A question looms over the 2024 GOP presidential primary: Will the party return to its pre-2016 identity, characterized by former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, or will it continue along the path set by Donald Trump?

The contrast between the Republican nominees of 2012 and 2016 has spawned a rhetorical civil war over the definition of American conservatism, with intellectuals battling over public manifestos which outline two very different futures for the Republican Party. 

One group, under the banner of “national conservatism,” issued a statement of principles last year to try to provide a framework for the former president’s America First agenda focused on national identity. The document claims the old conservative consensus of tax cuts, deregulation and foreign interventionism has failed the working class and deserved to be disrupted by Trump’s rise to the presidency. 

In reaction to this reworking of the conservative project, a coalition promoting familiar ideas under a new name — “freedom conservatism” — arose in defense of what the pre-Trump GOP aspired to, publishing a statement of its own in July. It condemns rising authoritarianism on the left and the right, and emphasizes the importance of fiscal responsibility, cultural pluralism and individual liberty for human flourishing and the American dream. 

While intellectual disputes are common in the world of beltway think tanks, the disagreement between national conservatives and freedom conservatives seems to be playing an outsized role in the current presidential primary competition. 

Republican candidates like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy and, of course, former President Trump, appear to align with national conservatives, downplaying the importance of U.S. involvement in Ukraine and advocating for the executive’s role in shaping the economy.

Candidates like former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former Vice President Mike Pence, on the other hand, have been broadcasting messages taken straight from the freedom conservative playbook, emphasizing the importance of tackling the nation’s debt and promoting “American leadership on the world stage.”

And given that the Republican Party has not updated its platform since before Trump was elected, there’s no clear answer as to whether the party will be characterized by a focus on national identity or individual freedom going forward. 

The Deseret News spoke with thought leaders on both sides of the “NatCon-FreeCon” divide to get a better understanding of what the diverging visions for the GOP look like.

What is national conservatism?

National conservatism emerged as a significant movement within the Republican Party following Trump’s election to office, according to Matthew Continetti, director of domestic policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of “The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism.”

Building on Trump’s views of restricted immigration, nationalist foreign policy and high-stakes culture wars, proponents of national conservatism tried to respond to the “changing composition of the Republican electorate,” Continetti told the Deseret News — an electorate that is increasingly working class and skeptical of the D.C. establishment. 

A Deseret News poll conducted in April found that working class Americans thought Trump represented their views more than any other politician, with nearly half of respondents saying he represented their views, and more than a quarter saying he represented their views more than any other politician listed. 

“(National conservatives) claim that the right has ignored the nation,” Continetti said, by embracing “a laissez-faire doctrine in trade and immigration” as well as “a universalist liberalism in foreign policy that interferes with other nations.”

These criticisms — what Continetti calls the “NatCon worldview” — of post-Cold War conservatism, went mainstream with Trump’s early and incessant attacks on the Republican status-quo, including criticizing “forever wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq, and refusing to run on reducing government spending. 

And it was Trump’s forceful shift of acceptable opinions within the GOP that opened the way for a new faction of conservative intellectuals to rise to prominence under the national conservative moniker, according to Continetti.

Following several international conferences that started in 2019, national conservatives, led by Yoram Hazony, chairman of the Edmund Burke Foundation, inked a statement of principles in the summer of 2022. 

Its 84 signatories include Rod Dreher, former senior editor for The American Conservative; Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA; Christopher Rufo, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute; as well as conservative journalists, professors and intellectuals from the U.S. and several European countries.

The statement puts forward 10 guiding principles, ranging from a rejection of globalism to an injunction for the government to invest in domestic research projects. But it was the statement’s support for a blending of church and state and an overturning of free-market orthodoxy that drew the most attention. 

“Where a Christian majority exists, public life should be rooted in Christianity and its moral vision, which should be honored by the state and other institutions both public and private,” the fourth tenet reads. This point is followed shortly thereafter by a statement that “economic policy must serve the general welfare of the nation” by restoring the country’s “manufacturing capabilities” and prioritizing “stable family and congregational life and child-raising.”

Oren Cass, executive director of the American Compass — and the domestic policy director for Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign — believes that national conservatism’s friendliness toward labor unions and industrial policy is not a departure from American conservatism but a return, after years of missteps that hurt the American people. 

“My view, and the basis of the work that we do at American Compass, is that the American economy, and capitalism generally, has not been delivering well on its promise in recent decades,” Cass told the Deseret News, pointing to stagnating wages and a hollowed out manufacturing system that creates dependence on other nations. 

“In order to address it, you have to actually think about the kinds of rules and constraints that are needed on a market to make it perform well. Just blind faith in globalization and free trade with everybody, including China, isn’t going to work very well,” Cass said. 

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What is freedom conservatism?

National conservatism’s official declaration was met with concern by never-Trump Republicans and liberals alike, and prompted those who believe in a more economically libertarian, socially pluralistic conservatism to take a stand in mid July — less to stake out new territory than to draw a line in the sand, according to Continetti. 

“I think freedom conservatism is a restatement of conservative principles that have guided the movement since the end of the Second World War,” Continetti said. 

The document begins with a reference to the famous Sharon Statement, long thought of as the standard for American conservatism. Also framed around 10 points, it goes on to describe the importance of free enterprise and law and order. 

Some of the starkest differences between the freedom conservative statement of principles and that of national conservatives are found on the issues of debt and immigration. 

While the freedom conservative statement declares that “the skyrocketing federal debt … is an existential threat to the future prosperity, liberty, and happiness of Americans,” the national debt is not mentioned in the national conservatism statement. 

And while the freedom conservative statement says that “immigration is a principal driver of American prosperity and achievement” and is what makes the country exceptional, the national conservatism statement calls for more restrictive immigration policies, up to and including a complete moratorium. 

The number of signatories to the freedom conservative statement is almost 200, and includes conservative veterans such as Washington Post columnist George Will and Jonah Goldberg of The Dispatch; as well as other prominent voices like Ilya Shapiro, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute; Russell Moore, editor in chief of Christianity Today; Benji Backer, president of the American Conservation Coalition; and a host of professors, journalists and former government officials. 

“I think it shows you that there was a real hunger for the restatement of these core principles that individual liberty, economic freedom and political freedom matter, that religious liberty matters,” said Avik Roy, president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity, and Romney’s health care policy adviser on his 2012 presidential campaign. “All those factors are pretty essential to what makes America great. And yet they’re being increasingly forgotten by people on the left and the right.”

The weeks following the release of the freedom conservative statement saw a number of conservative intellectuals arguing over the merits and faults of both statements in a series of essays published in National Review, the Financial Times and elsewhere. 

Roy argued at the time in the pages of National Review that the debate “between FreeCons and NatCons” was far more than an internecine think tank squabble: it had the power to change the trajectory of the country by shaping the perception of what makes it great. 

“What made America great is that Americans had the freedom to be creative, to try new things, to do things in a different way than what had been done in the past, and to live the lives that they wanted to live,” Roy told the Deseret News. 

Roy said “the fundamental difference between the freedom conservatives and the national conservatives” is optimism about a future where Americans are given freedom to choose their religious, economic and cultural lifestyles. National conservatives, according to Roy, “say free enterprise and individual liberty are all good and well” until they run up against what is determined to be in the national, or community, interest. 

However, responding to Roy’s article with his own column in the Financial Times, Cass says these criticisms have less to do with ideological differences than they do with a fear of taking substantive positions on advancing and preserving conservative values. 

Cass says the freedom conservative statement, taking only 800 words to outline its guiding principles next to the national conservative’s 1,500, is more of an “aesthetic” display meant to ruffle few feathers and suggest even fewer solutions to today’s unique economic and national security challenges. In that sense the freedom conservative statement is “anachronistic,” according to Cass, relying on outdated “market fundamentalism” and “a vague ode to a nation of immigrants.”

“I’m not saying you have to have a policy agenda for a statement of principles,” Cass clarified. “But your principles do have to give some indication of what you think, or how it’s different from what anybody else thinks.”

In reply, Roy said the freedom conservative statement of principles is just that, and that many of the signatories, including himself, work at think tanks with specific policy proposals addressing and offering concrete steps for each of the statement’s points. 

Regardless of what is and isn’t included in both statements, Roy said the difference between the two boils down to this: “We believe that free enterprise is the foundation of prosperity and that individual liberty is one of the most important rights there is. And that is not true of the national conservatives.”

Which path should the GOP take?

As to which statement outlines a more promising outlook for the GOP, Continetti, who has made it his work to trace the history of the party to better understand its future, offers a metaphor. 

“I would just say the proof is in the pudding,” Continetti said. “All the places where the right has been most successful have been places where the right acted in line within the tradition of freedom, and the idea of limited constitutional government, and with the idea that experts have no claim to superior knowledge about the economy or anything else.”

Continetti pointed to the accomplishments of the Trump presidency, which he believes align more with freedom conservatives’ goals, including originalist judicial appointments, deregulation and tax cuts, as well as advances recently made by the school choice movement in states across the country. 

But what Continetti doesn’t mention is that Trump’s policy agenda for a potential second term look much more like a national conservative wishlist, with plans to draw from think tanks that have embraced the movement, such as the Heritage Foundation, to fill White House positions, and plans to bring federal agencies under direct presidential control

Trump currently leads in national polling averages by 40 percentage points over his nearest GOP primary opponent. And the second and third runners-up, DeSantis and Ramaswamy, have both strived to make a name for themselves among national conservatives, with the former wielding state executive power to send a message to private companies seen as too “woke” and the latter saying he would cap the number of refugees admitted into the U.S. each year at “darn close to zero.

According to Continetti, whatever path the Republican Party takes it is paramount that it preserve one thing — not a particular tradition or way of life, but a statement of principle — that “freedom and human dignity and belief in God are not in conflict, but can cooperate.” 

“These are the principles that have guided the conservative movement in the main for decades now,” Continetti said. “And I don’t think they should be thrown away lightly.”