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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