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Can Scott Walker Save the Future of Conservatism?

Maybe even a little?
by Jim Swift
July 17, 2019
Can Scott Walker Save the Future of Conservatism?
(Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker will soon have a new job: President of Young America’s Foundation.

As The Hill reports, Walker says that “Starting January 2021, this will be full-time. . . . I won’t be engaged in anything else. This will be my sole occupation.” This is big news because Walker signed a four year agreement with YAF (per the Journal-Sentinel)—which means that he’s not running either for his old job or for Ron Johnson’s Senate seat.

Whether this is a walk for the exits of public life, or voluntary entry into a cryogenic experiment to ride out the rest of Trump era is yet to be seen. But for movement conservatism, it’s a significant changing of the guard: The current president of YAF, Ron Robinson, has been there for four decades.

While Robinson is no recluse, you’ve probably never heard of him. He’s not a regular fixture on cable TV (unless you watch C-SPAN). Search for “Ron Robinson” on YouTube and the first result is a 1988 MLB clip of a Cincinnati Reds pitcher blowing a perfect game. I mean this not as an insult, but a compliment. Robinson focused on building the institution of YAF, not his own profile. Will Scott Walker—who four years ago was an early favorite to be elected president of the United States—do the same?

For people in the conservative movement, this question is non-trivial. Because in general, if someone is using an institution as a platform to build their own brand, then they’re not taking care of the actual institution. Think about David Keene, the long-time head of the American Conservative Union who grew the organization from 1984 to 2011, mostly by working behind the scenes. And compare him with the media-hungry Matt Schlapp, who is on TV just about every day while the ACU has turned into a joke.

But maybe that’s not fair to Walker who, after all, isn’t a media whore. He’s a serious public servant. The better parallel might be Jim DeMint, the former Senator who took over the Heritage Foundation from its founding president, Ed Feulner. Like Keene and Robinson, Feulner was never a household name (unless you’re deeply involved in Washington conservatism). But while DeMint was a successful fundraiser, his tenure was a tumultuous one for Heritage and he lasted only four years in the job.

There are other strange aspects of the Walker hire at YAF. For instance, his hiring was announced nearly 18 months before he is to start at the job. This is . . . not normal?

There are sound reasons for this decision. For instance, maybe a long transition is needed since Walker is taking over for a guy whose run the organization for four decades.

But in truth, I suspect this announcement is mostly intended to convince YAF donors to stick with the organization while Turning Point USA has entered the space and turned the idea of campus conservatism upside down with their love of controversy and all things Trump. By contrast, YAF has always been serious-minded and committed to classically conservative ideology, which is falling out of fashion these days on the right. YAF is so worried about TPUSA that they even wrote a memo about it.

And they’re not wrong. YAF was the kind of organization that used to operate in movement conservatism as a pipeline for finding young activist-types and helping them get their foot in the door in politics. And it worked. YAF helped me find a start in politics even though I was from a Democratic stronghold in Ohio. And it helped lots of other conservatives, too. Sure, some of these folks turned out to be not-so-great. But on the whole, I’d say it had a pretty good batting average as an organization. If you worked in Conservative World and you got an intern who’d been through YAF, there was a reasonably good chance that they’d be smart and serious and more interested in learning and helping than in getting famous. YAF tended to produce workhorses, not show horses.

Now, maybe YAF just got lucky. After all, the organization’s biggest successes came before internet stardom existed or owning the libs was the principle goal of conservatism.

Maybe in the current environment, where 22-year-olds are eager to set themselves on fire in order to get a few more followers and conservatives can’t be sure of what they believe until the Dear Leader takes a position—Trade wars are good and easy to win!— it’s impossible to both appeal to conservative donors and incubate serious-minded young people.

But I’d like to think that Gov. Walker’s task isn’t impossible and that YAF can still be a force for good in the world.

Which is why I’d like to offer him some advice, from an alumnus.

Clean house and update your speakers’ list with relevant people conservative youth should look up to. I’m not talking Saturday Night Massacres, which occur every third week on cable news in this administration. But YAF should update its roster of campus speakers. It’s outdated and contains a mix of uninspiring has-beens and cranks alongside conservatives who are the real deal. Refresh the menu.

On the YAF website, which still promotes folks such as Dinesh D’Souza, Ted Nugent, and Robert Spencer, the first recommended speaker who the organization thinks readers would “Definitely like” after each is . . . Curt Schilling

Behold this list. Mia Love—yes! David French—yes! S.E. Cupp—yes!

But as fine as Steve Forbes and Barry Goldwater, Jr. and Ed Meese are as human beings, they have not a very great deal of relevance to today’s politics or purchase on the imaginations of young people.

And then there are the cranks. Michelle Malkin writes for VDare, a white nationalist website. Stephen Crowder is not a super great guy if you want to persuade people about the merits of conservative thought. Stacey Dash promotes the Q-Anon conspiracy theory.

Let Turning Point USA dominate the space of crazy. There’s no point in competing with Charlie Kirk on crazy, because he’s always going to outbid you. Instead, think about YAF as a product which is differentiating itself in the space. Be the organization that shows young conservatives Carly Fiorina, Harvey Mansfield, and Art Laffer. Don’t let YAF get drawn into being Pepsi to TPUSA’s Coke.

Lock down your stars. I know Ben Shapiro is near and dear to your (and many on the right’s) hearts, after all, he’s famous in no small part due to the influence of YAF. But these days, he goes to TPUSA events, too. Why allow that to happen?

He’s your all-star. Sign him if you can.

And while you’re at it, lock down some of your other key speakers, just like good speaker’s bureaus do. Not everyone has to be YAF exclusive. But this is another way to differentiate the brand.

Don’t try to kill Turning Point USA, but also don’t legitimize it. Freeze them out or let them flame out. You’re the old guard with old guard money (for now), and you’ll never compete with a college drop-out funded by kooky millionaires and billionaires hell bent on nothing but the principle of Always Trump. You have to prepare for the future, and if that means some time in the wilderness or a reorienting, so be it. And the truth is, YAF has always been in the business of the future. When your job is to help nurture young people, there are no immediate returns.

And before I forget, Governor Walker, I know you’re also a college drop-out. And that’s a real asset for you. This isn’t about elitism, it’s about accomplishments. Your style of conservatism won three elections in four years and changed the face of Wisconsin politics. You made life better for the people of your state.

Charlie Kirk, on the other hand, is a slot machine for internet memes who has accomplished nothing but finding gullible sugar daddies.

Use your story and experience to explain to boomers that Charlie Kirk is a bad investment and YAF is a good one.

(And yes, I know your son works for Charlie Kirk. That’s why it’s not called “show friends”—it’s show business.)

Change the nature of activism and set the example. I used to be a YAF activist, so I know the old playbook. I have it somewhere in my storage unit. Affirmative-action bake sales: Edgy—but also stupid. They don’t convince anyone. Putting up flags on 9/11: Admirable—and clever. Stupid liberals on campus will object and some will even go so far as to object or destroy the display. Instant press.

But that’s not what activism is these days.

Being an asshole has now become a feature, not a bug. You may have heard, but TPUSA has young adults wear adult diapers on campus. Some of their alumni are ending up at InfoWars and bringing AR-15s to campus to own the libs. Let them revel in the glory of on-campus outrage and focus on sending constructive speakers to campus, not ones destined or designed to get maximum protest. You’re always going to get protests. Just deal with it and send good representatives who are smart, calm, and credentialed. Not this.

In truth, YAF has pushed the occasional asshole on campus over the years. But you can make a new rule: No assholes. There’s a Wisconsin version of Minnesota Nice which is, as all cheeseheads know, even nicer. You can set that example from the very top.

Be teachers. YAF’s goal shouldn’t be either grooming kids for the cruel world of instant fame or handing them the reins, either. The kids are just that—kids. You should be the teachers, the stewards. There will always be stupid administrators, teachers, and courses on a college campus. Help young conservatives figure out which battles are worth having and which are inconsequential.

Use your success story as someone who didn’t finish college to inspire kids—even the ones who might eschew college—to understand the importance of education writ large. Instead of spending resources on silly fights, send complimentary copies of Friedrich Hayek, Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, or Milton Friedman books to kids who go to schools where those works are de-emphasized or ignored. I got two such books at a YAF conference once and they meant a lot to me.

Rethink the importance of creating YAF chapters on campus. This has been a recent development for YAF, coming in 2011 when two groups with the same acronym—Buckley’s Young Americans for Freedom and the Young America’s Foundation—merged.

Creating and maintaining chapters on campus is costly and difficult to manage, as TPUSA has discovered with the problem of discovering white nationalists in their ranks. The YAF merger made sense because the two groups were, in a real sense, duplicative.

But there is a lot of duplicative work being done on campus. In addition to YAF on campus, there’s TPUSA and the College Republicans. Why not have YAF scale back the on-campus programs and spend those resources recruiting top student leaders, so they can go back and steer the discourse on campus—be it in student papers, student government, or with the college republicans—toward a principled, honorable conservatism. YAF needs more leaders like Mariela Muro so that you can attract good faculty advocates like Gabriel Rossman.

Similarly, don’t try to create media spectacles or flash-in-the-pan viral teens for FOX and Newsmax. It never works. Of the thousands and thousands of people who have come through YAF or its National Journalism Center, how many have gone on to successful television careers? Quite a few, right? How did that happen? Principle-based conservatism and training. Imagine that.

Let TPUSA raise the next generation of Breitbart and OANN staffers. YAF should be in the business of mentoring kids smart enough to help reshape CNN and NBC and the Washington Post in a more balanced direction. (Not to mention staffing Congressional offices and running campaigns and succeeding in the private sector where they can be beacons for conservative thought as leaders in their communities.)

Never forget why YAF is different. There’s a reason YAF has been around for half a century: It’s because conservatism is built on a view of the human condition which was as true for Aristotle as it is for Jeff Bezos. Conservative policies change with the times; conservative ideas are forever. (Or at least until Jeff Bezos turns us all into cyborgs on Prime Day 2047.)

Let devotion to conservative principles keep you in your own lane. Because, if you try to kill Charlie Kirk, you’ll fail. If you get in cahoots with him, you’ll fail—and, even worse, all the decades of the good work of YAF will be for naught and Charlie Kirk and his pals will take ownership of Ronald Reagan’s Rancho del Cielo for pennies on the dollar. I bet that would break Ronnie’s heart to see Benny Johnson driving around his Jeep, wearing an American flag blazer with a cigar shooting a rifle covered in bacon with Donald Trump Jr. riding shotgun and Ted Cruz riding bitch.

That’s what happens when organizations lose their principles and lose their way.

The conservative movement is sick right now, Governor Walker. But in just 18 short months, you’ll be in a position to do something about it.

Good luck.

Jim Swift

Jim Swift is a senior editor at The Bulwark.