The giant, disembodied heads of Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley glared down at me; they knew I was up to no good. It was the opening banquet of the National Conservative Student Conference, and I couldn’t even find a seat. I wandered through the crowd at the Hyatt Regency: flags, blue mood lighting, white tablecloths, white people, and bowties. Lots of bowties.
The banquet was in honor of Ronald Reagan’s hundredth birthday, and had been convened by Young America’s Foundation (YAF), a huge, tax-exempt national organization dedicated to saving college kids from their “tree hugging … gun taking … wealth hating ... leftist loving … professors and peers.” And it didn’t take long to realize how special this week would be for these young right-wingers. The students were already brimming with a kind of hypothetical nostalgia: for a cold war they never lived through, a president for whom they never voted, a culture war in which they never fought.
Luckily, I found myself at a full and friendly table of right-wing apparatchiks, passing around caffeine pills. I could work with this. To my right sat Anthony, who became a member of the Reagan Library while attending California Lutheran University. On my left sat Eric, a bearded theology student at Colorado Christian University (CCU).
The CCU kids were a blast, probably on account of the stimulants. “On my first day of English class in Nebraska,” Eric recounted, “they told me that all the presidents were racist slaveholders, and that we can fix all problems with communism. I was like, what?” J.T., the bespectacled student-body president at CCU, chimed in. “Did you know there are more pot shops in Denver than Starbucks?” And then there was Britney, a gorgeous, whip-smart CCU senior—she even seemed impressed by my notebook. And then … “My man is Rick Santorum.” Yikes.
Each seat at the banquet came equipped with free Reagan swag, including the DVD, Still Point In A Turning World: Ronald Reagan and his Ranch, directed by Stephen K. Bannon, which screened after a dinner keynote from Senator Marco Rubio. The documentary was pure ranch-fetishism. The film swept through three decades of chintzy stock-footage: gathering socialist storms, firefighters, soviets, steelworkers, and finally, the Gipper building fences. “To understand this great man,” intoned the narrator—Patrick Warburton, the voice of Joe Swanson on Family Guy—“you must understand his beloved ranch.”
After the banquet, I caught up with Bannon being accosted by a few fanboys, one handing him a Balanced Budget Amendment petition, and the other a business card—young conservatives tend to have these. The Tea Party auteur greeted me with a “hey dude,” and told me he was “happy with the response” to his universally panned feature-length Palin documentary, The Undefeated. It was the first time that Palin’s name had come up that evening.
In fact, so far there hadn’t been much talk of politicians or parties at all, except for the long-dead Gipper. The YAF was in the business of escapism, selling an illusory get-away from Generation Obama. These disparate young conservatives—some Christian, some libertarian, some country club—felt out of place, strangers to their peers. Throughout the conference, I saw them taking refuge in this weird wonderland, this 80s Reagan ranch fantasia. They were like real-life, non-shaggy-haired, conservative Owen Wilsons. They desperately wanted to wake up at midnight, step into a mysterious 1981 Chevy Camaro, and drive back in time to “morning in America.” They were born in the wrong decade, and here, they could be themselves.
The next morning the disembodied heads multiplied, this time in a stuffy George Washington University auditorium. Ronnie and Bill had been joined by terrifying, glassy-eyed printouts of Ann Coulter, Jonah Goldberg, Dinesh D’Souza, Margaret Thatcher, and Jason Mattera. In the stands there sat a Kyrgyzstani delegate, a Czech, a Jewish kid in a Beatles yarmulke, some Brits from Oxford, and six kids from Poland, one with a flowing blonde mullet. The diversity was just as well. This morning was clearly going to be about race: All three of the conference’s black speakers had been scheduled almost back-to-back.
Joseph Phillips, a former "Cosby Show" star, took the podium. Asked accusingly about “problems in the black community,” Phillips dodged: “It’s a problem with the broader culture, black and white.” He looked tired and overworked. A student from Clemson University stood up. “Thank you for saying those things,” he said. “I too have experienced a lot of racism directed at me as a white man.” I looked around: nothing but nods.
The morning’s star guest was Representative Allen West, who strode up to the podium and launched into a defense of his attack on Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz: “I’m sick and tired of sitting around and letting liberal progressives push us around!” The crowd went wild. A soft-spoken student was so pumped to ask West a question that he fumbled his own name. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I just got so excited!”
Unfortunately, the evening’s festivities began with a letdown. The scheduled guest, Senator Jim DeMint, had fled town for an early vacation after the debt deal. Dinesh D’Souza had also bailed. A replacement was found at the last minute: the teutonic blonde-maned Mari Will, wife of columnist George and former Reagan speechwriter.
But, far from Reagan elegy, Will’s speech was bloody red meat. (“Who knows who Maureen Dowd is?” Boos rang out.) But when she turned to a defense of the Republican political establishment, the crowd fell silent. The mention of Bachmann and Perry brought a few claps; Romney, not so much. “I know a lot of you don’t trust him,” conceded Will. “No questions?” she finally sighed. There was a painful silence, until a lone plea rang out from the front: “Will you tell us just one Reagan story?” She sighed and obliged: a quick one about Reagan improvising at the podium. “Remember,” she closed, “He wasn’t just a puppet; he was one of us … . Don’t believe what the liberals say about his Alzheimer’s.” Quickly shifting the subject away from cognitive deterioration, conservative Washington Examiner reporter Tim Carney closed the evening with a popular message: Republicans are selling the conservative movement short. “Move the party to the right!” was his biggest applause line of the night. Spoken in the wake of the debt crisis, it seemed hard to believe.
Yet, although the YAF organizers kept preaching party solidarity, the students I talked to were never in the mood for electioneering or endorsing candidates. They thought of themselves less as Republicans than torch-carriers. They dreamed of Reagan and Mari Will shaking up the welfare state on Air Force One, and would accept nothing less. Their organizing elders, who had actually been around for the Reagan revolution, could never match that kind of pure faith.
Being a right-winger in Generation Obama is weirdly edgy—hipster, even. You get to cultivate an outsider affect, the better to look down on the so-called naïveté of your cultish peers. In this spirit, the NCSC often took on the air of a secret society, for boosting self-esteem. Young conservatives receive significant benefits by virtue of their rarity. They are lavished with both attention and funding by their elders, moneyed Republicans who really know how to put on a show.
Case in point, Alyssa Cordova, a recent graduate of George Mason University and one of CPAC’s “Stars of the Future.” The title of her speech? “Thank You, Feminism: Six Ways that Feminism Has Hurt Society.” Even here, I sensed, this would be a tough sell. “A lot of guys hate Michele Bachmann,” a guy named John had told me earlier. Why? “Well, look, she has that anti-porn pledge.” He quickly added, “Now, wait, don’t get me wrong, I don’t, like, support porn.”
Cordova railed against abortion, college women’s centers, gender-neutral bathrooms, and The Vagina Monologues. “At my campus they sold vagina lollipops! Why can’t they just do a bake sale?” Chase from the University of Oregon stood up to ask a question, carefully prefacing it with: “Women, I think they’re good. They’re great!” The kids’ questions again tended toward the self-conscious: how could they fight campus cultures of promiscuity without becoming social outcasts? “You shouldn’t care that people will think you’re sexist, or racist, or whatever … . So what if they get offended!” Cordova closed to polite applause.
Afterward, I ran into Britney, and asked her what she thought of the speech. “It’s liberalism, not feminism that’s the problem,” she said. “If feminism didn’t exist, we wouldn’t have the right to vote. That speech was a disgrace.” Unfortunately, this ray of light was quickly interrupted by the next speaker: Bay Buchanan, sister of Pat and former Reagan treasurer.
Buchanan covered all the bases. She told Reagan stories. She extolled the tea party. She made the kids feel better about their social exclusion. And she spoke of the passing of her generation, and the rise of theirs. “Like Reagan, one person can make a difference!” She was practically shouting over applause now. “Get involved, stay on the field, fight!” The kids seemed to have forgotten the feminists, the debt deal, affirmative action, 2008, the 1990s. Their self-conscious angst had been replaced by backslapping and hollering. It was like a revival meeting for awkward middle schoolers. The noise was deafening, and people around me were rising to their feet. I dropped my pen. “Be the young leaders that this great country deserves!” As a double standing ovation rolled through the crowd, I felt myself unconsciously clapping as well. Crowd psychology is a hell of a drug.
“It’s your time,” yelled Bay. “What do you believe? What do you believe?”
Alex Klein is an intern at The New Republic.