Investigations

I Went Undercover at a Boot Camp for Young Conservatives—Here's What I Learned

The Leadership Institute teaches young people how to mobilize for conservative candidates.

Photo Credit: Leadership Institute

“I’m up at three in the morning, sweating, because the Fed isn’t destroyed yet,” proclaims Ivy El Zaatari, a wise-cracking young conservative standing before the classroom in a bright red dress. Outside, the sky and sea on this Santa Barbara Saturday are bright blue. But the lights are dim inside the small UC Santa Barbara room. The Powerpoint behind Ivy glows as she paces.

I’m seated in the back of the room, undercover in a blazer and pearls at the Leadership Institute, a well-funded nonprofit geared toward college students like myself that proclaims to teach "conservative Americans how to influence policy through direct participation, activism, and leadership.” LI has been around since 1979, and offers a wide variety of trainings in-person and online.

Ivy (a Die Hard [sic] Liberty Activist and Baby Lover) is the director of LI's Youth Leadership School, a “two-day, comprehensive campaign activism training” for which I, and a roomful of other college students, forfeit a beautiful weekend in exchange for the promise that each of us will be “provide[d] the tools to be an effective youth leader for conservative candidates and causes.”

Basically that translates to two days of boot camp, after which you are theoretically prepared to be the Youth Director on a pre-existing conservative campaign.

LI makes you feel like you’re capable, and the "faculty,” comprised of a few conservative twenty-somethings, make it clear that after the training they’re happy to connect you to a community of conservative support to help you achieve your political dreams. Though Ivy and the other faculty members are about the same age as the students in the room, they seem, in their position of relative authority, a little older, and they are nice. They’re like, really, really nice. They want to help you out. They really, really want you to come work for a gubernatorial campaign, come to more trainings, and apply for their internship program!

Online and in-person, LI is accessible because the trainings are both frequent and affordable. To give you a better picture of their funding, LI is an “associate" of State Policy Network, the right-wing, $83 million conglomerate of tax-exempt organizations with 153 members in 49 states, Puerto Rico, Washington D.C., Canada and the United Kingdom and close ties to the Koch brothers, among others. This is in part what makes it possible for the Youth Leadership School to cost students only $30, including all meals and the nearby hotel where they put you up for two nights. Yes, the food is admittedly less on the gourmet side, and more on the fast-food-and-candy-bars level. But still, they take care of you, and of course, the training to help you make your politician win is, like Ivy, hardcore.

I signed up with LI because I am really curious about young conservatives. Republicans—especially young Republicans!—are mysterious to me. I grew up in some pretty liberal places: Berkeley, Brooklyn and Portland, Oregon. And as a New York University student, I continue to exist in almost exclusively progressive environments. I am (pretty) sure there are conservatives lurking in the corners of Bobst Library, but I am yet to knowingly encounter any. I’m also pretty sure this makes me what a conservative might call "a coastal elite." I’ve gone all 21 years of my life without hearing unbridled conservative outpourings, and I badly want to know what is said by these people behind closed doors. What on earth are these young conservatives thinking? What are they exposed to that causes them to think that way? Are they real? Are they for real?

So, I sign up with my second last name that I don’t normally use, do my best playing dress-up, and to get into character, binge-watched The American Bible Challenge on Netflix which I found on a list of most popular TV shows for Republicans. On the drive down Highway 1 from Berkeley to Santa Barbara, I practiced laughing at things I usually find upsetting (this turns out to maybe be my most helpful prep work). As I try to catch up on the Top 40 of Christian hits so I can relate to my imagined future peers, I run through scenarios of my liberal identity being exposed in the middle of the weekend. However, in the two jampacked days and nights, no one has time or cares to cross-examine me. Mostly, I just smile and sit in the pearls my Republican grandmother bequeathed to me, which I superstitiously convince myself will act like a protection charm. I commit to playing the part, nodding along, laughing at all the right points. And no one ever questions me. Not once.

Blurry selfie of the author undercover before the first day of training.

One of the first things I realize at conservative camp is that conservatives are just like us liberals! Except not really. There are about 20 students, and like a lot of the liberal kids I know, many of the staunch conservatives in the room are really fed up with “The Fed,” as Ivy and others refer to it. Okay, so maybe a disheartened Bernie Bro wouldn’t put it exactly like that. But there are a lot of young (and old) liberals who have lost faith with the U.S. government, who want a complete restructuring, who express similar fantasies like many of my peers at the Youth Leadership School. What that restructuring would look like is just different. While many in this room bemoan Big Government, many of my progressive pals are cuddling up at night to a sweet dream of a socialist United States.

Needless to say, “anarchism” is not a dirty word in this room, but rather an identity many attending the institute wear proudly. Neither is “activist,” another self-proclaimed title by many in the group, including Ivy and the rest of the “faculty.” Feminism, however, is a bad word. One of my favorite examples of “two sides of a debate” that I jot down simply reads: “feminism versus normal Americans.” Off of the activist agenda are: racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and many other forms of discrimination.

But surprisingly, given the casual bigotry and white supremacist rhetoric, the group is not as homogeneously straight, white and male as you might imagine. The group I attended training with had a few women in the mix, was not all white, and as my gaydar indicated, not all straight. Instead, the positioning and the subsequent catharsis that can occur over common ground comes when the question, “Who has ever been called a fascist?” is posed.

Every hand in the room shoots up. They all laugh, and I do my best to laugh along inconspicuously. Then they rattle off a long list of insults, cataloging who has been called what, with students and faculty likewise contributing, freely calling out: “Racist! Xenophobic! Transphobic! Nazi! Neonazi! Literally Hitler! Privileged!” (To the Hitler name-calling, someone retorts: “Maybe they’re literally Hitler and just projecting on you.”)

Another joyful release for this group is when we are asked to give examples of conspiracy theories. The exercise starts off relatively innocuously: JFK assassination theories, 9/11 was an inside job, and so on. Things 180 when a student shouts out: “The wage gap!”

This exclamation is met with belly laughter, applause, and a collective list-off of other “conspiracy theories.” The energy flips from bored to boisterous, and my classmates are bubbling with ideas, each met with affirmations and other indications of approval from the group, including the following (in order):

  • “52 genders and 32 ways to identify yourself!”
  • “And it’s all fluid!” another voice chimes in, with a chortle.
  • “The world is controlled by a few bankers!”
  • “The 1%!”
  • “The Prison Industrial Complex!”

These exclamatory vignettes might sound like a Trump rally, but in fact the training is thorough, rigorous and inordinately draining. After 14-plus hours of scheduled trainings, I crawl into bed and pass out after a polite discussion of the biblical theory on which my roommate is writing an essay for her Christian college. She squints in suspicion of my ignorance on the subject matter—Sodom and Gomorrah—but answers my questions anyway. She tells me solemnly about the sins of group sex as we prepare to share a bed. She also tells me she believes in Objectivism and is an Ayn Rand fan; that she takes the Bible literally. Black and white thinking is the only thing that makes sense for her, she says, so it’s all or nothing with the Bible. And she is taking all.

The first day we are lectured on canvassing techniques, mock elections, political theory, recruitment strategy, how to write a press release, how to spot and train potential leaders, and more. Then the next day there are more Powerpoints and videos to watch, but it is devoted largely to getting up on our feet and putting our training into practice. We break off into teams in order to solve hypothetical crisis situations or make IRL memes on posterboard, which are then presented and judged.

The winners of these competitions are rewarded the same way people who answer the verbal quiz questions we are given throughout the lectures are: with books thrown at them. These Read to Lead books cover a wide range of political philosophy, from Ronald Reagan biographies to “Atlas Shrugged” to “Rules For Radicals,” all presented with the caveat that “political theory is neutral.” You get to choose what book you want and you get to keep it, which is pretty cool. Though I play too meek to win any.

Above and beyond the most requested prize is “Rules For Radicals.” Ivy introduces the book by saying, “Hillary Clinton wrote her thesis on this. We need to read what they know.” Turns out I’m not the only young person curious about what the other side thinks and why.

Those illustrations of group outpourings around name calling and so-called conspiracy theories may also give you the wrong idea in that they illustrate this weekend’s Youth Leadership School group as a cohesive set of individuals who share a common core set of beliefs, when that is also far from the case. In reality, the room is comprised of young people who represent many sects of the fractured conservative identity: Trumpers, Neocons, Libertarians, Rand Paul devotees, self-described “hardcore tea partiers,” more traditional Grand Ol’ Party Republicans, and little ol’ undercover me.

And even within these micro groupings of conservatives there are notable splits, and further divisions from there on individual issues from abortion to foreign policy to unions.

Blearily at 8 a.m. on Saturday before the first training, I walk in a group with some LI classmates, hoping desperately not to run into anyone I actually know who goes to UCSB, to get coffee. Some not-so-jokingly talk of a Trump family monarchy emerges on our way over. Several of the young Trumpers are behind the idea and others delight in the suggestion, quick to get on board. One Trumper defects, though, noting almost innocently: “But, then, this wouldn’t be a democracy.” “Exactly!” someone replies, and I bark a laugh of amazement.

For this group of LI students it’s not clear what conservatism means, or what a conservative future might look like. Ivy differentiates deftly when she says, “I’m talking about conservatives, not Republicans. [...] They talk about their Bibles as much as their Constitution.” But the students' divisions and doubt go deeper than mere defections from the Republican parties. Kevin Shaw, a contrarian, one of my LI classmates, and actively involved in a lawsuit against his community college over free speech, at one point wonders out loud if he is really conservative at all. Maybe, he muses, he just likes to argue whatever the opposing viewpoint is. The classroom responds in glaring silence.

Back at the crunchy granola cafe by the UCSB campus I make conversation as we wait for our coffee by asking this little group what they think of Tomi Lahren, and walk right into the uneven terrain of pro-choice, pro-life debates. Oddly only the boys in this small sub grouping know who Lahren is. They express sympathy at her firing and indifference to the larger debate. These guys claim they believe in individual freedom of choice. And momentarily I wonder, standing in the sea breeze in a black blazer, watching a beautiful girl skate by, her dreads swaying as she swerves down the smooth cement, passively listening to a gaggle of sorority sisters gossiping as they sip smoothies, if libertarians are kind of chill. Maybe, I think in a temperate and temporary delusion, they really do want to stay out of your business and for you to stay out of theirs.

This laughable fantasy is dispelled almost immediately by others in the bunch spewing exceedingly hate-filled, pro-life rhetoric, including, later, Ivy.

Foreign affairs are another particularly fraught area for the LI group. The only thing they can seem to agree on is Israel, universally loved. ”Israel is our greatest ally ever,” says one student. “Ever?” questions another. “Yeah!” chimes in a third. “It’s like America’s little baby,” says the first. “Baby in the Middle East,” the third affirms. There is no further dissent in the room.

Unions are a funny point of controversy, and maybe envy. Are all unions bad, or just some? Teachers’ unions are definitely bad. But some propose auto unions are good. An undercurrent of jealousy waves through the lecture that first morning on how unions mobilize liberal activists. We learn that conservatives rely more heavily on volunteers, because they don’t have the galvanizing force of unions like the Left does.

Later we’re told: “homeschoolers are the Right’s version of a union.” A big plus, or so the lecture goes, is that homeschoolers are very principled. A distinction is made from “unschoolers” however, who we are warned against, as they are generally lazy liberals who won’t work hard for your cause, if at all.

I keep referring to Ivy by her first name, because, in case you didn’t notice at the top of this article, that is my first name too, and there is something about it that delights and disgusts me. I am being indoctrinated by a kind of counterpart, Conservative-Ivy, who both does and doesn’t reflect myself back to me. At one point she comes up to me, taps me on the shoulder and jokes, “I love your name.” Her delivery is so charming, I find myself giggling. A rush of affection toward her flows through me. Yes, we have vastly different backgrounds and beliefs, as the last line in her faculty biography states: “Originally born in Lebanon, Ivy has been a strong advocate for the Constitution and conservative philosophy.” But still, she stands before me about the same height and same age: the person I maybe could be, could have become, could still become. A photographer comes to take the group picture and Ivy requests one of the two of us, and there we stand together Ivy and I. Ivy and Ivy.

Part of my preparation work is some extensive internet stalking of Ivy El Zaatari before I leave, the kind of online sleuthing that they later advocate for to spot potential recruits for clubs and causes on campus. I find all of Ivy’s social media. I read every tweet on her once-public Twitter @IvyinLiberty, look at every post on her once-public real Instagram, @ivynina, and a quickly abandoned, now deleted fitness account called @ivyfitgirlchallange. My favorite was posted in the lead-up to Valentine's Day: “Looking for a Valentine to whisper sweet nothings of: Taxation is Theft to…” A few days later, a GIF of a swooning woman captioned: “When he says taxation is theft.” This is my first exposure to that slogan, or #ProLifeGeneration, or a lot of other conservative rhetoric aimed at millennials. The virtual contact with Ivy before I meet her, intimate and one-sided, lingers. Knowing this much about her, I feel indescribably close to her. I can’t take my eyes off of her now, as she stands before me, my teacher Ivy, and I, Ivy, her duplicitous pupil.

The LI faculty getting their pictures taken on UCSB campus. L to R: Nathan Fatal, Ivy El-Zaatari, and Morgan Sholty. Credit: Ivy Olesen.

But sometimes Ivy too seems like she’s operating in a realm of double-speak and it’s a little difficult for me to parse. My main stumbling block is over her use of the word “philosophy.” This is the same word that pops up on the LI site: “Conservatism tends to focus on the power of ideas [...] philosophy is very important.” Frequently during the trainings Ivy says things like, “the Republican party is philosophical and the Democratic party is issue-based.” At one point she makes the claim that “Bernie Sanders finally gave the Democratic Party a philosophical base when the Democrats had to ask, ‘Are we Socialists or Democrats?’” Of course both the Democratic and Republican parties have philosophies that guide their politics, and both parties push for specific issues—so what is “philosophy” codeword for?

As Ivy paces the room lecturing on conservative “philosophy” on the last day, I notice for the first time on the back of her ankles, in cursive above her black leather pump, two tattoos: “send” on the left, and “me” on the right. I’m evidently no biblical scholar, but I think this is referencing Isaiah 6:8.

This is when I realize that what Ivy means is that conservatism appeals to people on a level above facts: religion. Conservatives are skipping right over the whole logic bit and get straight to the good stuff. Ivy is hinting around about “philosophy,” because, like she said, “I’m talking about conservatives, not Republicans. [...] They talk about their Bibles as much as their Constitution.” Sell 'em a fantasy, and one with a moral, religious backing as well. Ivy has been trying to get it through our heads that the fear of God is how you can get people to vote against their best interests.

Which is when I also realize that the religious elements to the conservative crash course I made for myself to prepare for this weekend, though crucial, were not nearly enough. A TV show and some tunes are not going to get deeply ingrained Christian ideals into your heart, soul, and brain. While Democrats might be trying to get nominally or significantly better health care plans passed and other “issues,” Republicans are appealing to voters by preaching. Way more fun.

I couldn’t tell for sure if they ever suspected that the girl taking copious notes in pearls and espousing very few personal beliefs was in fact a liberal journalist.

At several moments I thought I had fooled them for sure. During the training at various times Ivy mentioned they could use someone like me in Virginia or somewhere else in the country. Another time she says, “we’re already recruiting,” and winks at me.

But actually, Ivy might consider what I believe in my heart might be entirely beside the point. After all, what LI calls the Sir Galahad approach to politics—the belief that one is going to win because one’s heart is pure—LI says doesn’t work. They want someone to stand up and profess whatever the dogmatic conservatism du jour is, deliver it well, whether or not they believe that. And, in my undercover persona, I quickly found myself doing just that; churning out Men’s Rights Activism memes as the clock ticked and then enthusiastically presenting them to the larger group.

If I’m being honest, though I stayed seated and silent, a part of me wanted to jump at the chance of joining Ivy in Virginia or wherever else they could use someone devoting their time to recruiting young conservatives. Something or someone inside me, maybe not my pseudo-conservative persona per se, but not exactly not-her, wanted to say: “Yes!” And go in deeper into whatever this odd rabbit hole is of shifting young conservative beliefs, personas and values that are part of the quickly morphing Republican Party.

Which is to say, I would attend the hellish and heavenly boot camp that is the Youth Leadership School all over again if I could. Nothing like the sweet, sweet nausea of a completely unfamiliar and somewhat traumatic environment to scar you into learning and cartwheel you through moments of empowerment, horror, and inspiration. The training that LI gives—especially if you think your skin is thick enough to put up with some offhand, disturbing xenophobic remarks from your peers—is quite incredible, likely conveniently located near you, and cheap. And, if you participate a little more actively than yours truly, you’ll probably get some good books out of it as well. Perhaps LI really said it best when they they wrote that “any student who wants to be active in the political process should attend this school.”

 

Ivy Olesen is a freelance writer.

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