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The Crenshaw Cringe Summit

The youth want ideas and action, not platitudes and special effects.

Conservatives Gather At Annual CPAC Event
U.S. Rep. Dan Crenshaw, February 26, 2020. (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

One of the zillennial generation’s few worthy linguistic innovations is the transformation of the word “cringe” into a simple adjective. One no longer “cringes at” something—the sight of someone embarrassing himself in public, say. Nor is it necessary to spell out that something is “cringe-inducing.” It suffices to say that something is “cringe.” How else to describe Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw’s recent “Crenshaw Youth Summit”?

Crenshaw has long sought to parlay his vaguely Russell Crow-esque looks and eyepatch—the result of a roadside IED attack while deployed as a Navy SEAL in Afghanistan—into stardom. He’s famous for playing the lead in expensively produced videos in which he skydives, action-hero-style, to the rescue of a nation menaced by tyrannical enemies, foreign and domestic. At his latest summit in Houston, he took this Hollywood flair to the next level.

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As seen in footage of the event circulating online, video projected at the grand ballroom of the Hilton Americas in Houston showed Crenshaw and his staffers assembled in the Oval Office. An unseen Ronald Reagan is addressing the Crenshaw Crew, who have traveled in time to the 1980s to commune with the Great Right-Liberal-in-Chief.

Things were bad before Reagan arrived on the scene, the Gipper solemnly intones, “but then as now, a new generation rose up to meet the challenge of freedom, and American independence is born anew on the shoulders of the next generation of patriots.”

Reagan, it should be noted, had talented speechwriters like Peggy Noonan, who unlike the Crenshaw Crew would never mix metaphors and figures of speech to create cringe-monstrosities like the notion that “independence” can be “born anew” on the “shoulders” of something or other.

The fictional Reagan asks Crenshaw, “What’s on your mind, Dan?”

“Mr. President,” Crenshaw replies, “how do we reach the next generation of patriots in my time, in 2022?”

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“Don’t you have somewhere to be?”

“Yeah, actually, I do have somewhere to be. My Youth Summit in 2022. They’re waiting for me.”

“Go forth, son. Remember, the future doesn’t belong to the fainthearted, it belongs to the brave. We still have a chance to save America. The youth are our future.”

“We won’t let you down, sir. Thank you.”

Crenshaw then travels back to 2022 and emerges from the DeLorean and races on foot to the podium, to scattered clapping and whooping. I didn’t attend the summit, but photos and footage posted online show a painfully empty ballroom, and who can blame Lone Star State youth for steering clear of the event? The miasma of corny nostalgia and self-celebration oozing from the Hilton over the weekend must have been unbearable.

Crenshaw, according to a gentle write-up in the liberal Houston Chronicle, “wants a new Reagan Revolution — a return to the 1980s-era Republican Party pillars of small government, low taxes, and less welfare that he says have been crowded out by infighting in recent years.”

In this task, per the Chronicle, he faces opposition from what he calls the “woke right,” by which he means GOP populists who increasingly insist on the need for government to bolster social solidarity and countervail the power of corporate behemoths that subject Americans to pervasive coercion in their lives as workers, consumers, and citizens.  

The Chronicle failed to note that Crenshaw’s aversion to welfare is highly selective. When it comes to the military-industrial complex and forever wars, the sky’s the limit to Crenshaw’s largesse. As conservative antitrust activist Rachel Bovard has noted, Crenshaw is also an ardent opponent of meaningful reform to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which acts as a generous subsidy to Big Tech firms, allowing them to act as censorious publishers while escaping the liability costs associated with traditional publishers like TAC.

The larger point is that Crenshaw-brand “Reaganism”—I use scare quotes because it’s far cruder than the genuine article—doesn’t answer the major crisis of our age. That crisis, as I argue in a book forthcoming in fall 2023, is tyranny in the marketplace: the power of large private actors to push us around, with no regard for the wellbeing of the nation and its working people.

Chief among its symptoms are deindustrialization and the ’90s-Sarajevo-style blight my colleagues and I witnessed over the weekend in Steubenville, Ohio, where I organized a different conference at Franciscan University. That deindustrialization, as speakers at the “Restoring a Nation” conference emphasized, was the result of neither natural forces nor world-historical inevitability, but of policy choices made by elites far, far away from places like Steubenville.

Not to rub salt on Crenshaw’s wound, but the Steubenville conference was packed with some 250 scholars and students hungry for intelligent, substantive discussions based in multiple disciplines, from legal theory to economics and from theology to political theory. The main hall was so packed, in fact, that the university was forced to set up an overflow room, where students could watch the proceedings via video. This, even though there was no DeLorean parked on stage, no ersatz Hollywood productions showing Patrick Deneen in tights beating up Communists.

This isn’t to say that the reformist right shouldn’t look back to the past for guidance and inspiration. The speakers at “Restoring a Nation” drew from the classical and Christian tradition, as it has found voice in the American tradition of political economy—from the 19th century developmentalist thinker Mathew Carey, the subject of a stirring talk by friend of TAC Johnny Burtka, to the First New Deal and Galbraithian theories of countervailing power, discussed in keynotes by Harvard Law’s Adrian Vermeule and yours truly, respectively.

The American tradition has much to offer those genuinely searching for insights. But merely mouthing old slogans about limited government, without any reference to what politics is for, or what sort of a political community should emerge from the wreckage of places like downtown Steubenville, won’t galvanize the youth. It’s just cringe.

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