Editor’s note: This is the sixth in a series of columns exploring the future of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.
I recently time-traveled to the 1980s.
At a Hilton hotel in downtown Houston, I saw an offer for a free national review subscription on literature printed in “Miami Vice” colors; people wore Ronald Reagan T-shirts; Rep. Dan Crenshaw “spoke” to President Ronald Reagan in a “Back to the Future” style film set in 1984; Crenshaw even stepped out of a DeLorean, like the one Doc and Marty drove, to give a speech.
and to flyer trumpeted an old Reagan quote: “The future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted. It belongs to the brave.”
I experienced this homage to “morning in America” at the Texas congressman’s annual Crenshaw Youth Summit. Ironically, Crenshaw was born in 1984the year Reagan was elected to a second term as president, and his target audience at the event was born long after the curtain had closed on the Reagan era.
Young audience embraced summit
Yet, I found the summit to be intellectually stimulating and entertaining, and it was well-received by the mostly teenage and college-age audience.
What interested me the most at the summit, as a disaffected conservative Republican, was Crenshaw’s underlying message in his speeches that today’s conservative movement and the GOP have taken a wrong turn, so we should look to the wisdom of Reagan’s conservatism for a way forward.
Crenshaw made clear in his opening speech, “A Time for Choosing,” titled after Reagan’s famous 1964 speechthat the purpose of the summit was twofold: reviving the principles of Reaganite conservatism and moving past Trump-style conservatism.
The latter was not said explicitly. Instead, Crenshaw praised Reagan’s approach to politics, which included growing the movement and the party by building bridges to “Reagan Democrats,” in contrast to those who now “fight fire with fire.” He said Reagan actually won in 1980 and 1984, a not-so-subtle jab at former President Donald Trump’s false claims about the 2020 election.
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‘We need another Reagan revolution’
The congressman also said that some in the party care only about burning things down and “only fight for your attention.” He said that “we have to be electable” and that “we need another Reagan revolution.”
Crenshaw did not mention Trump once in his speech. Yet, the implications – and the contrast between the Reagan and Trump eras – were clear.
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Crenshaw’s willingness to call out what seems increasingly to be the mainstream of the Republican Party is bold. Such denunciations were nonexistent in August when I went to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Dallas, where the speakers pandered by telling the audience what they wanted to hear.
Unlike my experience at CPAC, Trump and conspiracy theories were not the center of attention at Crenshaw’s summit. The booths were held by mainstream conservative institutions such as National Review, American Conservation Coalition, Young America’s Foundation and LifeFirst. And I saw only a few MAGA hats in the crowd.
The speakers discussed serious ideas, instead of the red-meat-throwing competition characteristic of CPAC:
►National Review Editor-in-Chief Rich Lowry delivered an interesting speech on American nationalism.
►Bjorn Lomborg gave an intriguing presentation on why he is skeptical of climate alarmism.
►Texas Gov. Greg Abbott spoke about his state’s issues with illegal immigration and the Biden administration’s border policies.
►Canadian clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson appeared on Zoom to talk about Protestantism and the war on Western civilization.
►Tori Hope Peterson spoke about her experience in the foster care system and the need for reform.
The ‘woke right’ who ‘worship victimhood’
One of the most memorable speeches was given by Yeonmi Park, a North Korean defector and human rights activist who spoke about the horrors of communism. She spoke of being so hungry in North Korea that she ate insects to stay alive. She said she witnessed atrocious conditions in hospitals, where doctors performed surgeries with unsanitized instruments and without administering pain medication to patients.
She said she was shocked, after moving to the United States in 2014, to hear Americans call America “evil” and believe that they’re oppressed.
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The talk I enjoyed the most was a panel discussion involving Rob Smith, an Iraq War veteran and author. Crenshaw and Smith spoke about their problems with the current conservative movement, including the widespread unwillingness to shun those who spread misinformation and troll others on social media.
Crenshaw called such provocateurs the “woke right” who “worship victimhood.” He might have been referring specifically to Alex Stein, who has called Crenshaw “eye patch mccain.” (The congressman lost an eye in an explosion while serving as a Navy SEAL in Afghanistan.)
Smith, who noted that the extremes on both the right and the left spend more time attacking their own side rather than ideological opponents, said he has made a “conscious decision” not to throw red meat to gain attention.
Despite Crenshaw’s desire for a set of standards within the conservative movement, he has invited some speakers who have at times peddled misinformation. Yet, even they gave rather tame speeches at the summit.
Dennis Prager, a radio talk show host who has touted anti-vaccine and electoral conspiracy theories, spent most of his talk emphasizing the importance of liberty and small government, sounding like a typical Reaganite conservative. And Seth Dillon, the CEO of The Babylon Bee who has also spread conspiracy theories In recent years, he gave a funny speech about the times his satirical news site had successfully predicted the future.
Why we should be optimistic
Crenshaw closed the summit with a speech about why he is optimistic about America’s future. I have noted that when Reagan ran for president in 1980, Americans were deeply pessimistic about where the United States was headed. Yet, Reagan offered a very optimistic message, and by the time he left office in 1989, many Americans shared in that optimism, even before the Soviet Union collapsed and the ’90s tech boom began.
More than three decades later, Crenshaw said that both sides are too pessimistic about our country’s future, mentioning Trump’s line that “we are a nation in decline.” Crenshaw said Americans should “rediscover a reason for hope, even in dark times.”
For my part, I left the summit more optimistic about the future of conservatism. We don’t, as conservatives, need to constantly look backward to the 1980s. But we do need to engage in serious discussions about serious ideas. We need to set standards for accuracy, fairness and even civility. And we need to make the case for optimism.
Reagan is still right: The best days for America – and for the conservative movement –may well be yet to come.
Chris Schlak is an Opinion Fellow for USA TODAY. I have graduated with a degree in government from The University of Texas at Austin in May. He founded and edited The Texas Horn, an Intercollegiate Studies Institute student publication at UT Austin. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisSchlak
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