Why is the Heritage Foundation Embracing Viktor Orban?

Why is the Heritage Foundation Embracing Viktor Orban?

The Heritage Foundation is jettisoning Reagan for Trump. 

Since it was founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich and Edwin Feulner, the Heritage Foundation has functioned, more or less, as the keeper of the conservative movement’s flame. During the 1980s, it not only acted as something of a clearing house for Reagan administration personnel but also championed an aggressive anti-communist foreign policy, wherever and whenever it could. 

But in recent years, under the leadership of its president Kevin Roberts, the venerable think-tank has begun to reinvent itself, undergoing the foreign policy equivalent of injecting Botox and consuming Ozempic to cut a new and more dashing figure in Washington. It’s jettisoning the Reagan-era beliefs that first brought it glory to embrace the America First policies championed by former President Donald J. Trump—particularly when it comes to Ukraine.

Rather than support Ukraine’s struggle to oppose Russian domination, Heritage is actively seeking to undermine it. Over the past year or so, Heritage has steadily opposed efforts to assist Ukraine, deeming it a wasteful diversion of American funds. Now, Heritage is meeting behind closed doors with Hungarian officials today and tomorrow to try to stymie any further aid to Ukraine. Where Heritage once defended “captive nations” during the Cold War and called for the rollback of communism, it now portrays that as old hat. Instead, it seeks to condemn Kyiv to Russian captivity. In a vivid symbol of how much has changed at the Washington think tank, a rally took place Monday morning outside Heritage organized by the American Coalition for Ukraine to decry the organization’s newly pliant posture toward the Kremlin. “WWRD,” read one sign—What Would Reagan Do?

This was the very question that the Wall Street Journal’s Kate Bachelder Odell asked in October in a pungent op-ed called, “What time is it at the Heritage Foundation?” A week after her op-ed appeared, the editorial page itself declared that Heritage was wrong to encourage lawmakers to separate aid to Israel from Kyiv, calling it a “false choice.”

As Heritage 2.0 takes shape, an ideological sorting out is occurring. A number of scholars have departed from the think-tank, including Luke Coffey, who decamped to the Hudson Institute. In September, Heritage announced that Hudson’s Christopher DeMuth, the longtime president of the American Enterprise Institute, is joining its ranks as a distinguished fellow. DeMuth has retrofitted himself from a free marketeer into a Trumpian national conservative. While interviewing Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, in February 2020 in Rome as part of a national conservatism conference, DeMuth fawned over him as a great leader.

Writing on “X” today, Kim Holmes, a former vice-president at Heritage, chimed in to warn that “Groups, institutions, and individuals who call themselves conservatives while organizing and lobbying against aid to Ukraine are creating a legacy of shame that will haunt them and their cause for decades. Will be remembered as betraying American security and values.”

Will they? Heritage, to borrow a British term, is taking a flutter on Trump’s reelection, both in opposing aid to Ukraine and in touting its Project 2025 to reinvent the federal government in Trump’s own image. It’s a big gamble. If Trump is elected, Heritage will once more be the most influential conservative think-tank in America, much as it was during the Reagan era. But if he loses, it is more likely to be remembered as something else—the Darlington Hall of Washington, DC.

Jacob Heilbrunn is editor of The National Interest and is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center. He has written on both foreign and domestic issues for numerous publications, including The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Wall Street JournalFinancial TimesForeign AffairsReutersWashington Monthly, and The Weekly Standard. He has also written for German publications such as Cicero, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and Der Tagesspiegel. In 2008, his book They Knew They Were Right: the Rise of the Neocons was published by Doubleday. It was named one of the one hundred notable books of the year by The New York Times. He is the author of America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance with Foreign Dictators, coming in 2024.

Image: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com.