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.