Bucking Buckley: Finding Conservatism(s) at Yale
Editor's Note: This article was reported in 2018/2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think there is a reasonable and not unprincipled understanding of why Trump was able to win, and that understanding starts from the premise that conservatism failed.”
The words hung in air for a single, damning second of silence. Ross Douthat, a conservative columnist at the New York Times, paused and surveyed the audience seated before him in the Whitney Humanities Center auditorium at Yale University. To his right sat a litany of high-profile conservative figures: Eliana Johnson, then-editor at National Review and now editor-in-chief of The Washington Free Beacon; William Kristol, editor-at-large of The Bulwark; and James Caesar, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia. All four, like their entranced audience, had gathered on this rainy day—April 5, 2018—for a panel whose subdued name belied its fiery content: “Conservatism in the Age of Trump.”
Douthat had just finished outlining the different ideological tendencies that comprised the three-legged stool of mainstream conservatism: religious conservatism, which conserved an ecumenical Christianity; economic libertarianism, which conserved the “idea of a dynamic free-market society with a limited government;” and foreign policy adventurism, which conserved the “American-led world order.”
Trump repudiated every single one of those values, and yet he had won the 2016 presidential election. Conservatism had failed.
But if Douthat autopsied conservatism’s shriveled corpse, then Kristol detected its beating pulse. He followed Douthat’s downbeat speech with a chest-thumping panegyric on the conservative movement’s triumphs.
Kristol advanced a narrative as straightforward as it was congratulatory. It protagonist was William F. Buckley Jr., widely regarded as the godfather of modern American conservatism. When Buckley founded National Review in 1955, Kristol said, conservatism had no respectable presence in American politics. By the time Ronald Regan sauntered out of the White House three decades later, it had grown from an obsolete ideology paraded by a few isolated intellectuals into a powerful grassroots movement with international influence. Trump was a detour from the path to success, not an exit—or so Kristol claimed.
For the panel’s remaining hour, Douthat and Kristol butt heads repeatedly—the former to dispatch conservatism, the latter to revive it. But for all the cable-news worthy sparks that flared between them, it was Johnson who verbalized the deeper conflict: whether, at long last, the time had come to abandon Bill Buckley.
“[Organizations] really suffer when a once-in-a-generation genius dies, and people are overly beholden to that leader,” she said. “We hear these references to Buckley constantly… there’s a real struggle to reconcile how much to walk in the footsteps of those people and how much to depart from their legacies.”
It was Buckley and his contemporaries at National Review that first devised the “fusionist thesis” that posited a coherent philosophical synthesis of traditionalism and libertarianism. It was Buckley’s ideas that found their political actualization in Ronald Reagan’s presidency, now widely seen as the high-water mark of conservatism. To debate the legitimacy of the coalition he helped form was to debate the political inheritance of Buckley himself.
“That was [my father’s] great accomplishment, weaving together the strands,” Christopher Buckley ’75 told me. “Alas, the fabric has now been pretty much shredded.”
It is fitting that the panel’s showcase of American conservatism’s internal turmoil occurred at Yale, in many ways its birthplace. Over the course of 52 interviews with students, professors, and alumni, I sought to uncover where conservatives on campus now stood, and what the Trump presidency had changed, if indeed it had changed anything.
Here at Yale, the alma mater of William F. Buckley Jr. and his establishment contemporaries, I found a campus that both revered and repudiated his legacy—often in the same breath.
The perception of a domineering, socialistic liberalism on campus is ingrained in the very foundation of modern conservatism. It was shortly after his graduation in 1951 that Buckley published God and Man at Yale, which derided the university for indoctrinating students with atheism and socialism rather than inculcating the vales of Christianity and capitalism. Today’s conservative students, whether knowingly or not, have continued the Buckley legacy of disparaging the liberal academy.
The critique is understandable. In late 2016, a Yale Daily News survey found that nearly 75 percent of Yale’s student body believes conservative views are unwelcome on campus. In contrast, more than 98 percent of respondents believed Yale welcomed liberal views.
Left undefined by the poll, of course, was what exactly labels like “conservative” and “liberal” meant at a place like Yale. Right-wing media outlets reported on the findings as though a consensus understanding of Yale conservatism existed. In reality, many of the conservatives I spoke with would not be recognized as such outside the ivory walls of the university.
Take Finnegan Schick '18. He was a regular around Yale’s more politically conservative circles—a student fellow with the William F. Buckley Jr. Program, a member of the Yale Political Union’s Conservative Party, and a former intern with The New Criterion, a conservative literary magazine. Finnegan also doesn't consider himself a conservative: he voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries and for Hilary Clinton in the general election, and he identifies as a “liberal Democrat.”
“The truth is, the political world of a college campus like Yale’s does not conform to what most of the world is like politically,” Schick told me. “You can be a Democrat outside, but be a conservative at Yale.”
He noted that both the Conservative Party and the Buckley Program were home to many self-identified liberals. Schick’s assessment of Yale’s political landscape was sardonic, if not slightly hyperbolic: “A campus conservative is anyone who doesn’t show up to a protest.”
Schick is one person, but his viewpoint isn’t uncommon. Many of the “conservatives” I spoke tended to identify as either centrist or liberal, noting that they only appeared conservative on a campus that skewed overwhelmingly to the Left. More so, though prominent exceptions exist (the YPU’s Federalist Party consists almost entirely of pro-life Catholics), genuine campus conservatives tend to lean socially liberal.
Such individuals, Grant Richardson ’19 dryly noted, emblematize the “Yale Conservative”: fiscally conservative but socially liberal, emphasis on socially liberal. Their instinctive response to charges of conservatism: “I’m a conservative, but not that kind of conservative.”
To an extent, the “campus Left” that outraged right-wing media pundits and campus conservatives feel is such a potent threat doesn’t exist in as near monolithic a form as they imagine, nor is it as prevalent.
Alejandra Pudin-Dujon ‘18 described Yale as an institution of “limousine” liberals: “People with money who get offended when you start talking about race or class in any kind of critical way.”
One conservative student, who wished to remain anonymous, concurred. He argued that most students treat liberalism as a “vanilla option” that allows them to avoid “spotlight and scrutiny.” This sort of casual liberalism is so widespread that it gives rise to a false perception of Yale as an intensely politicized, left-wing campus. In reality, most Yale students can’t explain why they oppose things like inequality or government debt. Their liberalism leaves them “naturally predisposed to Leftist ideas,” so they simply accept and internalize them.
The apolitical underpinnings of what at first appears to be a deeply political campus is something Aviva Rabin-Court ’19 recognized as well.
“There are a lot of people at Yale who are interested in liberal or progressive politics as students, but who ultimately have excused themselves from seeing that politics as essential in their life choices,” she said. The same student who in a gender studies class gives a Leftist analysis of black feminist novels might ultimately choose to go into consulting.
“People treat as secondary their political analysis,” Rabin-Court said.
Richardson, too, admitted that the “silent majority” of Yale students, especially those in STEM, are only “vaguely liberal,” though he believes they are still more political than most Americans.
Campus liberals and leftists who are more politically active than their peers find themselves divided by ideological and methodological differences, so much so that they even have separate parties in the YPU. According to Timothy White ’20, who was a member of the Yale Democrats (an activist organization distinct from the YPU’s Liberal Party), liberals want to work within the democratic-capitalist system to significantly reform it, while Leftists want to fundamentally change it altogether.
Some campus Leftists are not even certain that the Democratic Party is a worthwhile vehicle for their politics. So pressing is the question that, shortly before the 2018 midterm elections, the Party of the Left debated “Resolved: Ditch the Democratic Party” (the Party eventually voted against the resolution).
Ultimately, the myriad nuances that complicate and undermine Yale’s liberal orientation matter less than the conservative perception of a Leftist monolith, a perception that galvanizes right-wing mobilization on campus and across the nation.
“I think the Right is a lot better organized at Yale than the Left is,” said one student. While “the Right feels like they’re being marginalized so they feel a sense of exigency,” the Left senses that everyone is “kind of liberal-ish,” so there isn’t the same “clarion call to organize.”
And indeed, conservative spaces on campus are many. The YPU features no less than four conservative parties: the Conservative Party, the Federalist Party, the Tory Party, and the Party of the Right. The Federalist Society at the Yale Law School attracts political and legal conservatives alike, while Choose Life at Yale (CLAY) engages in pro-life advocacy. The Yale Free Press and Light & Truth Magazine serve as exclusive outlets for conservative voices amidst a crowded publication scene.
“There’s a vibrant conservative intellectual subculture at Yale, which makes it easy to develop political views that are somewhat heterodox in a very welcoming community,” observed one conservative alumnus.
The William F. Buckley, Jr. Program, likely the most famous of Yale’s conservative groups and certainly the most well-funded, has fashioned itself into a champion of free speech and intellectual diversity on campus. In recent years it has hosted controversial conservative figures like Ayaan Hirsi Ali and Peter Thiel. Cameron Koffman ‘19, a former president, said the program aims to bring speakers “that Yale is not exposing students to,” conservative or otherwise.
“Quite a few liberals” partake in the Buckley Program, Koffman noted, and they’ve had good experiences because “it’s one of the only chances to be exposed to both sides.”
To Koffman, the Buckley Program serves a vital function: keeping Yale from becoming an echo chamber. It’s the same function he tried to serve in seminars, where he deliberately ran against the grain of the class discussion, whether by expressing his actual views or playing devil’s advocate, to keep his classmates—and himself—on their toes.
“I like to stir the pot sometimes,” he said with a smile.
The Buckley Program, then, aspires to the role that Buckley himself took on as an undergraduate and alumnus: being a conservative thorn in the side of the liberal establishment.
But while some may imagine that Yale has only grown increasingly liberal since Buckley’s time as an undergraduate, the university’s political trajectory has been more cyclical than linear. As noted by Katherine Mangu-Ward ’02, editor-in-chief of the libertarian Reason magazine, Yale at the turn of the century “wasn’t a very politicized campus, and in particular it wasn’t a very politicized campus against conservatives.”
Sixteen years later, conservative students feel differently. If anything, they see the Buckley Program as more necessary than ever.
Aaron Sibarium ’18, when he began writing for the Opinion page of the Yale Daily News as a first-year student, imagined that he would be a “moderate liberal columnist” who would call out the Left “on some of its more outrageous bullshit but very much still considered himself a liberal.”
Then, in early November 2015, just over a month into Sibarium’s tenure as Opinion editor, came the infamous Nicholas Christakis email regarding Halloween costumes and cultural appropriation, and with it a wave of campus-wide outrage.
Sibarium recalled a fellow News editor shouting at him in front of the newsroom for refusing to censor a column, while other people confronted him at Starbucks. That first-hand experience, Sibarium said, made him far more reactionary vis-à-vis the campus Left in his columns, “which is probably why everyone on campus assumes that I am really right-wing despite personally being more of a moderate.”
Yet as often as campus conservatives cite the Christakis controversy as evidence of Yale’s free speech problem, it’s not very representative of campus political debate. Barely a week after Christakis sent her controversial email, the YPU invited Amy Wax ’75, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania, to debate the most controversial of subjects: affirmative action.
While that event incited protest, Padin-Dujon, a leader in the Christakis protests, argues that such backlash is itself a form of free expression. What was under threat during the Christakis incident, she said, was not free speech—it was “the idea that you can say offensive things with impunity.” Just as people have the right to violate “community norms,” so too do people have the right to call them out.
But it’s that culture of self-censorship that conservatives find so offensive. That, not administrative regulation, is the threat—what political science professor Steven Smith called “soft tyranny.” Where such suppression manifests itself is not in what is said, but in what is not.
Sibarium cited a YDN survey in Sept. 2015 that found that only 33 percent of students wanted to change the title of “Master” given to the heads of the residential colleges. Such a majoritarian stance against changing the title, Sibarium said, had not been evident in the campus’s public discourse, and therein lay the danger: “The dominant values and opinions that are accepted as legitimate in the public square are not those that people privately think.”
The deeper divide between conservatives and liberals on campus arises from a fundamental disagreement on what qualifies as bigotry. For conservatives, such standards are simply not as clear-cut as something like, say, flag-burning. The common refrain was that that the Left, in its crusade against prejudice, had become too prejudiced itself.
“If someone says freshman [instead of first-year], it doesn’t make them a bigot,” one self-identified centrist member of the Conservative Party told me. “It makes them like most college students in the rest of the country.”
These feelings of persecution manifest themselves most strongly in the classroom. One self-identified conservative student said that he had been charged with being a “racist, sexist, bigoted homophobe who hates the poor.” Alex Stiegler ’20 never thought he’d see so many readings on gender and class in a course on architecture. According to Stiegler, “it’s hard to get your participation points” if you’re the only student in the classroom who doesn’t believe that so-and-so building embodies racism.
For Yale’s conservatives, the issue is two-fold: their classmates believe their political positions untenable, and then proceed to conflate the content of their political views with the content of their character. From there, it’s a short leap to every college students’ worst fear: social rejection.
Sarah Geach ‘20 put the choice starkly: “What do you value more: your friendship, or your ideals?"
Sean-Micheal Pigeon ’21 admitted that he has hid his membership in the Party of the Right from girls he’s dated. Others simply disengage to avoid the drama.
“I feel like the football backroom and DKE are one of the only places I can say whatever I want and not be judged for it,” said Rafe Chapple ’18. They are, in other words, his safe spaces.
Every conservative athlete I spoke to shared similar sentiments. It’s not that athletic spaces are ideologically homogeneous, Stiegler explained to me, though they do have a higher percentage of conservatives than the general student body. Stiegler’s baseball team had both Trump supporters and detractors. What made healthy intellectual disagreement between them possible was a “mutual respect.”
It’s that respect, and the trust that comes with it, that has vanished from the wider campus discussion. As one student put, “because conservatives are constantly distrustful of who they can talk to, they just talk to each other.” Conservatives, so weary of the liberal echo chamber they perceive on campus, make their own.
Rabin-Court has witnessed this breakdown in communication most vividly at the YPU, ostensibly the place where the most Right-Left dialogue occurs at Yale. She attributes the issue to the growing epistemic divide between the two sides on the impact of words. The Left polices language because it believes that words can have a dehumanizing impact—the Right doesn’t. More often than not, that’s as far as the “dialogue” gets.
“Calling somebody out requires building trust with them so that they could want to modify their behavior and do better,” said Rabin-Court. “Otherwise it’s just going to make them feel alienated and they’re going to just turn away.”
This breakdown of trust has only been exacerbated by a cottage industry of right-wing media outlets that, perpetually outraged over ostensible threats to free speech, have cultivated their own call-out culture—on a national scale.
Whereas conservative students fear localized social repercussions for voicing their views, liberals fear the right-wing media machine lumbering outside Phelps Gate, eagerly awaiting the latest controversy that’ll power the outrage mill.
Right-wing websites like Professor Watchlist target and intimidate professors for spreading “Leftist propaganda.” English professor Stephanie Newel and her peers received similar threats after commissioning a new multicultural course in the English Literature Department.
One Leftist student, who wished to remain anonymous, had his YDN op-ed posted on alt-right websites, where he came under such vicious personal attack that he sought psychiatric help. DOWN, a campus magazine for students of color, routinely receives hate mail from alumni, and it has disabled comments on its website to avoid harassment.
“It’s actually incredible the amount of resources that can be mobilized to clamp down on people of color’s experiences,” said Padin-Dujon, who has edited for DOWN. “Which is another reason why there is an asymmetry in all this talk about free speech—because one side has all the resources.”
It’s the intense conservative backlash epitomized by the aforementioned outlets that short-circuits some students’ sympathy for conservative complaints.
“Yeah, okay, [professors] make mean comments about Trump, deal with it,” said Joshua Baize ’20. “I hear so many mean comments about Hilary Clinton when I go to Texas, I deal with it, it’s not a big deal. I think it’s ironic that we’re caricatured as snowflakes, and yet I think there is an equal amount of unwarranted sensitivity on the conservative side, perhaps on campus, but also nationally.”
Baize had an unlikely companion: Sibarium. “There is a tendency of conservatives at Yale to victimize themselves,” he acknowledged. “Stop being a snowflake and say what you think.”
Indeed, for all that conservatives decried the state of free speech on campus, many were careful to not overstate the case. One former president of Choose Life At Yale (CLAY) found that students could be “surprisingly receptive to pro-life arguments.”
Joshua Keeler ’20, a self-identified moderate, recalled the “unbelievable” experience of having Jeb Bush, invited to Yale’s campus by the Buckley Program, sit in on his political journalism seminar.
“[My classmates] were receptive to his ideas even if they didn’t necessarily agree with everything,” Keeler said. “I literally watched it happen, as a generally liberal class warmed up to a Republican presidential candidate.”
Pigeon noted that he has “grown more as a conservative at Yale than anywhere else,” because he gets to hear both sides—which he wouldn’t at, say, Hillsdale. How he sums up his experience: “Socially it’s a little bit hard; intellectually, it’s really good.”
In the early 2000s, Buckley returned to his alma mater. Professor Steven Smith had invited him to speak to the students in his political science seminar. Buckley, Smith recalled with a wry smile, came away “with a good impression of some of the things that Yale students were learning.”
Ironically, for all that the Buckley Program presents itself as an advocate for intellectual diversity on campus, Buckley himself did not champion the virtues of free speech when he wrote God and Man at Yale. He suggested reforming Yale not by fostering “intellectual diversity,” but rather by encouraging alumni to forcefully remake the curriculum in a more conservative image.
When I pointed this out to Grant Gabriel ’17, former treasurer of the Yale College Republicans, he conceded the point but argued that “by the end, [Buckley] came to represent what the Buckley Program represents.”
“That idea of intellectual development and progression is a positive thing,” said Gabriel. “I think it would be foolish to demand complete ideological perfection from any given individual at the age of 22. If we start doing that, there are going to be a lot of people we can’t name organizations after.”
In the years before his death in 2008, Bill Buckley evolved again—this time by turning his back on the Republican establishment. He was one of the fiercest critics of the Iraq War, declaring conservatism in need of a “repristination.”
As far as Christopher Buckley is concerned, Trump’s victory in 2016 bore out the truth of his father’s words.
“What is bewildering to me is that the Republicans started with, what, a field of 17 candidates?” said Christopher. “I mean, this was a rainbow coalition of Republicanism to choose from. This was an entire cafeteria, Baskin Robbins 36 flavors-Republican. And what did we end up with? Orange swirl. How the fuck did that happen?”
The crisis Trump wrought upon the Republican Party arrived on Yale’s campus with a bang on August 8, 2016, when the presidents of the Yale College Republicans decided to officially endorse Donald J. Trump for President. Within the ranks of the Yale Republicans, the unilateral decision elicited first shock, and then outrage.
“To make authoritarian decisions about someone we might say is an authoritarian wasn’t my idea of a great organizational strategy,” said Gabriel.
Emily Reinwald ’17 and Micheala Cloutier ’18, the YCR presidents at the time, did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Within a day, Gabriel and vice chairman Benjamin Rasmussen ’18 had resigned from the YCR board. They formed a new organization, the Yale New Republicans, which billed itself as the “rational” conservative alternative. For months it held biweekly dinners, debate-watching parties, and phone-banking sessions for senators.
Trump’s victory effectively killed the organization. Not immediately—it limped along for a while, fueled by a rapidly depleting supply of anti-Trump animus up until the end of the 2017 springs semester. Eventually, though, Rasmussen and his co-chairmen realized that they simply couldn’t compete with the Party whose candidate had won.
Gabriel’s final assessment was dry: “Elections have consequences, as a former president once said.”
The YNR never reconciled with the YCR. These days Rasmussen lives the lonely life of the Never-Trumper. So much of the Republican establishment he admires has hopped aboard the Trump train, but he’s been unwilling to make the leap himself. And so he's watched the train chug away, leaving him stranded in the ghost town of the establishment. The Republican Party has relocated.
“There is no Republican model that I can ascribe to in the age of Trump,” he said.
Gabriel, meanwhile, has relaxed his stance on Trump. He still believes Trump a dangerous populist, and he’ll call him out when he errs, but he also thinks he’s done some good. For example, his foreign policy. As an "ardent free trader" he's more wary of Trump's protectionist impulses, but he can tentatively support tariffs if they're "part of a tailored strategy" to eventually reduce international trade barriers.
Ultimately, “I like the tax plan. I dislike his occupation with Twitter.”
The split between Rasmussen and Gabriel reflects the dilemma facing establishment conservatives in an age when the Republican Party has become the Party of Trump. Should they ditch it (Rasmussen) or not (Gabriel)?
At Yale, at least, the latter team is winning, as evidenced by a survey I conducted last year. More than 700 students responded. Most respondents, predictably, planed to vote Democrat in the general election this year. Yet 74 percent of self-identified conservatives and libertarians planned to either vote for Donald Trump (30 percent) or a different Republican candidate (44 percent). Most conservative Yale students have committed themselves to their party, Trump or otherwise.
This has been made possible, in part, by the Trump administration’s largely orthodox policy-making. As Professor Jacob Hacker PhD ‘00 noted, while Trump speaks like a right-wing populist, he’s “mostly governed as a conservative.”
The way Josh Woods LAW ’19 sees it, Trump is not wounding the Republican establishment—he’s stabilizing it. His extreme rhetoric allows more conventional Republicans to distance themselves from him even as they embrace his polices. That, Woods argued, is how the establishment will reassert itself: “Enough people will benefit from Trump’s presidency but also have plausible deniability of their affiliation with him.”
Woods’ prediction is already coming to bear. While according to my survey almost no Yale conservatives voted for Trump in 2016—most opted for Hilary Clinton or a third-party candidate—most have also found something to like in Trump’s presidency.
Some praised the administration’s tax cut bill, while a few others highlighted Cabinet appointments. The strongest and most recurring point of praise, however, related to Trump’s judicial appointments, which both legal and political conservatives endorsed—the former for respecting the Constitution, the latter for paving the way to repealing Roe v. Wade.
One anonymous respondent to my survey wrote that while Trump is “shaming the conservative movement” and is less tactful than a “drunk middle school student,” he has “finally put us within sight of the day Roe v. Wade will be repealed.” As such, “despite the tremendous failings of number 45, I will vote for Trump.”
Yale’s conservatives, then, appear to have largely reconciled themselves to the president. Their only wishes, expressed by many but best captured by a Tory Party member who wished to remain anonymous, is that he stop “playing musical chairs with his advisors,” “learn how to control his fingers” on Twitter, and tone down his reckless rhetoric: “I agree with everything Trump does, but not what he says.”
But for Never-Trumper conservatives like James Kirchick ’06, the willingness of fellow conservative to dismiss “the way [Trump’s] behaving, the things he’s doing, the norms that he’s breaking” as mere “noise” is “a little too sanguine.” His behavior is dangerous, Kirchick said, and confronting that danger “should take precedence over tax cuts and judicial appointments.”
Smith agreed. To him, the “irreparable harm” that Trump has done in “degrad[ing] the culture of a great democracy” is not something that can be captured “in a chart of accomplishments," and Christopher concurred.
“Don’t tell me the stock market is doing fine,” he said with a harsh laugh. “That’s not my measure of the health of a Republic.”
This conservative divide, however, is not between the establishment and the anti-establishment; it is between those who believe the Republican establishment can tolerate Trump and those who believe it cannot. The underlying premise—that the establishment’s Buckley-brand conservatism is worth following—rests unchallenged.
People like Rasmussen and Pigeon have disowned the Party, but only because they believe it has drifted from the true conservatism embodied by its forebears. The rest think the Party’s conservatism is salvageable.
Chris Sung ’21, a member of the socially conservative Federalist Party, has misgivings about whether Trump is qualified to serve as president but said that abandoning the Republicans now would be “like saying I have to get an ear surgery, but the person who did my first surgery messed it up, so therefore I won’t trust doctors any more, and I’ll go to the baker to do my surgery. It makes no sense.” Bakers and businessmen don’t do politics—politicians do.
Paradoxically, then, the Trump wrecking ball has strengthened both establishment conservatism and the Republican Party by inculcating a nostalgia—and thereby an aspiration—for when the two were more aligned. Yale students yearn for icons like Ronald Reagan with greater intensity than ever, even if most of them are too young to remember him.
When I asked about Bill Buckley, though, I usually got uncomprehending stares. Aside from a handful of exceptions, the vast majority of campus conservatives I spoke to knew little about the ostensible patron saint of conservatism. Though almost all recognized his name thanks to the wide reach of the Buckley Program (indeed, roughly 70 percent of conservative respondents to my survey said they knew of him), he was either a faceless intellectual or an outright stranger.
Yet those same students, by so loyally identifying with the mainline conservatism that Buckley helped mold and that Reagan personified, unknowingly longed for Buckley himself.
But what if Trump were, in a sense, the heir of Buckley?
Such was the suggestion of Sam Tanenhaus, a longtime friend of Buckley who has been writing his biography for the past decade. Trump, Tanenhaus told me, actually continues a long-standing, cyclical tradition of far-right insurgency within the Republican Party—a tradition that includes Buckley himself.
While Buckley today may be remembered for expelling radicals like the John Birch Society from the movement and thereby elevating political conservatism to mainstream respectability, he only moved towards the center later in life. His beginnings lay with the Old Right: the radical anti-Communist, far-right fringe of the Republican Party.
For the first decade of his political career, Buckley endorsed far-right figures like Senator William Knowland, defended Senator Joseph McCarthy, and idolized the non-interventionist America First committee. The phrase “America First” is still with us, revived by Pat Buchanan in the paleo-conservative movement of the 1990s.
That is the strain of conservatism that Trump embodies, according to Joshua Lynn, a history professor at Eastern Kentucky University. Paleoconservatism, which emerged as “a backlash against the Reagan/George H.W. Bush-type of conservatism,” employed a populist, antiestablishment rhetoric that sounds like an ancestral echo of Trumpian bluster, even trumpeting the same themes: anti-globalist isolationism, economic protectionism, and white nationalism.
“Trump is not doing something brand-new,” said Lynn. “He’s tapping into some sort of older conservatism that was used before to attempt to dethrone establishment conservatism. And he’s dethroned it this time … Trump is exposing a tension in conservatism that has existed for a long time, and some of these strains go back much deeper than the 1990s.”
We might draw a straight line from the Old Right of the 1950s to the paleoconservatives of the 1990s to the Donald Trump of today. Tanenhaus, at least, finds the similarities uncanny. Buckley, running for New York mayor in 1964, “had some pretty extreme ideas that don’t sound so different from what we would now identify with Trump…He was not quite yet the more centrist, establishment figure he became.”
Tanenhaus affirmed that Buckley was a "brilliant, accomplished, and important figure," but stressed that "he did not grow up in the lap of the American establishment, not by any means."
In some ways, then, Ross and Douthat were asking the wrong question. The issue is not whether Buckley-brand conservatism is alive or dead—the issue might very well be if it was ever an accurate model for American conservatism at all.
Trump hasn’t broken with American conservatism so much as he has revived one of its suppressed currents. He is but a ghost of the younger Buckley, returned to haunt and usurp the older self that once buried him. In rejecting establishment conservatism, voters weren’t rejecting Buckley’s legacy—they were merely trying out his other one.
Predictably, most of Yale’s conservatives don’t see it that way. Almost every single one of the people I interviewed denied Trump the mantle of “conservative." Some cited his populism, others his lack of conservative convictions.
Lynn wasn’t surprised to hear this. The question of who gets to identify as a conservative is not some mere spat over semantics, he said, but rather a battle over the future of the movement. Stripping Trump of the conservative label serves to “delegitimize not [just] him, but also the strain of conservatism he embodies.”
It is perhaps ironic that conservatives would feel so strongly about the power of a label, the power of language—the same issue that so deeply divides the Right and the Left at Yale. But the greater irony is that the criterion of conservatism they use to exclude Trump from the conservative family would have denied entry to the younger Buckley as well—the firebrand who, with his cheeky grin and colorful rhetoric, sparked the revolution that has made possible their own conservatism.
Trump, by unearthing the alternate Buckley legacy and forcing partisans to frame their positions relative to it, might have exposed just how limited our conception of American conservatism is.
At Yale, I found plenty of self-identified conservatives that fell well outside the American conservative mainstream—not because they were Trump voters or centrist Democrats, but because they espoused brands of conservatism that, like that of Trump only until recently, have been historically barred entry into the official club.
One self-identified conservative alumnus put it to me this way: “The family of views that American conservatism can represent is much smaller than it is in Europe.” Indeed, this alumnus, who favors substantial gun-control measures, advocates federal regulation of Silicon Valley, and is disappointed that Trump’s “utterly conventional” governing has failed to shake Republicans out of their “excessive market fixations,” would hardly qualify for adoption by the American conservative family—at least, not the one that Buckley and his contemporaries built and jealously guarded.
This alumnus not alone in his heterodox brand of conservatism. One conservative Muslim student’s faith drove him to support liberal initiatives—universal healthcare, undocumented immigration, gun control—and yet decry gay marriage. A member of Yale Law’s Federalist Society identified as a legal conservative rather than a political one, and it’s on the basis of her legal conservatism that she thinks pro-gun rights are absent from the Second Amendment. Alex Frank LAW ’18 labeled himself a European-style social democrat, simultaneously embracing socialism and rejecting "identity politics."
Meanwhile, people like a former president of CLAY dismiss mainline Buckley-style conservatism as fundamentally broken. Buckley’s conservatism, he wrote in an email, champions an “impoverished understanding of freedom” as the ability to do what one wants without the threat of coercion, as opposed to real freedom—the ability to know, pursue, and actualize “the good.”
“A man living in a society that protects his right to become addicted to drugs or pornography is only ‘free’ in the impoverished sense, while a man whose society shields him from both (whether forcibly or not) is free is the true sense,” he wrote.
Perhaps there is no more potent a symbol of conservatism evolving beyond Buckley than the revival of the Yale Free Press. Though founded by members of the Party of the Right—possibly the most pointed manifestation of Buckley’s fusionist brand of conservatism on campus, with its mixture of traditionalists and libertarians—its editors have diversified the conservative viewpoints represented in its pages by reaching out to rest of the Parties in the YPU: the Federalists, the Tories, and the Conservatives.
“The Party of the Right is not the only conservative party,” said Geach, a former editor-in-chief of the magazine.
Geach is one example of how recent Yale students and alumni are broadening the tent of American conservatism. She is willing to think critically about the modern world, even expressing a degree of ambivalence about such sacrosanct institutions as democracy.
Such an interrogation of the entire project of liberal modernity, of whether or not the West took the right turn with the Enlightenment, is characteristic of several cultural conservatives at Yale.
Although Mike Lally DIV ’18 finds much to like about modernity, he also thinks the biggest religious question for the near future is, “Is there a game after capitalism? Is there a game after secular liberalism?”
Individual students are not the only ones questioning the most sacred assumptions of the modern age. Seated at the fringe of Yale’s campus is the Elm Institute, which in recent years has offered several seminars that explore criticisms of liberal modernity. A few courses have been taught by Douthat himself. The small institution has attracted a fair amount of right-leaning Yale students, though the institution itself does not necessarily identify as a conservative one.
“I think what a lot of the most interesting conservative thinking has in common with radical thinking is a willingness to ask questions fundamental about modernity,” said Peter Wicks, a research fellow at the institute—though he acknowledged that interrogating modernity is not an inherently conservative endeavor.
It’s the presence of so many conflicting intellectual currents of this sort, at Yale and elsewhere, that throws into disarray understandings of American conservatism as defined by the likes of Buckley or Reagan, to a greater degree than even Trump has.
What emerged over the course of my interviews was an intellectual movement in chaos, torn asunder between the two competing tendencies epitomized by Kristol and Douthat—between those who believe in salvaging Buckley-brand conservatism (by either rejecting or reforming the Republican establishment) and those who have decided to look elsewhere for solutions.
What will emerge from this Trump-laced cauldron of competing political visions is anyone’s guess. For a movement predicated on tradition, conservatism in the Trump era has been largely defined by transformation.
While some conservatives may lament this development, it is perhaps befitting of the movement’s patron saint. After all, Buckley’s ultimate legacy is not just one of conservatism, but of change. He evolved repeatedly throughout his life—from denying free speech to championing it, from supporting the Republican establishment to rejecting it, from the far right to the center.
Evolution was coded into Buckley’s DNA, and it was this inherent tendency that he channeled when, in a 2004 article for National Review, he wrote:
“Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change, which is as it should be. But intelligent deference to tradition and stability can evolve into intellectual sloth and moral fanaticism, as when conservatives simply decline to look up from dogma because the effort to raise their heads and reconsider is too great.”
Therein lay the paradoxical answer to the question Johnson posed at the panel: bucking the legacy of Buckley may be the surest way to honor it.