As it happens, different strains of right-leaning activism on college campuses are engaged in a bitter contest for domination. So, what’s coming to the main stage of U.S. conservative politics in the coming years? Here’s what you need to know.
The internal battles of campus conservatism have changed
During the 2016 election, several prominent chapters of the College Republicans denounced Trump’s nomination. Many others chose not to formally endorse his candidacy. While these chapters are technically independent of the Republican Party, they usually maintain close ties with the local and state GOP — making the snubs significant.
Meanwhile, other campus political clubs rose up to promote Trump and his politics. An organization called Turning Point USA, for example, attracted attention through headline-grabbing tactics and a wholehearted embrace of the president and his administration. Similarly, Young America’s Foundation, or YAF, has spent years holding provocative campus events like “Catch an Illegal Immigrant Day” and “Affirmative Action Bake Sales.”
Moderate and traditional campus conservatives have lost ground as populists and nationalists (as well as more forthright racists) have begun showing up. Yesterday’s fire-breathing conservatives are finding themselves dismayed by those who want to go still further to the right.
Turning Point and YAF had until recently been at the furthest-right edge of conservative activism in higher education. Over the past several months, however, Turning Point and YAF have been attacked for failing to espouse the more extreme “America First” populism advocated by figures like conservative columnist Michelle Malkin and conservative podcaster Nick Fuentes. Fuentes and his followers, called the “Groyper Army,” made waves last year by heckling Donald Trump Jr. at UCLA and Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.) at Arizona State University. “Groyper” refers to a variant of Pepe the Frog, an illustrated meme appropriated by the alt-right.
Fuentes claimed that Trump and Crenshaw were not anti-immigrant enough, supported Israel too much and did not adequately denounce the LBGTQ community. Malkin positioned herself as Fuentes’s ardent backer — which led YAF to cut ties with her.
Here’s how we did our research
Between the fall of 2017 and the spring of 2018, the first full school year Trump was in office, we visited the flagship public universities of Arizona, Colorado, North Carolina and Virginia to learn about young people involved in contentious campus political events.
Our 77 student interviewees were activists involved with political clubs on their campuses. We sat down with anarchists and communists, libertarians and populists, and everyone in between to ask open-ended questions about the direction of American democracy, the value they put on civic debate and their feelings about civil dialogue.
Trump, unsurprisingly, loomed large in their minds. Progressives were universally opposed to the current president. Not all conservatives were ardent Trump fans; students on the right were divided on how to respond to Trump and unsure of what his leadership meant for the Republican Party.
We observed that students’ approaches to politics were shaped by the clubs they participated in. Political groups don’t just reflect their members’ interests. They provide a context and a set of “styles” that help mold students’ ideologies and beliefs about the norms of activism.
Consider the University of Virginia’s College Republicans, a chapter that has focused on training future party leaders. Members described how belonging to the group tempered their more extreme impulses. Meeting and working for politicians helped them appreciate electability over fiery rhetoric, while debating public policy with visiting experts led them to see compromise as a way toward the greater good.
Turning Point had the opposite effect, centering group membership on making provocative claims and publicly inciting outrage. As one University of North Carolina Turning Point member complained, “I don’t see any leadership from the College Republicans for doing any type of activism work on campus or trying to persuade anyone [to vote for Trump] or get people riled up to go out and do stuff. … [College Republicans] don’t really like to be controversial at all.”
Getting “people riled up,” for this campus club, included going to anti-gun rallies to hand out NRA tchotchkes and inviting white nationalists to speak. But the national leadership of Turning Point distanced itself from the chapter’s more alt-right activities. Nevertheless, members explained that their chapter would not be deterred from countering UNC’s “bias against white people.”
Now, the provokers are being out-provoked
Activists across a variety of conservative groups explained how Turning Point normalized a vision of conservatism that resonated with Trump’s approach to campaigning and governing, embracing populism and emphasizing provocation to create viral social media content as the right’s primary strategy on campus.
Two years later, many College Republican chapters are now following in Turning Point’s footsteps and running toward Trumpism — by which we mean not only supporting the current president but also replicating the political stylings of his campaign rhetoric.
But the tide could turn quickly.
Although the Groyper critique of “Conservative Inc.” may push College Republicans, Turning Point and even Trump’s own son to be Trumpier, the ideological shift could be short-lived. Other political swings have been reversed. After President Barack Obama’s reelection, for example, College Republicans headed the opposite way, promising to make the GOP more inclusive, an approach now abandoned. In other words, searing moments — like the election of an African American or a reality TV star to the presidency — can upend conventional wisdom in a heartbeat.
Student-led groups do have a cultural inertia that can remain even as membership changes. At the same time, any one club’s trajectory is negotiable. It is hard to predict where conservative students will end up in four years, but the College Republicans’ current course represents a radical departure from the pragmatic “socially liberal, fiscally conservative” mantra we heard in interview after interview when we were talking with students during Trump’s first full school year in office.
Jeffrey L. Kidder is an associate professor of sociology at Northern Illinois University.
Amy J. Binder is a professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego and author of Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives (Princeton, 2013).