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Yet conservative activism has changed, as have the campuses on which it is practiced. Let’s look at the activism first, through the lens of Turning Point USA, the “Make America Great Again” wing of campus conservatism.
In 2012, Charlie Kirk, fresh from high school, skipped college to focus on college reform. The organization he founded and leads, Turning Point USA, asserts that its field program, in fiscal year 2020, “organized 800 new high school and college chapters,” “hosted 244 instructional campus events,” and “reached 142,534 students.” Kirk and Turning Point have been accused of exaggerating the organization’s accomplishments. But with then-President Trump a regular fixture of its annual Student Action Summit and revenue up from about $80,000 in its first year to nearly $40 million in 2020, TPUSA may be, as Eric Kelderman put it in The Chronicle, “the dominant force in campus conservatism.”
That’s not good.
Turning Point says it “educates students about the importance of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and capitalism” and favors “nonpartisan debate, dialogue, and discussion.” Consider that fib as you listen to the June 30 episode of Frontlines, a daily TPUSA podcast hosted by Drew Hernandez. That episode focuses on protesters of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, or, in Hernandez’s words, “these psychopaths, these baby killers, death cultists,” some of whom are “literally demon-possessed.” Hernandez knows who instigated the protests: Satan. God “moved in a miraculous way ... overturning Roe v. Wade.” But “Satan is going to retaliate in a very vicious way because this is about murdering babies.”
The idea that there are spiritual forces at work in the world is not to be mocked. But nonpartisan dialogue about capitalism, this is not.
In a conversation with the televangelist Jack Hibbs, Kirk offered a similar analysis. Globalists “look at themselves as trying to microengineer ... the world, your decisions, and ... they want to play God because they don’t believe in God.” That “really is a Satanic and good-versus-evil struggle that we see from the very beginning of the Bible.” Their “plotting and planning,” through the World Economic Forum, which has “taken over entire governments,” explains “almost every single puzzling news item that you see.”
On a recent episode of his own podcast, Kirk went over these same themes with Alex Jones, who has said, among other vile, false things, that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a hoax staged to advance gun control. (In August, Jones was ordered to pay $49 million as part of a defamation suit.) Nonetheless, on the sidelines of Turning Point’s annual Student Action Summit, Drew Hernandez recorded an exchange with Marjorie Taylor Greene, a featured speaker and no stranger to deranged and harmful utterances:
Greene: “Oh, Alex Jones. Love him.”
Hernandez: “He’s my boy. Isn’t he a sweetheart?”
Greene: “He is the greatest!”
Hernandez: “Isn’t he like literally a sweetheart?”
Greene: “He’s a sweetheart.”
Hernandez: “I love him so much.”
In mainstreaming figures like Jones, Greene, and Hernandez, Turning Point follows the lead of Donald J. Trump, who went on Jones’s show and endorsed Greene’s re-election to Congress. In addition to leading TPUSA, Charlie Kirk heads Turning Point Action, whose 501(c)(4) status allows it to hold Trump rallies. Kirk also chairs Students for Trump, and is all-in on stolen election claims.
Turning Point seems less concerned with ensuring that “every young person can be enlightened to true free-market values,” per its mission statement, than about persuading young people to adopt Trumpism and to loathe Trumpism’s enemies. That doesn’t mean the organization should be suppressed, as has been attempted here and there. Academic freedom and freedom of association are different things, but, as the American Association of University Professors recognizes, an institution that disrespects the latter undermines the former. At the same time, Turning Point should not get to sail under false colors.
Continetti, in The Right, observes that, “in the early 2020s, the Right ... no longer viewed core American institutions as worth defending. It was apocalyptic in attitude and expression.” TPUSA embodies this tendency in higher education.
Campus conservatism is not as close to that of the 1990s as it might have seemed. It is, in at least some ways, more reminiscent of the 1950s, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his allies fixed their unremitting hostility and dishonesty on universities. To the shame of the conservative movement, many of its intellectuals considered opposition to McCarthy more pernicious than McCarthy himself. The poet E. Merrill Root considered the academy’s opposition to McCarthy to be evidence of its corruption. So did the Black conservative columnist George Schuyler, whose response to McCarthyism was to denounce its detractors: “Witch-hunting was fine until there were some real witches to hunt.” Even William F. Buckley Jr., whose 1951 book, God and Man at Yale, was by no means simply hostile to universities, followed up that publication by co-writing a book-length defense of McCarthy.
George Nash, perhaps the foremost historian of American conservatism, observed that the movement’s rally around McCarthy left it “weakened and defensive.” Likewise, conservative intellectuals inside and outside of the academy will do themselves no favors if they, too, concentrate on the sins of the left and downplay the conspiratorial demagogy living in their own house.
Of the conservatives in Binder and Kidder’s sample, including some libertarians and a few “self-described moderates who lean Republican,” none, as far as we know from the book, mentioned Alex Jones, the Antichrist, or the globalist conspiracy to enslave regular folks. Several were committed mainly to TPUSA. But in a separate article by Binder and Kidder, which sets aside libertarians and moderates to focus on the remaining conservatives, we learn that only a few of the Turning Point students were “true believers” in Trump. They were outnumbered by “principled rejecters” who displayed “a strong antipathy toward Trumpism.”
Trumpism may be the dominant strain in contemporary conservatism, but “people under the age of 30 tend to hold strongly negative views” of the former president, whose “most vocal base is comprised of older blue-collar workers without college degrees,” write Binder and Kidder. Universities “simply do not provide a comfortable home for Trumpism.”
Indeed, while the conservatism we are dealing with now is different from conservatism in the 1990s, college campuses have also changed. Tilted to the left then, they are falling over now. At the campuses covered in Binder and Kidder’s study, progressivism is so pervasive that progressives sometimes miss “the myriad ways their ideological orientations are actually supported day in and day out at their schools,” Binder and Kidder write. “Fish are unaware of the water in which they swim.”
If anything, Binder and Kidder understate the degree to which progressivism dominates college campuses. It may be true that decades of freshman-survey data from UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute suggest that “on a typical campus, you are nearly as likely to find an extremely reactionary student as you are an extremely radical one.” But, as Binder and Kidder acknowledge, too, that balance has shifted in recent years. In 2019, according to the freshman survey, one was more than twice as likely to come across a self-identifying far leftist as one was to come across her far-right counterpart. At the University of Virginia, that was 10 times as likely. At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, that was 25 times as likely. At both universities, in the past decade or so, conservative students have gone from being outnumbered by well short of two to one to being outnumbered by more than three to one.
Faculty are also more liberal than they were 30 years ago. In the late 1980s to mid-1990s, self-identifying far leftists averaged around 5.5 percent of four-year-college faculty, according to the HERI faculty survey. In 2016-17, the most recent survey available, far leftists are 11.5 percent of the faculty — they’ve doubled. Today, liberal faculty vastly outnumber conservative faculty — about four to one — and the number of far leftists is now on par with the total number of conservatives. The figures are presumably even more lopsided on the flagship campuses Binder and Kidder discuss. Moreover, Binder and Kidder argue that this ideological skew shapes which questions faculty members entertain and which answers win approval, particularly in the humanities and social sciences.
While administrations had a hand in the political-correctness wars, particularly by imposing speech codes, the administrative apparatus devoted to diversity, equity, and inclusion barely existed when those wars were fought in the 1990s. Today, that ideological infrastructure is pervasive. Progressive students, the authors note, “are connected to their universities through multiple institutional spaces” — such as multicultural centers, student-affairs offices, and offices of diversity — “that support their identities and worldviews.” Staff members in such spaces, often former progressive student activists themselves, see their new roles as an opportunity to “shepherd undergraduates through the process of mobilization.”
Administrators often move more slowly than progressive and especially far-left activists would like, being constrained, to a point, by professionalism and caution. Nonetheless, Binder and Kidder write, the “progressive channel” for activism runs through the heart of the university, whose “formal and informal structures” facilitate left-leaning students’ engagement and sense of belonging .
In contrast, the “conservative channel,” carved out by “resource-rich outsiders,” engages students in “an insurgency against liberal dominance.” Conservative clubs can do little on campus; their activity consists mainly of inviting outside speakers, sometimes to persuade but as often to irritate other students.
Overmatched on campus, conservative students are drawn to organizations that have done “considerable damage” to “higher education’s reputation, particularly among Republicans.” Turning Point’s “appetite for stoking outrage ... is expanding on the right,” write Binder and Kidder. Even more refined groups, like the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, are players “in the agitations happening in higher education” and spread “a discourse hostile to the academic enterprise.”
There is some slippage here. There is a difference of more than method and tone between groups that Binder and Kidder consider bulwarks “for the intellectual and civil side of the conservative channel,” and groups like Turning Point. The former attend to intellectual-diversity problems and participate in some of the same free-speech fights that more populist groups do. But they are not so much showing hostility to the academic enterprise as advancing a critique in which Binder and Kidder find “more than a glimmer of truth.” At many colleges, as Samuel Abrams, a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College, has put it, “a fairly liberal student body is being taught by a very liberal professoriate — and socialized by an incredibly liberal group of administrators.”
This slippage notwithstanding, Binder and Kidder grasp that universities suffer both at the hands of outside organizations that mean them harm and from self-inflicted wounds. Administrators need to find ways to connect conservative students to the larger campus community. Professors should help students recognize, and engage with, the depth and complexity of the conservative intellectual tradition.
Right-wing attacks on American universities, well-meaning and disingenuous alike, have been a staple for at least 70 years. Why are they getting such purchase now? Perhaps, after the wave of left-wing protests that rolled through many campuses in 2015-17, that “more than a glimmer of truth” in conservative complaints about higher education seemed brighter.
But conservatives confronted by a critique of higher ed that is more Alex Jones than Allan Bloom can take no comfort in progressive lapses. Binder and Kidder urge conservative donors to stop showering money on grossly irresponsible recipients. Conservative academics, too, have a role to play. I haven’t met any who think well of Charlie Kirk and his like, even in a “no enemy to my right” kind of way. On the other hand, I know relatively few conservative academics who look up from railing against wokeism long enough to notice or say much about the feverish, disgraceful character of too much of what passes on the right. From both a conservative and an academic perspective, that’s a dereliction of duty.
A populist conservatism that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to McCarthyism confronts colleges that are more left-liberal than they have ever been and more vulnerable to the charge that progressive orthodoxy has distorted the way in which it conceives of its work. One shouldn’t underestimate how volatile this mix is. But one shouldn’t catastrophize, either.
Continetti, reflecting on the McCarthy era, writes that the conspiracy thinking of those years “fed off of conservative alienation from government, from media, from higher education.” For a time it seemed that McCarthy’s strategy of condemning American institutions as “irrevocably corrupted” was effective, even successful. Ultimately, however, the project collapsed. “Fantasies,” Continetti writes, “cannot withstand the pressures of reality.”