sometimes, it’s just impish: When the American Enterprise Institute featured Liz Cheney at its “Constitution Day” lecture last fall, Heritage offered a cheeky bit of counter-programming in the same time slot: A talk by Harriet Hageman, the Trump admirer who had just unseated the Jan. 6 investigating GOP scion.

Other times, it’s downright infuriating to intra-conservative rivals. During August’s Republican debate, a Heritage-sponsored ad took issue with aid to Ukraine. An accompanying post from the foundation’s social-media account implied that American assistance was hoovering money away from helping Hawaii battle its fires. The post was illustrated with a picture of a bustling, prosperous-looking Kyiv. Whatever the merits of the current Heritage position on war aid, the imagery looked more like campaign-operative hackery than think-tank ballast.

“Willful mischaracterization and minimization of the conflict,” shot back Klon Kitchen, one of the Heritage national-security scholars who had broken over Ukraine issues, on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter. “Obvious and offensive.”

When the Freedom Conservatism manifesto first landed, I wrote that there was a fascinating ideological debate taking place on the right — but it was thus far just happening among people who attend Beltway policy gabfests, not among candidates that voters can in turn support or oppose. Might that actually be changing? Last week, former Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech taking sharp exception to “the siren song of populism unmoored from conservative values,” using the old Reagan line about it being “a time for choosing.”

Roberts, naturally, criticized the speech. “I disagree, all of us at Heritage do,” he told Fox Business. “Ultimately, what Vice President Pence doesn’t understand, as it’s revealed in that speech, is that what he calls populism is just American people, ordinary Americans saying we’ve had enough of self-appointed elites claiming power for themselves, calling it something that sounds good and then telling us that it’s actually good for us.” (Some weeks earlier, a Heritage staffer had slammed a Pence response during a Tucker Carlson Iowa forum as “disqualifying.” Unlike the manifesto signatures, the statement remains live X.)

Once again, it wasn’t clear whether the issue was with the substance of Pence’s comments or the company he seemed to be keeping.

“I don’t think there’s anything in the text of that speech that Pence gave that they disagree with,” Tim Chapman, a senior advisor to Pence’s Advancing American Freedom nonprofit, told me. “I think the disagreement is about association with certain strains of conservatism. If you look at the speech, the speech is basically tried and true conservative policy that Heritage has fought for for 50 years.”

Policing who gets to be on your team has long been a project of movement intellectuals on the right as well as the left. William F. Buckley Jr. is celebrated in conservative mythology for excommunicating John Birch Society extremists. But at a certain point, defining out otherwise like-minded folks becomes an exercise in subtraction — one that makes Heritage’s leadership look like hacks or snowflakes.

Chapman, a staunch conservative and former chief of staff to longtime Heritage founder Ed Feulner, also didn’t sign Roy’s manifesto. But he was not enthusiastic about the idea of making staffers take their names off it. “It’s definitely an unforced error,” he said this week. “The statement is well within the bounds of legitimate debate on the right and pulling your name off after the fact just gives the impression that you are picking teams.”

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