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At Rutgers, a History of Conservatism Intertwined with Controversy

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Nick Knight (left) and Dylan Marek, the leaders of the Rutgers Conservative Union, hold a meeting in March at Scott Hall in New Brunswick.
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Editor’s note: This story is the fourth in a five-part series on the Rutgers Conservative Union. Through that lens, TAPinto New Brunswick intends to provide a comprehensive look at an energetic year of on-campus activism at New Jersey’s flagship university. The third part is available here.

NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — As the clock ticked closer to 10 p.m., the Rutgers Conservative Union began to get serious. Fifteen students spent the past 40 minutes of the general meeting jumping from national politics and war to a possible trip to the gun range and the merits of Subway (“It’s a lettuce sandwich”). But now, it was time to plot a takedown.

In this Scott Hall classroom in late March, members discussed which left-wing heroes to slay and how to slay them. The plan wasn’t a violent one. Rather, as one attendee said, they wanted to “make fliers great again.”

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A member, Jaroor Modi, suggested the Conservative Union create posters featuring an attention-grabbing photo of a left-wing leader and a point-by-point repudiation of everything that person was and stood for. They could target a new adversary each month—a regular “sacred cow cookout,” as Modi called it. The union considered frying Che Guevara, Karl Marx and others.

“People who are on the hard left here—I know none of these people are going to change their minds,” Modi said, “but for the sort of uninitiated types, the ones who don’t really know…” Maybe, he said, the Conservative Union could turn a few heads and recruit some new friends.

The Rutgers Conservative Union grew after headlines centered on its controversial flier.

That the conversation centered on a new flier campaign was fitting. After all, the club had grown thanks to a controversial flier—whose design and language was similar to that of the white-nationalist American Vanguard organization—that made waves earlier that month.

The flier shined a negative light on the club. But subsequent headlines also expanded its member base, club officers said.

“We got about 10 new members,” Dylan Marek, then a freshman and the organization’s founding vice president, recalled. “With every piece of hate mail, we got twice the amount of people expressing support. I’ve had university faculty come up to me and shake my hand and say, ‘Keep up the good work.’”

The Rutgers Conservative Union, of course, sprouted during a two-year period of intense on-campus activism. The rise of President Donald Trump had spurred unrest among the school’s hefty left-wing base and simultaneously mobilized the right.

But that’s not to say modern conservatism didn’t exist on the banks of the Raritan beforehand.

In 2004, James O’Keefe walked into a meeting with a Rutgers dining services official with what he claimed was a serious gripe: He wanted the university to stop serving Lucky Charms. He said he was a member of the Irish Heritage Society, and his colleagues found the cereal brand’s leprechaun mascot offensive.

“He’s portrayed as a little green-cladded gnome,” O’Keefe, who wore an Irish flat cap, told the Rutgers employee. “As you can see, we’re not all short and green. We have our differences of height, and we think this is stereotypical of all Irish Americans. And we’re truly proud of our ancestry, but because of our history and what has happened to us, we think this undermines [us], and it’s offensive.”

The Irish Heritage Society didn’t exist, and O’Keefe certainly wasn’t its spokesperson. He was, however, an emerging conservative firebrand at Rutgers. He and his crew had surreptitiously filmed the encounter, until the dining services staffer noticed the camera.

Years later, O’Keefe gained national recognition for his Project Veritas, which has pulled similar stunts across the country, at the housing nonprofit ACORN, Planned Parenthood, NPR and various progressive institutions. Most recently, his group was slapped with a $1 million lawsuit for fraud from a Democratic consulting firm it infiltrated.

Before graduating Rutgers in 2006, O’Keefe founded The Centurion, a conservative campus newspaper that took on political correctness and corruption and mocked campus liberals until its demise in 2010. In its run, the publication reportedly made headlines and attracted money from outside conservative donors.

O’Keefe and his controversial strategies moved to the national stage. But it was at Rutgers’ New Brunswick campus where he first began honing his craft.

Before and after The Centurion and its selectively-edited video stings, any number of right-wing groups have tried to leave their mark on campus.

In February 2016, the Young Americans for Liberty at Rutgers University hosted Milo Yiannopoulos, the former Breitbart editor who recently resigned after apparently advocating for sex between “younger boys and older men.” At the time, the Daily Targum reported, much of the 450-person crowd seemed to support Yiannopoulos and his lecture against the left, for supposedly stifling free speech.

Two years earlier, the Rutgers College Republicans and other right-leaning groups claimed that Rutgers had become a “hostile campus environment.” They wrote a letter to Rutgers President Robert Barchi after Condoleezza Rice, the U.S. secretary of state and national security adviser under President George W. Bush, withdrew from delivering the commencement speech.

Rice, it seemed, had bowed to pressure from left-leaning, anti-war activists, who launched a long and impassioned campaign against her coming appearance. The right felt intimidated and snubbed, according to reports.

Rutgers conservatives also made news more than a decade earlier, in 2003, due to the ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine. Rutgers Hillel, a campus Jewish group, had put on rallies in support of Israel, which in some cases attracted more than 4,000 people. It was part of a yearlong movement called Israel Inspires, a “celebration” that drew heat from some professors for pushing “far-right ideologies and policies.”

Rutgers Conservative Union members discuss how can they advance their causes in March in New Brunswick.

Perhaps the university’s most prolonged and fervent period of activism occurred in the 1960s, amid a Vietnam War- and Civil Rights-era America that had grown divided and tense.

Prior to 1965, Rutgers was home to right- and left-wing groups that regularly met to debate national issues, Paul G. E. Clemens wrote in his book Rutgers Since 1945: A History of the State University of New Jersey. The conservative student group Young Americans for Freedom, for example, had chapters on the university’s three campuses. Originally concerned with anti-communism, its Rutgers members turned their attention to the Vietnam War in April 1965, Clemens said.

During an all-night teach-in, conversations between professors of different political beliefs grew tense. One smashed his watch on a podium, while a self-described Marxist vocalized his support for the communist Viet Cong movement. The incident, Clemens wrote, spurred a long-term exchange between liberals and conservatives in campus and state newspapers. News from the war’s frontline, meanwhile, continued to spur left-wing protests and right-wing counter-protests.

Even in the 1950s, conservative big shots like William F. Buckley Jr., who founded the right-wing National Review, came to New Brunswick to discuss the “new conservatism,” according to Clemens’ book.

But these conservative movements and groups at Rutgers typically shared one trait: Most often, their actions were a response to a tide of liberal activism. The left tended to kickstart the story and capture much of the coverage. That is, except when the right—whether it be O’Keefe or Yiannopoulos—invoked controversy.

As the Rutgers Conservative Union wrapped up its late-March meeting and discussed how to go about tearing down “leftist icons,” they debated the ways in which propaganda could be most effective. Che Guevara had become popular, one member said, because the image of him with long hair and a beret had appeared on so many T-shirts. Liberals simply thought he looked cool, members said.

Marek, the vice president, asked his following to design fliers. The union would select a winner in the future. But he cautioned them to make sure none of the information was incorrect. That, he said, would hurt their cause.

Before they parted ways, some members floated an idea: What if one flier focused on Adolph Hitler? After all, they said, he was a National Socialist.

The fifth and final part of this series will run this week.

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