What Would Reagan Do?
Can the Gipper lead young conservatives out of the political wilderness?
These are trying times for young conservatives. With much of America rebelling against six years of conservative rule, and with George W. Bush—who until so recently was the conservative movement’s undeniable face, future, and savior—finding himself marred by historically low approval ratings, the next generation of conservatives is in desperate need of a role model. Though right-wing punditry is as healthy as ever, there is a dearth of conservative politicians who have the charisma, popularity, and vision to be considered good examples for burgeoning right wingers. Every candidate to carry this mantle in recent years has fallen on tough times—legally, politically, or both.
So perhaps it’s unsurprising that, on the eve of David Horowitz’s “Islamo-fascism Awareness Week,” Young America’s Foundation, or YAF, an organization “committed to ensuring that increasing numbers of young Americans understand and are inspired by the ideas of individual freedom, a strong national defense, free enterprise, and traditional values,” brought 33 students from around the country to Santa Barbara, Calif., to convince them that the best hope for fighting terrorism is… Ronald Reagan. “Radical Islam 101: Defining America’s Enemy & Developing A Strategy For Success,” a three-day conference, was billed as a chance for young conservatives to delve “into the history and current threat from radical Islam” and, among other things, “compare and contrast the war against radical Islam to the Cold War,” but it quickly became clear that this was as much a right-wing séance as a serious discussion of counterterrorism.
For a movement lacking a leader, this made perfect sense. Few figures have been treated as kindly by history as Reagan. He is remembered as a bold, charismatic, ideologically pure figure—exactly the type of politician conservatives hope will come along to defeat the threat of “Islamo-fascism” and lead the conservative movement out of the political wilderness.
It was hard for me to resist the opportunity to go undercover and sign up for the conference to see firsthand how YAF intended to pit the specter of Reagan against the threat of Osama Bin Laden.
A half-day of travel didn’t dampen the participants’ enthusiasm as they made their way from the conference hotel to the Reagan Ranch Center, a 22,000-square-foot facility built and operated by YAF in downtown Santa Barbara. As they made their way to the sign-in table, students passed a 2,000-pound slab of the Berlin Wall. This symbol of Reagan’s Cold War triumph foreshadowed things to come.
As they waited eagerly for a tour of the center, the participants shared stories of relatives who had recently enlisted in the military. The 33 attendees ranged from high school students to law students and came from a mix of small and big schools from around the country. They included a predictable number of Young Republicans and a healthy dose of political science and public policy majors, many of whom had experience in fundraising and bringing conservative speakers to their schools. Eleven of the 32 students were female, a fairly respectable ratio. Most were active on their campuses: One bragged that he and other members of his organization protested the opposition to U.S. engagement in Iraq by handing out condoms and yelling “Pulling out doesn’t work!” at passersby; another said that members of her group were planning on egging Barack Obama during an upcoming visit.
Once the tour began, students were led through a veritable church of Reagan: Pictures of the Gipper lined each room; letters and personal artifacts stood as monuments to his presidency; and the former president’s most famous quotes adorned the walls. In addition to the classrooms and conference areas, the three-story center contains a small theater for viewing footage of Reagan’s speeches, as well as a museum-in-progress, where the conference gang posed for a group photo in front of one of Reagan’s old Jeeps, newly restored for display.
Most of the weekend’s events focused on the threats posed by radical Islamic groups. In one early discussion on the topic, the students had trouble defining who, exactly, we are fighting in our war on terrorist networks. After an initial suggestion of “the East,” other students tried to narrow it down a bit by mentioning “terrorism,” “Muslim extremists,” “fundamentalists,” and “jihadists.” Jonathan Schanzer, an analyst from the Jewish Policy Center, led the discussion. He said that “terrorism” is only a tactic, not the enemy itself. (Other speakers would also emphasize this throughout the conference.)
In Schanzer’s view, radical Islam is a “virus” that spreads quickly, turning regular Muslims into terrorists and terrorist sympathizers. The infected now comprise 20 percent of the world’s Muslim population, Schanzer said, which is greater than the population of the entire United States. The groups that make up “radical Islam,” according to Schanzer, include Al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hizbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and more. He drew a large target with concentric circles on the board, locating these “Bad Guys” in their respective danger (and target) zones. The presentation fit into the weekend’s larger goal, of course: lumping together a large number of disparate groups into a supremely powerful über-enemy—and resurrecting Reagan and his steely-eyed legacy as America’s only hope. (Schanzer’s “virus” view, it should be noted, sounded awfully similar to the domino theory about the spread of communism.)
The weekend had no shortage of speakers—the students were addressed at various points by Mike Waller of the Institute of World Politics, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security Ann Korin, Khairi Abaza of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and author Nonie Darwash. But the highest-profile speaker was Michelle Malkin, for whose presentation the students were joined by nearly 100 of YAF’s regional private sponsors. Before she spoke, the students and the sponsors ate lunch together, chatting about their distaste for animal rights activists and debating the merits of their strawberry-brownie desserts. Right before Malkin began, a somber atmosphere descended upon the room: Tables quieted, everyone rose for the flag salute, and one student headed to the microphone to lead a prayer. Invoking God and citing John’s gospel, he declared, “Violence in your name is never acceptable.”
With that, Malkin came onstage and began her presentation, called “Fauxtography 101.” Malkin took the opportunity to lighten the mood of the conference, which was otherwise focused on a pretty grim topic. She pointed out some comically manipulated media photos that she called “outright jihadi fakery,” as well as photography mistakes made by willfully ignorant journalists who were, of course, “aided by college professors.” The idea of liberal professors as a threat, always a popular conservative canard, was highlighted throughout the conference by almost all of the speakers.
Malkin was well-received (with a standing ovation, in fact) but the real highlight of the conference came immediately after. Lathered up into a state of terrified idealism, the students embarked on their own Hajj of sorts to Reagan’s “Western White House,” the ranch the Gipper called home for almost 25 years. The participants loaded onto buses and made their way up a winding mountain road to Reagan’s breathtaking ranch in the sky, enjoying the wide-open view of endless ocean waves.
Once there, they were given a free tour of the place—a considerable perk, since the regular price of admission to the ranch is $1,000 per family. As the tour guide put it, the “young Reaganites” of the next generation deserve special treatment. Inside the intimate space of Reagan’s living quarters, visitors felt his presence even more vividly than back at the center. They walked through his garage and were invited to lift one of the chainsaws he often used to cut firewood. Saddles and pictures of Reagan on horseback were nods to the former president’s love for the open air and traditional Western values. The participants were hit with more warm, comforting nostalgia as they passed through each room: the sofa where he sat with important visiting figures, the dinner table where he ate with his wife, the telephone he used to call family members of Americans killed in a Korean Airlines flight after it was shot down by the Soviets.
Most of all, though, the tour highlighted Reagan’s personal character and his down-home image through the worn-out cowboy hats and boots in his closet, the bedside pillow with “Ronnie and Nancy” stitched onto it, and the old leather-bound Bible that belonged to Nancy’s mom. Here was the kind of man America needed, the objects seemed to say, the sort of grandfatherly leader who could deliver us from evil, chop us some wood, and soothingly read to us in front of the fireplace as we drift off to sleep.
As a climax to the tour, Malkin sat down outside to sign free copies of her book, In Defense of Internment: The Case for ‘Racial Profiling’ in WWII and the War on Terror, at the same front-porch table where President Reagan signed the largest tax cut in modern history. Reagan had chosen the spot to sign the bill because of its symbolism: To him, the view of his ranch’s open land and clear skies epitomized American freedom. Now, before Ron’s chopped firewood and Nancy’s dinner-call triangle, young leaders of the conservative movement lined up to have Malkin sign their books. One happy participant even gave his copy a reverent kiss.
It was at that moment when the state of today’s conservative movement crystallized: Where once a legendary conservative president signed a momentous tax cut, now a hugely controversial pundit was signing copies of a book defending one of the ugliest occurrences in American history.
It was strange, of course, to see kids who were barely (or not yet) born during the Reagan administration engaging in the sort of mechanical, demonstrative Reagan-worship usually reserved for aging television pundits. But this continuing deification is part of a calculated strategy on the part of conservative groups. By reaching back past both Bushes—now firmly entrenched as disappointments to dyed-in-the-wool conservatives—and toward the more popular Reagan, YAF encourages young people to stick it out with conservatism at a very difficult moment in the movement’s history. Whenever a young conservative has doubts about this ideology’s future, all he or she has to do is pull up an image of the brave, heroic Gipper. There’s always reason to hope for another golden age of endless tax cuts and muscular, effective foreign policy. And, of course, Osama wouldn’t stand a chance.
Kristin Tucker is a graduate student in Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.