Trump Makes Conservative College Dreams Come True

You can hear the cheering all the way from Michigan to Washington DC. The long-held dreams of Hillsdale College just might be coming true. This unique conservative institution has labored for 50+ years to become the premier intellectual training ground for American conservatism, and its influence in the Trump administration seems proof that it’s really happening.

hillsdale college

Take that, Harvard!

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware of the Hillsdale story, but for those readers who aren’t, here it is in a nutshell: Back in the 1960s, the college dedicated itself to a self-consciously dissenting notion of conservative American higher education. Hillsdale is generally friendly to evangelical thinking, but it has never really been an integral part of the network of conservative evangelical schools I’m focusing on in my new book, Fundamentalist U. Some elements of its mission, though, are very similar.

Back in the early 1980s, for example, one of the fundamentalist schools I’m studying proclaimed its culture-war mission: In 1981, Liberty University’s Ed Hindson declared,

A few thousand highly committed and thoroughly trained young people, who were willing to put their Christianity to work in every sector of our society, could see America changed in our life time.

If you substitute “conservatism” for “Christianity” in Hindson’s sentence, you’d end up with something like what Hillsdale is looking for. Hillsdale’s newfound influence in the Trump administration seems proof that the plan is working, at least in part.

What does “conservative higher education” mean in Hillsdale, Michigan?

The school stridently refuses to accept any government funding. Its core curriculum teaches a traditional vision of the European canon, guided by “Judeo-Christian values.” Its campus proudly features statues of conservative heroes such as Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. The faculty have always welcomed leading conservative thinkers, including Russell Kirk back in the 1970s, and today’s superstar conservative-evangelical historian and public intellectual D. G. Hart.

hillsdale college reagan statue

The Gipper chillin on campus…

When your humble editor read this morning that Hillsdale President Larry Arnn is getting some rare and valuable one-on-one time with Secretary Betsy DeVos, we wondered just how far Hillsdale’s star had risen with the new administration.

Turns out, pretty far.

In all the hubbub-ery following Trump’s inauguration, we missed one story: Back in February, President Arnn claimed to be on a short list for DeVos’s job. And, according to the school newspaper, Hillsdale alumni filled some important roles in the Trump administration. Josh Venable (Class of 2002) became chief of staff in the Ed Department. David Morrell (2007) served as associate counsel to Trump. And two alums, Brittany Baldwin (2012) and Stephen Ford (2010) wrote speeches for the President and VP.

At least, they did back in February. In the current fast-changing White House, maybe they are out by now.

The bigger point, however, remains the same. Hillsdale’s dreams, like those of other conservative schools such as Liberty University, Patrick Henry College, and The King’s College, has long been to exert more influence in government and politics. Hillsdale doesn’t talk about the “Christian” part as much, but the goal is very similar.

Those of us who scratch our heads and wonder how any intellectual—progressive, conservative, or other—could support the clown-prince buffoonery of Trump would do well to appreciate the ways Trumpism is making long-held conservative dreams come true.

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  1. Dan

     /  June 8, 2017

    It’s the reverse! Hillsdale and its networks made Trump possible. They are one of the oldest institutional homes for old “paleoconservative” and libertarian nationalist thought.

    To say the college has not had a strong historic tie to Evangelicalism is a bit of an understatement. It has been a bit of a party school with maybe an episcopalian and catholic bent in its faculty and student body, but piety was hardly an emphasis. (I spent a summer abroad with some Hillsdale and CCCU students after college, an interesting experience.)

    Hillsdale’s President George Roche III was the one who successfully sold the image of the college as a unique conservative outpost to a wider audience. The free Hillsdale “Imprimus” newsletter was enthusiastically received in many fundamentalist-evangelical homes in the 1980s. But while championing family values, former Hillsdale President George Roche III was sleeping with his daughter-in-law. When that came to light his wife killed herself in the campus gazebo. That caused a big reaction, especially in conservative catholic circles.

    Since about 2008 Hillsdale has introduced Christian language and policies, such as a policy inhospitable to LGBT students and faculty. At this time Hillsdale became more involved with the CCCU and its members by creating a summer seminar on Libertarian thought and economics that brings in CCCU faculty every year. If you follow the money on the sources of these developments, you will find they point to a network of donors and influencers with long ties to the CCCU and groups like the Council on National Policy, Hudson and Claremont Institutes.

    Erik Prince, Betsy DeVos’s brother, is a Hillsdale graduate. Their families have long had a close relationship with the college and related institutions, like the Catholic+Reformed+Libertarian Acton Institute.

    By 2015 it was noticeable in conservative reformed and evangelical circles that Hillsdale had begun to be a competitor, as it came to be seen by many families as “Christian” or as good as. Christian colleges deemed “too liberal” or insufficiently engaged in the culture wars/conservative politics came to be seen by some of their constituents as less legitimate than Hillsdale, Liberty, Patrick Henry, etc.

    • Thanks for the note, especially the point that Hillsdale shouldn’t be taken to be a secular school. That’s exactly right and it’s an important point. I do think its history is different, though, from colleges like Bob Jones, Biola, Wheaton, and other successors of the 1920s fundamentalist movement.

      • Dan

         /  June 8, 2017

        I would say it is more “secular” than “religious,” but to be more specific it is historically an old right, high church culture that believes in belief, in the manner of Eliot, Kirk, and Strauss who are their secular saints. If you understand what religion meant in the lives of those men, you know what this means, and how different it is from pietistic evangelicals. So from an Evangelical perspective, this looks secular, and if you have fraternities and wild parties, and then a big sex scandal the whole project comes into question. Hillsdale had a turn toward a more evangelical form of enforced moralism and pietism partly due to a real crisis of its own, partly due to influential donors, and partly to capture a market it pursued.

        Absolutely, this is not a bit like the history of BJU, Biola, and Wheaton — but Biola has a common set of major culture warrior benefactors connected to Hillsdale, Calvin, and the CCCU.

        Hillsdale is much more comparable to St. Johns, the great books college in Annapolis and Sante Fe, which has had some interesting shakeups recently. Like Hillsdale, St. Johns is like a college of the church of paleoconservatism — hand in glove with ISI and the theoconservatives represented by the older, intelllectual journals of the right. Together with CCCU schools, all these nodes connect and overlap, but they are different parts of movement conservatism. People in one node may not know a thing about many of the others.

  2. Dan

     /  June 8, 2017

    (I don’t mean to suggest Hillsdale singlehandedly elected Trump, but Arnn did a LOT of stumping when Evangelicals were on the bubble. What the college had become by 2016, the networks it is part of, and the influence it represents are all indicative of conditions in which the situation we now have moved from being a remote possibility to a credible probability.)

  3. Casey Voce

     /  September 15, 2017

    Hart might have something to say about being labled an Evangelical.

    • Yes, the reformed always regard themselves as superior to base evangelical trogs, especially those without any historic confession. The presbys and continentals often try to appropriate the mantle and even the rhetoric of catholicism, virulent anticatholics though they are. Soon to be former Evangelical luminaries like Noll and Marsden try to style themselves as Kuyperians and spin the not so crypto-fascist Kuyper as some sort of progressive proto-Merkel. Hart for his part has a long association with ISI (Regnery family), First Things (Institute for Religion and Democracy), and Westminster Seminary (Oh boy, where to start).

      Personally I get the impression he is a good man caught up in loyalties to toxic traditions which he has studied and critiqued admirably in his career. Ultimately however, he is committed to a side that is a net evil, by far.

      It is fair to refer to Hart and all of the reformed right as Evangelicals, not just because they got in bed with the evangelical cultural insurrection, but because evangelicals are fundamentalists, and so are the reformed. Only in Europe, the UK, and Canada do you find confessionally reformed people who are genuine liberals or existentialists who are not scared of Barth and Tillich, who are not hung up on invincibly naive assumptions about texts, history, truth, knowledge, interpretation.

      Much of the US, especially in non-urban areas, missed out of the 20th century everyone else went through. I was rewatching some of The Thin Red Line recently and reminded of this with Malick’s redneck fundy characters in Guadalcanal. Magical belief in an ennchanted world, the darkest moments of the dark ages — they live on in America. The religious right, the fundamentalist and neo-evangelical movements preserved this. It is their version of a naive Marxism, that history is inexorably on their side, that their utopia will be realized, and God will magically intervene when and where they expect/need/demand it. People like Hart know better but remain loyal to a behemoth that cannot.

    • I take your point, but I do think it’s fair in this context. Just like the label “secular” doesn’t really fit me, if I’m trying to describe myself as either a “secular” historian of evangelical culture or an “evangelical” one, then “secular” is the right label for me and I’ll accept it.

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