The College That Wants to Take Over Washington
Trump University never died. It’s located in the middle of bucolic southern Michigan, halfway between Lansing and Fort Wayne, 100 miles and a world away from Detroit.
It’s a place called Hillsdale College, and on Saturday, May 12, Vice President Mike Pence will bless the right-leaning college’s graduation ceremonies, delivering a commencement address to this year’s 367-strong crop of mostly young conservatives.
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Maybe you’ve never heard of Hillsdale. Or maybe you hadn’t heard about the school before it precipitated a floor fight in the Senate during tax bill negotiations last fall. But the tiny Christian college with a graduate school in statesmanship, a strong conservative bent and roots in an anti-slavery Baptist church, has long been a treasured institution in right-of-center circles—known for its required classical liberal arts curriculum, its commitment to a principled conservatism, and its outreach in Washington, D.C.
What’s happened to Hillsdale lately reflects the compromises conservative institutions across the country have made following Donald Trump’s 2016 victory: They’ve accommodated themselves to the president.
Hillsdale’s ties to Trump have multiplied since the spring of 2016, when its president, Larry Arnn, a respected conservative wiseman, threw his intellectual weight behind the real estate mogul’s controversial candidacy. The school, which takes no federal funds, benefits financially from public ties to Trumpism: It advertises on Fox News and in Trump supporters’ inboxes. Its alumni fill prominent roles in the administration, from speechwriters to the chief of staff for Betsy DeVos. Former White House national security spokesman Michael Anton accepted a position at Hillsdale upon his recent exit from the West Wing.
This is not a trajectory that everyone welcomes. Alumni and students of Hillsdale strain to reconcile their college’s convenient accommodations to Trump with its permanent mission: to sustain and spread a coherent and inherently moral constitutional conservatism. Political clout helps keep it alive, but for Hillsdale to actually survive the current crisis on the right, many say, its academic commitments must always come first.
Founded in 1844 by devout abolitionists, Hillsdale remained a relatively unremarkable Midwestern college until the end of the 20th century, when its then president, libertarian George Roche III, refashioned the college’s refusal of federal funds as an ideological opposition to big government. Roche was a talented fundraiser, but the scandalous suicide of his daughter-in-law and rumored lover in 1999 left Hillsdale’s reputation in near ruin. It was up to Roche’s successor, Larry Arnn—founder of the Claremont Institute, a think-tank devoted to limited government and Western political tradition—to rebuild the so-called conservative citadel.
Hillsdale’s politics match a stated mission to “maintain the immemorial teachings and practices of the Christian faith,” to protect civil and religious liberty and to teach the core tenets of Western civilization. The school “considers itself a trustee of our Western philosophical and theological inheritance tracing to Athens and Jerusalem,” the mission reads, “a heritage finding its clearest expression in the American experiment of self-government under law.” On campus, every undergraduate studies the same core curriculum: Two years of required courses in rhetoric, biology and philosophy culminate in a class on the U.S. Constitution and another in Western Heritage.
Arnn took office in 2000 and recast the curriculum as a public good. He expanded its offerings to include free online classes—today, the most popular, “Introduction to the Constitution” and “Constitution 101,” enroll more than 1.2 million—and a network of classical charter schools. Arnn also boosted Hillsdale’s prominence in Washington with the establishment of a satellite campus on Capitol Hill in 2009, the Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship. According to Matthew Spalding, the Hillsdale dean who oversees all D.C. programming, Kirby is where the college “radiates” its mission in Washington, hosting lectures and seminars on the importance of constitutional governance.
Spreading the Hillsdale gospel is also what keeps the coffers full. The school professes independence from the federal government but depend heavily on private donors and advertise prolifically on network television and talk radio, using the somewhat paradoxical line, “The founders of our nation chose independence. As do we.” The conservative donors Arnn has cultivated include Wheel of Fortune host Pat Sajak and the DeVos and Prince families. Most of Hillsdale’s benefactors aren’t household names or conservative leaders, however, and the majority has never set foot on campus: They’re merely taken in by its widely advertised philosophy. “They’re just your typical crotchety conservatives,” in other words, as one Hillsdale senior whose scholarship donors made the rare visit.
Arnn—who also teaches courses in Greco-Roman history and Shakespeare and has authored books on Winston Churchill—is considered a unifying figure in conservative circles, someone who can bridge the gap between a stalwart Trump critic like Jonah Goldberg and a pro-Trump intellectual like Anton. In April 2016—two months after National Review’s “Against Trump” issue—when many Republicans still viewed Trump with fear and disgust, Arnn praised the GOP front-runner on Hugh Hewitt’s radio show as “a good and honest man” and, politically, “brilliant.” The following September, he and Goldberg debated Trump’s mastery of constitutional principles on a panel Hillsdale hosted in D.C. “I made a specific claim,” Arnn defended, “And that is the rule of law and the separation of powers are central and that Trump has spoken consistently well on it. And as far as I can find, that is true.” Arnn’s approval of Trump proved a harbinger for squeamish conservative intellectuals’ coming around to the current president.
The new Republican reality opened fresh marketing avenues, too. The college rents email lists from the Trump campaign through a third party firm, according to two Republican digital strategists. One who’d received at least five email solicitations showed POLITICO Magazine an email offering the DVD box set of Arnn’s lectures on Winston Churchill in exchange for donations of $100 or more.
Hillsdale also shares achievements and personnel with the Trump administration and its orbit. A White House speechwriter who cut her teeth writing for Ted Cruz in the Senate, Brittany Baldwin, Hillsdale class of 2012, gets credit from former classmates for the president’s most convincingly conservative remarks. And while working for the Senate Judiciary Committee, another Hillsdale alumna deftly ran the advise-and-consent process to approve Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court. Associate White House counsel Dave Morrell graduated from Hillsdale in 2007—and, three years later, so did vice presidential speechwriter Stephen Ford.
Beyond the White House, House Freedom Caucus co-founder Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), who are reportedly poised to jockey for the speakership when Paul Ryan retires in January, assuming Republicans hold the House, both have recent Hillsdale graduates prominently placed within their office staff.
“A lot of [the core curriculum] touches on questions essential to how people organize in society,” said one recent graduate, now working in the Trump administration. As a Hillsdale student reading Aristotle’s Politics, “It’s natural that you’d be thinking about how good government works”—and that you might wind up working in government yourself.
The Hillsdale-D.C. pipeline runs both ways. Last month, Michael Anton announced his new professional and political home would be the Kirby Center. In September 2016, under the pen name “Publius Decius Mus,” Anton authored a much-discussed essay for The Claremont Review of Books in support of Trump: “The Flight 93 Election.” After serving in the administration, he leaped for the emergency exit upon John Bolton’s appointment, but he’d also been seriously eyeing a spot at the Kirby Center for several months, said Spalding in a recent interview.
In three conjoined townhouses across Massachusetts Avenue from The Heritage Foundation, Kirby hosts caucus retreats and regular dinners with members of Congress and staff to discuss finer points of constitutional governance. It’s also home to several schlocky paintings of Churchill and the founding fathers, a glass-encased first edition of the Federalist Papers donated by conservative radio host Mark Levin, and two dozen or so interns each semester—most, but not all, of whom work on Capitol Hill or in conservative media—and a studio where The Federalist founder Ben Domenech records his daily podcast.
Kirby is not a think-tank and not yet a graduate school, though Spalding confirmed plans to start a Kirby-based master‘s program in government. It’s not a locus for lobbying efforts, either. “I brief chiefs of staff a lot,” Spalding says, but not as a lobbyist: “You don’t have Hillsdale in because they have something to say about the tax bill,” he clarified. “But because they’re smart and they’re thinking broadly about constitutional questions and American political thought in ways that might help us grapple with our work.”
He deflected a question about Trump, and when I asked whether Ryan would retire to Hillsdale, he told me that he was more focused on forming future leaders than appealing to current ones: “What I’m actually most interested in are the people that will become those people. What I’m interested in is who’s going to be the Paul Ryan of the future.”
At this rate, it’ll be someone who’s gone to Hillsdale, I said. “Or, they will have been shaped by us in some way,” he added, by an online course they took, a classical charter school they attended, or the words of a presidential speech they heard that was penned by a Hillsdale graduate. “That’s how we help save the country.”