It was the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) convention of 1968, and a conservative civil war was in the process of erupting. A vocal faction of libertarian students, incensed at YAF’s ongoing support for the Vietnam War, burned their draft cards in protest, which prompted a quite literal floor fight with the traditionalist students, who berated the libertarians as “lazy fairies.”
Sensing that their organization was on the knife’s edge, YAF’s leadership sent the best speaker they could think of out to try to reconcile the warring factions before everything went up in smoke. That speaker was William F. Buckley, Jr., who observed:
I rue the unnecessary distance this country has traveled away from freedom for its citizens. YAF was founded among other things to brood over that excess, and to keep it constantly before the mind of the public. But to assume that young Americans, or old Americans, could have any freedom at all in the absence of a measure of sacrifice toward that common affection which lifts our society into being is to assume that each one of us is omnipotent, and to prove that each one of us is omnipotent only in the capacity to fool oneself, and to make oneself a fool. I hope it will not be thought a betrayal to observe that the fight for freedom and the fight to conserve require different emphases depending on the historical situation. (emphasis mine)
In short, a self-immolating stand on principle against the historical necessities of the time was, in Buckley’s view, the height of foolishness. Thus, a strict libertarian stand against prosecuting the Vietnam War risked surrender not merely to the Communist Viet Cong, but also to the antiwar protest movement that was destroying order in America itself. As for Buckley, he would have preferred to nuke Vietnam, rather like the recently defeated U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.).
Now, in retrospect, we can see that Buckley was most likely wrong on Vietnam. And Buckley was happy to admit as much, since he later denounced the Iraq War for falling into the same trap, and grounded his support for handing control of the Panama Canal to Panama itself in the idea that if it were not handed over, there “would’ve been a Vietnam situation,” as he put it in the final episode of his long-running TV show “Firing Line.”
On the other hand, Buckley was also willing to tolerate dissent from his positions for the sake of political expediency. During that same episode, Buckley cheerfully admitted that while he thought Ronald Reagan’s opposition to the treaty surrendering the Panama Canal was mistaken, “if [Reagan] hadn’t come out against the treaty, he wouldn’t have been nominated, on the grounds that my brothers in the conservative movement would’ve punished him for not taking the correct position.”
Now, given this is American Greatness, one might be justified in wondering why I, one of the most fierce and caustic critics of over-fidelity to the conservatism of the past, am wasting my time harping on old Buckley quotes, let alone old student disputes from the 1960s. Well, two reasons: number one, to establish that Bill Buckley was the last person to prioritize an organization or person’s ideological purity or tonal niceness over their ability to be effective on behalf of the Right.
And secondly, to point out that in Buckley’s day, conservative youth organizations actually had balls.
Revenge of the Wimps
Alas, neither point is true today, which brings me to the actual topic of this article: namely, the on-going infomercial-style bitchfight between the ostensibly Trumpist student group Turning Point USA (TPUSA) and its critics in that sad cadre of Lost Boys and Last Men that make up the legacy youth wing of conservatism—groups like the reconstituted YAF, Students for Liberty (SFL), the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI), etc.
That battle began with a column published in that unquestioned redoubt of hoary old conservatism known as . . . Vice. The piece has gone through more titles than Hope Hicks in the space of being published, but exists currently under the headline “TPUSA Is a Safe Space for the Worst of Campus Conservatism.” Its thesis can be summed up as “Turning Point USA hires racist people and brings icky ‘alt-lite’ figures to campus who should not be allowed because of their icky opinions and horrible tendency to upset liberals, whereas YAF, SFL, and ISI will teach students to be True Conservatives™, presumably through a wholesome combination of pretending to have read the Bible, pretending to have read Buckley, and pretending to care about the free market in something other than weed to seem edgy.”
Now, unlike my fellow contributor Eric Lendrum, who felt the urge to leap to TPUSA’s defense with a full-throated defrocking of this passive aggressive elevator pitch for irrelevance, my response upon reading it is simply “can they both lose?”
I regard TPUSA in general, and its new star Candace Owens in particular, with a combination of mistrust and distaste. I mistrust them because TPUSA’s founder, Charlie Kirk, was against Trump until suddenly Baby Boomer donors liked Trump, and Owens herself has followed a whiplash-inducing ideological trajectory from Social Justice Warrior (SJW) to Trumpist, in about the same space of time it would take me to lace up a pair of Yeezys. I feel distaste for them because Kirk seems incapable of producing a single thought that doesn’t read like a poll-tested cliché, and because of my long and close friendship with the conservative commentator and journalist Lauren Southern, who recently produced an incisive video pointing out that TPUSA’s leaders talk out of both sides of their mouths when it comes to their support for identity politics. On the one hand, they badmouth it; on the other, they produce events designated solely for women, blacks, or Latinos. Shouldn’t that be a contradiction they resolve among themselves? Southern wanted to know.
To make matters worse, Owens’ response to this even-handed and non-malicious critique was to claim that the critique was the result of “inner socialism” inspired by her success (as though only socialists can be suspicious of a person’s moral desert), that she didn’t oppose segregation into identity groups so long as they weren’t manipulated for political reasons (while justifying her actions because they made black people want to vote Republican), and most incredibly, that being opposed to identity politics makes one a Marxist! That sound you just heard was George Schuyler, Zora Neale Hurston, Booker T. Washington, Shelby Steele, Ward Connerly, and every other actual black conservative either waking up with a cold sweat, or turning over in their graves, along with Edward Said, W.E.B. Dubois, bell hooks, Huey Newton, Judith Butler, and every other actual Marxist who explicitly grounded their Marxist ideology in their own “marginalized” identities.
Yes, Candace Owens calls herself a conservative. Then again, Harvey Weinstein called himself a feminist. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad she got us Kanye, but now that he’s graduated to a bromance with Jordan Peterson, can we send her back to making a fool of herself on YouTube?
Trigger Warning for the Uninformed
However, because I sense that Lauren and I are precisely the sorts of people that the author of that Vice piece, one William Nardi, would seek to ban from college campuses for our unconscionable willingness to make sport of triggered Leftists, because he already attacked my friends Lucian Wintrich and Milo Yiannopoulos on the same grounds, and because he has since been joined by his fellow Twitter backbenchers in attacking Eric Lendrum, and because one never takes sides against what James Comey calls the “Amici Nostra,” it behooves me to take the Birch to their backsides. And by “Birch,” I don’t mean a literal tree branch: I mean the same instrument that Buckley took to the John Birchers and assorted other fussy little cranks.
Lendrum already took apart Nardi’s original piece with more patience than it deserved. However, there are a couple of points that I think should be made about it, and about Nardi and his cohort, that Lendrum was possibly too noble to mention. As Lendrum noted, the only case Nardi can find of a TPUSA member saying anything that flies in the face of conservative ideology, despite claiming they “break with traditional conservatives in nearly every way,” is Candace Owens calling Trump a “savior.” Three points about this:
First, given the actual differences with longstanding conservative doctrine that I pointed out on Owens’ part above, this shows a nigh-catatonic level of laziness on Nardi’s part.
Second, when the Religious Right first formed in the late 1970s as a voting bloc for Jimmy Carter, they explicitly compared him to Christ, even going so far as to say that Carter shared the same initials as Christ (for a full explication of this phenomenon, see William Martin’s excellent book, With God On Our Side). Granted, they switched to Reagan when Carter disappointed them. But clearly, these sorts of Christlike comparisons have been de riguer among people who became members in good standing of the conservative movement for quite some time. Moreover, #NeverTrump conservatives once even juxtaposed Ronald Reagan as the “savior” to Trump’s “Satan.” Are they apostates and heretics, too? The answer writes itself.
Third, and perhaps most embarrassingly, this is not Nardi’s only attempt to transform the banal into the sacrilegious or profane. In a (somehow) public Facebook post, he writes of a Vice clip showing enthused fans of Beyonce Knowles, “This is SATAN. When the Beyonce personality cult leads the socialist takeover, our country is done for. The last thing they’ve been missing is a charismatic leader to guide them. They’ve now made Beyonce a ‘God.’” No mention of whether Jay-Z will also produce a song titled “I’ve got 666 Problems But Christ Ain’t One.” Also, I’m not one to accuse people of racism, but if I were the sort of person Nardi is, I might find it just a little odd that he has such a problem with sanctified language being used by or about black women.
Moreover, and more troublingly, in his attempt to explain where young conservatives should really belong, Nardi writes the following: “Standing athwart against the all-consuming wave of Trumpism, Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), a student activist group founded by conservative icon William F. Buckley, continues to memorialize the legacy of Ronald Reagan’s personality.[…] Non-Christian conservatives who are more excited to promote fiscal conservatism and free markets can seek out libertarian student organizations like Students for Liberty.”
The “non-Christian” weasel word speaks volumes: implicitly, Nardi is arguing that only Christians can be conservatives, and everyone else will have to settle for being libertarians. For his sake, I hope he never applies for a job at National Review Online, as its very atheist editor-in-chief, Charles C.W. Cooke, might take issue with being preemptively relegated to second-class status on the Right. I also wonder what Nardi makes of non-Christian conservatives such as the near lifelong atheist James Burnham, or my fellow Jews Ben Shapiro and David Horowitz.
Speaking of Horowitz, by the way, Nardi seems to have been asleep for much of the early 2000s, because he treats attempts to publicly expose professors’ Leftist politics as some sort of unprecedented McCarthyite behavior by TPUSA, when Horowitz was doing precisely the same thing in his book The Professors, and when groups like ISI—which Nardi adulates—have been warning students away from Leftist-dominated universities for years. I suppose Horowitz, being a “non-Christian” conservative, must just not have known better than to emulate the Catholic Joseph McCarthy.
I’m not only bringing up these bits of historical blindness and hysteria to be mean-spirited, but to build to a fundamental point, which is that Nardi and his crew are in precisely no position to opine on what makes for True Conservatism™ when they don’t even know the recent history of the ideology they appear to be trying to conserve.
Buckley Pioneered Triggering
This is an important point to establish, because they try to dress up their prissy tone policing complaints about triggering liberals and seeking power on-campus through unapologetic right-wing politics by wrapping them in the mantle of Bill Buckley, or by hiding behind documents like the Sharon Statement.
Yet as established, Buckley was far from the sort of person to shun tactics, if they worked to promote his cause. This was especially the case when it came to triggering university liberals, which Buckley arguably was the first campus conservative to do, with the publication of God and Man at Yale. About this last, an amusing side note: when God and Man at Yale was published, it inspired a huffy review from Yale Professor McGeorge Bundy, who wrote: “The book is one which has the glow and appeal of a fiery cross on a hillside at night. There will undoubtedly be robed figures who gather to it, but the hoods will not be academic. They will cover the face.” Yes, that’s right, Buckley wasn’t just the first conservative campus provocateur, he may also have been the first to inspire disingenuous allegations of racism from triggered faculty members. Granted, Charlie Kirk is no Bill Buckley, but I won’t insult McGeorge Bundy, an actual man of accomplishment, by comparing him to a precious little scribbler like Nardi.
As for seeking power on-campus, I turn once more to Buckley, who wrote at the time of the signing of the Sharon Statement, “What is so striking in the students who met at Sharon is their appetite for power. Ten years ago the struggle seemed so long, so endless, even, that we did not dream of victory.” How is this in any way meaningfully different from TPUSA’s attempt to pump money into campus elections and secure posts for their favored candidates? It isn’t. Appetite for power goes back to the Sharon Statement.
But alright, the Nardi-ites might say, even if the tactics of TPUSA are not really that different from Buckley, at least Buckley was doing his bit for conservatism! True, Reagan conservatism, not this awful Trumpist populism. In fact, they said precisely that in response to Lendrum’s piece: “.@EricLendrum26 wants to lump @Y_A_Freedom with @realDonaldTrump’s populist movement and ideals (Few though they may be). This shows a clear misunderstand of the conservative movement at its core.”
Alright. So Trump is populist and YAF, Buckley, Reagan, etc. were pure, True Conservatives™. Here are some facts that run counter to that:
Did Ronald Reagan adopt protectionist policies, to the dismay of libertarians? Answer: Yes.
Did Paul Weyrich, the founder of the Heritage Foundation, bemoan the rise of blue-collar whites as a force in the late 1970s? No, he celebrated it as a break from the overly intellectual and politically irrelevant “old Right” of the early National Review days, and even went so far as to say that the New Right’s affection for unions and for the welfare state made it better because “People have come to expect certain things of their government, and that it is possible to give those things to the people without destroying the free enterprise system.”
Was Buckley hypersensitive to allegations of racism? No, he was close friends with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, author of the highly controversial (even for its time) Moynihan report, and was a confirmed skeptic of immigration, particularly Muslim immigration, right up until the year he died. For the sake of fairness to Buckley, I won’t mention the columns he penned on the issue of segregation, since he later said he regretted those, but suffice to say they were nothing Nardi could have supported.
Did even the early neoconservatives regard racial sensitivity as the paramount concern of the Right? If they did, Norman Podhoretz’s “My Negro Problem And Ours” would never have been written, let alone published.
Was criticism of the pure free market ever verboten on the Right? No. Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom conceded the need for a welfare state, neoconservative intellectuals such as Daniel Bell and Irving Kristol loudly pointed out the flaws in capitalism in essays and books like “The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism” and Two Cheers for Capitalism.
I could go on, but the point is basic: The Trumpian desire to “trigger the libs” was a tactic Bill Buckley himself pioneered. The thirst for power that groups like TPUSA cultivate was cultivated by the very people who founded YAF and wrote the Sharon Statement. The intellectual disagreements with True Conservatism™ that undergird Trumpian “populism” have been within mainstream conservative orthodoxy for decades, and no amount of Koch money can wash them out.
A True Conservatism™ Never Learned, Much Less Forgotten
What, then, undergirds the huffy behavior of William Nardi and the many other would-be imitators of True Conservatism™? Nothing more than pure, cringing desire to appease their editors at Vice, to weasel their way into the pants of liberal women, and to burnish their resumes by flattering their professors. For all their professed love of Buckley, this association of runts of the litter either forget, or more likely never knew what Buckley himself stood for. But of all the things they ignore in Buckley’s record, perhaps the most notable one is his proclamation that he would sooner be governed by the first thousand names in the Boston telephone book than by the faculty of Harvard University.
In contrast, Nardi and his friends would happily accede to rule by Harvard’s self-appointed faux-technocrats, provided it earned them the names of the thousand loosest co-eds on Harvard’s campus. However, one suspects even those ladies would hang up on them. So must we.
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