Reflections from Principles First, an Anti-Trump Conservative Conference

Last weekend, an organization called Principles First held a summit in Washington, D.C., which was attended by over 400 people. The conference brought together a wide range of people who could generally be considered to represent the center-right of today’s American political spectrum: Republicans, independents, and even a few Democrats who think of themselves as at least somewhat “conservative” but who oppose Donald Trump and his toxic brand of politics.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) giving keynote address

I attended this two-day event because as an independent and former Democrat who rejects both Trumpism as well as the woke left that has increasingly taken over the Democratic Party, I wanted to find out if a center-right movement could feel like my new political home. I also wanted to gauge the strengths and weaknesses of the efforts underway to form a meaningful political coalition to oppose Trump and his disciples in upcoming election cycles, either from within the Republican Party or through the creation of a centrist third party or trans-partisan alliance.

Overall, I found the Principles First Summit to be substantive, engaging, and sometimes inspiring in its tone and content. The group that organized it, as well as other organizations represented, seemingly contain much of the seeds that will be necessary for the growth of a powerful grassroots movement to present a positive vision for America — a broadly inclusive political alternative to compete with the extreme woke Democrats and Trumpist Republicans.

At the same time, it became clear to me that much more work needs to be done, and that voices such as my own, who come out of the classically liberal populist Democratic tradition, are essential for such a movement to fully appreciate what is happening in American politics today and to formulate the strategies necessary to move beyond the divisive ideologies that increasingly dominate our country’s two major political parties.

Background and Context

Principles First is a volunteer-based organization founded by Heath Mayo, a corporate attorney who, despite not being a politician or career political activist, has brought together an impressive array of political thinkers and leaders in what he calls the “principled lane” of Trump-era American conservatism. They are united primarily by opposition to the demagogic, anti-democratic impulses of Trump and his movement, but also to a large degree by differences of opinion about policy issues, holding to more traditional conservative (and classical liberal) viewpoints such as the need for morally principled American involvement in the world rather than isolationism, and embracing pluralism and immigration rather than xenophobia.

The speakers at last weekend’s conference included recognizable names such as Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), who spoke in person, and Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), by recorded video — both of whom serve on the January 6th Select Committee investigating the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol — as well as Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensberger, a Republican who stood up to President Trump’s corrupt pressure to “find” enough nonexistent votes for him to win the state in the 2020 election. Capitol Hill police officer Harry Dunn was presented with an award for his bravery in protecting the lives of members of Congress during the January 6th attack, and retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, whose testimony featured prominently in President Trump’s first impeachment, spoke about Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Among the dozens of speakers and panelists, there were several more elected officials and former politicians, as well as prominent political journalists, policy wonks from various think tanks, and activists from organizations trying to elect principled moderate-to-conservative, anti-Trump candidates to office. It was an impressive roster — and notably, it represented a fairly wide spectrum of opinion, rather than a dogmatic adherence to one leader or point of view on all the issues.

The Principles First gathering in D.C. was taking place at the same time as two other conferences for American conservatives being held in Orlando, Florida. The biggest one, attended by thousands of people, was CPAC, where former President Trump was the keynote speaker, and where Sen. Rick Scott (R-FL) said the biggest threat to America is the “militant left wing” who are the “enemy within.” Meanwhile, the America First Political Action Conference, which was organized by avowed white supremacist Nick Fuentes, featured even more inflammatory rhetoric from politicians such as far-right Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and another speaker who suggested executing political adversaries in the electric chair.

What Principles First Got Right

One of the speakers at the Principles First Summit said that “Most of us are probably here because the right is having an identity crisis and you’re going through that in some way.” I’m sure that was true for most people in the room, but as for me, as a refugee from the leftward-lurching Democrats, I was an outsider among the outsiders. This gave me an interesting perspective. I felt that I was perhaps able to appreciate some things about the event that people who have been steeped in conservatism for many years wouldn’t necessarily pick up on.

One such thing was the way everyone there could come together as proud Americans, even though they had grave concerns about their country. There was no shortage of criticism expressed about the terrible things that have been happening in America — corruption, injustice, threats to the constitutional order, and so on. Despite these concerns, the conference began on both days with everyone in the hall standing up, facing the American flag, placing their hand over their heart, and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I found this to be an incredibly meaningful symbolic gesture. Participating in this civic ritual took me back to my childhood in the 1980s, when we recited the Pledge every day at the beginning of school.

At Principles First — like at school in the ‘80s — nobody remained seated in protest. Nobody kneeled, such as liberals so often do today when the National Anthem is sung. Nobody took the attitude that because America isn’t perfect, we should be ashamed of our country and decline to participate in its civic rituals or instead use them as an opportunity to display our own supposedly superior moral virtue. As I recited the words of the Pledge with hundreds of other people in the convention hall, I felt a solidarity that I can no longer feel with people on the left who take a profoundly negative view of America. It was like breathing clean air for the first time in years, after breathing a poisonous fume.

I felt this way even though I knew that I disagreed with many of the people in the room about some important political issues. But it didn’t matter, because we all seemed to love and care about our country so deeply. Therefore, we could disagree without being disagreeable. Throughout the conference, I noticed was the way that people with very different opinions were able to discuss and debate with each other cordially, without accusing each other of being immoral or a traitor to the cause. This also was a breath of fresh air for me, considering my political background.

We all seemed to love and care about our country so deeply. Therefore, we could disagree without being disagreeable.

Some conservatives might not realize that the Democratic Party today is equally, if not more monolithically ideological than the Republicans. If you’re a Democrat, you’re expected to believe in continual expansion of the powers and spending of the federal government; and if you don’t — such as in the case of Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema who recently opposed the “Build Back Better” bill — you will face fierce criticism from most of your fellow Democrats, including the president. Perhaps even more universally expected among Democrats is to embrace woke identity politics. Any deviation from the idea that America today remains a systemically racist country on a profound level, and that schoolchildren should be taught to believe this, and (ironically) that school admissions should be based in part on race rather than merit alone, is intolerable among Democrats and will often result in false allegations of bigotry — and this is but one example. From personal experience, I can say that there are very few issues, whether cultural or economic, on which Democrats in the Trump era may disagree and remain in the good graces of their party and its active members.

But you can be a Republican today and take a wide variety of positions on many issues. For example, Republicans in good standing can believe in a nationalist trade policy or in global free markets — and both points of view got airtime at the Principles First conference. Republicans can believe in less government spending or more. As one panelist pointed out with dismay, federal spending increased more during Trump’s four years in office than during Democratic President Barack Obama’s eight years; and another panelist sardonically noted that Republican Sen. Josh Hawley “voted for more government spending than [liberal Democratic Sen.] Elizabeth Warren.”

The cordial and substantive presentation of differing views on trade and the role and size of government was, in my opinion, one of the most positive aspects of the Principles First conference. In a panel discussion on national security issues, one of the panelists said that in his vision of America, “We are not just global merchants around the world. We stand for something and we are supposed to stand for something,” namely, certain moral values and principles, rather than just maximizing GDP through raw, unfettered capitalism. Another panelist, however, said that free trade is the best way spread American values, even to authoritarian countries like China, rather than imposing punitive tariffs as Trump did and President Biden has continued.

In a panel discussion on equality and opportunity, a questioner from the audience asserted that the financial crisis of 2008 revealed that the government had not done enough to regulate an out-of-control banking industry, and that the bankers going unpunished while the middle and working class suffered was morally unacceptable. This elicited hearty applause — as did a libertarian panelist’s rebuttal.

Conservatism is indeed going through an identity crisis, as these examples illustrate, especially when considered in conjunction with the other conservative conferences that were going on at the same time, where even more types of viewpoints were aired. Principles First brought together a wide spectrum of people who are united by their belief in upholding basic American principles such as democracy, the rule of law, and a pluralism that does not undermine pride and unity in our nation.

Georgia Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan: “We need a new generation of leaders who inspire — who believe America’s best days are in front of us, not behind us.”

Many speakers talked about the importance of our democratic institutions and how Trump has eroded them. As important as that is, what I found more compelling was what seemed to me like the beginning of a reaching toward a new, positive message among conservatives who spoke at this event — a message that I believe to be desperately needed in America today. We are living in grim times. Most people feel that our country is in decline and is coming apart. That’s why I was encouraged to hear Georgia Lieutenant Governor Geoff Duncan say that “We need to focus on common sense and move on from the 2020 election. … We need a new generation of leaders who inspire — who believe that America’s best days are in front of us, not behind us.”

Duncan, a principled, non-Trumpist conservative who is the author of a book called GOP 2.0, shared a story of how when he was a minor league baseball player, his pitching coach told him he needed to throw a new pitch to a batter that he hadn’t ever thrown in a game before. Initially he was afraid to do it, because he wasn’t sure if it would work. But that was the only way to get the batter out. As Duncan concluded his speech, “We need to throw the right pitch — and we need to have the courage to throw it.” The audience erupted in applause.

What More Needs to Be Done

Keynote speaker Adam Kinzinger threw what in my opinion is the pitch that needs to be thrown. In a rousing address which was the concluding speech of the conference, he spoke of a hypothetical child in Kenya, or in any developing country, who looks to America and wonders whether to really believe in the hope of democracy and freedom. “The kid in Kenya and other places all over the world,” said Kinzinger — “if we don’t get it right, they’re going to say democracy and self-government failed. If we do get it right, they’re going to say it can succeed and can endure forever.”

Kinzinger went on to say that to solve America’s problems, we must realize that “the same problems afflict the inner city and the rural town — drugs, broken homes, lack of economic opportunity” — and that we must all work together to solve these problems. “We don’t have a right to give up on this country,” he implored. “Those who came before us fought for it and defended it. Now it’s our turn to carry that torch.”

Rhetorically, Congressman Kinzinger struck the right chord. He received a standing ovation and it was a fitting end to the event. Now it’s time to put some meat on the bones of this philosophy. This is where much more work needs to be done.

The speakers at the Principles First Summit didn’t do much to address something that I think deserves a lot more attention: the legitimate reasons why Trump has become so popular, despite his obvious flaws. There are two main reasons: excessive wokeness on the left, and the decline of the American working class. Trump has successfully exploited people’s aversion to the left’s focus on identity politics — and its attendant extremism such as urban riots, demands to “defund the police,” and politically correct cancel culture — which has given rise to an even more troubling reaction in the form of renewed support for white supremacist movements that Trump and his most zealous political acolytes have done little or nothing to distance themselves from. Meanwhile, Trump has captured much of the economic populist energy that had been flowing into the Bernie Sanders movement in 2016, shifting the Republican Party away from a dogmatic adherence to laissez faire economic globalism and instead toward trade protectionism, scorn for wealthy technocratic elites, and a rhetorical focus on the concerns of voters whose communities have been hit hard by the rapidly changing 21st century economy.

The speakers at the Principles First Summit didn’t do much to address something that I think deserves a lot more attention: the legitimate reasons why Trump has become so popular, despite his obvious flaws.

Only one panel at Principles First spoke at all about the problem of wokeness, or as they called it, “illiberal liberalism,” and only briefly. Perhaps this is because most people at the event were Republicans or independents who came out of the Republican Party, so they may not have personally experienced how bad the problem can be for people who move primarily within left-leaning social circles. If they have, they are likely the kind of well-educated and open-minded conservatives who want to remain in the good graces of their liberal friends, so they might be uncomfortable speaking openly about how the left has gone crazy. I understand and sympathize with their reluctance, especially as Trump world seems to go ever deeper into overt white nationalism. But to be principled means to say what needs to be said, and sometimes that means calling out both sides for dangerous fanaticism — especially because the radical woke left is actually causing or reinforcing the reactionary bigotry of the Trumpist right and thereby contributing to the disintegration of society.

Two people at the conference who stood up and asked questions identified themselves as Democrats. One of them said she’s looking for a political alternative that is “not woke and not Trump.” The other one said she was inspired by the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance and that sadly her daughter doesn’t even know the words of it because it was never recited in school in recent decades. She went on to say that she wished the speakers at Principles First had talked more about education — an issue that wasn’t much mentioned — and how we need to be teaching America’s children “both the good and the ugly about American history, and to be proud of our country despite its flaws.”

Indeed, that is exactly what needs to happen. And to courageously throw the right pitch, as Geoff Duncan urged us to do — and to put some meat on the bones of the kind of eloquent rhetoric of Adam Kinzinger — people who seek to build a new political movement of decent and reasonable people to save America should start by speaking out boldly with a story about our country that is both pluralistic and patriotic. And we need to advocate for such a narrative to be taught in the public schools.

As for the economic issues, the small-government tendencies of traditional conservatives may make it difficult for them to go beyond rhetoric in seeking to include Americans who have been left behind by socioeconomic change. Despite this, I saw some promising signs at the Principles First conference that a cold-hearted libertarianism may be in decline. Only one person on the speakers list really seemed to embody that viewpoint — when asked what should be done to help people in declining rural communities, he said they should all just move away. That’s not the kind of answer that would win many elections, and I was pleased that it did not receive much applause. There were several other panelists with libertarian leanings, but they offered more compassionate answers such as that tax dollars should be allocated to state and local governments to invest in struggling communities. I agree that decentralization of power could be a positive development in American government, for as one panelist observed, it empowers people to make decisions for themselves where they live, thereby strengthening grassroots democracy.

I also think the successful development of a large-scale centrist or center-right political movement will require consideration of a variety of policy ideas to tackle the growing problem of economic inequality, and as one questioner in the audience put it, the “hollowing out of the American middle class.” Trump’s rhetoric about forgotten blue-collar Americans hasn’t measurably improved the lives of most of the people who voted for him. As former Congresswoman Barbara Comstock (R-VA) said during a panel discussion about the possibility of a third party to challenge both Trumpism and the Democrats, “there’s an opportunity for whoever turns the populist talk of Trump into real action to get things done to help the people who have been supporting him.”

As another panelist noted, 50% of Americans currently consider themselves politically independent, the highest in the history of polling. “That’s a market failure,” he said. “That’s an opportunity that needs to be seized by enterprising people.” The panelist who said that is Miles Taylor, the founder of the Renew America Movement (RAM), which is building a cross-partisan electoral coalition — something I believe to be a noble and necessary goal. But as Taylor also said during the same panel discussion, he considers himself a libertarian. There is already a Libertarian Party, which is small and insignificant and could easily be taken over by center-right libertarians who oppose Trumpism. The moderate libertarian approach was tried in 2016 with the Johnson/Weld campaign, but it did not result in a sustained movement.

What I believe needs to be created is a new political movement, even a third party, which seriously reckons with the appeal of Trumpism and seeks to counter it not by dismissing its anti-establishment populism as foolishness, as libertarians often do, but instead by acknowledging why it speaks to the legitimate concerns of so many Americans — and which seeks to defeat it by offering real solutions to the problems Trump has identified but failed to solve (e.g. the struggles of working-class communities) or which he has actually worsened (the scourge of divisive identity politics).

Such a movement could potentially be very popular. Much of what I saw at the Principles First Summit last weekend has laid a foundation for the emergence of such a movement — especially if the coalition is broadened to include the perspectives and insights of people who have recently been made politically homeless by the Democrats, who appreciate both the compassion of liberalism and the patriotic national unity of traditional conservatism. In the coming months, God willing, I will be working to help bring such a vision into reality.