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How Trumpian Conservatism Took Over the World — And Lost Me

This conservatism isn't about what’s best for America. It's about winning.

When I was in college, I served as editor-in-chief of a conservative newspaper. I’m not a conservative, or a Republican, in the Paul Ryan–Carly Fiorina “Why yes, I do identify with the Empire in Star Wars” sense. I come from a long line of blue-collar union Democrats and socialist academics. I think that government should do more. I revel in the public sector. Even so, I was more conservative — fiscally and, in some ways, socially — than a lot of my friends on my large, extremely liberal university campus. And I found a deep sense of comfort in unease, in being challenged, in reading something I wanted to heave into the sun and contemplating why I felt that way. That’s how I got to that newspaper.

Our paper was funded by the Collegiate Network, a tax-exempt organization that supports more than 200 conservative student newspapers across the country. The Collegiate Network is, in turn, run by another, larger organization, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which focuses on making more college students into conservatives, preparing them to go to battle. William F. Buckley founded the Intercollegiate Studies Institute two years before he started National Review, a conservative magazine for which several of my fellow newspaper alumni write today. Buckley’s version of conservatism was a combination of anticommunism and moral traditionalism, with a dash of libertarianism; the point wasn’t to tell people what to do, it was to let them do it, unencumbered by the government. Eventually, they’d find their way (ideally, to his side of the aisle).

I thought I knew what we were standing for at the paper, and what we were battling. I was under the impression that we were part of a long tradition of thoughtful conservatives who encouraged free markets and free thought. There was a life-size poster of Ronald Reagan in our office, because of course there was.

Also hanging in that office was a poster for Transgender Day of Remembrance, a day set aside to honor the lives of trans people murdered because of their gender identity. Several years before I got there, someone had scrawled on it in Sharpie, “CHICKS WITH DICKS: THEY WILL BE MISSED.” Transgender people, it appeared, were not included in Buckley’s vision, nor that of my college newspaper. Neither were racial minorities. Or a lot of people, really, including me, a gay black woman, sitting in that office every day, too scared to take down that fucking poster.

My senior year, while attending an editors’ conference in Scottsdale, Arizona, where we were given as much free alcohol as we could stand, I realized that we weren’t battling the forces of ignorance and apathy. We were battling liberals. The conservatism that got me my first reporting job wasn’t about St. Thomas More or economic theory. My college newspaper had kids on staff who were Republicans because their parents were Republicans, and papers like mine told them they were unquestionably correct because that’s what they wanted to hear. A decade before college conservatives would become outraged by “safe spaces,” papers like mine — and the groups that funded us — gave them one.

The kind of conservatism that hosted a “Catch an Illegal Immigrant” game when I was in college wasn’t conservative for its own sake. It was conservatism in opposition, conservatism as irritant, conservatism because the kids on the other side of the playground were liberals. If liberals said “don’t play in traffic,” those conservatives would be hosting games of Four Square in the middle of an eight-lane highway.

What I saw in college wasn’t about helping people find their own political path, it was standing on conservatism’s front porch and yelling insults at passersby. The college conservatism I witnessed didn’t want to convert liberals, it wanted to make them suffer. It was a club, and either you were wielding it or you were being hit on the head with it. And now that conservatism is everywhere.

I see it in Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, wilting pundits who revel in racism because of the outrage it generates, and in media outlets like The Blaze and Breitbart, which tell audiences that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are actual, literal demons. I see it with hucksters like Sean Hannity, with gold schemes and doomsday preppers and organizations promising to impeach Obama before he declares martial law if you’d just donate a few hundred dollars. Conservative author Jonah Goldberg wrote in 2013, “A conservative journalist or activist can now make a decent living while never once bothering to persuade a liberal. Telling people only what they want to hear has become a vocation.”

It hasn’t gotten any better in the three years since. This strain of “college conservatism” is the political equivalent of eating candy for dinner because your parents told you not to. It is standing for nothing and opposing everything, regurgitating “what about black-on-black crime?” and “there’s no such thing as rape culture” like a Twitter egg avatar into eternity. Everything is offense, yet it’s all pointless.

College conservatism has never been about what’s best for America or economic theory or family values or abortion or the Constitution. It has always been about winning. Now it is about Donald Trump and the voters who line up outside arenas for him. It’s the Trumpkins who support universal health care — which would require a massive expansion of government and governmental power, normal conservative rhetoric would say — because Trump said it’s OK. It’s the Religious Right, who are suddenly just fine with supporting an admitted adulterer who appears to have learned about Christianity from a late-night infomercial viewed while half-asleep because, hey, at least he’s not a liberal! Hell, it’s blaming liberals for the rise of Trump because if liberals hadn’t been so PC, conservatives wouldn’t have felt the need to support a dictatorial, vulva-assaulting miasmatic sponge.

College conservatism has left America behind, and it left me, too. I stayed on staff at my college paper all four years, but that was it for me. The conservatism that appealed to me in the first place didn’t exist. It wasn’t real. It never had been. There was no wizard behind the curtain, just an unending font of Chelsea Clinton conspiracy theories and bizarre attempts to defend slavery.

There’s a place here, in this country, for real conservatism, for political theories and ideas and policy papers and actual thinking, god, so much more thinking. For debate and for discussion and for conversation about health care or the economy or something, anything real. I want that. I often write about conservatism because I wish it existed, in this true and truly beneficial form. But there is no place for college conservatism, because college conservatism isn’t a belief system. It’s a sports team. And if you’re not on board, you’re in the way.