Rea­gan ranch a train­ing site for young Repub­li­cans

Young Amer­i­can Foun­da­tion pushes con­ser­va­tive spirit.

Austin American-Statesman - - MORE OF TODAY’S TOP NEWS - By Phil Wil­lon Los Angeles Times

One by one, chatty teenagers in jeans walked across the stone pa­tio that Ron­ald Rea­gan built by hand to ring the bell at the for­mer pres­i­dent’s coastal moun­tain ranch. Nancy Rea­gan tugged on that same rope decades ago to call her hus­band home for lunch when he was out horse­back rid­ing or work­ing in the sta­ble.

On a bright fall day, the Virginia-based Young Amer­ica’s Foun­da­tion shut­tled in nearly 100 teenagers from 46 dif­fer­ent states for a three­day con­fer­ence at Ran­cho del Cielo, hop­ing to sum­mon Rea­gan’s spirit.

They were not there for a his­tory les­son.

In­stead, YAF lead­ers gave the high school stu­dents gath­ered at the late pres­i­dent’s prop­er­ties mod­ern-day point­ers on what it means to be a Repub­li­can, and tips for fend­ing off what the group views as the other side’s in­doc­tri­na­tion.

The foun­da­tion pro­motes it­self as a po­lit­i­cal coun­ter­weight to the lib­eral thought that its sup­port­ers say cour­ses through Amer­i­can col­leges, and spends mil­lions ev­ery year to fund YAF clubs and seed con­ser­va­tive ac­tivism on cam­pus.

The Young Amer­ica’s Foun­da­tion, born in the po­lit­i­cally tur­bu­lent late 1960s, has be­come one of the most pre­em­i­nent, in­flu­en­tial and con­tro­ver­sial forces in the na­tion’s con­ser­va­tive youth move­ment, backed by $65 mil­lion in as­sets largely un­der­writ­ten by the wealth­i­est of the mod­ern-era hard right.

Though a force in the con­ser­va­tive move­ment for decades, the foun­da­tion’s ag­gres­sive and con­fronta­tional tac­tics have be­come a bea­con of right-wing em­pow­er­ment dur­ing the rise of Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

The high school stu­dents here broke into small groups and scrib­bled lists of what they con­sid­ered true con­ser­va­tive ideals on white boards. One cir­cle made quick work of its task: a strong na­tional de­fense, Chris­tian val­ues, lim­ited gov­ern­ment, anti-abor­tion, in­formed pa­tri­o­tism and cap­i­tal­ism.

When a few stu­dents sug­gested adding “con­sti­tu­tional rights,” the foun­da­tion’s Spencer Brown en­cour­aged them to think more broadly.

“A lot of peo­ple, par­tic­u­larly lib­er­als, think gov­ern­ment is the one who gives them rights — as op­posed to God-given rights,” Brown said.

After­ward, when the groups gath­ered to com­pare their lists, foun­da­tion Pres­i­dent Ron Robin­son told the stu­dents that the words they use to ex­press their con­ser­va­tive be­liefs are es­sen­tial. For in­stance, he said, in­stead of say­ing they sup­port “cap­i­tal­ism,” it would be bet­ter to use the phrase “free en­ter­prise” or “en­trepreneur­ship.” “Cap­i­tal­ism,” Robin­son said, is dis­par­aged by left­ists and does not poll well.

“The ter­mi­nol­ogy bat­tle is very im­por­tant,” he added.

Robin­son also told stu­dents that So­cial Se­cu­rity was a Ponzi scheme and nar­rated a slide show on me­dia bias against con­ser­va­tives, show­ing them Time and Newsweek mag­a­zine cov­ers with head­lines dis­parag­ing Trump and other Repub­li­cans.

It was just one of the many dire warn­ings the stu­dents re­ceived. They were urged to stand up for their be­liefs and chal­lenge the lib­eral point of view of their in­struc­tors — all part of a more un­yield­ing, con­fronta­tional ap­proach that’s much more in­tense than was seen in Rea­gan’s po­lit­i­cal era.

The theme of po­lit­i­cal per­se­cu­tion ran through the week­end: by the me­dia, col­lege pro­fes­sors and high school teach­ers, Face­book and Twit­ter, and fel­low stu­dents. Talks were held at both the ranch and its con­fer­ence cen­ter, a mis­sion-style build­ing in Santa Bar­bara that’s about a 40-minute drive from the moun­tain estate.

Burt Fol­som, a fre­quent YAF speaker and a his­tory pro­fes­sor at Hills­dale Col­lege in Michi­gan, said his pro­fes­sion tends to be lib­eral. “Of­ten gov­ern­ment is an em­ployer of pro­fes­sors, and they tend to see gov­ern­ment in a very fa­vor­able light — as the so­lu­tion to prob­lems.”

Early in the con­fer­ence, when stu­dents took turns in­tro­duc­ing them­selves, many said they were os­tra­cized at school for their con­ser­va­tive be­liefs, shar­ing sto­ries of their ex­pe­ri­ences.

Caleb Walzak, a 16-yearold sopho­more from Sa­van­nah, Ga., said he felt out of sync with the rest of his class­mates.

“If you say any­thing that goes against any of their opin­ions at all, you are shunned from all so­cial in­ter­ac­tion what­so­ever. Ba­si­cally your life is ru­ined,” Caleb said. “Stuff that they be­lieve in is not what Amer­ica is. Con­ser­va­tive is what Amer­i­can re­ally is.”

Sarah Dow­less, a se­nior from Wake­field, Va., said a feel­ing of po­lit­i­cal iso­la­tion is one of the rea­sons why she has at­tended six Young Amer­ica’s Foun­da­tion con­fer­ences.

“I go to a school for the arts. It’s a great place, but it’s very lib­eral,” said Sarah, 16. She as­pires to be a free mar­ket econ­o­mist.

“When I come here, I get to be around peo­ple on the same side.”

With its 688 acres of oak and man­zanita trees and rid­ing trails hid­den in the Santa Ynez Moun­tains, Rea­gan’s ranch was a sanc­tu­ary from the pres­sures of the White House.

There the pres­i­dent cob­bled to­gether the ranch’s split-rail fence, bagged snakes slith­er­ing across the grounds, split fire­wood and took long horse­back rides. The cen­tury-old, 1,200-square-foot adobe ranch house hosted world lead­ers, in­clud­ing

Mikhail Gor­bachev and Queen El­iz­a­beth, as well as the Rea­gan fam­ily’s Thanks­giv­ing din­ners.

Marco Sin­gle­tary, a high school se­nior from Joliet, Ill., said his in­ter­est in Rea­gan is what led him to the foun­da­tion con­fer­ence in Santa Bar­bara. A teacher saw him read­ing “The Rea­gan Diaries” and sug­gested he look into the Young Amer­ica’s Foun­da­tion.

Marco, 17, said he gets along fine with his lib­eral friends, mostly be­cause they don’t talk about pol­i­tics. He also avoids speak­ing up in his eco­nom­ics and Amer­i­can his­tory classes, he said, since he’d be invit­ing trou­ble.

“You’re lit­er­ally wast­ing your breath. Peo­ple just go based on what they see on Twit­ter,” he said. “Things have got­ten so ex­treme that the mid­dle ground is too far for ei­ther side.”

In re­cent years, the foun­da­tion has drawn at­ten­tion for its spon­sor­ship of a highly charged cir­cuit of con­ser­va­tive speak­ers at univer­si­ties across the coun­try, set­ting off protests from Cal State L.A. to the Univer­sity of Buf­falo. Foun­da­tion of­fi­cials cite the up­roar as ev­i­dence of “trig­gered” lib­er­als sup­press­ing speech.

Last April, the foun­da­tion helped line up Ann Coulter to speak about im­mi­gra­tion at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Berke­ley, the birth­place of the free speech move­ment. The re­sult­ing out­cry by univer­sity of­fi­cials prompted Coulter to can­cel her ap­pear­ance.

Ben Shapiro, one of the foun­da­tion’s stars on the col­lege cam­pus speak­ing cir­cuit, has also been con­sis­tently tar­geted by stu­dent pro­test­ers, in­clud­ing

at Berke­ley over the sum­mer.

The foun­da­tion, which bought the ranch from the Rea­gans in 1998, sees it as a cathe­dral of con­ser­vatism, where the for­mer pres­i­dent’s legacy is pre­served and fu­ture gen­er­a­tions are trained in free-mar­ket cap­i­tal­ism, in­di­vid­ual lib­erty and the faith-based tenets of the Amer­i­can right.

But the mes­sage has changed since Rea­gan’s day, and the mis­sion isn’t just be­ing car­ried out at Ran­cho del Cielo.

The foun­da­tion has drawn heated crit­i­cism for its speaker cir­cuit at col­lege cam­puses around the coun­try, en­list­ing con­ser­va­tive provo­ca­teurs such as Coulter, Dinesh D’Souza and au­thor Robert Spencer of Ji­had Watch, a web­site that has of­ten been ac­cused of Is­lam­o­pho­bia.

At the Rea­gan con­fer­ence cen­ter, Spencer told the stu­dents that the Qu­ran teaches Mus­lims to “kill non­be­liev­ers,” and warned that they will be shunned as Is­lam­o­phobes at school and in the me­dia if they crit­i­cized the re­li­gious text as the gen­e­sis of Is­lamic ter­ror­ism.

The foun­da­tion ex­panded in size and in­flu­ence over the last two decades after two other ac­tivist con­ser­va­tive groups merged into the non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion: the late Wil­liam F. Buck­ley’s Young Amer­i­cans for Free­dom, a cadre of ded­i­cated col­lege-age stu­dents once known as the shock troops of the Repub­li­can Party, and the right-lean­ing Na­tional Jour­nal­ism Cen­ter.

Fu­el­ing the Young Amer­ica’s Foun­da­tion are its prom­i­nent back­ers — and its stuffed war chest.

The foun­da­tion re­ported as­sets of more than $65 mil­lion in 2015 and re­ceived more than $34 mil­lion in con­tri­bu­tions and grants that year, ac­cord­ing to In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice records. It spent more than $21 mil­lion that year on con­fer­ences, salaries, speak­ers, fundrais­ing and other costs as­so­ci­ated with the foun­da­tion and ranch.

Donors over the years have in­cluded Amway bil­lion­aires Richard and He­len DeVos, the in-laws of Ed­u­ca­tion Sec­re­tary Betsy DeVos, as well as con­ser­va­tive bil­lion­aires Charles and David Koch. Orthodon­tist Robert Ruhe, who died in 2013, be­queathed $16 mil­lion to the Young Amer­ica’s Foun­da­tion.

Rea­gan him­self be­came a ma­jor sup­porter of the foun­da­tion while still in the White House. When Young Amer­ica’s Foun­da­tion took over the ranch in the late 1990s, the for­mer first lady ex­pressed de­light over how it would be used.

“We hope that our ranch will be a spark for many bright young Amer­i­cans in the years ahead,” Nancy Rea­gan said.


High school stu­dents take a tour led by Amy Lutz (cen­ter) of the Rea­gan Ranch in the Santa Ynez Moun­tains, in Santa Bar­bara, Calif., on Sept. 22, 2017.

Paolo Orosa rings a lunch bell used by the Rea­gans as he and other high school stu­dents take a tour of the Rea­gan Ranch in the Santa Ynez Moun­tains.

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