Sunday, July 29, 2018

The damage Trumpism is doing to conservatism and how it's playing out at Hillsdale College

Conor Friedersdorf wrote a piece at The Atlantic published July 25 asking if Hillsdale College was in danger of losing its soul, given president Larry Arnn's publicly hopping on the "I-understand-that-Trump-is-far-from-personally-exemplary-but-on-balance-he's-great-for-our-country" bandwagon.

Much of it is devoted to Vice President Pence's recent commencement address there - one in which he gave well-stated lip service to the time-honored values enshrined in Hillsdale's mission, but then went on to engage in overt promotion of his administration, and particularly the president at the head of it.

But here's the essence of Friedersdorf's point:

. . . Arnn [does not] talk as if he believe[s] that good moral character is really essential in an American president—he talk[s] as if [he] believe that a president who flagrantly exhibits all manner of character flaws and odious behavior can put the country on a trajectory that benefits it greatly for decades if he appoints good judges.
Neither [does he] seem to believe in opposing the elevation and empowerment of such men on principle. [He] talks as if doing what’s politically advantageous is obviously the best way forward. The prudent thing is to elect a flagrantly immoral man if he’s going to do things like appoint originalist judges and hire Hillsdale graduates as bureaucrats. In short, they talk as if they believe that the ends justify the means––as if they don’t think Pence has done anything wrong because Pence behaves as if he shares their malleable, relativistic posture, and is willing to be less than truthful with the public to ensure victory. 

Friedersdorf heard from a number of students and alums and shared their responses in a piece two days later.

There were a lot of them. I could make this post really lengthy by quoting every incisive expression of the common point, but I'll just choose a few:

An incoming Hillsdale freshman writes:
I chose Hillsdale because I loved the personal experience through the admissions process and the values the school represents. "Pursuing truth and defending liberty" are two ideas I hold near to my heart. I am disappointed to see Arnn continue to prop up a president who does not share these values. As a young conservative who loves reading and listening to Ben Shapiro, Jonah Goldberg, and David French, I can say I love to see taxes cut, regulations destroyed, and judges I like appointed.
These are things that would come if Rubio or Bush were president. The damage Trump does to the conservative movement outweighs his good. I would rather a president be strong against Russians, disavow Neo-Nazis, and open his arms to legal immigrants than cut my taxes. While I have not spent a school day on campus, I think I understand many students see this. They understand the president is a morally corrupt clown. I do not think students love Trump like his most fervent supporters.
A Hillsdale senior writes:
I am majoring in politics, and I wanted to say I completely agree with your article. I've been Never Trump since the beginning, and I'm really disappointed that Dr. Arnn has tied my school so closely to the current administration.
The argument is one that happens at Hillsdale very often. The usual defense of Arnn's tying us to Trump goes along the lines of “don't let the perfect become the enemy of the good,” but that is just utilitarianism. The larger scale argument also largely mimics Dennis Prager's point here, but that doesn't justify not even acknowledging that his critics have a point about Trump's moral and philosophical problems.
Hillsdale is slowly morphing from a school that I was proud to go to into one that I'm embarrassed to attend. It's been going on for a while, but recently it has been accelerating. I really appreciate you writing an article that speaks to what myself and many other Hillsdale students think. Hillsdale is going to lose our credibility if this trend continues.
A current student writes:
Your article reminded me of my first semester when my professors taught me these wise words of Cicero: “The influence of moral right is so potent, that it eclipses the specious appearance of expediency.” I'm afraid Arnn doesn't practice what professors preach here at the College.
His inexcusable posture towards the Trump administration must be, as you say, driven by utilitarian concerns. The GOP is good for the endowment––it's as simple as that. Arnn has a lot of skin in the game. His reputation is built on his success as a breadwinner. This role earns him respect and an exorbitant salary from of the administration, though many of us, students and faculty, remain unimpressed.
Says another current student:
First, thank you for writing the article. There are indeed a significant number of current students and recent alumni who are deeply concerned about the things you mentioned in your piece, and with any luck it may help to instigate more genuine and fruitful discussion on the issue; something which has (unfortunately) often been lacking between the administration/student government and the rest of the student body.
I do see a deep problem with the College’s relationship with the Trump administration, on at least two counts. First, Trump himself represents many of the absolute worst elements of the right wing in America (I do not say conservative, because they aren’t conservative in any authentic sense).
And, this isn’t simply his sexual escapades and uncomfortable flattery of certain tyrannical rulers; it’s the fact that he fundamentally lacks any semblance of a consistent understanding of conservatism, and has consistently failed to demonstrate the ability to conduct reasonable and respectful political discourse. Many of his policies, and virtually all of his methods and tactics, are repugnant to the values that Hillsdale teaches.
Second, Pence: whatever could have been said about his career in Indiana politics, he’s rarely risen above craven sycophancy throughout the campaign and administration. The reality is that in all likelihood Pence has exerted no moderating influence on Trump (if he has, and this is the moderated version, then God help us), while he has provided false legitimacy to Trump, largely among the evangelical voter base. It is, however, unsurprising that someone who lacked the moral courage to oppose Trump’s many faults before the election would not suddenly find the fortitude to do so once in the desired position of power.
One of the more prevalent arguments in favor of Pence that I have heard on Hillsdale campus is that because of his high office, he deserves our respect and we ought to feel honored by his visit. This position, to me, is vacuous. Genuine respect (as distinct from basic civility) is earned, and this is especially true when the person in question holds a high office. Where the normal standard for respect is that the person in question be a good and virtuous human person (or something like this); for a man in high office to deserve respect he must display wisdom and prudence, and perform his duties with excellence. Neither Trump nor Pence have done this, and so the fact that they hold high office (in what I regard as an unworthy manner) is not a source of honor. Rather, it is a high standard they have failed to meet.
It is also my opinion that, even on a pragmatic level, associating with the administration in any meaningful way is a mistake for the college. Hillsdale’s mission (and, let me be clear, the faculty that I encounter in my disciplines fulfill this admirably) and belief has always focused on the importance of a liberal education to human flourishing in general, as well as to good political discourse. What characterizes ‘Trumpism’ all too often is a sort of weaponized ignorance that might occasionally win political battles but which will inevitably undermine the foundations of authentic conservatism and any just political order.
In the terms of my discipline (philosophy), what Trump is doing is leading the regress of conservatism into little more than emotivism. It is this, more than his personal moral failings, that is the core of why the current administration and Hillsdale College ought not be allies, even uneasy ones. Ultimately, the internal rot that is Trumpism will do far more harm than any short-term goods achieved by defeating Hillary Clinton.
Hillsdale will survive the Trump administration, but it will do so only because what the college is actually doing most of the time is quite different from the public image. The faculty are mostly incredible, and there’s plenty of room for healthy disagreement in a meaningful and profound way. I, and many others, have experienced tremendous intellectual growth in our time at Hillsdale. When I criticize the college, it is because I love it and what it can be, at its best.
Ultimately, I think its relationship with the administration represents a tragic loss of opportunity—the opportunity to show a much better kind of conservatism, one centered around the timeless, beautiful, and true things that it aspires to, rather than on many of the basest impulses of the American right. Hillsdale has a lot to offer, but right now it is failing to do that in pursuit of very short-sighted political goals.
Yet another current student writes:
I am very glad the hypocrisy of the administration at Hillsdale College when it comes to Trump and Pence has been brought to light, as we are not allowed to directly criticize the administration in the college’s student newspaper. This hypocrisy runs much deeper than just political utilitarianism despite the guise of pursuing “the good, the true, and the beautiful.” The administration often chooses a more authoritarian approach when it comes to dealing with students and opinions differing from those of the donors. Often the administration will put forth the concept that they are teaching us to be free, but not giving students very much freedom at all. I have a laundry list of experiences with the administration that reflect this hypocrisy.
A graduate from Hillsdale’s Class of 2018 writes:
The moral tensions that you broach in your article are ones that I felt viscerally during my tenure as a Hillsdale student and now as a graduate. The Hillsdale College that advertises on conservative talk radio and Fox News, the one I internally label "Rush Limbaugh's Hillsdale," is not the Hillsdale College that I experienced.
It was in the trenches of Hillsdale College that I received an invitation to participate in the tradition of a humble community engaged in honest and unflagging pursuit of a greater understanding. The path offered remains intellectually and even existentially perilous, but it is nonetheless a route that I would not forsake. This is the ideal form of what Hillsdale can offer to its students and share with the world at large.
"Rush Limbaugh's Hillsdale" is but a severe adulteration of this form, and all frustration I have with the college stems from the fact that the administration does not actively dispel this reputation, but rather perpetuates it by doing things such as inviting Mike Pence to give a commencement speech. Of course, I am not naive to the financial reasons for why this is so, but this is in no way a relationship that I endorse.
For the sake of brevity I'll refrain from utter diatribe against what you aptly titled the "transactional alliance" Hillsdale has with its donor base. I merely want to indicate that there are at least some concerned students and professors who are not at all ignorant of this tension and that the values pursued at Hillsdale College do in fact transcend the unwanted approbation of talking heads and debatably "oleaginous" politicians.
Says another 2018 graduate:
The graduation speech from Pence that provided the basis for your recent article, 'Is Hillsdale College Gaining the World and Losing Its Soul?', was my graduation. I would like to give you an account of the internal debacle that was the selection and speech of Vice President Pence.
An important thing to note is the separation between the image of Hillsdale and the true nature of what is taught there. The 'political, conservative bastion of freedom' is largely the promotion of the administration. Some believe this is to draw more donors as well as children of very conservative families. I am not claiming that we do not have conservatives on campus, for I would say a large portion would identify as such.
But these are the conservatives who cherish the inherent value and virtue in education. Professors and students alike are moreso apolitical and care about debates of free will vs. determinism, or spending a day to watch students perform Shakespeare. We are crazy about ideas, not contemporary politics. Students do not come to Hillsdale for pragmatic, political ends, sans a few individuals who want nothing more in life than to be a politician. And these select few are the only students who wanted someone like Pence to deliver our graduation address.
The address is typically selected by the student committee that consists of the nominated president, VP, secretary and treasurer of the senior class. Last year we selected a Dante translator, to give you a frame of reference.
However, this committee failed to find a speaker for reasons I would chalk up to poor choices. In a pinch, Dr. Arnn pulled a few strings to secure Pence as a speaker to bolster the "conservative heaven" image. The tone of the student body upon hearing the announcement was depressed. We knew what was coming—a pandering speech of no substance or content which would throw Hillsdale onto the political stage. If one could see the audience of graduating seniors during Pence's speech, one would see bored, uninterested students who were occasionally awoken and coerced into standing to clap, or students shaking their heads, smirking with discontent to fellow graduates. If it were not for our politeness and respect for his position, and the high energy nature of his speech, we would have remained seated.
A 2015 graduate of Hillsdale writes, “You have put into words what I have thought since Larry Arnn endorsed Donald Trump in the 2016 election.”
Hillsdale is serving as a microcosm for what is happening to conservatism generally. This headlong embrace of Trump of necessity means that some very foundational aspects of this worldview we call conservatism must no longer be mentioned, or at least must be hurriedly glossed over, in the interest of dragging short-term policy goals over the - and placing one's faith in a figure who doesn't even understand, much less share,  this worldview.

There were a lot more responses, some from alums who graduated twenty years ago and more.

It reinforces for me what I said in a post the other day:

 . . . every day brings fresh evidence that our hearts and our intuition gave us good guidance.
The Trumpists - both of the obsequious variety, like Pence and Arnn, and the vicious variety, like Kurt Schlichter - are not going to seize the brass ring that is assuming the mantle of conservatism, because what they're peddling, built as it is on a foundation of sand, is not going to work. And that is where real conservatives, who were never rendered irrelevant but rather continued to argue as they always had, despite the cacophonous din of the Trump era, can say, "May I offer a suggestion?"

And heads will turn, because the disillusioned Trumpists will be hungry for actual answers.


  1. What about the hearts and intuition of the non-conservative majority of US voters (in the lowest turn-out in 20 years) who voted against Trump? They're probably cattle, right?

  2. They are ripe for receiving the conservative message.

  3. The conservative image I see is lil Mikie walking around with Trump's big stick stuck up his nether regions. That image is the message for a lot of folks, including me.

  4. Conservatives have their work cut out for them, no doubt.