Over 1 million readers this year!

Wyoming’s ‘Cowboy Catholic’ could remake government if Trump wins

Former Wyoming Catholic College head Kevin Roberts, now president of the Heritage Foundation, speaks on his upbringing, career and vision for a conservative America.

Kevin Roberts, then president of Wyoming Catholic College, smiles while on horseback during a blessing of the Broken Anvil Ranch near South Pass in August 2013. Roberts now runs one of the country's most influential think tanks. (Wyoming Catholic College, courtesy)

When Kevin Roberts took over as president of tiny Wyoming Catholic College in 2013, few people outside of its Lander base even knew the school existed. But in just three years, the media-savvy Roberts managed to put the conservative campus in the national spotlight by embracing the term “Cowboy Catholics” and by refusing to accept federal grants and student loans that he felt would compromise the school’s independence and religious freedom.

“I fully expected Kevin to be the next senator from Texas or something,” said Glenn Arbery, who became the college’s president after Roberts’ departure in 2016. “The man has an energy and a brilliance about what he wants to do politically. That was just evident. He was too big for our little college for sure.”   

Still, few could have imagined that only six years after he left town, Roberts would be the $668,880-a-year president of the Heritage Foundation, the country’s biggest, richest and, arguably, most influential conservative think tank — a popular idea mill for right-wing politicians in Wyoming and other red states. If Donald Trump is reelected, Heritage under Roberts is uniquely poised to be the main policy and personnel engine for the new administration, just as it was for Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.

On Jan. 18, the 49-year-old former Lander resident, who calls Wyoming his “spiritual home” made international headlines by lambasting his hosts at the elite World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Speaking before an overflow crowd in a panel discussion entitled “What to Expect from a Possible Republican Administration?” Roberts said:

“The agenda the administration needs to have is to compile a list of everything that’s ever been proposed by the World Economic Forum and object to all of them wholesale.”

Along with newly elected, “anarcho-capitalist” Argentina President Javier Milei — who warned in his speech that the “Western world is in danger!” — Roberts was a post-Davos headliner. The right-wing press, at least, was gleeful that he took on the “global power elites.”

“Heritage Foundation head defends Trump, scolds ‘elites’ at World Economic Forum,” a Fox Business News headline reported. 

“Heritage Foundation Leader Bashes World Economic Forum,” The Daily Caller wrote.

Writing on X, the social media site formerly known as Twitter, Roberts himself proclaimed in his increasingly populist rhetoric: “My message to the self-appointed global elites: Your time is up.”

Roberts understands that because of his high-paying, high-profile position, many Americans might consider him part of the “elite.” But he makes a distinction between his success and those who want to “concentrate power and wealth for themselves, with a sometimes explicit condescension toward commoners.” The product of a broken home and hardscrabble childhood in Lafayette, Louisiana, Roberts considers himself one of the commoners.  

In Washington, Roberts seems to be everywhere these days. He has his own weekly YouTube podcast, “The Kevin Roberts Show,” and he is a regular on Fox News, with more than 40 appearances in the last year alone. The New York Times featured him in a Jan. 21 magazine interview, “Inside the Heritage Foundation’s Plans for ‘Institutionalizing Trumpism.’” He has a regular column that appears in Newsweek, The Washington Examiner, the Wall Street Journal and other publications. A book is in the works, title still pending, for publication this fall in a HarperCollins imprint.

In many of his appearances, he repeats the same phrases. “America is on fire” or “America is on fire, literally in some inner cities.” Other favorites are “cultural Marxism,” “climate alarmism,” “Stalinist cult of wokeism,” and “globalist technological elite.”

Heritage Foundation President Kevin Roberts hosts a YouTube series that features interviews with prominent politicians such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

If he agrees with someone, he says they “know what time it is,” as in “Donald Trump knows what time it is” or “Ron DeSantis knows what time it is.” The message is that America and the American way of life are in mortal danger and must be fixed ASAP. People who understand this “know what time it is.”

According to a recent essay by New York Magazine political columnist Jonathan Chait, understanding or knowing “what time it is” has become an authoritarian catch phrase used by Roberts and other conservatives, usually to distinguish themselves from those in the establishment.

Culture warrior

In late October, Roberts made one of the most important speeches in his burgeoning career as a leading American conservative intellectual.

The American Conservative magazine — founded by the culture warrior, pundit and perennial presidential candidate Pat Buchanan — was holding its annual gala at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Pentagon City, Virginia. Roberts, in his second year as president of the Heritage Foundation in Washington, delivered the keynote address before several hundred mostly older right-wing luminaries.

Like Buchanan, Roberts is a devout Catholic. As a freshman at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, Roberts volunteered on the 1992 Buchanan presidential campaign. Roberts attended the Republican National Convention that year in the Houston Astrodome, where Buchanan delivered his famous “culture war” speech in which he railed against abortion, homosexual rights, women in combat and discrimination against religious schools. In interviews and conversations, Roberts will sometimes refer to some of his ideas as “Buchananite.” 

And, in fact, many of his ideas echo Buchanan’s. 

The two men agree on a non-interventionist foreign policy, but disagree on support for Israel. Buchanan, who is now 85 years old and no longer active politically, felt that Israel wielded too much influence over American foreign policy. Fellow conservatives William F. Buckley and Charles Krauthammer broke with Buchanan over what they felt was his antisemitism. Krauthammer called him “fascistic.” 

But Roberts, who describes himself as a “recovering neocon,” nonetheless supports American aid for Israel’s war against Hamas and speaks out regularly about what he deems antisemitism, especially as it exists on elite American college campuses.

Roberts drove himself to the American Conservative gala from his rural Virginia home in a black diesel Ford F-150 with yellow “Don’t Tread on Me” license plates complete with coiled timber rattler. Next to the snake plates is a defiant “Come and Take It” bumper sticker commemorating the 1835 Battle of Gonzales during the Texas war of independence from Mexico.

Roberts loves history. He earned a Ph.D., summa cum laude, in early American history from the University of Texas at Austin. His 2003 dissertation is titled, “Slaves and slavery in Louisiana: the evolution of Atlantic world identities, 1791-1831.” His undergraduate honors thesis was on James Longstreet, the Confederate army general who after the war joined the Ulysses S. Grant administration and worked on Reconstruction, including commanding Black troops in battles against his former Confederate comrades.

He also loves making a dramatic statement challenging what he considers the Washington “woke” culture. A few weeks after his American Conservative keynote address, Roberts hosted his friend and Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz on his YouTube podcast.

The interview was to promote Cruz’s new book, “Unwoke: How to Defeat Cultural Marxism in America.” But the two men began by lifting their pant legs and comparing their Lucchese cowboy boots, hand-crafted footwear that starts at $500 a pair. Cruz revealed his boots emblazoned with the U.S. Senate seal on the front and the “Come and Take It” with the Mexican army cannon on the heel.

Cruz spoke of his joy riding around Washington in his bodyguard’s big 4×4 pickup. “It was really quite beautiful,” Cruz said, “seeing a bunch of Washington lobbyists looking in horror at this giant.”  

“It’s glorious. Yeah, it’s glorious,” Roberts agreed. “I love going to banquets or galas here parking my truck. My wife and I wait for the valet to bring it around, and you can hear the diesel coming. And if there are friends out there, they say, ‘Roberts, your vehicle is here.’ 

“It is actually, in an interesting and fitting way related to your book because driving big trucks is one way we can defeat cultural Marxism in America.”

A plan for Donald Trump

In his American Conservative keynote, Roberts invoked Buchanan’s name seven times, Ronald Reagan’s six and Donald Trump’s only once. He spoke of his excitement hearing Buchanan’s “culture war” speech as a college freshman on the floor of the Astrodome. The title of his talk, “The Conservative Movement’s Long Way Home,” was from Buchanan’s speech at the 1992 convention, reluctantly endorsing then-President George H.W. Bush. He also referred obliquely to Martin Luther King’s “arc of the moral universe” quote which is a favorite of former President Barack Obama.

Roberts attacked Republican leaders as well as Democrats for squandering the advantage won after the end of the Cold War with ill-advised trade agreements and senseless wars. He criticized his own misguided past as a neocon, which he said ended in the late 2010s after the two American wars with Iraq. “Trump certainly clarified, in 2016 and 2017, the problems with the neocons,” Roberts wrote in an email to WyoFile. Coming under special scorn were the Bush presidents, father and son. 

“And all this was before George W. Bush, his team of neocon mediocrities, and their dog-eared copies of The Weekly Standard strutted America into the successive catastrophes of Iraq, the financial crisis, No Child Left Behind, the Great Recession, and the presidency of Barack Obama.”

The speech contained one overriding message: Buchanan had it right all along. America is in the grip of a political and moral crisis and both parties, Democrats and Republicans, are to blame:

“And so today, our nation is beset by unprecedented crises around the world, and of course here at home. Along our borders, on our crime-ridden streets, in our gas, grocery and utility bills. In our toxic and atomized culture. In our exploding national debt and falling birthrates and life expectancy. In our empty churches, fatherless neighborhoods, failing schools, and overflowing prisons and mental health facilities.”

Then-President Ronald Reagan meets with Pat Buchanan in the Oval Office in March 1982. (White House Photographic Collection, 1/20/1981 – 1/20/1989)

He then assured the audience that he and the Heritage Foundation have a plan.

If Trump is reelected, then the 6-foot-1-inch, piercingly blue-eyed Louisiana native has carefully positioned both himself and the Heritage Foundation to play a major policy role in the new administration, in much the same way that Edwin J. Feulner Jr. and Heritage did during Ronald Reagan’s two terms as president.

Before Reagan was first elected president in 1980, then Heritage Foundation president Feulner — whom Roberts refers to as his “mentor” — presented the new administration with a 3,000-page “Mandate for Leadership” document that contained 2,000 specific policy recommendations. Reagan distributed the document at his first cabinet meeting and essentially adopted the mandate as his executive operating manual for the next eight years.

Moreover, several of the people recommended by Heritage, including Wyoming native James Watt as Secretary of the Interior, landed in Reagan’s cabinet.

The Roberts’ Heritage Foundation version of Mandate is a 1,000-page handbook called “Project 2025” and is designed, as The Associated Press has reported:

“To have the civic infrastructure in place on Day One to commandeer, reshape and do away with what Republicans deride as the ‘deep state’ bureaucracy, in part by firing as many as 50,000 federal workers.”

President Donald Trump speaking at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February 2017. It has been estimated that he and his family stands to enjoy a $1 billion windfall if his proposed tax plan is enacted. He has not released his tax returns to the public despite pledging to do so during his 2016 campaign. (Michael Vadon / Flickr Creative Commons)

As a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, Heritage is prohibited from endorsing candidates for public office. Roberts claims to be close to Trump rivals Ron DeSantis and Nikki Haley. After leaving office, former Vice President Mike Pence joined Heritage as a “distinguished visiting fellow” before resigning to become a candidate himself.

But claims of neutrality aside, the “Project 2025” plan seems a turnkey, custom-made design for a Trump presidency.

Like nearly everyone else in Washington, Heritage was blindsided by Trump’s nomination in 2016. Former Heritage Action leader Michael Needham had earlier described Trump as a “clown.” 

Its original dismissal of Trump as a legitimate candidate forced Heritage to scramble for influence. Roberts and Heritage have vowed not to let that happen again. To lead the “Project 2025” team, Roberts hired two former Trump administration insiders.

Project leader Paul Dans is a South Carolina attorney who served in the Trump administration as chief of staff at the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, working with the White House to select the 4,000 presidential appointees in the federal government.

Associate Project Director Spencer Chretien served in the White House as special assistant to Trump and associate director of presidential personnel. 

Both men are ideally situated to help pick appointees for another Trump term and preside over the federal bureaucratic bloodletting that the former president has promised.

For his part, Roberts has what he calls a warm relationship with the former president. Roberts is a family man, devout Catholic and something of a moral prude. Trump, of course, is a thrice-married, admitted adulterer and noted libertine who was recently found liable by juries to have sexually abused and then defamed a woman. Roberts hunts and fishes. Trump golfs. 

Like Trump, Roberts says he considers the charges against the former president to be a politically motivated “witch-hunt.”

Counterintuitively, Roberts drinks alcohol and Trump does not. In his Ph.D. dissertation’s acknowledgements, Roberts writes fondly of his graduate school colleagues, most of whom were liberal Democrats. “Michelle and I miss the days that we all attended mass then went straight to the bar, as good Catholics should,” he wrote. 

Now, with four children, two still at home, he says he has replaced post-Mass drinking with baking Sunday morning biscuits for the family.

A self-proclaimed “Hamiltonian,” Roberts is aware of Alexander Hamilton’s wariness of populist politicians with “talents for low intrigue and the little arts of popularity.” The Hamilton quote, from the Federalist Papers, is frequently invoked to describe Trump.

Roberts said he doesn’t disagree but sees other qualities in Trump that make up for his flaws. In a December interview with WyoFile, he was asked to explain the former president’s enormous popularity in Wyoming, the state that gave Trump his biggest margin of victory in the 2020 presidential election.

“I presume that conservative voters — and voters period — in Wyoming understand they’re selecting a president of the United States, not the pastor for their church,” Roberts said. “Some of us might wish in an ideal world that the two be the same, or, you know, maybe someone from your perspective might say just an ideal citizen, whatever the characterization would be. And I understand and respect that, but I think the real key thing for people in Wyoming is they understand that the country’s on fire, largely figuratively, but in some inner cities, literally.

“And Donald Trump knows what time it is.”

Thousands turned out to hear former President Donald Trump and other far-right politicians speak in Casper on May 28, 2022. (Mike Koshmrl/WyoFile)

Roberts avoids the phrase “means to an end” to describe his and other conservatives’ support for Trump. That may be because conservatives commonly used that phrase to describe the evils of communism that excused its horrors — the purges and show trials — as a means to an end.

As a religious man, he prefers to think of Trump as the Hebrew Bible’s account of the Persian King Cyrus the Great liberating the Jews of Babylon. Although, presumably as a historian, the irony of a precursor to the Iranian regime coming to the aid of Jews is not lost on him.

“A whole bunch of people feel there is an urgency to political action that minimizes the other considerations we might have that are perfectly worthy of entering our calculus when we’re voting,” Roberts added in the WyoFile interview. “And that makes sense to me. 

“The second thing I would say is I do know President Trump personally. I don’t want to overstate how close we are, but since I became president of the Heritage Foundation, we’ve spoken several times. I know him and have been with him personally a few times. I know him to be genuine and warm and a good friend. Things that don’t necessarily come across on TV, maybe because of his own performance art. As a politician — I don’t mean that pejoratively — he’s a very entertaining guy. I think people for whom that’s a turnoff discount that, because they believe that what he brings to the table in terms of his mettle, in terms of his courage, in terms of his edge, is precisely what the country needs right now. And that doesn’t surprise me that people in Wyoming understand.”

Louisiana roots

Roberts traces his faith-based conservatism to his distressed childhood in boom-bust Lafayette, Louisiana, where his French Acadian ancestors came as religious refugees from Nova Scotia in the late 18th century. 

“I am Acadian both on my mom’s and dad’s sides,” he said. “Roberts, of course, is English, but my paternal grandmother was Fontenot and very Cajun. My mom’s family, Pitre, migrated from Nova Scotia in the 1700s, and my grandfather, who helped raise me, was a native Cajun French speaker.”

In the late 1970s, when Roberts was a boy, Lafayette was in the midst of a major oil and gas boom. The city and surrounding eight parishes that form the area known as Acadiana had the lowest unemployment rate and the highest per-capita income in the state. At its peak in 1981, there were 750 oil-related businesses in Lafayette serving the Louisiana coast onshore and offshore drilling operations.

Overnight millionaires were common. Some big spenders thought nothing of renting a private jet to go to Houston for dinner. The local horse racing track, Evangeline Downs, was handling $500,000 a day. “Ils sont partis. They’re off,” the track race caller announced as the horses left the gate.

In 1979, during that boom, Roberts’ parents divorced. Then the oil glut hit, dropping crude oil prices from $35 a barrel in 1981 to under $10 a barrel in 1986. The bottom fell out of the Lafayette economy, bankrupting businesses and driving people from homes they could no longer afford.

“My parents divorced when I was 4,” Roberts recalled. “My dad is still around and is now completely sober but was then a terrible alcoholic. Amid all of that, when I was 9, my 15-year-old brother committed suicide.

“It’s 40 years ago now. It’s hard to believe, but it does still seem like yesterday. We were dirt poor. When my parents divorced, my mom got a job as a secretary at an oil field company, which was, you know, really bustling at the time.

“And then the oil bust in Louisiana happened. I think in my hometown of Lafayette, Louisiana, we saw the deterioration of American society sooner or in greater relief, greater contrast than the rest of the country. All that to say, you know, my faith, the Holy Spirit was not just active, but very present — very, very present. I think we would never want to be so presumptuous as to refer to our own faith as unshakeable. But mine has felt that way since that moment.”

“The bottoming out of the oil industry was like a ‘Great Depression,’” he elaborated later. “It revealed the early signs of institutional decay — families, associations, etc. — that simply weren’t up to the task of keeping society stable. I think that experience was very formative in my kind of conservatism — in particular, gravitation toward [Pat] Buchanan.”

Roberts threw himself into church, school and scouting. He was a champion high school debater, a skill that would serve him well at Heritage. At the end of the 1992 school year, the Lafayette Daily Advertiser newspaper featured Roberts as one of the top students at Lafayette High School.

“Kevin is an Eagle Scout, captain of the Lafayette High School Quiz Bowl team and president of the national forensic league,” the newspaper reported. “He has won over 50 awards in three years of speech and debate competition, including attendance at three national tournaments, finishing 12th in the nation in expository speaking in ’91 and winning the Louisiana Speech and Debate Point Leader Award for ’92.”

‘Historian of race’

Roberts earned a scholarship to the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, where he got a history degree in 1996. The next year he married Michelle LaFleur, also a graduate of the University of Louisiana, and the couple moved to Blacksburg, Virginia, where he obtained an M.A. in history, summa cum laude, from Virginia Tech.His first interest was Civil War military history, but finding that area too crowded he switched to what he would later call the “more PC” field of race and slavery history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Kevin Roberts speaks with attendees at the 2022 AmericaFest at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. (Gage Skidmore, Wikimedia Commons)

According to his graduate school advisors, Roberts excelled at UT from the start. His dissertation examining the lives and struggles of antebellum slaves in his Louisiana homeland was groundbreaking in terms of primary source documentation and detail, according to his dissertation committee supervisor James Sidbury, now a professor of history at Rice University in Houston.

Sidbury said that Roberts was always much more conservative than most of his professors and fellow graduate students, but that he got along well with everyone.

“He was one of the people who was just very good from the time he arrived,” said Sidbury. “He’s just an incredibly affable, good guy. He arrived as somebody who ideologically was a complete outlier and really kind of enjoyed that quite a lot. He enjoyed debating with people and always in a kind of completely open and friendly way. He came with an interest in slave culture. He is literally, to my knowledge, the only person in the post-U.B. Phillips [pioneering slavery historian Ulrich B. Phillips] era who is socially and culturally conservative but whose academic interests are in slave culture.”

Still, Sidbury and others who worked with him at UT said they have been surprised by the harsh tones and forceful rhetoric of Roberts’ more recent attacks on “critical race theory” in American education, including UT.  When he was at UT, they saw him more as a Karl Rove-George W. Bush kind of Republican, something he clearly is not now. Both Bush and his political advisor Rove are leading Trump critics.

For his part, Roberts says his politics have not changed much, if at all. 

“I don’t think I’ve had any radical shifts in perspective on anything related to that,” Roberts told WyoFile. “I lament that CRT [Critical Race Theory] and DEI [Diversity, Equity & Inclusion] have taken over, and not just from some knee-jerk conservative standpoint, but from my perspective as a historian of race, those tropes are divisive and undermine much progress we’ve made as a society.”

This does put Roberts in an unusual position as a self-described “race historian” who feels we as a country talk way too much about race. This seeming paradox was evident in an Aug. 16, 2022, interview Roberts did on Washington Times columnist Martin DiCaro’s podcast “History as it Happens.”

Roberts argued that the historical displays at both the Thomas Jefferson plantation at Monticello and at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., place too much emphasis on racial differences — including one display, on meritocracy, that he says condescends to black people. Roberts, in fact, told DiCaro he was “boycotting” the museum.

“As you know, I’m the last one to whitewash history. The problem is that they have produced exhibits that racialize America’s past that reduce each of us to our lowest common denominator, which would be our skin color, which means you are able to divide us according to immutable characteristics,” Roberts said, “and I find that reprehensible. I find it terrible for Black Americans. I find it terrible for white Americans.”

At Monticello, which Roberts says he visits at least once a year, he complains the exhibits overemphasize slavery and Jefferson’s relationship with Sally Hemmings, an enslaved woman with whom he fathered several children, while understating the fact that Jefferson was the author of Declaration of Independence.

Toyin Falola, the distinguished African history professor at UT with whom Roberts collaborated on two books, sees Roberts’ political evolution into a harder-line conservative as a natural progression. 

“It’s more of a question of ‘when did Saul become Paul?’” Falola, the Nigerian author of more than 100 books and a Christian, said, referring to the Biblical story of the Pharisee Saul, a former persecutor of Christians, converting to Christianity and becoming Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus.

“Human beings transform themselves. And ‘Paul’ can become ‘Saul’ too.  I have produced students who were socialist, strong on the left, and when subsequently I met them, they had become socialites.”

A move out West

After UT, Roberts accepted a tenure-track position as assistant professor of history from 2003-2005 at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. But in 2006 he returned to his native Lafayette to serve as headmaster and president of a new private Catholic pre-K through 12 school he helped found, the John Paul the Great Academy.

Up to this point, except for a short stint as a history teacher and debate coach at the private Randolph School in Huntsville, Alabama, Roberts entire education and academic work was in public schools.

Given his family history of economic hardship, Roberts was especially sensitive to students of modest means.

His former UT advisor Sidbury remembers Roberts showing up at Rice University after the first class had graduated from his John Paul the Great Academy.

“He founded that school to serve kids who didn’t have very many educational opportunities,” Sidbury recalled. “And one of the things that meant was that they didn’t have parents who could take them on college tours. So in this very small first class he had, he piled them into a van and was driving around Louisiana and Texas visiting colleges.” 

At John Paul the Great he avoided hiring teachers with education degrees, opting instead for people with specific expertise in their subjects. Graduates of education schools, he would say later, might have taken only two or three courses in the subjects they were asked to teach. However, they tended to be steeped in the cultural and race identity political studies he abhorred.

In his seven years back in Lafayette, he made the small, private Catholic school a viable part of the community, boosting its budget to $1.6 million by the time he left in 2013 to take over as president of Wyoming Catholic College. 

Kevin Roberts, center in black cowboy hat, participates in the blessing of the Broken Anvil Ranch near South Pass in August 2013 while serving as president of Wyoming Catholic College. (Wyoming Catholic College, courtesy)

Wyoming, he said, proved to be a life-changing experience. By now, he and his wife Michelle had four kids, and the family bought a home in the foothills of the Wind River Range outside Lander. Michelle home-schooled the kids, who roamed the surrounding hilltop property like playful mountain goats.

“From the moment I learned about Wyoming Catholic College, which was just before I saw that they were hiring for the second president, it captivated me,” Roberts said. “And the most succinct way I can explain that is, if Wyoming Catholic College had existed when I was looking for colleges, and I knew about it, I would’ve gone there. And the reasons are its commitment to faith, the academic rigor of the curriculum, which I would’ve found appealing and do find appealing as an adult and also as a parent.” 

Some Lander residents chafed at his prudish school policies and how they sometimes spilled over into the often-rowdy town, a mecca for rock climbers and adventurers drawn to the towering Wind River peaks nearby.

In 2015, for example, a gathering of the Wind River Pride organization in City Park was countered by a college-sponsored “traditional marriage picnic” a week later in the same spot. 

Shop owner Susan Meeker tired of Catholic college co-eds coming into her women’s clothing store on Main Street to complain that window bra displays were upsetting male students.  

“I was having a bra fitting event and fundraiser for the Susan G. Komen Foundation for breast cancer,” said Meeker, who now lives in Colorado, “and I had a poster with a picture of a woman wearing a bra. Nothing trashy, slutty or whatever. Just a very sensible bra. These students came in all upset and wanted me to take it down.”

Others were concerned that Wyoming Catholic College was buying up too many of Lander’s historic buildings, changing the face of downtown. Town and gown seemed to be merging on Main Street. In addition to two classroom buildings, the school opened Crux Coffee. Staffed by student baristas it functioned as a combination student union and coffee shop. Later, they added an ice cream parlor and, even more recently, converted the old Holiday Lodge Motel into a dormitory. 

The school itself has strict behavior policies. Students can hold hands, but premarital sex is cause for expulsion. There is a 10:30 p.m. curfew. Male students are banned from going shirtless. There are dances — ballroom and western — and concerts, but Wyoming Catholic College is the opposite of a party school. Wearing his trademark black Stetson and Lucchese goatskin boots, Robert would lead horseback expeditions for outdoor prayer and study including an annual “ranch blessing.”

Before Wyoming Catholic College opened in 2007, the main employers in Lander were Fremont County government, the Wyoming State Training School (now the Wyoming Life Resources Center) and the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS), a nonprofit offering college-credit wilderness courses around the world. Initially, the college and NOLS partnered on some of the college’s outdoor programs.

More recently, NOLS revenues have declined, and Wyoming Catholic College’s influence has spread into the national debate, partly due to an award-winning play by Will Arbery, the talented son of Glenn Arbery, the man who replaced Roberts as college president in 2016.

Will Arbery’s 2019 play, “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” could not have been timelier. Set in Lander in 2017 after Trump’s election as president, the play features a fictional school, Transfiguration College, that is virtually identical to Wyoming Catholic College. Trump’s election and the raging national cultural war are presented through characters that mirror the ideas of Roberts and other national conservative figures.

The play, which is still staged in community theaters across the country, won rave reviews and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. More impressively, it was celebrated across the political spectrum for presenting conservative ideas seriously and objectively, without specifically endorsing them.

“Decades from now,” wrote conservative author Rod Dreher, a Roberts friend and longtime former editor of The American Conservative, “if social historians wonder what it was like to be an American conservative in this tumultuous era, they will consult Will Arbery’s breathtaking new play Heroes of the Fourth Turning for profound insight.”

At the time of his December 2023 interview with WyoFile, Roberts said he had not yet read or seen the Arbery play “not out of protest but probably not as keen on an outsider’s perspective of a special community.”

Calling Will Arbery an “outsider” may seem more than a stretch since both his parents work and teach at the college, where their son frequently visits. Even Glenn Arbery, a former theater critic in Dallas, praises the accuracy of his son’s portrayal of the college community.

“Wyoming Catholic College is fictionalized in the play,” Glenn Arbery wrote in his college journal, “but what we do here — what we think about daily — is in fact as centrally important to the broader culture as this play makes us feel.”

Some of the characters in the play, particularly Teresa, a “Transfiguration” graduate who has a successful blog in New York City, are pitch-perfect mimics of Roberts and other paleoconservative spiels.

“The nation as the last bastion of the particular,” Teresa says in one of her soliloquies. “The kingdom is the kingdom, and the kingdom has particular laws. The lepers need to be healed not championed for their leprosy. We are not meant to structure our society according to every chosen ‘right.’”

Politics and publicity

While the college’s conservative values sometimes collided with the greater Lander community, Roberts and his family fit nicely into the small mountain town. Kevin played noontime pickup basketball at the Mormon church gym, where he was known for his sneaky right-handed set shot. The couple participated in neighborhood road maintenance and water meetings. When something upset him, Roberts wrote a letter to the editor of the local newspaper, a civic practice he began as a high school student in his hometown of Lafayette.

Roberts alienated some in the community because of comments he made when he rejected federal Title IX money for the school.

“The strings attached to that money,” Roberts told Wyoming Public Radio at the time, “would allow the federal government to invoke an interpretation of Title IX, in particular concerning transgendered persons and people with a same-sex attraction who want to bring a certain activity or activism to our college — either as students, or as employees — or — and this is very troubling for us — even people who want to use our restroom facilities and dorms.”

Students mill between Wyoming Catholic College buildings in downtown Lander Sept. 3, 2021. (Katie Klingsporn/WyoFile)

Roberts’ political activism sometimes grated on his own faculty. Glenn Arbery, the man who followed him as president, credits Roberts with skillfully publicizing the college. “Kevin put us on the map,” Arbery said. “He made an issue of our not taking federal aid. He made sure he got interviewed by the New York Times. He was always thinking in terms of publicity and of the political impact of the college. But the faculty of the college were not always on board with the kind of political agenda that Kevin felt the college should have. 

“We are a ‘Great Books’ Catholic college that doesn’t necessarily have an activist understanding of itself. That became a kind of real tension because Kevin had one idea of the college and most of the faculty had a different idea.”

Roberts, meanwhile, won over many other Fremont County residents with his criticism of Great Lakes Airlines and Riverton Regional Airport for constantly canceling flights, stranding students and faculty — a frustration shared by many in the community.

In 2013, he ordered a boycott of the airport for staff at the college.

“We have endured too many nights stranded out of town and too many days wasted by canceled flights,” Roberts said.

After Wyoming U.S. Rep. Cynthia Lummis decided to run for the U.S. Senate in 2016, Roberts briefly toyed with the idea of seeking her vacated congressional seat.

But then a better offer came along from the conservative Texas Public Policy Foundation in Austin. Roberts became the Texas nonprofit’s chief executive officer in 2018 and immediately became one of Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s top advisors. Abbott named him to head the 1836 Project, created to celebrate Texas history as an independent Republic and as a counter to the New York Times’ 1619 Project, which examined slavery and the founding of the U.S. While at Texas Public Policy, Roberts again eschewed any kind of federal aid, including COVID relief funds.

But in 2021, Roberts was dismayed to learn that the Wyoming Catholic College had broken with his policies and accepted more than $1 million in federal COVID money. College CFO Paul McCown had been involved in a COVID fraud scam in his private business that resulted in his imprisonment on seven counts of criminal wire fraud.

Roberts returns to Wyoming every summer to visit with friends he made while at the college. In one such meeting, he ran into McCown, who told him he was applying for federal money for the college through the Paycheck Protection Program.

“That’s going to come back and bite y’all,” he said he told McCown.

At Texas Public Policy he initiated a YouTube video podcast, “The Advance,” where he moderated interviews with conservative leaders in a format that he later recreated at Heritage with “The Kevin Roberts Show.” Long an admirer of Heritage, he adopted the proactive policy strategy that Edwin Feulner had pioneered at Heritage in the Reagan years. Like Heritage, Texas Public Policy under Roberts did not just evaluate state legislation after it was passed, but participated actively in the debate leading up to the legislation. Like Feulner, he had learned the value of repetition of themes and phrases. Feulner once likened it to selling toothpaste.

“Proctor and Gamble does not sell Crest toothpaste by taking out one newspaper ad or running one television commercial,” Feulner wrote in a 1985 essay titled “Ideas, Think-Tanks and Governments.”

“They sell it and resell it every day by keeping the product fresh in the consumer’s mind.”

So when the big prize came along, the offer to lead and — indeed revive — the country’s most powerful conservative mouthpiece, Roberts jumped at the opportunity.

At 49, he is still a young man with seemingly boundless energy and a willingness to appear and present conservative positions whenever he is summoned, even before the “global elites” at the Davos World Economic Forum if necessary. Along the way, the product of a hardscrabble broken home has been able to dramatically increase his income from the $94,000 a year he made at John Paul the Great Academy, to $146,000 at WCC, to $280,000 at Texas Policy to his current $668,000 at Heritage. 

There is still room to grow, of course. According to federal tax records, his counterpart at the liberal Brookings think tank, John Allen, made $1.2 million in 2022. Robert Doar at the rival American Enterprise Institute made $972,000.

But despite his lucrative and meteoric rise in conservative circles, Roberts says his heart still belongs to Wyoming. “We try to get back there at least once a year. I average two or three times a year since we’ve left.”

Roberts said he has ruled out the idea of coming back to Wyoming to run for public office, but can imagine returning to live full time once his days at Heritage are over. In 1977, Former ARCO chairman Robert O. Anderson was the largest landowner in Texas and New Mexico. Despite having offices in Los Angeles and New York, Anderson lived in a remote corner of New Mexico. Using a Spanish word, he told a visiting reporter from the Dallas Times Herald that he lived there because it was his querencia or “spiritual home.”

Hearing that, Roberts said “That’s what Wyoming is for me. And Michelle, my wife, would say the same thing. All four of our kids would say the same thing. I think it has a lot to do, of course, with the college, but it has even more to do, I would say, with the people of Wyoming, who regardless of where you’re from, what your politics are, where you go to church — if you go to church — are true, authentic neighbors, people, friends.”

Thousands turned out to hear former President Donald Trump speak in Casper May 28. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

For many, however, Wyoming politics seem to have coarsened in recent years with deep fissures in the ruling Republican Party. That coarsening has been often led by MAGA-style Republican politicians, who also assert that elites and the powers that be are stymying true conservative policies and have little patience for compromise or even civility. But Roberts sees this movement more as a kind of retreat from the patrician GOP politics once practiced by the Cheneys — Dick and Liz — and before that, Sen. Al Simpson.

“Wyoming politics are only seen as being more divisive now,” he said in a later email exchange, “because more populist conservatives, like my friend Harriet Hageman, are displacing the establishment types, like [Liz] Cheney. It’s a necessary and good realignment.”


This article was originally published by WyoFile and is republished here with permission. WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.

Related