'Irritable Mental Gestures'

Don't punish WSU Young Republicans for the sins of their fathers

Caleb Walsh illustration

I encountered James Allsup about two weeks into my first semester as a graduate student at Washington State University. On the Glenn Terrell Mall — where a faux "Trump Wall" was erected last October — Allsup was verbally sparring with a knot of students at a so-called Free Speech Rally last month, intended as a response to a much larger demonstration the week before calling on the university to take a stronger stance against racism and right-wing extremism.

Sporting sunglasses, an untucked plaid shirt and khaki shorts, Allsup wouldn't have looked out of place standing in a grocery line to buy a case of Busch Light. But the former president of the WSU Young Republicans and architect of the Trump Wall has cut an outsized figure as one of the young guns in the "alt-right." When he was captured on video in August participating in the deadly, nationalist "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, the condemnation came from no less than WSU President Kirk Schulz.

Now, a group of Washington state Democratic lawmakers have called on the university to strip the WSU Young Republicans of official recognition. This is a bad idea for a number of reasons. For one, it would do little to address the rotten core of the GOP at large. It would also be a case of punishing children for the sins of their fathers.

Better yet, let's start talking about whether it's time to fold up the Big Tent altogether. Rather than govern, the Republican Party has grown into America's amygdala, representing the mixture of panic and rage that leads old men to kick women and children out of lifeboats. Long before Breitbart, Pepe the Frog and the conserva-bros of Gamergate, cultural critic Lionel Trilling characterized American conservative impulses as "irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas."

That there's not much to recommend the Republican Party in the realm of ideas should be apparent by now. It's full of fake ideas, fake news, even fake Republicans. I'm one of them. I registered as a Republican back in 2012, when the Idaho GOP closed its primary. Because I like to vote (mostly), it seemed strategic to put my vote where it might matter in a one-party state. It was defeat masquerading as strategy.

In a piece published Sept. 21 in Newsweek, Seattle-born conservative mediaite Charles Sykes wrings his hands over 50 years of Republican decline into madness, in an article titled "How the Right Lost Its Mind and Embraced Donald Trump."

Sykes traces the current intellectual decrepitude of American conservatism to the advent of the Tea Party, which energized "a base that had been defeated and demoralized." But Sykes' timeline is a little too short for me. I'd say the "right lost its mind" at least as far back as 1944, when the so-called Party of Lincoln consciously chose to make common cause with conservative Southern Democrats, rejecting an act that would have shipped absentee ballots to active-duty soldiers because it would also lift the poll tax for black service members. Four years later, the Republican Party absorbed regressives like South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, whose pro-Jim Crow Dixiecrat faction fled the Democratic Party in opposition to the civil rights movement.

Sadly, this history is too frequently lost. Maybe if we considered the extent to which Dixie is in the DNA of the Republican Party and the conservative movement as a whole — recognizing that Allsup et al. are now the mainstream — we could change the conversation from one of banning student groups to letting the Grand Old Party finally die of grand old age. ♦

Zach Hagadone (no direct relation to the Coeur d'Alene Hagadones, so let's get that out of the way) is a Sandpoint native, father of two, 15-year veteran of Idaho journalism, former co-publisher/owner of the Sandpoint Reader, former editor-in-chief of Boise Weekly and current graduate student in history at Washington State University.