JAMES NIILER | EDITOR-IN-CHIEF
A specter is haunting college campuses – the specter of populist nationalism. But don’t tell that to your local conservative group – or you’re a racist!
It’s odd that campus conservatives think this way. For populist nationalism is the particular brand of conservatism that Donald Trump adopted to win the Presidency. Call it what you will – Jacksonian democracy, paleoconservatism, or alt-rightism – but you can’t deny it is by far the most effective manifestation of American Rightism since Ronald Reagan’s day.
Indeed, the American Right pre-Trump was endlessly droning on about ‘free’ trade (which is somehow ‘conservative’?), fetuses (while doing nothing much to actually stop abortion), Israel (lovely place, but could we focus on America for once?) and – you guessed it – Ronald Reagan.
This outdated ideology from the 1980s was what passed for ‘conservatism’ until Trump’s Republican nomination, long after said ideology had passed its prime. No one really cared about the ‘principles’ it enumerated, except for Beltway intellectuals. Instead of being the populism that swept Reagan to victory in 49 states in 1984, it had become a staid photo-album philosophy, confined to an elite (and quite frankly, boring) group of people.
Since Trump’s Inauguration, we have witnessing a transformation of conservative policy in Washington, DC. Of course, not all Republicans are perfectly aligned with Trump’s agenda. But while conservative politics are being transformed on the Federal level, this change has yet to seep down into the conservative opposition on college campuses.
Just as there is a liberal Republican Establishment in DC, so too is there is a moderate conservative Establishment on college campuses. This campus conservative Establishment is still afraid of Trump’s rise, and too afraid to confront the issues he represents. We need only witness the disavowals of Trump that some College Republicans chapters issued last year to see this fear in action.
What is the campus conservative Establishment? It comprises most conservative organizations; most ‘alternative’ newspapers and blogs; and the people that control them. Most of these individuals and organizations – such as youth activist Benji Backer, or OUTSET Magazine – aren’t even particularly conservative, either by the standards of Trump or by the standards of William Buckley, the founder of the modern Conservative Movement.
Instead, they appear to be more libertarian or liberal-lite than anything else. They’re generally opposed to abortion, but gay marriage is OK. They accept free trade and unlimited capitalism without question, and are very anti-racist. This means that when someone like Rep. Steve King states the obvious – that you can’t have Western civilization without ethnic Europeans – they’re attacked and vilified, in the same way they would have been by Leftists (albeit more politely, and with paeans to capitalism).
Conservative campus newspapers are a major part of the problem as well. Most of their writers consider it an honor to be published in outlets such as The Washington Post. This thinking, of course, is dangerously naïve. The mainstream media does not have the best interests of the Right at heart, and what naïve conservatives consider to be ‘finding common ground,’ the Left considers to be red meat.
Much of these issues stem from the fact that members of the Establishment are not particularly historically or philosophically grounded. While they are well-versed in libertarian economics, most of them have not read anything older than the works of Buckley. Incorporating ideas into their philosophy that touch on racial/ethnic issues, or ideas that contradict Republican orthodoxy since the Reagan era, are anathema.
Perhaps if they looked into the history of conservatism and the ideology of the Founding Fathers, they’d realize that much of Trump’s platform – of non-interventionism, protectionism and immigration restrictions – are very much in line with most of America’s historic political figures. But since conservatives are terrified as being labelled ‘racists,’ to consider these ideas is too much to bear. So they don’t.
Another chief weakness of the Establishment is its elitist mentality. Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), one of the oldest and most prestigious conservative youth organizations, was founded by a small group of students, drawn from the nation’s most elite colleges, under the guidance of William Buckley himself.
There is nothing wrong with this per se; but this elitism has not translated well into promoting a mass appeal of conservatism. Because of this, conservatism has become confined to a relatively few group of political science majors, most of whom will be sucked into the Beltway apparatus upon graduation.
This elitism has done conservatives no favors. While conservatives create well-publicized grievances in documenting the antics of Leftist maniacs, these grievances has done nothing to actually ‘turn campuses around.’ Indeed, since the rise of the Conservative Movement, the campuses have grown only worse. Without an effective mass appeal, conservatives may have won battles, but they are losing the war – and badly.
The aesthetic issues with conservative branding are also problematic, to say the least. Turning Point USA’s cringeworthy memes, pamphlets and red polo shirts are reminiscent the attire and tracts hawked by religious nuts. In fact, conservative aesthetics are so dreadful that the Left has held a monopoly on ‘edgy’ graphics and mass appeal – until Pepe came along, that is.
The rise of Trump now allows conservatives to echo Trump’s nationalist, populist rhetoric to the masses with a fun, edgy appeal. It allows them to become real, not merely controlled, opposition to the Left on their campuses, and it allows them to rediscover their own ideology in the process.
But all things considered, it seems unlikely that the elite of the Conservative Movement will become this real opposition until, by some miracle, their fears of ‘racism’ accusations subside.