It’s a Weird Time to Be Young and Conservative

The small but robust conservative ecosystem at Princeton finds its way through a bloodthirsty era of politics.

Jonathan Drake / Reuters

PRINCETON, N.J.—Here on Prospect Avenue, among a row of august mega-mansions masquerading as academic buildings, the next generation of America’s conservative elites is being groomed. Far away in Washington, D.C.—well, not so far away on the Acela—American politics seem to keep getting more and more chaotic, with Donald Trump’s impeachment, nonstop Twitter drama, and White House staffers staging their own spin-off of Survivor. At Princeton, however, conservative-leaning students and professors are mostly insulated from the day-to-day tumult. They’re more interested in a bigger question: What should conservatism—and America—look like moving forward?

It’s a weird time to be young and conservative, especially at a school like Princeton. Elite conservative circles at these universities tend to focus on great books and big ideas, on statesmanship and lofty principles. Nothing could be further from the culture of American politics at the national level today, driven as it is by tribalism and thirst for the blood of political enemies. The students I spoke with mostly cast a side-eye at the meme-driven, own-the-libs mentality promoted by organizations such as Turning Point USA that are popular on many college campuses. Instead, students at Princeton who lean to the right have helped build a robust suite of conservative groups, most prominently the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, an expansive academic center overseen by the prominent scholar Robert P. George. At a distinctly anti-elite moment in American politics, the leaders of this microcosm are doubling down on one of the oldest theories of politics: that ideas have the power to shape the direction of the country.

It remains an open question, however, whether conservative intellectuals and their ideas still matter in determining what happens to the Republican Party and the conservative movement after Trump. If the past few years have proved anything politically, it’s that conservative elites aren’t great at predicting what the American people actually want. At least at Princeton, students and their mentors are betting that romantic ideals such as collegiality and intellectual rigor have not totally lost their relevance in the Trump era.

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Of America’s elite universities, Princeton has a plausible claim to being one of the most powerful incubators of young conservatives who want to work in politics. The campus is largely apolitical or vaguely liberal, students told me, but George has carved out a mini-kingdom for right-leaning academics and students, who have gone on to hold all sorts of influential positions. Many leading conservative luminaries, including Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and Senator Ted Cruz, have degrees from the institution. Like graduates of other prestigious colleges, Princeton alumni serve as Hill staffers, diplomats, think-tank wonks, and even Fox News personalities.

While Princeton’s conservative life may be flourishing, its intellectual environment is distinctly at odds with conservatism on the national stage. On a recent chilly morning, a collection of like-minded professors, postgraduate fellows in the Madison Program, and university staffers gathered for a weekly coffee chat in one of those Prospect Avenue faux mega-mansions, sipping coffee in armchairs near a cozy fire. One professor held a mug bearing the slogan “The dogma lives loudly in you,” a reference to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s now-infamous comment to the conservative judicial scholar Amy Coney Barrett ahead of her 2017 confirmation to the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

No one seemed particularly dispirited by the mind-bending task of teaching students about conservative thought in the age of Trump. “We shall overcome,” said George, the group’s informal leader, with a chuckle. George, a native West Virginian, is an amateur bluegrass musician, and these freewheeling discussions occasionally turn into impromptu folk-music jams, complete with hippie-era protest songs. He still believes that America is a creedal nation, accessible to anyone who believes in its principles and wants to participate in civic life in good faith.“There will come a time after Trump,” he said. When that happens, “conservatism, and the country, are going to have to figure out: What do we do then?”

The students and professors who move in Princeton’s conservative worlds have a diverse range of political views: They are pro-Trump and anti-Trump, stalwart supporters of the Republican Party and politically homeless wanderers with conservative leanings. I talked with students who like some of what Trump is doing, but for the most part, they were hesitant to go full MAGA. Regardless of their political persuasions, they seem to share a vision of how politics should be done, prizing respectful debate, principled arguments, and guidance from thinkers such as John Locke and Alexis de Tocqueville. It’s an ethos focused, above all, on civility and erudition.

Akhil Rajasekar, a junior who founded an undergraduate chapter of the Federalist Society and serves as the editor in chief of the conservative journal The Princeton Tory, told me that issues such as impeachment have gone all but unmentioned among his friends and peers. “We are just debating the way we see the world and how it should be,” Rajasekar said. Conversations about politics at restaurants and bars are always cordial and respectful, he added. “We place a high premium on that kind of collegiality.”

Even something so basic as collegiality can seem quaint these days. Although American politics have always been ugly and divisive, elite manners and sensibilities at least superficially governed how political life was conducted. The art of persuasion was at the very least afforded lip service. Not so much anymore.

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I asked George whether he and his colleagues are training horse-and-buggy drivers in a world built for cars, giving his students the arguably false impression that the political world can be won with nothing more than persuasive arguments and compelling ideas. “We have a motto for students in the Madison Program—it’s on some of the swag we hand out,” he said. “It’s ‘Think deeply, think critically, and think for yourself.’” George, a long-respected figure in the conservative political world, has been a vocal critic of Trump since before the 2016 election. As a result, unlike in prior Republican administrations, he has largely remained on the sidelines of policy initiatives and debates happening in Trump’s Washington. Still, he’s committed to his vision of what the conservative movement, and American politics, can look like. “I have a kind of faith in the power of clear, coherent, deep thinking to produce good citizens and good people,” he said.

Students immersed in the conservative world at Princeton don’t always share George’s starry-eyed optimism, however. In the face of a national political culture that can be profoundly cynical, some have become jaded. “Idealism is dead at Princeton,” Christian Schmidt, a senior who has been involved in nearly every conservative organization on campus, told me over apple cider at a local coffee shop. “The primary emotion, I think, on Princeton’s campus is apathy. Or apathy fused with resignation.”

Other students said they don’t see a clear place for themselves in conservative politics, no matter how engaged they might be in the world of conservative ideas. “I’ve always been kind of wary to identify as conservative,” Will Nolan, a 2019 graduate and the former president of the Anscombe Society, a student group focused on promoting traditional notions of marriage and sexuality, told me. He believes that climate change is real, for example, and has been dismayed by the resistance to the issue he has encountered among some people in conservative circles. Being a “flag-holding Republican has never been the highest priority for me,” he said. Another student, Lucy Dever, who has been active in Princeton Pro-Life, said she doesn’t really think of herself as a political person. But when she attended the annual March for Life in D.C. last year, there was “a lot of cheering for President Trump,” she told me. This made her uncomfortable: “I think the pro-life cause is not a party-politics cause, or shouldn’t be,” she said. “It’s a moral issue, and not a political one.”

Most of the people I spoke with described feeling welcome to share their ideas on Princeton’s campus—a number of students and faculty specifically mentioned that the school’s president, Christopher Eisgruber, has made a point of creating space for diverse viewpoints. In elite circles beyond Princeton’s tony campus, however, they do not think this is necessarily the case. “It can be very lonely if you feel like you’re the only one who believes these things,” said Serena Sigillito, who works at the Witherspoon Institute, a conservative think tank near Princeton’s campus that also falls under George’s umbrella of influence.* Especially for conservatives who make their life in elite worlds, there can be a “temptation to withdraw into [our] own little communities and bubbles.”

In recent years, conservative thinkers and writers have debated a question among themselves: Has American culture been so thoroughly captured by progressives that retreat from mainstream life is the only sensible path forward? Some conservatives have taken Trump as a counterpoint to this argument, interpreting his election as the beginning of a long-term right-wing pushback against the dominant political order. Those who find themselves somewhere in between, however—wanting neither a full retreat from nor a full concession to the Trumpian way of politics—don’t necessarily have a clear path forward.

At least at Princeton, there seems to be hope. “We have gotten over these moments, these eruptions of no confidence,” said Allen Guelzo, a historian of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War, during the conversation with George and other professors. “And I think we will get over this as well.”

Those in the room seemed to know that their status as intellectuals might not buy them the automatic credibility and power it once did. They also seemed well aware of the irony inherent in a bunch of elite academics sitting around, parsing the revolt of the populist masses. As one attendee joked, “We represent the people. Some of my best friends are people!”

And so the young conservatives of Princeton will head out into the world, hoping that their knowledge of Thomas Aquinas and John Locke has not been totally outmoded by memes, cable television, Twitter, and Trump. In this cloistered bastion, the work of grooming conservative elites will continue. “If I were the last man on Earth to believe this stuff,” George said, “I would still believe I’ve got the best product to sell.”

*This article originally stated that the Witherspoon Institute is on Princeton’s campus.