Editor’s Note: The interview took place via Zoom on 4/5/22. Justin is the Texas State Chair for Principles First. Principles First is a 501(c)(4) grassroots organization “built by citizens disillusioned with the current state of our politics.” The Principles First website can be found here. The Principles First Tour can be found here.
Garrit: Can you introduce yourself?
Justin: Yeah, I went to A&M for undergrad, and I am from a small, rural town in North Central Texas called Graham. After I graduated from A&M, I went into the Marine Corps. 9/11 happened during my freshman year of college–which influenced my decision there. I flew helicopters first and then transitioned to the V-22 Osprey. I deployed to Pakistan and Afghanistan and then got picked up for the President’s Helicopter Squadron. I flew Marine One for a couple of years and then left to attend business school. I went to UT Austin and graduated in 2019. I worked as an investment banker at JPMorgan for a year. Now I own a business and live in Nacogdoches, Texas.
Garrit: Can you talk a little bit about the organization that you are a part of?
Justin: Another East Texan–Heath Mayo–founded it. He’s from Whitehouse. I think the actual date of when it was founded is pretty murky because it really did start as a Twitter movement. So, Heath left Whitehouse, went to Brown on a baseball scholarship, and then went to Yale Law. Once he graduated from there, he worked as a consultant for Bain. He comes from East Texas, has conservative, Baptist roots, and was very dismayed by what was happening to the Republican Party under Trump. He just expressed those views and brought a lot of people like me–folks who have voted Republican their whole lives–together. The next thing we did… we were like “Why are we here?” “What are we about?” So, we hashed out our principles and that’s what Principles First became. So, number one is integrity. My personal involvement revolves around that. The tenets of Marine Corps leadership are integrity above all. If you have that, you have a base to start from. If you don’t have it, everything else will fall over. What I see in our political leaders is a severe lack of that. My involvement in Principles First is mainly to encourage good conservative folks to run for office. In 2020, right before the pandemic, we had our first summit in DC. We came together in February of this year and did another summit. We’ve attracted people like Bill Kristol, Tom Nichols, Adam Kinzinger, and Geoff Duncan. All these folks spoke at the conference, and we did it at the same time CPAC was going on. We think the isolationism that’s going on within the Republican Party is the wrong way to go. Three days before our summit, Putin invaded Ukraine and you had people excusing that. You still see that, in some circles. Thankfully, it’s a smaller amount of voices. The question still remains “what’s next?” So, now I’ve taken on the Texas State Chair role.
Garrit: Can you go over some of the principles that you think are the most important to your organization and to your message?
Justin: As I mentioned, I think the reason that I’m involved and the reason it’s number one is that there’s just a severe lack of integrity in our leaders across the board. I’m very much one to say that I’ve been very critical of the Republican Party over the past several years, and I catch a lot of flack for it. Heath is the same way. I believe in not throwing spears at other people. I’m never gonna change the Democrats because I’m not one. I think there specifically is a significant lack of integrity across the board and up and down the Republican Party. I supported Rubio in 2016. He is the only person I think I’ve ever donated money to prior to the 2016 primary. He swiftly ate his words and fell in line as he got steamrolled. Integrity looks like the way you go when those crises of faith happen. Look at Zelensky in Ukraine. He’s just an actor, but when his country gets invaded, he’s out on the streets with a flak jacket. That’s integrity and that’s leadership. I don’t think I’ll ever see Ted Cruz out there. Hopefully everyone–whether left, right, or center–can agree that integrity is important. It’s also about small government. A limited government with enumerated powers is a hallmark of conservative thought. I think you will see a trend of authoritarianism in both left and right, mainstream parties, and streams of thought today. We are certainly against that. That goes for the woke stuff on the left and the book bans on the right. We don’t believe in that. The government should not be in the business of banning books or mandating social outcomes. I think that’s a reaction to what’s going on. People want to be right and therefore they want to legislate it. We know that classical liberalism tells us that the only way for us to be free is to not have a mob rule situation.
Garrit: Have you considered running for office?
Justin: Sure. I mean, you know the great struggle though. You know why there isn’t integrity and leadership in politics right? It’s because good people are incentivized to not enter politics. Are you familiar with Michael Wood’s run in Arlington?
Garrit: Oh, Michael Wood! He ran for the congressional race to replace Ron Wright. We actually interviewed him for The Horn.
Justin: Oh, good. We helped him in his race to the best of our ability, and Kinzinger found him through us. He (Woods) basically wanted to run on his own for his own reasons, but very soon we realized we were aligned. So, he moderated a panel at our summit between Joe Walsh, Bill Kristol, and some others. He has been friendly to the movement. You know, he spoke to every Republican club in his area, and he said, “one out of five people in that room got the message.” They’ve got another guy, he is a State Rep from Arkansas, who is really involved in the movement. He helped get Tom Cotton elected to congress in his first election. He did so by targeting Democrats. He convinced folks to walk across the aisle because they wanted to affect the outcome of the election, and the way to do that was in the primary–not in the general. I was talking to him about a strategy like that–since Texas has an open primary. I feel like at the beginning when it was a 15-person race–or however many were in the race–Michael had as good a shot as anybody. I think that getting branded as the anti-Trump shot him in the foot. So there are better and other ways to be involved. So, the long answer to your question is yes. I’m open to it, I’m thinking about it, and we’ll continue to think about it. No, I don’t see a line of sight right now.
Garrit: Many candidates like Michael Woods, and others that we have talked about, tend to get branded as the anti-Trump candidate, and they tend to not do very well. What do you think the future holds for the Republican Party?
Justin: I mean, that is anybody’s guess. Have you seen or heard Will Hurd’s book yet? I just started listening to it. He is the only guy that’s had to fight in the 50/50 district and has won as a Republican. He holds a lot of the answers. If you remember the autopsy after Mitt Romney that was the playbook he executed successfully. He did the sunny optimism of George W. and Reagan and not the negative fear-mongering stuff that you see today. Do I have hope that that’s going to happen inside the Republican party soon? I do not. I’ve been telling the story and if you study the Russian Revolution…Lenin and those guys were out in the wilderness in Switzerland and London for years, and they just kept the ideal and grew the movement. Then, when their opportunity came, they were ready and they won. Keeping the idea alive is kind of the goal. So, if that ends up being inside the Republican Party, great. That’s what I would like to happen. If it ends up being a third party, okay If it ends up being a conservative wing of the Democratic Party, I don’t really care. The parties themselves do a lot more damage to our republic than they do to help it. It is the reality of the system, and we’re trying to work with it.
Garrit: Have you found, as you’ve looked across the state, any people that are currently running for office that you think will do a good job and may be in line with the principles of Principles First?
Justin: Well, as politics goes, it’s a sliding scale. I thought Eva Guzman was a good candidate. However, the question becomes, if you’re a candidate, do you want to win more than you want to be morally correct? How far are you willing to go? I think there really hasn’t been anyone breakthrough on the “I’m standing for principles” side. I think if Will Hurd decides to do something that would be great. He would certainly be at the top of the list. Joe Strauss was a part of that, but he got forced out. So, we’re still kind of out in the wilderness.
Garrit: We talked earlier about Adam Kinzinger, and you also had Liz Cheney speak at one of your summits. Fred Upton in Michigan announced today that he was going to retire. If you look at Newhouse and Beutler out of Washington State and at Lisa Murkowski in the Senate, you will find that all of these people–if they’re not retiring–are faring really poorly in their respective primaries. Do you think these types of Republicans that Principles First tends to support are out of the mainstream? Do you think that the American people really don’t want those types of Republicans anymore?
Justin: Well, I think I’ve used the term enough now but we’re in the wilderness right now. If you look at what’s wrong with the system, you will find the tendency for strong bases within the parties and especially when we’re talking about Republican anger that draws people to the polls right now. So, it’s not a happy environment. It is a poor environment for principled folks.
Garrit: Going back to something you touched on earlier. You spoke about how this push towards isolationism, in terms of our foreign policy, is not a good course of action. What you typically hear from those that support isolationism or non-interventionism, is that the issues here in the United States are not being addressed. They tend to argue “why on earth should we send money to a place like Ukraine or Afghanistan, or send troops over to those places when we’re not fixing the problems here?” How do you convince Americans that maybe getting involved in a place like Ukraine is the right course of action?
Justin: Well, I’m not here to advocate for getting involved in Ukrainian with troops on the ground. But to answer your question about what it means to have American leadership in the world, I saw firsthand what American security does for the world. The increased prosperity that we’ve had since World War Two is directly due to our leadership. If you want to point a finger at why we can’t just turn inward, it’s because someone else will take the reins and that someone else is going to be Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Thankfully, it’s not going to be Vladimir Putin anymore. He’s put himself in a pretty precarious situation now as the world’s pariah, but somebody will fill that void. I think it’s interesting because you wouldn’t expect this argument to come from the conservative side. Historically, the left has been really good about pointing out our flaws. Now, the right has become sympathetic to that. Okay. Yes, we are a flawed people, but are we moral equals to the Chinese Communist authoritarians? Are we moral equals to Vladimir Putin? No, we are not. I think there’s a struggle internally to the American soul that says, “we’re so flawed, everyone is hungry for power, and capitalism and democracy are just as good as authoritarianism.” That’s just not true. There’s no system in the history of the world that has lifted people up like capitalism. There has been no system in the history of the world like American democracy that has made people as free as we are today. I think it’s just a severe lack of…you know the old saying about “good times breed weak people” right? It’s just been too good for so long that we’re like, “we’re just as bad as everybody else.” “Why don’t we let China take the reins for a while?” That’s the kind of thinking that leads to losing the freedoms that we have, and that’s the kind of thing we’re trying to stop.
Garrit: I think you’ve made it pretty clear that you’re not the biggest fan of President Trump and that brand of conservatism, but are there any policy points or things from the Trump presidency that you think were good?
Justin: Well, it’s hard to put your finger on what because you want to shrink the size of the government. Can you reduce taxes and not spending? Both of our generations have a lot of consternation against the Boomers for selling our futures away. I lean on the angry side of that. What I see is more of that. Which is, “hey, we can juice the stock market by pumping money into the economy, reducing taxes, keeping our spending high, allowing QE to keep rolling on and inflating assets.” Which benefits me. I own assets, but it’s selling our future away. It just furthers the kindling that can light this populist spark of which Donald Trump is a part of. So, that’s the thing I worry about. Did he have some tactical wins? Sure. My main concern and this is why I’m always hesitant to give him any credit, is because the erraticism just destroyed our standing on the world stage, which Biden has not been able to overcome and Afghanistan proves that. They’re making some headway now that NATO’s…it’s impressive that Vladimir Putin brought America together more than any American president. So, all I’d say is I’d be hard-pressed to find any specific thing that I would give President Trump credit for that any generic Republican candidate wouldn’t have just done anyways.
Garrit: Can you cite and elaborate on a specific example of the mainstream Republican Party (whether it be Trump, another politician, or a policy position) lacking integrity?
Justin: The most glaring current example is Trump’s insistence on the “stolen election” narrative and the gravity with which his position holds over the party. Almost all Republican candidates for Texas AG, for example, struggled to acknowledge Biden as the legitimate president. Many who publicly struggle with that question don’t have the same reservations in private — a clear integrity deficiency repeated many times over the Trump years, weakening our republic.
Garrit: So, in two years we will have the 2024 election. Are there any people currently in office or that previously held office that you would like to see make a run for the presidency and be the Republican nominee?
Justin: I think, as far as Principles First is concerned, you know Heath has been really good about this whole time. Everyone wants an answer. Who is our presidential candidate? Which party are we going to go with? Are we going to be our own party? The answer is, as far as the presidency is concerned, I think our system is so broken that we’re gonna get really bad choices again. That’s just reality. I think it goes back to the fact that we’re in the wilderness. We keep the idea alive. If Will Hurd breaks through that would be great. Do I think that’s gonna happen? No. I think Ron DeSantis or President Trump will be the nominee, and I think they’ll get beat. If it’s Trump and he wins, I think we’ll be worse off again. But it’s not about just the presidential election. I mean, it’s an easy thing to talk about because it affects everybody, but it’s not necessarily the most important office either.
Garrit: If someone wants to get involved with Principles First how could they do that?
Justin: Yeah, so you can obviously go to the website and enter your information there. That’ll come to me if you’re in Texas. We have state leaders elsewhere. We have the tour that we’re going on. We’re doing Austin, Dallas, Houston, and Nacogdoches. So, there’ll be an East Texas gathering on Saturday, June 24th. The others are happening on September 2nd, 3rd, and 4th. Then we’ll have another summit in February. So all these things will continue. At the next summit, we’re going to lead a Texas delegation because it’s gotten that big. We’re organizing in a way where if we did want to become a political party, we could. So, anyone that wants to be involved from just knowing what’s going on, showing up to an event or getting an op-ed placed, we do help. I think that’s one of the things that I’ve been thinking about a lot because I’ve had success doing that. I want to help others because people have some amazing stories out there. They just don’t make it in front of people because you don’t know how to get it there. So, that’s one of my missions. So, there’s that, There’s Jennifer Strahan running against Marjorie Taylor Greene in the primary there in Georgia. That’s a Republican that we’re supporting. They’re flying out there to door knock for her. We’re gonna fly out to Wyoming to door knock for Liz Cheney. So these are the kinds of the midterm events that we’re up to. As I said, we went from building mode, and now we’re in growth and connection mode. That is what we’re doing. Yeah, so go to the website, maybe follow me on Twitter. I’ll accept DMs.