Today, I sit down with the president of The Heritage Foundation, Kevin Roberts, to discuss Heritage’s comprehensive strategy to win “the new Cold War” with the Chinese Communist Party, how Heritage has changed since Roberts’s arrival, the 2025 Presidential Transition Project, and Tucker Carlson’s last speech as a Fox host at Heritage’s 50th Anniversary Celebration.
“The deep state, the administrative state more broadly, is the rotten fruit of our individual members of Congress … not having the courage to pass bills or kill bills on behalf of self-governance,” says Roberts.
“This is precisely why Heritage—along with 54 other conservative organizations, 400 policy scholars—has been working so intently on Project 2025, the aim of which is to take the biggest dagger ever and place it firmly in the center of the heart of the deep state.”
Jan Jekielek: Kevin Roberts, such a pleasure to have you back on American Thought Leaders.
Kevin Roberts: It is always great to be with you, Jan.
Mr. Jekielek: First of all, congratulations on this huge event that you just organized celebrating Heritage’s 50th anniversary. Your keynote was Tucker Carlson, his last appearance before he left Fox suddenly. This was something none of us were expecting. Did you get any hints about this?
Mr. Roberts: No, I had no firsthand knowledge about that. I even made a joke about Tucker coming back to Heritage if his then current gig went south and that was completely in jest. But what I do know about Tucker is he’s one of the visionaries of our movement. We look forward to him landing on his feet, which I’m sure he will.
Mr. Jekielek: But what do you think happened?
Mr. Roberts: Fox was too focused on being the big corporate media giant and has lost touch with the everyday American. Heritage will always be on Fox if we’re invited to talk about the everyday American. We consider them friends, but Tucker’s an even closer friend. He’s bigger than Fox and the future of America really goes through Tucker’s mind, if you will.
Mr. Jekielek: This has been the number one rated show on television for quite some time and by quite a margin. You wonder what could possibly be the rationale in this situation, but we are in unprecedented times in the media. I felt like this is something we could actually discuss, because that’s very relevant to what Heritage is doing.
Mr. Roberts: If I may, and I know you well enough personally and know Epoch Times well enough to know that you love the truth. We live in a time when the larger an organization gets, the larger a corporation gets, even if it’s a friendly one like our friends at Fox, they become less enamored with telling the truth when it hurts. What so many Americans and so many people around the world love about Tucker and love about Epoch Times, is that you tell the truth. And dare I say, that’s also what they love about the Heritage Foundation.
It’s our job at Heritage. It’s my job in particular at Heritage to always sustain friendships with people who tell the truth, even when it hurts, because we have a country to save.
Mr. Jekielek: Are you ever worried about the fact that Heritage is kind of big when it comes to think tanks? It may be the largest one. I’m not sure, but I would guess it would be up there.
Mr. Roberts: Yes, sure. Sometimes when people use the derogatory phrase “Conservative, Inc,” sometimes when they’re thinking about Heritage. You know that I’m going to take the elephant in the room and put it on the table, and so I’m aware of that. But if you step inside Heritage, as you have done a few times, you know that because we’re supported by hundreds of thousands of regular Americans each year, as opposed to five or 10 white knights inside the imperial city of DC. Our DNA is to fight for everyday Americans. It’s something we have to be aware of, but part of our culture internally at Heritage is to be aware of that and to check whatever impulse that may come from, like going to the cocktail parties that so many establishment people like to do. It’s just not our jam, it’s not mine, and that’s one of the ways that we keep it real.
Mr. Jekielek: Since we’re talking about this, with systemic problems in many, many areas in our society, when things get very big, when the scale becomes very large, they start to take on a life of their own. They start acting to self-perpetuate.
Mr. Roberts: Self-perpetuation is the unhealthy symptom of bureaucracy. Any business and any organization is prone to that if it gets large enough. I see this most often in second or third generation family businesses, which were probably started with 100 bucks or 1,000 bucks that someone saved on the side and they put all their chips on the table. By the second or third generation, because of the success of that entrepreneur, his or her children and grandchildren haven’t really shared in that sacrifice.
Having started a K-12 school, being the second president of a small college, and running two nonprofit policy groups, the key is to always have each generation of colleagues participate and sacrifice—to know what it means, in our case at Heritage, to fight for the everyday American. When you start seeing an organization not take risks, that’s a key sign. To me, it’s a red flag that they’ve become part of the problem. They’re more focused on self-perpetuation.
Mr. Jekielek: Under your tenure, it seems like Heritage has started taking a lot more risks, and that seems very deliberate on your part.
Mr. Roberts: It’s very intentional every day.
Mr. Jekielek: What risk did you take that paid off the best, up to this point?
Mr. Roberts: A lot come to mind. My colleagues deserve all the credit for that, because they’re the ones in the trenches taking the risks. They’re the ones getting belligerent emails from the establishment in DC about why they are taking these risks.
But the one that’s paid off so much is our China paper. For the better part of a year we’ve been focused on making sure that the policy prescriptions coming out of Heritage relative to the Chinese Communist Party are vigorous, and that they understand and explain the stakes for free people around the world.
I will say, and no hubris when I say this, I’m so proud of my colleagues at Heritage. Jan, this is almost literally true, almost every policy person at Heritage, a couple hundred people, had a hand in that China paper—our domestic policy folks, our economists, our education scholars, and our foreign policy colleagues, particularly those who know about East Asia.
The CCP has infiltrated nearly every country in the world. This had to be a whole-of-Heritage approach to a whole-of-government problem. It’s already paying off because you see a shift in the rhetoric. In Congress, hopefully soon we’ll see a shift in some of the legislative priorities that are coming out.
Let’s hope that on January 20th, 2025, we replace the very CCP-friendly President of the United States with a man or a woman who knows what time it is, and that it’s time to confront them, to defeat them, and to eliminate them.
Mr. Jekielek: This is the “Winning the New Cold War,” paper. This is a very, very impressive piece of work. Recently, as I interviewed one of your fellows, Michael Pillsbury, I learned that you were looking at past proposed bills in many cases that were offered. This is thinking that has already been done. This isn’t something that you’ve rehashed from scratch.
A great many of these bills were actually very smart about what they were trying to accomplish, they just never made it. In one case, a bill got passed by the House, passed by the Senate, and then disappeared when the NDAA [National Defense Authorization Act] was passed in the end. That was astounding to me.
Mr. Roberts: It is, and that example is but one of several dozen. What we’re trying to do with this paper is survey the legislation, in the case of that particular law that has been passed. But also in addition to that, we want to propose new legislation that can piggyback on those good ideas.
But more than anything else we want to provide an honest, objective assessment of the policy landscape; that is, the problem side of policy, as well as on the solution side of policy. What we’re hoping to do with this paper is to build a foundation on which subsequent analyses by Heritage, and by a growing number of friends in the movement will be able to assess what we must do to confront the CCP. We’re more than cautiously optimistic that we have made some progress here. We’re really confident that we have helped to change the debate.
Mr. Jekielek: I’ll mention one piece, which is very risky in this town. You are advocating for stopping all CCP-lobbying dollars in this town, and there’s a lot of people that like those dollars.
Mr. Roberts: It’s outrageous to me, Jan, that there would be any American citizen within blocks of where you and I are sitting having this conversation who would take $1 from a CCP-interest. In other words, it would seem to me that someone would love this country so much, and understand the evil that the CCP represents and advocates around the planet, that they wouldn’t do that.
If it takes legislation to correct that, then Heritage is very happy to lead the way. We’re not going to stop working on that issue until there is a bill that bans lobbyists in this town from representing the Chinese Communist Party.
Mr. Jekielek: What are the one or two most important recommendations in that paper? I know that you’ve looked at this closely.
Mr. Roberts: There are several dozen recommendations. I would encourage people watching or listening to this to track it down. I say that as the President of Heritage, not just because it’s a Heritage paper, but as someone who loves this country, who wants every person on the planet to flourish, and knows that the CCP is standing in the way. This paper is the blueprint for how to fix it.
Having said that, at the top of the list is recognizing that there shouldn’t be CCP investment in the American military industry. We live at a time when we have supply chain issues, accentuated by overspending on the heroic Ukrainians. But the other problem is that we have American investment in China. We have to be careful, those of us who like a market economy, of banning American investment elsewhere.
What we also need to be doing is reinstilling in the CEOs and corporate boards of American businesses a desire not to invest in CCP-owned interests in China and elsewhere. Which leads me to the final point in terms of recommendations, because this goes beyond just the CCP. We need to be reshoring or friendshoring jobs that are in China. Americans should be benefiting by any additional military production that we’re going to be engaged in order to defend Taiwan, who we will defend.
There are a lot of recommendations in that paper. The ones that I’ve mentioned are focused on the defense posture that the United States must have toward the CCP. But I’ll also say we have to be really cognizant of the influence the CCP has in education, with the formerly named Confucius Institutes that have already been renamed something else. We should not be allowing the CCP to infiltrate our major research universities.
Mr. Jekielek: This bill that passed the House, passed the Senate, then disappeared from the NDAA was a bill that dealt with not buying drones from China. You would think, “Wow, that would be crazy.”
Mr. Roberts: It should be common sense.
Mr. Jekielek: Right. But to your other point about reshoring and friendshoring, there just aren’t a lot of other options. This is what I have heard from the industry. Let’s say you want to buy drones. Where do you get them? It’s a very serious situation in many areas.
Mr. Roberts: That’s true. There aren’t a lot of options for drones, and yet that’s a result of our own choices. That is to say it’s one thing for Heritage and some friends to push good bills through Congress. It’s one thing for a majority of members of the House and Senate to vote for that and for the President to sign it, that’s one thing. But it’s a much more important matter and a greater obligation for individual Americans, especially those who have capital to invest, to stop being so significantly worried about a few pennies of difference in investment.
That is, it’s more important to have an American-made drone or a drone made in a country that’s a real ally of ours, than it is to save a few dollars on a drone made in China. This is the kind of thing that must change in the United States. In other words, we’re not going to defeat the CCP simply by passing legislation. We need American entrepreneurs to worry about the United States first, American workers first, and the future of American freedom first, before they worry about, as they would tell you and me, their bottom line.
Mr. Jekielek: There is this idea that a strong America provides a higher level of security than a weaker America. Nobody would argue that America is not weaker now than it was 10 years ago. That creates a lot of instability, not just here, but also internationally.
Mr. Roberts: Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in the late 1980s, with each passing five years, or each passing decade, we have gotten weaker. Of course, we had the Afghanistan and Iraq wars, but actually those were a sign of weakness. They were the sign of a country that was decaying from within, and that was losing its own moral authority, not just abroad, but also domestically.
This is why at Heritage, we believe when we’re talking about the CCP and the threat that it poses, we aren’t just talking about a military posture, but we’re also talking about an economic and social posture. The United States is weaker, best as I can tell, in every way. The weakest that it’s become is not just with its own politics, but with our own society and culture, where you can’t love what you don’t know. Given how poorly we teach American history and civics, we have a full generation, if not more, of Americans who don’t appreciate what it is about America that causes most people in the world to see us as the North Star.
Mr. Jekielek: I want to ask you something, because Heritage is obviously considered a conservative think tank.
Mr. Roberts: I hope so.
Mr. Jekielek: A lot of people have been discussing, and I like to ask this question of my guests, with these conventional Left and Right measures people will say, “What does that even mean?” In the speech that Tucker Carlson gave, he talked about agreeing with people that he wouldn’t have imagined being on the same side with five years ago before COVID.
There’s a few alternative spectrums which have been proposed. One is a cognitive liberty spectrum; people that believe that you should be able to believe what you want to believe, versus people who believe you should believe something very specific and that everyone should believe that way. That’s one.
Another one is the people who have some sense of the transcendent, versus people who are purely transactional. It’s a very different mentality. It strikes me that is what Heritage is doing, and I haven’t seen the entirety, because you do a lot.
Mr. Roberts: It’s hard to keep up with everything we do.
Mr. Jekielek: A lot. I’m amazed you even know all of it.
Mr. Roberts: You just assume that I do.
Mr. Jekielek: Is it really just for conservatives? When I look at this China plan, this is not just for conservatives. This is just basic common sense.
Mr. Roberts: Yes, great question. Of course, this China plan, we would hope it would be adopted, endorsed, and advocated for by every American. In fact, I grew up at a time in the United States when Left-of-center folks and politicians would have endorsed this China plan that Heritage put out. We operate that way. We talk to Democrat offices in the House and Senate whose members would be real important advocates for this.
To your larger point about conservatism, I will say conservatism has always been about the transcendent. What Heritage is trying to do with the China paper, but even more broadly, is to say we’re just getting back to our roots as conservatives.
We’ve always been focused on the permanent things, as we like to say, in the American and Anglo tradition. The free market is part of that, and the economy obviously is part of that, and those are healthy symptoms of a very healthy society. Conservatives like Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, or T.S. Eliot have always been focused on the permanent things.
Heritage is trying to remind people that the reason you want to endorse the China paper, and the reason you want to pass those bills isn’t just to defeat the CCP. It isn’t just to say that conservatives in America have to win, but it’s for every American and every human being on earth to live a good life. That’s what conservatives care about the most.
Mr. Jekielek: Interesting. That’s definitely not the common rhetoric.
Mr. Roberts: No, especially in DC, because we have so many people who are former conservatives. They’re no longer conservatives. They actually reject the transcendent, and they reject the permanent things. What do they do? They’re only focused on the free market as if that’s the totality of American conservative thinking.
Mr. Jekielek: Fascinating. I was speaking with Mark Tapscott, one of our congressional correspondents. He actually worked at Heritage for six years under Ed Feulner. He said, “After Ed Feulner left Heritage, there was this perceived lack of direction, or maybe people were wondering what was going to happen.”
It certainly seems to me that today Heritage has a very clear direction in many areas, especially looking at this 2025 transition plan that you can barely lift, nevermind read. It seems to me like you’re very clear on what you’re doing at this point. How much did your joining Heritage play a role in that?
Mr. Roberts: It’s a fair question. I’m not only grateful to but friends with all of my predecessors, and so people know I am building on the foundations that they laid. If I’ve brought anything to Heritage, it is a clear direction. That comes not from some wisdom that I uniquely possess, but something that tens of millions of Americans possess.
You pretty much have to be a product of outside the beltway in order to possess this, and it’s called common sense. Common sense tells someone that there’s something broken about America. Common sense will then tell someone that a great venerable institution like Heritage, which has had many great leaders and many great scholars, has material resources. But even more important than the material resources, it has soft power. It has convening power, and it has influence.
Let’s use all of those things for the sake of saving America. I actually believe we have a very finite amount of time to change course in this country. I’m optimistic we’re going to do it, but I also don’t believe that we have the luxury of a few decades to do it.
That’s why if people observing Heritage the last couple of years in my leadership have a sense that we’re in a hurry, that we’re urgent, it’s because we are, every single day. The first thing I said to my colleagues when I was announced as president of Heritage was, “We’re going to be on offense, every hour and every day for the American people.” I’m so proud of them because we haven’t stopped yet.
Mr. Jekielek: You came from the Texas Public Policy Foundation. I found the Texas Public Policy Foundation to be one of the most active groups that I have come across, and impactful in terms of crafting state policy. How much did your tenure there impact what you’re doing now?
Mr. Roberts: Greatly. When I got to Texas Public Policy Foundation, it already had the reputation of being a do tank before being a think tank. That reality plus my experience in running an institution of higher education, starting my own school, and having an entrepreneurial background in the education world has created, at least from my perspective, a need for every nonprofit leader in the policy space to be worried about more than just writing white papers.
Unfortunately, inside Washington DC, that action is really uncommon. What we’re hoping for at Heritage is not just for ourselves to be successful with our own policy prescriptions, but to inspire some of the other policy organizations headquartered in DC on the political Right to do the same.
Mr. Jekielek: The biggest complaints I hear about what goes on in that building behind you is a lot of inaction, and a lot of avoidance of responsibility. “Maybe if I do something, someone might not like it, so it’s just better not to do anything.” I’ve actually heard that from so many people over the years. It’s unbelievable.
There is also this whole question of whether Congress has ceded a lot of its authority to the agencies. Some years ago you would say the word deep state and everyone would laugh, “What are you talking about?” Now everyone says, “There’s something very deep in this state.” I don’t know if they’re thinking in those words exactly, but you know what I’m saying.
Mr. Roberts: I do. There are two things. The first is there is a lot of risk aversion inside the United States Capitol. If Alexis de Tocqueville were here almost 200 years after he visited the United States, he wouldn’t be surprised. Because he observed that politicians, republics, democracies, and constitutional monarchies always suffered from a certain amount of political cowardice. It was incumbent upon the people, their constituents, to buck them up and help them grow a spine.
The result of that, to your point about the deep state, point number two, is that the deep state, and the administrative state more broadly is the rotten fruit of our individual members of Congress, and our two senators from each of our respective states not having the courage to pass bills or kill bills on behalf of self-governance.
This is precisely why Heritage, along with 54 other conservative organizations and 400 policy scholars, has been working so intently on Project 2025, the aim of which is to take the biggest dagger ever and place it firmly in the center of the heart of the deep state. When we do that, not if, but when we do that, not only will we see the demise of the deep state, but we’ll also see members of Congress be inspired to do their jobs.
Mr. Jekielek: What do you think right now? Because I’ve heard, “Congress is now taking its oversight more seriously. There is a subcommittee on the weaponization of the federal government. There are multiple committees focused on China.” At the same time, there are compelling opinions saying, “These guys look like they might just be spinning their wheels. Is there really anything happening?” What do you think?
Mr. Roberts: It took a while for them, the House members of Congress, to get all of their staff together. It took a little bit longer than it should have. But as we sit here, I can report that they’re largely staffed up and they’ve always had the intention of doing their business. It goes back to the point that I made about Heritage always being in a hurry and understanding the urgency of the moment.
It’s also why a year ago Heritage started our Oversight Project, which is designed to provide the ammunition and to some extent the personnel that those committees you mentioned need in order to do their jobs. I’m really happy as we sit in the middle of spring in 2023 that there’s finally some momentum there. It’s really important as we move forward that those committees focus on the right topics of investigation and pair those with good legislation, for example, debt ceiling and border security legislation.
In other words, it can’t just be about the investigations. There’s some injustice that needs to be addressed. Obviously, Heritage is investing in that, but we also know from the time we spend outside DC, which is most of the hours in my week, that people are looking for an aspirational vision for the future. We’ve got to pair the redressing of grievances with what we’re going to do when we’re fully in power in a couple of years.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s redressing grievances, but also having accountability for things which have gone egregiously wrong. The Twitter Files certainly exposed a lot of that, alongside multiple lawsuits. Discovery in those lawsuits has shown activity that shouldn’t be happening, whether legal or not.
Mr. Roberts: That’s right. Heritage fully accepts all of that. My concern is that we get so focused on our side on the investigations, members of Congress sometimes forget to connect that investigation with how it affects the self-governance of the everyday American. The media does a really good job of driving the wedge between those two things.
It’s more of a messaging criticism about American political conservatives, which is that it isn’t enough just to do the investigations. You have to constantly explain why you’re doing the investigations. It isn’t just about the people who are involved in them, per se. It’s about all of us.
There’s a two-tiered system of justice, not just for President Trump, but for all of us. Ask Mark Houck, the pro-life activist in Pennsylvania. This is what Heritage brings to the table. On one hand, we bring the ammunition to conduct the investigations. On the other hand, we bring the messaging that helps remind Americans why they need to care.
Mr. Jekielek: It really does seem that if you have certain political viewpoints, you can get away with a lot that you wouldn’t have been able to get away with in the past. Whereas if you have other political viewpoints, you feel the full weight of the law, even when it’s unreasonable for that to be the case. There are these FBI SWAT teams being used for situations where it’s just preposterous.
Mr. Roberts: It’s true. And as we sit here, do you think that there’s much of a chance that any of the political allies of President Biden will have to deal with the 87,000 new IRS agents? Of course not. But those of us at Heritage, people in Right-of-center media outlets, common sense media outlets that are not mouthpieces for the regime, we have to be worried. That’s unconscionable in modern America. All of us at Heritage wake up every day fighting that, and looking forward to the day when we can finally fix it.
Mr. Jekielek: Please describe to me the regime that you just mentioned, what is that?
Mr. Roberts: There are two elements of it. The figureheads of the regime are Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, but the regime is a long-running project of the political Left. It really started or was amplified in the late ’60s and early ’70s in the anti-Vietnam War protest of the academic Left.
The short version of the story is that those people have been in political power for the last couple of decades. They’re members of the House, members of the Senate, and staff in the executive branch of the United States. The reason I insist on calling it a regime is because these people don’t believe in small R republican principles. They don’t believe that there is a common good to which they owe a moral obligation, as many Republicans and Democrat leaders leading up to this point have.
Heritage insists on calling it a regime, because they’re not focused on self-governance, and they hate what the everyday American stands for. We could sit here and go through the litany of pejorative ways that Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden and Barack Obama have descr