The Right's New Wing

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VINCENT J. MUSI / AURORA FOR TIME

PAYING HOMAGE: Students participating in a Young America’s Foundation program stand on a hill overlooking the old Reagan ranch in Santa Barbara, Calif.

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Coyle also suggested strategies for handling "the left's dirty tricks." "The left loves to take over Q and A and ask endless questions," he said. "You have to have your people in line to ask questions." Coyle offered a couple of cons of his own: "You can bar signs at the door on grounds that they can be used as weapons. It's kind of silly, but it works." He also recommended writing letters to local papers — "but don't have all the letters come from the College Republicans. You don't want it to look like they're all from one group."

Coyle then introduced Steve Hinkle, 24, a conservative activist from California Polytechnic State University, who gave this advice: "If people are protesting and angry and tearing down your flyers, it can be really intimidating, but it means you are doing your job. And no matter what, don't ever apologize — for the speaker's message, for the way you've advertised it, for the controversy ... The left wants you to apologize, and if you do, you are ruined."

Despite their victim routine, conservatives are making quick advances on even the most liberal campuses — and YAF's millions are no small reason. Take Ithaca College. When foundation officials described it to me, it sounded like a suffocating gulag. I was told that a Bay Buchanan speech had been reported to the college's Orwellian-sounding bias-related-incidents committee and that professors in the politics department openly sniggered at Republican kids in class.

You don't have to spend much time at the college to see that liberals run the place. It posted a website after 9/11 devoted almost exclusively to critiques of the U.S. The site includes the text of a talk by Professor Asma Barlas, who chaired the politics department last year, in which she blames "Jewish groups" for "introducing modern forms of terrorism into the Middle East" and suggests that capitalism "provided the breeding grounds for much of modern day extremism."

When I spoke with her in March, Barlas told me it was her department's role to challenge students with perspectives they won't get elsewhere. "If they are coming from a group who has a President in power, can they really claim to be oppressed and marginalized?" she asked. "Our strength is our ability to offer our students alternative perspectives." Alternative in this case means liberal: with help from the local Republican Party, some conservative students surveyed the college's professors and found 113 Democrats and seven Republicans, none of whom taught politics. When I asked Assistant Professor Charles Venator Santiago, who teaches an introductory politics course called Ideas and Ideologies, whether he assigned conservative thinkers, he responded, completely without irony, "I am teaching Hitler."

But outside the radical pocket of that department, the Ithaca College Republicans — with YAF help — have begun to change the campus in the four years since Roger Custer founded the G.O.P. organization. "They are the most visible group on campus now," says Braeden Sullivan, a former co-president of one of the college's gay groups, BIGAYLA. "They don't have the biggest group of people" — in fact, only about 15 students regularly go to Ithaca College Republican meetings — "but they are definitely the most visible group, and that's a big change from a couple years ago."

Custer, a blond, round-faced Californian, first attended a YAF conference in 1999, when he was still in high school. Afterward, he followed the organization's playbook to the letter. During black-history month his freshman year, for instance, he brought black libertarian Reggie Jones to campus. Barlas perfectly played her role by refusing to help fund the hip-hip promoter's speech, even though her department was paying for other black-history-month speakers. Her reasoning was that Jones "does not, from all appearances, support ... the vision that gives this month its political meanings." Custer was then able to accuse Barlas of trying to limit the scope of African-American dialogue. A campus debate was joined, and Jones (whose travel expenses were paid by YAF) drew 200 people.

The following year, Custer used a churlish ad from his sheaf of YAF samples to help create a crude flyer for a Bay Buchanan speech, also partly funded by YAF. "Feminazis Beware," the ad blared. "Your Nuremburg is coming." The campus erupted as only campuses can. Protests were held; tears were shed; one kid left the board of the Ithaca College Republicans in protest.

During Buchanan's speech, a co-president of a campus antihomophobia group became enraged when Buchanan told protesters, "You need to get a life. Get a sense of humor. Feminazi is a fun word." The student, Shelley Facente, tried to report the statement to a campus police officer as a "bias-related incident." The cop refused to take her report, citing free-speech protections, but her attempt to bring the statement before an administrative board became a national story. The college was savaged in the conservative media. Today the bias-related-incidents committee is all but defunct — "we're re-evaluating the committee," says college president Peggy Williams. The Ithaca College Republicans consider its demise one of their greatest achievements.

Is the college better off because of YAF's infusion of ideas and money? YAF has surely helped enliven the campus dialogue. But it has also helped embitter it. Custer is described even by political opponents, including Facente, as a considerate, smart kid who listens to all sides. "My goal is to get more conservatives, and I have found the best way to do that is by working with people rather than against them," he says. But did the "Feminazis" flyer accomplish that goal? "Well, no, that specific flyer did not," he admits. "But on the other hand, because of the controversy, there were 400 people there ... You try to find a balance between getting more conservatives through various discussions and just" — he pauses — "pissing people off."

As YAF and the other student-right groups fight their battle for the soul of the campus — and as liberal students respond — that balance gets harder to strike. But the next time you think your kid is leaving home to get a liberal education, think again.

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