At first glance, Oren Cass is an amalgam of East Coast elitism — an Ivy League pedigree insulated in a Bain & Company pullover. But this think tank maverick is no friend of the establishment.

A decade ago, he was on track to become one of them, acing his final year at Harvard Law while simultaneously serving as Mitt Romney’s top domestic policy adviser for his 2012 presidential campaign. 

But Cass has quickly carved out a reputation as one of the biggest thorns in the side of the Republican old guard, providing a defense of Donald Trump’s disruption of conservative doctrine and authoring a policy agenda for GOP legislators trying to raise something from the rubble.

“The problem is that Trump was not necessarily a very effective builder,” Cass told me. “He was very good at knocking things down. But I don’t think he brought a coherent vision for where to go forward. And so that is the work that is now being done.”

Chiseling away at what he sees as an outmoded economic orthodoxy and replacing it with a Republican agenda centered around family, community and nation, has become Cass’ mission, and that of American Compass, the organization he founded in December 2019. 

The subsequent four years have seen Cass’ clout on Capitol Hill grow at a rapid clip. American Compass is now characterized as one of the most impactful groups inside the Beltway, influencing prominent senators like Romney, J.D. Vance, R-Ohio, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and providing a blueprint for a new generation of eager congressional staffers.   

While his research methods and left-wing funding sources have drawn the ire of many right-of-center thinkers, Cass rejects the charge that he is hitching an opportunistic ride on the Trump train. He’s a lifelong New England conservative in the mold of Romney, who he cites as his inspiration for breaking free of the creeds of a bygone Cold War coalition.

But to substitute what he calls “market fundamentalism” — an absolute belief in free markets — with a government-guided capitalism, Cass will need fellow Republicans to become comfortable with his favorite pastime: jettisoning the status quo. 

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