Campus conservatives in the Age of Trump
By Justin Henry
Donald Trump's ascendancy to the political forefront marks a conservative backlash against progressive and liberal norms of the American college campus. George Erhardt wrote in “Academics and the reproduction of cultural hegemony” that Trump’s election signifies Americans are turning against the race and gender politics of cultural critics in the academy, instead seeing it as character assassinations. In the place of left-wing hegemony, Erhardt advocates for a new counterculture of conservatism.
“The academic Left will bring out their tired old smears and attack the ethics and motives of their opponents, but the election suggests that more and more Americans see those insults for the self-serving rhetoric they are,” Erhardt wrote. “For the sake of our students’ education, let’s make the most of this chance.”
After the McCarthy and Civil Rights eras, Republicanism had a bad name on college campuses as an unfeeling, antiquated and oppressive philosophy. The ratio of liberals to conservative professors grew ever since and conservative values of militarism and meritocracy became subject to critical academic discourse.
Efforts to make conservatism cool again, like in the Reagan era, has come from nonprofit organizations like Turning Point USA, Young American Foundations and the Leadership Institute, who understand college campuses for the cultural microcosms that they are. However, campus Republican activists are split along the same lines as the Republican Party as a whole—the grassroots establishment politics of Milo Yiannopoulos versus the elite intellectualism of William F. Buckley.
A study by Amy Binder, assistant professor in the department of sociology at the University of California at San Diego, and Kate Wood, an independent scholar, demonstrated the range of activist methods among campus Republicans, ranging from civil at midwestern public institutions to provocative at eastern private colleges.
Students at midwestern public institutions are galvanized by Breitbart News’ trolling approach gleefully demonstrating the extent of their free speech. On the east coast, students at private colleges take their cue from National Review’s attempts for honest debate.
The political discussions and upheavals during college are significant to a young person’s life. They reflect political engagement later in life, according to Binder and Wood’s analysis, as well as the current political moment.
“The tensions we see among students over populist provocation and elite civilized discourse are being played out not only on college campuses but in the highest levels of government decision making as well,” they wrote in their analysis.
Buckley’s movement versus Bannon’s movement
Catch and illegal day. Global warming beach party. Affirmative action bake sales. These are among the most popular methods conservatives use to promote their politics and test the limits of their free speech.
On March 14, the Illini Republicans at the University of Illinois held and affirmative action bake sale, according to the campus newspaper. The conservative group charged patrons discounted prices relative to white men based on their privilege, or lack thereof.
Honest attempt for dialogue or racist troll?
The Illini Republicans claimed they wanted to initiate a dialogue about race conscious admissions, a taboo topic on college campuses since the race of
many students is taken into account when they are accepted to college. When students are admitted based on their nominal merit alone, the conservative group claimed, all students receive the best suited education.
However, counter protesters, surrounding the bake sale to prevent patrons from making purchases, alleged the stunt was racist for dismissing the reality of institutional oppression.
Binder and Wood interviewed several conservative students for their study, many of whom organized such bake sales. Kody Anderson said provocative stunts like these are the most effective way to get their message out.
“If we had just released a press release saying, ‘by the way, we don’t support affirmative action,’ no one would have cared,” Aronson said. “The day we announced [the bake sale], I had about five newspapers call me for interviews… We got a lot of press coverage out of it, and that’s exactly what we wanted.”
Aronson’s all-press-is-good-press approach indicates he caught onto the Trump movement’s greatest asset: free news coverage for doing outrageous things.
On the east coast, student Republicans are more interested in engaging with their liberal and progressive counterparts in good faith. Instead of the affirmative action bake sale, they write newspaper columns and host debates with the student Democrats.
Sean Themea, former president of IC Young Americans for Liberty, criticized the affirmative action bake sale for its mean spirit and causing more division than unity. Instead, Themea staged demonstrations aimed to empower students and promote libertarianism.
“Students need to understand that the government’s not going to change the world,” Themea said. “They’re going to change the world.”
Waging an internet war
The Professor Watchlist was published online just weeks after Trump’s election with the mission statement of documenting any professor that discriminated against conservative students or use the classroom to promote leftist propaganda. Academics across the country took it as an intimidation tactic, similar to the anti-communist witch hunts of the Red Scare.
According to Matt Lamb, the manager of the watchlist, part of its purpose is to contribute to the online community or conservative students, marginalized by the alleged progressive hegemony in higher education. Lamb compared it to online support networks for LGBT or Muslim students.
Lamb’s push back against a perceived left wing dominance in the academy came in a long line of online communities of conservative students alleging an intolerant culture of leftism on their campus. Media outlets like Hypeline News, Campus Reform, The College Fix, Red Alert Politics and Turning Point News all criticize “social justice warriors” and highlight violence visited against fellow conservative students. “See “DeVos haters support her policies” and “Young Obama supporters not sure why they love him” for more details for some cringe-worthy moments.
Conservative foundations like Turning Point USA and the Leadership Institute have taken to all areas of civil society, including news outlets, to promote conservatism on college campuses. These journalistic outlets are for conservative readers as well as writers, providing an alternative to a campus newspaper running a left-wing narrative.
“Conservatives as a whole have a deep distrust for the media and they have a deep distrust for education,” Slater said.
Sam Mariscal, Regional Field Coordinator for the Leadership Foundation and contributor to Campus Reform, said online news outlets are for students who want to be active in the conservative movement but not in campus activism. If they write an exceptionally good article, Mariscal said they have the chance to be driven into Fox studios in New York of Washington D.C. as a correspondent, all expenses paid.
This community of media outlets has formed an informational network that shares published information. For example, Turning Point USA, a foundation committed to promoting conservatism on college campuses, published the Professor Watchlist which doesn’t conduct any of its own journalistic research. Instead, it relies on previously published information from Turning Point News and Campus Reform, a news outlet published by the Leadership Institute.
This divide in activist styles is rooted in the disagreements between the various foundations sponsoring the media production and activism—TPUSA, LI and the Young Americans Foundation.
TPUSA has the more inflammatory material, Slater said, inviting speakers like Tomi Lahren and dawning stickers and t-shirts that say “socialism sucks” in the same formatting as Bernie Sanders’ campaign posters. YAF and LI focus on the intellectual content of conservatism, inviting speakers like Dennis Prager.
Slater, while identifying closer with YAF’s intellectualism, said tactics used by both are effective to conservative messaging. While tabeling for IC Republicans, Slater said he would catch people’s eye with a sticker from TPUSA but inform students with what he learned from YAF.
“We’ll use the ‘socialism sucks’ sticker on our table to catch their eye,” he said. “Then I use the YAF talking point to keep them informed and have them go to their class more prepared to be a part of this discussion.”
The Leadership Institute has a similar mission to YAF focusing on the intellectual sphere of conservatism rather than provocative branding.
“We’re really interested in training young conservatives to win on principle and to win for principal,” Mariscal said.
In the end, Mariscal said conservative students benefit the most in as an intellectual minority. If they choose to engage with their left of center classmates rather than troll them, they have the chance to strengthen their foundational values and refine their argument skills.
“On campus, conservatives are facing threats and arguments and they’re the ones coming out a little sharper,” he said. “Everyday, they’re being told ‘you’re racist, you’re a bigot’ and everyday they’re learning how to rearticulate their points.”