How to Learn from Conservatives
Stop talking and listen
In February, I was able to attend the 2018 Conservative Political Action Conference, held annually in a conference center outside Washington, D.C. I live blogged two days of general sessions, interviewed people, heard numerous speakers, and was present at a Trump rally. I had the opportunity to talk to a number of conservative activists, from 18-year-old college students to elderly men and women wearing MAGA hats to politicians and political consultants. I was in a gaggle with Ted Cruz. I had the pleasure of wandering around with a badge that said “Media,” which meant that anyone I was interested in talking to seemed to want to talk to me. Some of you read my posts here and here: they were mostly written from the press section, where I was surrounded not just by legacy journalists, but also by representatives of the conservative press, bloggers, interns for right wing news organizations, and numerous conservative correspondents for podcasts and local radio stations that broadcast over the Internet.
It was an amazing introduction to #Trumpworld, to conservative activism, and to the media celebrities that are driving contemporary right-wing and libertarian politics forward. It was also an opportunity to learn a lesson rarely taught in academia: listening deeply often requires not interrupting other people with the need to express your own views.
I can’t say I wasn’t nervous before I went: have you ever gone someplace where someone was walking around dressed as Hillary Clinton in handcuffs and everyone thought it was a gas? I hadn’t, and it is surreal and a little scary. Furthermore, while I did a fair amount of reporting in my youth, I had never before covered a major political event. I also had no idea how I would be received, although as it turned out, I was warmly received by everyone, except for the Secret Service agents who swarmed me when I initially tried to enter the convention center by mistake during a lockdown (journalism pro tip: when asked IN A VERY LOUD VOICE to drop your luggage and put your hands on your head, just do it.)
But what did I learn at #CPAC2018? It has taken a few weeks to assemble my thoughts, but here goes.
Conservative celebrities are popular for a reason; they are far smarter and more interesting than people on the left give them credit for. I had begun to suspect this some months ago when, having asked a conservative journalist what podcasts I should listen to, he suggested the infelicitously named Race Wars. (Rule number one when functioning in a dominant conservative environment? No one cares how rude you think a podcast title is. It’s a bit like being at CBGB’s circa 1979 and complaining about the lyrics: the point you make is to let everyone know you don’t belong there.) Ann Coulter, who I generally detest, was a guest on one of the episodes, and to my great surprise I learned that in her own environment — well, she had a lot to say, and it wasn’t dumb or nasty. A fair amount of her time was spent discussing sexual harassment in conservative spaces: Coulter was interesting, sharp and not dismissive as she generally is when talking about anything feminist. I found this experience puzzling until I realized that she probably has one persona for conservatives, and another, more disgusting one, when she hopes to be featured in liberal media.
Similarly, I found Laura Ingraham’s keynote riveting, and her narrative about being a young activist in the 1980s a political history of the Reagan years that I have literally never heard before. What I am saying is this: if you want to know what conservatives really think, and capture a complex thought or two, it requires that you immerse yourself, and make yourself unobtrusive, in media environments where conservatives know they will be taken seriously.
If you are a university teacher, you can replicate this for your students without taking them anywhere, simply by acquainting them with the vast amount of writing that is available. “Last time I taught US Conservatism was Fall 2016,” Robin Morris, a history professor at Agnes Scott College told me. “My Pinterest board for my conservatism class is full of all kinds of readings and articles and Op-Eds from conservatives, former conservatives, former-Republican-still-
Like everyone else, conservative intellectuals actually suffer from the soundbite, click bait news environment that they have helped to create. So does Donald Trump, a man whose appeal I never understood at all until I watched him work a crowd who understands what all those garbled sentences means. But back to the intellectuals — Ben Shapiro, for example, best known among liberals as the speaker universities least want to host (perhaps because he deliberately drives radical students into a frenzy by doing things like calling them “pathetic morons”) is, in fact, a superstar: he is handsome, zealous, optimistic, darkly funny, and a mesmerizing speaker. I now understand why conservative students want to bring Shapiro to campus: they actually believe, perhaps correctly, that if their liberal friends heard him they might change their minds. Shapiro, who is only 34 and has written seven books, had an audience of college students in the palm of his hand from the beginning of his keynote to the end. But you will never understand any of this from the snippets that appear in the newspaper or on cable news.
Pro-Trump conservatives don’t really care about the president’s character, or the possibility that he has committed crimes. Nothing will make them care. Stop arguing with them about it and start arguing about who should be elected to local offices instead. If you are a liberal, or on the left wing of the Democratic Party, the sooner you come to terms with this the better you will be able to channel your energy. But perhaps what you don’t know is that having a weak, hapless, empty President is exactly the direction that many conservative activists, particularly libertarians, think government should be going in because they believe that less government will free them to self-actualize. Differently, others believe that the only reason Trump hasn’t succeeded in doing everything he said he would do — eliminate Obamacare, build The Wall, destroy all trade partnerships — is that he is being undermined by GOP regulars and the liberal “Jarvanka” faction in the White House. The problem, for Trumpists is not how to get rid of Trump and get a President who could really function as a conservative (i.e., Mike Pence), but how to eliminate the Republicans who still function like normal politicians so that Trump can keep his promises to them. And that includes Mike Pence.
Conservative institutions cultivate conservative youth. How do they do this? They give them jobs. All of those conservative think tanks hire interns, and there was an entire apparatus in place at #CPAC2018 to help young people make professional, well-paid careers in movement politics — as campus activists, journalists, policy analysts, lawyers, broadcasters — you name it, there is an institution and a set of mentors to help get them started, support them, and develop them. All of this is happening outside the Republican Party apparatus, but strengthens the ideological core of the party. I can’t name one liberal think tank or institution, much less a network of them, that is doing this work for liberal or left politics. As political scientists Matt Grossman and David A. Hopkins point out in the New York Times, this may be why there is no liberal Tea Party, but it may also be why the Democrats have fewer young people dedicating themselves to formal political activism over the long term and in between election cycles.
Libertarians are important, and a rising influence in the GOP. Libertarians may, in fact, be the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of a party whose leadership is veering ever-rightward. Ask me more about this in a few months, but I would predict that one of the big fault lines among Republicans in 2018, particularly the young ones, will be between evangelicals and traditional conservatives — who are adhering to principles that brought them power over 35 years ago — and libertarians, who would simultaneously defend your right to homophobic speech and the right of the person you are targeting with your hate speech to being homosexual. They are more complex, and less predictable, than the right-wingers who re-made the party in the 1970s and 1980s.
Conservative students really do believe their right to express their views is being stifled on campus. This is a huge theme, and if you ask young people why they think this, they will tell you personal stories that are detailed enough that they would convince the hardest hearted liberal prof. On the other hand, maintaining the position that young conservatives are silenced by politically correct faculty and students is also a major bonding ritual for student organizers. Groups like Young America’s Foundation use it to persuade large groups of young white people that they are not a privileged majority, but an embattled minority, on campus. This issue isn’t going away: my advice? Do not wait for a student group, financed by a big chunk of change by YAF, to invite Ben Shapiro or Laura Ingraham to your campus: decide how you are going to handle it when they do, and what you are willing to do to help liberal students deal with hearing things they don’t wish to hear. Probably spending several hundred thousand dollars for security, and creating a “free speech zone” for left wing kids to demonstrate a half a mile away is not going to solve the problem.
What was my biggest takeaway from #CPAC2018? A number of friends, responding to the news that I was going in the first place, said some version of: “Well, good luck — maybe you can change a few minds!” Which was interesting, because that wasn’t why I was going, and I don’t talk to conservatives with the principle goal of changing their minds. What kind of scholar or journalist does?
But activists might want to re-think this attitude too. One of the things that many of my political allies don’t quite get is that, in order to do our political work better and more knowledgeably, sometimes we need to go places to just listen and think, not act or speak. I plan to do more of it. Prior to the election my colleague Anne Balay, a historian at Haverford College, noted that she “did ethnographic research on truckers, many of whom supported Trump and most of whom identify as conservatives. I learned volumes about why they did so, how that support made sense to them and resulted from particular histories, even though they are trans, queer, or black.”
If it doesn’t make sense to you, you may not know enough yet. I know I don’t.
Claire Potter is a professor of history at The New School, and executive editor of Public Seminar. You can follow Claire on Twitter.