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Nationally Reviewing Realism

At a National Review Institute conference last week, neoconservatives tried to rebrand as the true realists. They didn't quite pull it off.
Nationally Reviewing Realism

Peter J. Travers is deeply concerned about Vladimir Pyootin’s “invasion of Yookraine for the eight-avistic purpose of subjugation”—“the gratuitous violence of a totalitarian nation against a peaceful neighbor.” If I were Ukrainian, I would be too.

Travers, chairman of the board of trustees of the National Review Institute, admits that these “extraordinary and extraordinarily awful events [are] taking place half the world away.” And yet he sees in them an urgent question: “What can we do to protect America and defend our core national interest in a very dangerous world?” He recognizes, however, that “careful judgment is called for any exercise of American power and the justification of such an exercise must be lodged in a persuasive case that America’s national interests are meaningfully advanced thereby.”

“Realism, and not wish-casting,” Travers declares, “is the essential foundation of American foreign policy.” Confusing words at a conference titled “The Case for American Power: Why We Must Lead the Free World.” The tension inherent in Travers’s remarks, however, is just as apparent in the title of the summit. The case for American power is one thing; “why we must lead the free world” is another altogether. The collision of the two at the National Press Club this week revealed a coalition struggling to recalibrate for the post-Trump realist moment, yet unwilling to set aside its ideological past.

A sound foreign policy, Travers says, is upheld by “the sacrifices of brave men and women supported by specific policies founded upon clear thinking about the world as it is and about human beings as we are.” It “does not ask America to range the world in search of monsters to destroy, but it does recognize that parochial insularity is a hazardous indulgence.”

He worries that “recently a type of neo-isolationism has enjoyed a resurgence among the careless and the historically challenged—and not just on the left where such thinking has really been customary for at least 50 years but also oddly, I think, among some who call themselves a type of conservative.”

The first type of “neo-isolationism” that Travers fails to understand “seems to suggest that this conflict is somehow Yookraine’s fault for seeking to join a defensive alliance to protect it against violent aggression. It seems that somehow that aspiration is itself a provocation to aggression.” It does not bode well for Travers’s claims of realism that he seems incapable of grasping even the existence of other nations’ interests and perspectives.

Travers is a bit fairer when he turns to the realism that “echoes the ancient American desire to stay out of all those foreign wars. This is a reasonable impulse and a worthy one, but such an impulse by itself can be a type of wish-casting against which Whitaker Chambers warned us. Tyrants do not rest easily within their borders, and averting our eyes from a savage war and the immense human suffering that arises in its wake does nothing to protect America, much less make us great.”

The global situation produced by American abandonment of realism is presented as the ultimate case against realism’s viability: “Finally, as if Pearl Harbor and the Cuban missile crisis and 9/11 and a worldwide pandemic were insufficient to make the point, our age of instant global connectivity makes it plain that Americans, America can be attacked, can be directly affected, Americans can be killed by the actions taken by despots very far away and this bracing vulnerability will only increase.”

In a world where American independence is impossible, “an array of democratic nations committed to a policy of collective security significantly alters the calculations of expansive tyrants and thereby radically shifts the odds in favor of peace.” Returning to the neoconservatives’ reliance on unprovable counterfactuals, Travers asserts that “NATO has been the crown jewel of our alliances. Its remarkable success in keeping the peace for 67 years has ironically masked how effective this alliance has been.”

He is outraged by a political situation in which “an American president threatens European allies by implying that our commitment to NATO is somehow a conditional, commercial arrangement of some sort.” It would, of course, not be prudent, realistic, or in America’s national interest to enter into any kind of unconditional arrangements with foreign nations.

Yet Travers seeks to foster a global dependence on American military intervention: “In the moment of crisis, the free world, the entire world stops and turns and asks, Where are the Americans? We must be there. The Americans must be there, and we must support the victims of the wild beasts, and we must defend our nation and our core interests with unmatched military power and an unsentimental, realistic perspective.”


Who better to present an “unsentimental, realistic perspective” on “our nation and our core interests” than Elliott Abrams? Described by moderator Jay Nordlinger as “truly a child prodigy” for having served in the Reagan administration at the precocious age of 33, Abrams is joined by Victoria Coates, an art historian and blogger who served as a deputy national-security advisor in the Trump administration.

May 9 is Victory Day in Russia, and Coates posits that “the fact that Putin did not declare victory today… suggests this may be considerably worse for him than we even know at this point.” (Talk about wish-casting.) Yet she begs the American government to take a more active role: “We need clarity from [the Biden] administration about what their plan is for Ukraine, what their desired end state is. And this whole insistence that, oh, the Ukrainians will define it—okay, well, you know, then get with the Ukrainians and figure out what that is.”

Abrams is troubled by how little we spend on defense—down below 4 percent of GDP from a whopping 9 at the start of the Kennedy administration. Such carelessness was enabled by the “holiday from history” we’ve experienced since the fall of the Soviet Union, but “in the tragedy of so many hundreds of, actually millions, of Ukrainians rooted from their homes is a reminder to us that the world is really dangerous, you might say once again or you might say still.”

Nordlinger, a senior editor of National Review, has interesting thoughts on the subject:

We had the Cold War, then maybe a little holiday from history, and then the terror war, and I think a lot of people ask—left, right, center—Can’t we be done? Do we need to do this again? And what do politicians say? You know they have their lines, “We’ve got some nation building to do right here at home,” and there’s this expression that grew up in recent years on left and right, forever wars—“no more forever wars,” and so on. Here we go again.

And some of us are accused of being Cold War nostalgists. I think rather that we’re realists. The late Madeleine Albright said the United States is the indispensable nation. A lot of Americans don’t want to be indispensable. I don’t really blame them.

He asks of the other global powers that bristle at America’s self-imposed world-police role: “Is it our fault? Do we provoke them? Do we poke the bear? Do we encircle them? Are we arrogant?” Abrams demurs: “I don’t want to have an argument with the pope right here on the stage.”

Abrams goes on to explain that NATO member states’ failure to meet military spending requirements proves the alliance posed no actual threat to Russia. But “there was a threat to Putin and it’s not a national security threat. It’s the threat of a prosperous, democratic Slavic country called Ukraine.”

Nordlinger, meanwhile, wants to do away with old labels. His observations on the subject are all sound, though I doubt he reads the same implications into them that I would:

You hear the words interventionist and anti-interventionist. People say so-and-so is an interventionist, so-and-so is an anti-interventionist. I object to those terms—a little like pro-war and anti-war. I mean, who in the world would be pro-war except for a psychopath, you know? And it seems to me that most people are against intervention in most cases and for it in a few painful ones.

Abrams is hesitant to give too much credit to those “most people”:

There is a form of isolationism that is, I think, particularly pernicious and it is one that talks down what is being defended. It’s the one that, you know, it’s the kind that says, “Who are we to tell other people what to do? Who are we? What are we defending here, this horrible racist society? And that’s one of the, really I think, one of the most awful forms of isolationism.… It is related to, “We have to rebuild America before we can do anything overseas,” which is, you know, just completely, that is a really foolish and silly argument.

Coates sees a middle way between hawks and doves: “We could be owls and, you know, show the kind of restraint that I think most do want to exercise over interventionism and at the same time recognize that it is at times necessary.” (From your lips to Pat Buchanan’s ears.)

We haven’t heard any good old-fashioned Russophobia today, so Abrams offers a closing thought: “There is an old line that an army reflects the society from which it comes, and we are seeing a brutal and corrupt army, and it is a reminder of the brutality and corruption of the regime and the society from which it is coming.”


Jerry Hendrix, a retired naval officer and defense scholar, follows to discuss the situation at sea, in conversation with National Review editor-in-chief Rich Lowry. He worries that the postwar order enabled by American naval dominance is coming to an end:

We emerged and there was no one to challenge us, and so, what we had talked about for the better part of our first 150 years, we then made manifest—free trade, unhindered movement, no piracy, the ability of building larger and larger and larger ships, container ships, cruise ships that you all see now. Those all exist because the sea is free and the sea is safe. So we’ve built this international system and now we’re beginning to see its erosion.

Now, rivals with naval powers close or superior to our own seek to carve out spheres of influence independent of American hegemony: “China would like to claim the South China Sea, Russia wants to claim the Arctic Ocean, because they don’t like the idea not only of free trade that they cannot control, they also don’t like the idea of freedom, the idea that comes transmitted, the sea has become a vector for the transmission of a philosophy that’s injurious to their interest.”

It’s a clever rhetorical trick, conflating opposition to the free-trade regime with opposition to freedom per se. He does admit that “we might have some friends on the right say, ‘Oh, what suckers, what are we, why are we burdened with the cost of providing these free seas and all the benefits that come from it?'” But those benefits, to his mind, are undeniable:

If you look at the size of the global world product in 1945 and you see the exponential growth of that over the last 70 years because of this investment that we made, then you can’t say it’s injurious. I mean, it’s to our benefit. It has been totally to our benefit. We’ve created a commercial trading system which allowed us to, you know, grow in power and influence as a nation….

And by the way, we’ve been bringing our allies and friends along. They’ve all benefited. If you look at, for instance, some key indicators, like, for instance, global literacy, global literacy has climbed dramatically in the last 70 years. If you look at the people who exist below the extreme poverty level, that number has shrunk dramatically over the last 70 years. So in each instance, as you look at this idea of free trade, being able to move, where you take, you know, goods where they can produce cheaply and move them to places where they’re desired at a higher price across the ocean at a very efficient economical model then it’s been, you know, additive to all the experience of all mankind. But again, we’ve taken it for granted.

But Hendrix is also very worried about China’s surpassing the United States in hard naval power, with 355 ships currently in service. The reasons for that reversal are fairly obvious:

One of the challenges we have today is, we’d like to build more ships. Quite frankly our industrial base isn’t set up right now. We are struggling to go from two submarines a year to three submarines a year. We would struggle to go from two destroyers a year to three destroyers a year because we don’t have the workers in place. The economy changed because we divested out of those heavy industries during the 1990s. We need some time to sort of spool up the great engine of democracy.

Hendrix neither asks nor answers why our industrial base is not capable of producing the ships necessary to American defense, why we divested from heavy industries during the 1990s, why we have no industrial workers in place for such vital tasks. He simply marvels at the trend in gross world product. China, meanwhile, has not let ideological naivety undermine the pursuit of its own interest. “When we zigged,” Hendrix admits, “they zagged.”


Mike Gallagher, U.S. representative for the 8th Wisconsin district, has clearly wanted a Cabinet post since he was about 16: undergrad in the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, seven years as an intelligence officer in the Marine Corps, a master’s from National Intelligence University then two more and a Ph.D. from Georgetown. Yet today his attention is fixed on a foreign land: “The defense of Taiwan is foremost in my mind.… I do not think we are moving with any sense of urgency to get, for example, the basing agreements we need with key allies in order to have a coherent strategy to defend Taiwan.”

He laments the political atmosphere that has fostered such neglect: “The air has been full of disengagement over the past three administrations. Presidents have wanted to end wars, not start them, since 2009. It was almost a contest between the current president and his predecessor to see who could get out of Afghanistan the fastest.”

Gallagher is joined by John Hillen, another Bush administration apparatchik and a veteran of the first Gulf war. Like Gallagher, Abrams, Travers, and most attendees here, he is puzzled by the resurgence of the conservative tradition of restraint:

You hear now, including from many conservative nationalist patriots, themes about the use of the military that we used to associate with the anti-war Berkeley left. You know, why should we do something abroad when we have problems at home? Why should we spend money abroad when there’s so many needs at home? Who are we to tell others what to do? They have their own traditions, and long-standing, and so on. 

He admits “a venerable tradition on the right of non-interventionism going back to, you know, Taft, and, gosh, you know, Washington’s farewell address,” yet denies its relevance to the present moment: “It seems the sentiment, the American sentiment across the political spectrum right now is more of a World War II sentiment, ‘Let’s bring the boys home.’ Of course, it’s not just boys anymore. But it strikes me as the wrong strategic sentiment for a strategy of engagement and deterrence in a world that’s not getting more peaceful.”

He scoffs at Biden’s anti-war streak: “When the president pulled us out of Afghanistan he lamented having to have people go through the trauma of having to do their professional duty downrange. He says it’s really awful, everybody’s traumatized, we should, we all need to come home and rest a bit.”

Gallagher ventures “that there’s always been this tension in conservative foreign policy, this desire to, you know, embark on noble crusades internationally but a reluctance to pay the costs, right.” He wonders, though, “if the categories we use, isolationists versus internationalists, aren’t too simplistic.” He points to Senator Robert Taft, a founding figure of the modern tradition of foreign-policy restraint, and highlights some of the nuance of his position.

Like Travers, he tries to pin down a compromise between the public’s desire for restraint and the ideological demands of global engagement:

I do think prudence is a healthy instinct when it comes to geopolitics, right. I do think it’s fair to say that the Iraq war and the war in Afghanistan were inconclusive and financially ruinous and there were multiple mistakes made throughout all phases of the war, right. We should grapple with that seriously. We did not deliver, I think, adequately and we can’t expect the American people to support such an inconclusive outcome without the president explaining, “Okay, here, we’re gonna keep 2,500/5,000 troops there and here’s what they’re going to do and why it’s a good investment.” The American people are not idiots, all right. If a president levels with them I think they will understand. We never got a serious, sincere argument like that.

The path forward, however between, let’s say, the Scylla of over-extension and the Charybdis of naive Fortress America thinking is obvious, and there’s room for a lot of people in between those poles. One, it’s to emphasize that our strategy is fundamentally a defensive strategy: We’re trying to defend the frontiers of freedom. It’s sort of a distinction between democracy promotion and defense of existing democracies and partners and allies against authoritarians whether they’re in Beijing or Moscow or Tehran.

He also believes—reasonably enough—that the foreign policy tensions in the conservative coalition will be “resolved in part by the China challenge.” Even if the circle cannot be squared theoretically, as he and Travers attempt to do, a pragmatic alliance may well be formed in response to “an expansionist power that is set on not just undermining but in some ways destroying the U.S.-led global order as we currently conceive it.”


“If Tom Cotton didn’t exist we would have had to go to the trouble of inventing him.” So says Rich Lowry in his glowing introduction. The senator from Arkansas, Lowry continues, is “one of the most acute and prescient folks that we have on Capitol Hill.”

Cotton begins by presenting the end goal of conservative foreign policy as “securing the blessings of liberty,” which he names, vaguely and a bit redundantly, as “our safety, freedom, and prosperity.”

“Conservatives, after all,” Cotton reminds us in a pivot that would make even Peter Travers blush, “should avoid abstractions in favor of concrete, tangible reality—in foreign policy especially. A conservative foreign policy is foremost the realm of prudential judgment and reasoning. In every case there’s different considerations to take into account. Foreign policy is emphatically not the province of doctrines.”

He doubles down: “So let us discard the search for grand and abstract doctrines. It’s an idle and fruitless endeavor usually indulged in by professors and journalists who don’t know better—sorry, no offense.”

He sees the guiding questions of American foreign policy as fairly straightforward ones: “What course of action will keep America safe? What will preserve our freedom? What will promote widespread durable prosperity?” He believes, moreover, that “these are the questions that our greatest conservative statesmen have always asked and oriented their foreign policy around—men like George Washington, John Quincy Adams, and Ronald Reagan.”

In order to wrangle them into his own tradition, the famously hawkish senator has to revise the records of those two great early realists.

Washington’s farewell address, for instance, “with its warning against permanent alliances and recommendation for as little political connection as possible with other nations…was a great pronouncement by a great statesman but addressed very specific circumstances in a young, weak, and fragile America, a Europe convulsed by the French Revolution, and fairly primitive military and communications technology, at least by today’s standards.” He continued:

If he were with us today, Washington wouldn’t excuse lazy sloppy thinking that takes his concrete policy recommendations then and simply grafts them onto today’s world. The farewell address itself is seeded with suggestions to the contrary. Washington referred to our detached and distant situation and he lauded the advantages of so peculiar a situation, and rightly so in 1796. But does anyone really think that such a practical hard-nosed statesman as Washington would assess our situation the same today? I very much doubt it.

John Quincy Adams’ formulation of the Monroe Doctrine, meanwhile, was “a master stroke of clear-eyed diplomacy.” But Senator Cotton is “surprised that some people invoke John Quincy Adams as a patron saint of a restrained and passive foreign policy. I suspect he would be too.” (The senator’s confusion may be alleviated by the simple explanation that “restrained” and “passive” are two very different things.)

Cotton admits that, “On a certain level, Reagan’s foreign policy seems to break sharply with Washington and Adams. We had allies all around the rimland of Europe, Eurasia I should say, bound by treaty and honor to go to war with them. We went abroad and destroyed monsters in far-flung corners of the globe… everywhere you turn Reagan confronted and challenged our enemies again and again.

“But at a deeper level,” he claims, “Reagan had the same foreign policy as Washington and Adams. All things considered, as I’ve stressed they must be, he surveyed the world and acted to secure the blessings of liberty for America” against “a committed Old World power with a fanatical globalist ideology grafted on top of it.”

Despite his difficulty with the realist tradition, Cotton assesses the shortcomings of Wilsonian liberal internationalism rather aptly:

Liberals from Woodrow Wilson to Joe Biden think there’s something embarrassing or unseemly about acting in our interests. Just three days after Germany killed Americans by sinking the Lusitania, Wilson gave what’s known as, incredibly, the “too proud to fight” speech… He admonished us not to think just of America first but also of humanity first. More amazing still, he warned our nation not to have what he called the narrowness and prejudice of a family which is less interested in the neighbors than it is in its own members.

Think about how radical that metaphor is. I bet you probably care more about your family and its members than you care about your neighbor even if you’re a good neighbor. That’s okay, because the neighbors do too. But according to Wilson, Americans shouldn’t care more about our nation than we care for other nations. That would just be narrowness and prejudice.

Lowry brings the historical analysis closer to the present day, alleging that “the folks on the right who call themselves realists or restrainers or neo-isolationists or whatever, they are partly misinterpret[ing] the Trump phenomenon. Obviously a major break with where George W. Bush was on foreign policy but not an isolationist, right? It was a more Jacksonian-oriented foreign policy rather than arguably a Wilsonian one under Bush.” If there is any misinterpretation here, it does not seem to be on the part of the realists who considered Trump an ally but never mistook him for an isolationist.

Cotton points out that Bush was a bit Jacksonian early on himself, though that had changed by “the second inaugural, where President Bush declared that our goal was to end tyranny in the world. It’s a very noble goal, but it probably is beyond the capacity of our nation and perhaps will be beyond the capacity of any nation for as long as mankind lives.”

And yet, Cotton observes, “the American people, conservatives very much included, deeply, deeply oppose invasions and naked wars of aggression. That very much goes for Russia’s naked war of aggression against Ukraine. The other main instance of that in my lifetime was when Iraq invaded Kuwait.” (I can think of at least one other.) He reiterates the point later on: “Americans strongly, strongly oppose invasions.” (200,000 Iraqi civilians unavailable for comment.)

The tension, then, between noble sentiments and constraining reality is fully apparent here. Senator Cotton is leaning toward the former.

Russia has chosen to make not just Ukraine but the Western world its enemy in 101 different ways.… We did nothing since 1991 that provoked Russia or Vladimir Putin into taking this action. I mean, he laid it all out well in advance of the invasion in a long essay last summer which he basically just turned into a speech on the eve of the invasion, that he views Ukraine as a phony country that belongs to Russia and always has going back centuries and that he was going to restore it and nothing America has done or refrained from doing provoked Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine. I think most normal Americans know that.

Indeed, most normal Americans know that a head of state halfway around the world can act independently of American influence. Does Tom Cotton?

Lowry turns the conversation back to realism, asking whether critics of American entanglement might have something of a point: “Let’s say you’re right about Vladimir Putin and and whatnot, but we’re still correct to have a real skeptical eye to what anyone says who’s on the hawkish part of the spectrum because Iraq didn’t turn out the way you promised; Afghanistan, we were in it for years and as soon as we pull out, the army collapses.… [They say] these should be discrediting events for hawks going forward.”

Cotton deflects by joking that “it’s too easy oftentimes to just divide camps into hawks and doves. In many cases foreign policy is full of ostriches as well—people that, in both parties, just want to stick their head in the sand and ignore problems.”

Citing Bob Gates, Cotton admits, “We made a lot of mistakes in Iraq and Afghanistan over the years as we shifted the objectives and became more kind of Wilsonian…to try to establish, you know, Western parliamentary-style democracies in countries where the soil for that kind of government had not been very fertile for many years.”

But “a lesson that President Biden should have taken from Ronald Reagan’s foreign policy is that standing with our friends, helping them defend themselves, being clear and competent in the use of American power in all of its many tools and instruments does not lead to war. It leads to success…. Sometimes it was military action, such as the invasion of Grenada, which was an absolutely necessary and righteous war. Sometimes you saw it through arming other peoples like we armed the Afghans to fight back against the Soviets.” (Which went swimmingly.)

Asked whether “our goal [should] just be to flat out defeat Vladimir Putin in Ukraine,” Cotton responds with the next-best thing:

President Zelensky has stated a very reasonable goal, which is that he’d like to get invading troops off of his soil. It’s a very reasonable goal. We should help President Zelensky and the Ukrainian army achieve that goal. We shouldn’t try to help them achieve something more than that, you know, we don’t want them invading and marching on Moscow, but we should stand with them as long as that remains their goal and back them to the hilt.

Proxy-hawkishness on full display, Cotton is asked whether he worries boxing Putin into a corner might compel the Russian president to more dangerous action. “I am mindful,” he answers. “I’m not fearful. Vladimir Putin should be fearful of what Ukraine and its allies are going to do to his army.” Barely veiled threats to the leader of a foreign power by a sitting U.S. senator don’t quite qualify as “prudent” in my book.

Reckless conduct toward Russia aside, it is clear that Cotton’s real priorities lie elsewhere:

We cannot lose sight of the fact that China is very different and a much greater threat. China’s economy is almost as large as ours. It is deeply integrated with the world economy and especially our economy. that has a distorting effect on our domestic politics. There’s a massive China lobby all across the country in every state, every congressional district, advocating for conciliation with China…. Its military is rapidly expanding both its conventional forces and its nuclear forces, so we can’t lose sight of the fact that China poses the genuine threat to replace America as the dominant power in the world, even if the war in Ukraine is the most pressing issue right now.

Of course, concern about China means concern about its tiny offshore neighbor:

Partly that means arming Taiwan faster and more effectively than we have. It means working with their ministry of defense to reform their military, especially their reserve and mobilization practices and it means adopting…what’s called strategic clarity, just stating outright, Beijing, we will come to Taiwan’s aid. Our policy for years has been strategic ambiguity: maybe we will, maybe we won’t. Circumstances, again, have changed a lot. Ambiguity served us once. Clarity would serve us now.

This is an unambiguous call to commit the United States to potential war with our closest military rival on the planet.

Asked in conclusion about his attitude toward the future, the senator forgets his own advice to “avoid abstractions in favor of concrete, tangible reality,” saying: “I am very optimistic about the long-term prospects because of the dynamism of our people and the nature of our system.”


It is worth returning to Peter Travers, whose vision seems to have driven the turn toward realist rhetoric that marked Monday’s event. On March 29, Travers published a statement in National Review titled “The Wild Beasts Are Real.” It begins: “A beguiling aspect of the American character is our pragmatic optimism that individual freedom and equality under law can open broad vistas of justice and prosperity.” In 1,900 words of equally purple prose, Travers attempts to reclaim the mantle of realism for the hawks of yesteryear.

The piece might be more convincing were it not so clearly dripping with eagerness to wage war with the Russians. Though that overstates the point: “You will always find us at this post,” Travers writes, and I can think of a few worse posts in wartime than a high-rise in Manhattan.

Yet the effort, even in its failure, is revealing. If the most sincere of all hawks, from Elliott Abrams to Tom Cotton, feel they must ape the rhetoric of realism in order to succeed post-Trump, there can be little question that the old consensus has been all but fully shattered on foreign policy. The only way realists and restrainers could squander the opportunity is to take such people at their word when they suggest they’re changing sides.

A reading of “The Wild Beasts Are Real” will shatter any such illusions. “We need not parse the circumstances unique to each historical case,” Travers boldly asserts, “to understand that every struggle to resist despotic conquest implicates the interests of free people. ‘Never send to know for whom the bell tolls,’ wrote John Donne, because surely ‘it tolls for thee.’”

Mercifully, if belatedly, it seems the funeral bell has tolled for the hawks’ GOP coalition. Or perhaps another bit of Donne is more appropriate:

Out of a fired ship, which by no way
But drowning could be rescued from the flame,
Some men leap’d forth, and ever as they came
Near the foes’ ships, did by their shot decay;
So all were lost, which in the ship were found,
      They in the sea being burnt, they in the burnt ship drown’d.


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