Donald Trump’s ascendance to the political forefront marks, in part, a conservative backlash against progressive and liberal norms of the American college campus.
George Erhardt wrote in “Academics and the reproduction of cultural hegemony” Trump’s election signifies Americans are turning against the race and gender politics of cultural critics in the academy, instead seeing them 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,” Erhardt warned. “But the election suggests that more and more Americans see those insults for the self-serving rhetoric they are. 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 liberal to conservative professors grew ever since and conservative values of militarism and meritocracy became subject to their critical academic discourse.
Efforts to make conservatism cool again, like in the Reagan era, has come from nonprofit organizations—Turning Point USA (TPUSA), Young American Foundations (YAF) and the Leadership Institute (LI)—that learned from conservatives’ previous mistakes. They understand cultural movements begin on college campuses.
However, campus Republican activists are split along the same lines as the Republican Party as a whole—the anti-establishment politics of Steve Bannon versus the elite intellectualism of William F. Buckley.
Activist methods among campus Republicans range from provacative trolling at midwestern public institutions to civil and intellectual at eastern private colleges. This spectrum was demonstrated in 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.
Students at midwestern, public institutions are galvanized by Breitbart News’s 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 courteous attempts for debate.
The political discussions and upheavals during a person’s undergraduate years are significant to their political mind. 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 vs. Bannon’s movement
On March 14, the Illini Republicans at the University of Illinois held an affirmative action bake sale, according to the campus newspaper, The Daily Illini. The conservative group charged patrons discounted prices relative to their status in society in comparison to white males.
This is actually happening at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. pic.twitter.com/USs3rSh0wG
— m (@__margarita) March 14, 2017
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. 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, like inflating a free speech ball for students to express themselves in writing.
“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 by Turning Point USA, a nonprofit foundation with the mission of promoting conservative ideals on college campuses, just weeks after Trump’s election. The watchlist pledged to document 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, 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 video montages like “DeVos haters support her policies” and “Young Obama supporters not sure why they love him” for more details and some cringe-worthy moments.
These journalistic outlets are for conservative readers as well as writers, providing an alternative to a campus newspaper allegedly running a left-wing narrative.
“Conservatives as a whole have a deep distrust for the media and they have a deep distrust for higher education,” IC Republicans President Caleb Slater said.
Sam Mariscal, Regional Field Coordinator for the Leadership Institute 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.
This online community of media outlets has formed an informational network that shares published information. For example, TPUSA 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.
“Conservatives are the ones facing threats and arguments and they’re the ones coming out a little sharper. Everyday they’re being told ‘you’re racist, you’re a bigot,’ and everyday they’re learning how to rearticulate their points.”–Sam Mariscal, Field Coordinator for the Leadership Institute
However, these organizations—TPUSA, LI and the YAF— exhibit the same split in consevative activist vision. TPUSA has the more inflammatory material, Slater said, inviting speakers like Tomi Lahren and selling 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 and Ben Shapiro.
Slater, while identifying closer with YAF’s intellectualism, said tactics used by both are effective to conservative messaging.
“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.”
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 refine their argument skils.
“Conservatives are the ones facing threats and arguments and they’re the ones coming out a little sharper,” Mariscal said. “Everyday they’re being told ‘you’re racist, you’re a bigot,’ and everyday they’re learning how to rearticulate their points.”