Conservative Student Groups Must Let Go of the Past

In my last column, I addressed the idolization of Ronald Reagan by conservative “experts” who still cling to the notion that the 40th president was somehow superior to the 45th president, Donald Trump.

As easy as it is to debunk this argument on the merits, one major question still remained unasked: Why? Why do these people insist on continuing to defend a bygone era of conservatism, as represented by a man who has been out of office for more than 30 years, and who has been in the ground for over 16 years?

Living Off the Past

It is actually quite easy to understand the roots of this endless Reagan worship when you take a closer look at one organization in particular, one with which I have had many years of experience.

Young America’s Foundation, and its student outreach branch Young Americans for Freedom, serves as a nexus for the kind of minds that place a higher value on preserving an idealized past than they do on adapting to face an increasingly uncertain future.

Among the preferred methods of “activism” listed on their website are a week dedicated to the fall of the Berlin Wall every November, celebrating the anniversary of Che Guevara’s death on October 9 by plastering campuses with anti-Che posters, and commemorating Ronald Reagan’s birthday every February 6. 

It’s no wonder, then, that they have little to no impact whatsoever on students who were not alive for any of these events, and are only growing further away from this bygone era with the passage of time. But at least they can post selfies with cardboard cutouts of the Gipper, producing images that will inevitably be used in YAF’s latest donation-soliciting materials targeting Baby Boomers who do remember those eras.

If that wasn’t bad enough, their principal method of “activism” is the tired tactic of sending conservative “celebrities” to college campuses to lecture students on pointless platitudes for two hours, with many of these figures commanding absurd five-figure fees just to grace said students with their presence. Their list of speakers is replete with conservative empty suits, from National Review stalwarts like Jonah Goldberg and David French to almost the entirety of The Daily Wire lineup, including the kingmaker of Daily Wire and of YAF itself, Ben Shapiro.

With all of this in mind, it should come as no surprise that another one of YAF’s signature tactics is frequently to tout just how much they really love Ronald Reagan—such as offering donors Reagan-themed calendars every year or giving tours of Rancho del Cielo, Reagan’s former ranch in Santa Barbara. Fancy dinners for donors and students at the Reagan Ranch Center in downtown Santa Barbara are held in rooms where the walls are lined with massive portraits of the 40th president, as every other speaker reminds the audience of how great Reagan was.

And just in case you are thinking this characterization is an unfair or outdated critique of YAF, then consider what YAF decided was a top priority in mid-December. In the midst of the massive effort by present-day conservatives to expose and combat voter fraud in the November election, what was YAF doing with its nationwide infrastructure and funding? Buying Reagan’s childhood home in Dixon, Illinois.

This would all be fine and good if YAF was purely a historical society. But the organization touts itself as a leading activist group, and one of the largest conservative student groups in the country. And yet, as I have written before, YAF and its proponents remained largely on the sidelines for the entirety of the Trump presidency, sitting out the culture war in favor of continuing to spin endless nostalgic tales of Ronald Reagan, William Buckley, and other long-gone figures.

Case-in-point is YAF’s biggest annual event: The National Conservative Student Conference (NCSC), held every August in Washington, D.C. The 2020 conference was canceled due to the coronavirus, and of the remaining three conferences that took place during the Trump presidency in 2017, 2018, and 2019, President Trump was invited to exactly zero.

But YAF still made sure to bring conservative figures that it apparently deemed more worthy of their time, including Dr. Ben Carson and then-Vice President Mike Pence, who, fittingly enough, has just joined YAF as its newest “Ronald Reagan presidential scholar.” 

In a press release, YAF president and former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker declared, “by partnering with YAF, the Vice President will continue to attract new hearts and minds to the conservative cause, passing along the ideas of freedom, just as President Reagan did before.” Walker says it will be “Pence’s energy and enthusiasm for Ronald Reagan’s values” (emphasis added) that will “inspire a new generation of young people.”

The tone-deafness of the blatant Reagan worship aside, it is somehow fitting that even after the vice presidency, Pence has resigned himself once again to living in the shadow of another president’s name.

Chasing Ghosts

When I presented this dilemma to two of my friends, each of them had very biting descriptions of what YAF is doing. The first said that they were simply “chasing Ronald Reagan’s ghost,” attempting to apply an idealized version of a figure from the past to the problems of today, which is every bit as effective as propping up the legacy of any late Republican president decades after his time in office, from Calvin Coolidge to Dwight Eisenhower. The second said that these people are simply “curators of the past,” collecting donor money off of the Right of yesterday and securing their own ivory tower positions, while the Right of today is falling hopelessly behind in the culture war.

The people who are behind groups like YAF and publications like National Review have built their entire careers on drilling it into the heads of the masses that Ronald Reagan was the greatest and most wonderful and most conservative Republican president in modern history. A Republican Party desperate for electoral relevance has been all too willing to indulge in this same preservation of a frozen past and has allowed this charade to continue for nearly three decades.

No Republican since Ronald Reagan even came close to matching, much less surpassing, his charisma and his impact on the American Right—and that includes the few winners. Even forgetting the Doles and the McCains and the Romneys, it is clear that neither of the Bush presidencies will be remembered fondly by any particular swath of Americans, and certainly not by any significant portion of Republican voters.

Donald Trump has completely shattered that trend. The bombastic billionaire president who caused the single greatest ideological realignment in the GOP since Reagan’s time has already proven himself to be a superior president in substance and policy, and also has the potential to surpass Reagan’s memorability, communication skills, and broad personal appeal. It even could be argued that Donald Trump perfected the Reagan model to meet the vastly different challenges of today, from the immigration crisis to the rise of social media.

If Trump were to succeed Reagan as the very personification, the most enduring symbol of the American Right for the 21st century, then it would put all of these “curators” out of a job fairly quickly. After all, who wants a Ronald Reagan-themed calendar anymore? Donald Trump is what’s in now; Ronald Reagan is out.

A Bull Moose in a China Shop

Fortunately, it appears that even among some elements within YAF there are those who have come to recognize this increasingly antiquated approach and, having voiced their disapproval, have broken away from this dinosaur of an organization with one of the most powerful statements ever.

The former Young Americans for Freedom chapter at Baylor University released a statement and an accompanying Twitter thread announcing their unanimous decision by the board to disassociate from YAF, and instead form a new club: The Baylor Bull Moose Society.

In their powerful statement, the new group declared it has “no interest in promoting a corporatist conservatism,” wherein during “this period of unprecedented agglomeration of corporate power, YAF has decided to advocate for the protection of said power and profits to the detriment of working Americans and the common good of our polity.” Quoting their newfound namesake, the group cites Theodore Roosevelt’s declaration that “our aim is not to do away with corporations . . . we are merely determined that they shall be so handled as to subserve the public good.”

Speaking to American Greatness, a spokesman for the Baylor Bull Moose Society said that YAF, and particularly its Executive Director Kyle Ferrebee, “attempted to remove our chairman and exercise control over our chapter. We voted against this because our chapter is specific to Baylor and will not be run by people in the Beltway.”

Asked about the ideological direction of the new organization, the spokesman told me, “Teddy Roosevelt is a good starting point for what we need to do in modern America, but by no means should we limit ourselves to TR and his specific actions. YAF, by contrast, won’t allow themselves to go beyond the borders of Reaganism.”

Return to Past Tactics, Not Past Leaders

Shortly after Young Americans for Freedom was first founded in the home of William F. Buckley, Jr., in 1960, one of YAF’s first major initiatives was to support Barry Goldwater’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in the 1964 election. The group would then go on to actively support Reagan’s candidacies in 1968, 1976, and 1980.

YAF was also heavily vocal on major issues at the time, directly clashing with the far-Left Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and expressing their support for the Vietnam War, to the point that a massive fracture occurred between the organization’s conservative wing and the libertarian caucus. Even if it could be argued that their position on Vietnam ultimately proved incorrect, at least they had the courage back then to take a stand on something that was relevant to their time, rather than constantly hearkening back to issues that mattered in the 1930s.

Somewhere along the line, YAF stopped getting involved in elections and shied away from addressing the issues of the day. Where was YAF on the immigration crisis? What has YAF had to say about Big Tech censorship? What is YAF’s stance on the endless wars in which we are still embroiled? And why did YAF seem to think that securing Ronald Reagan’s childhood home was a bigger priority than fighting the theft of the 2020 election?

Perhaps some in YAF won’t like to admit it, but the organization’s historical roots bear much more in common with their leftist counterparts than to themselves today. The only difference is that the SDS types never dropped that approach; they kept it up, with the students becoming professors in order to keep the cycle going, even as their old figureheads passed on. The Left has continued to stay on top of the latest issues, adjusting their positions and tactics accordingly based on the changing times and ever-volatile public moods. The race riots of last summer are indeed akin to the similar scenes that played out across America in the 1960s, and appear to have been just as effective as they were 60 years ago.

No one on the Left today continues touting the memories of Lyndon Johnson or Saul Alinsky specifically, but their tactics have been polished to near-perfection even decades later. Until the same can be said of YAF, they will soon find their Reagan fan club growing smaller and smaller until they, too, are sent away for reeducation.

About Eric Lendrum

Eric Lendrum graduated from the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he was the Secretary of the College Republicans and the founding chairman of the school’s Young Americans for Freedom chapter. He has interned for Young America’s Foundation, the Heritage Foundation, and the White House, and has worked for numerous campaigns including the 2018 re-election of Congressman Devin Nunes (CA-22). He is currently a co-host of The Right Take podcast.

Photo: Bettmann/Getty Images

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