Last weekend, several hundred right-wing political activists gathered for a rally in the German city of Cologne to protest the "Islamization" of the West and immigration policies that they contend threaten the "Western culture."
They included representatives of Vlaams Belang, a Belgian organization that changed its name and liberalized some of its positions after it was convicted of racism in 2004 by a Belgian court; the Freedom Party of Austria, a right-wing party formerly led by the late Jörg Haider, who was often denounced for seeming to praise some Nazi policies; and the National Democratic Party of Germany, which is classified by the Bavarian government as a right-wing extremist institution.
Also represented was a small but growing nonprofit U.S. organization called Youth for Western Civilization. The group, which bills itself as "America's right-wing youth movement," bannered a photo of the Cologne rally on its website this week, accompanying an account that declared that "we will not falter nor fail in our attempt for the defense of the Western homeland."
Youth for Western Civilization, which has chapters at only about 10 U.S. campuses, is just one of hundreds of conservative student organizations around the nation, far smaller than better-known college-based groups like Young Americans for Freedom and College Republicans.
But its influence is bigger than its size, drawing the attention of large numbers of admirers — and critics — since it began organizing three years ago. Thanks to its discipline in advocating a small number of simply stated positions and a new-media-savvy communications strategy, YWC may be radically refreshing the template for political organizing in American higher education.
YWC "popped up out of nowhere to become pretty important," said Heidi Beirich, research director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a liberal human rights watchdog group. The SPLC, which plans to examine YWC and its positions in a report next month, has previously criticized YWC, documenting what it says are its ties to the white nationalist movement.
Preserving the 'high culture of Europe'
YWC's president, Kevin DeAnna, 28, a graduate student in political science at American University in Washington, vigorously denies that his organization is discriminatory in any way. He said characterizations of the groups at the Cologne rally as "suspected of extremist activities" had "a faint Orwellian ring that makes me fear the German government far more."
"I am glad we have some contacts with European groups," he said in an email interview. "... One of the absolutely critical things that separates us from any other conservative groups is that we consider what happens in Europe (and other Western nations such as Canada and Australia) to be just as important as what happens in America."
Initially, YWC was a response to "left-wing indoctrination, multicultural silliness and savage abuse of conservative and moderate students" at American colleges, DeAnna said.
Since then, it has honed a strategy of provoking debate over three carefully cultivated but politically potent issues: illegal immigration, multiculturalism and preservation of America's European cultural heritage.
In doing so, it has provoked sometimes-heated debate:
- The group first came to widespread attention two years ago, when it tried to host a speech at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill by former Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., who ran for president in 2008 on a platform that advocated overhauling U.S. immigration policy. Protesters, some of them shouting that Tancredo was a racist, blocked the speech; during the protest, a window was shattered and police used pepper spray to restore order.
The university apologized to Tancredo, who returned and spoke without notable incident last year.
- Last June, DeAnna was invited to speak at an anti-immigration rally in Phoenix, where his remarks received wide circulation on YouTube (below) and in posts on right-wing websites.
- Last month, the YWC chapter at Washington State University in Pullman erected a symbolic "border fence" festooned with signs reading "No Trespassing" to demonstrate its opposition to illegal immigration. The event drew several dozen protesters and some regional and national news coverage.
Events like those — and the group's first national conference, scheduled next month in Washington — are designed to attract attention to YWC's defense of "Western culture," which it defines as "the social norms, values, practices, and high culture of Europe and those places settled predominantly by the peoples from that area."
Liberal groups like the SPLC contend that language like that is white nationalist code — rhetoric calibrated to sound non-controversial to potential mainstream conservative donors while sending a message of solidarity to right-wing extremists.
"They try to look as though they're a version of the College Republicans — that's the face that they present to the world," Beirich said. But for those "in the know," she said, the message is that "white people are superior to other groups, smarter, more democratic, less criminal."
Contrary to some media reports — and there have been many, because the group is very good at attracting media attention — the SPLC has not listed YWC in its compendium of "hate groups." But Beirich said her organization does consider YWC to be "the most far-right college group" in America, "much more to the right than any other college conservative organization."
That characterization sits just fine with DeAnna, whose group embraces the "right wing" label even though it's often used as an epithet in American politics.
"We really don't care about that," DeAnna said. "If the SPLC or whoever wants to use YWC to raise money — whatever."
While acknowledging that YWC "focuses on the issues of racial preferences (and) extreme multiculturalism," he rejected the idea that the group is racist. The group's website says students who share its beliefs are welcome to join without regard to race, religion or national origin. While some authors on the site complain about "privileges" afforded to illegal and even legal immigrants, others take pains to say they support equal rights for legal immigrants "who play by the rules."
DeAnna also denies that he once wrote hard-right articles for a website published by the Michigan State University chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, which the SPLC listed as a hate group at the time.
The alleged articles are not on the Web, and while several groups critical of YWC have published what they say are copies from since-deleted archives, msnbc.com could not independently verify that they were authentic.
"A lot of our opponents seem to just make things up," DeAnna said. "Every time right-wingers want to talk about immigration, racial preferences or multiculturalism, leftists respond with violence and repression."
New tactics for an old movement
Conservative activism on college campuses — especially opposition to what some conservatives see as a liberal bias permeating American institutions of higher learning — is nothing new. Prominent conservative leaders have vaulted onto the national stage from campuses since at least the early 1950s, when Russell Kirk published his doctoral dissertation, "The Conservative Mind," and William F. Buckley Jr. published "God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of 'Academic Freedom.'" Those books are widely considered wellsprings of modern American political conservatism.
More recently, college activism laid the groundwork for the careers of such prominent conservative figures as Karl Rove, President George W. Bush's political strategist; Ralph Reed, founder of the Christian Coalition and adviser to numerous Republican candidates; and Grover Norquist, president of the anti-tax Americans for Tax Reform.
DeAnna has something else in common with Rove, Reed and Norquist — they were all trained by the , the influential foundation that for more than 30 years has prepared conservative activists for jobs in politics, education and government. Dozens of members of Congress — including six elected in November — and tens of thousands of state legislators, congressional staffers and campaign operatives have passed through its doors over the years, the institute says.
DeAnna is the institute's deputy field director, supervising field staffers in the Northeast at the same time he runs YWC.
The connection is a natural one. Morton C. Blackwell, the institute's founder and president — like DeAnna — regards America's colleges as captives of the "liberal establishment," which he contends is determined to "squelch conservative activity" on campuses.
Otherwise, both men said, there is no formal connection between the Leadership Institute and YWC. In an interview, Blackwell sought to downplay the importance of YWC, stressing that it is one of the smallest of the more than 1,400 conservative campus groups that receive organizational help and training from the institute.
Even so, Beirich, of the Southern Poverty Law Center, said it is odd that the institute would employ DeAnna, because it is seen as a pillar of mainstream American conservatism, while "YWC is racialized."
"They may be far-right conservatives, but they're not racialist," she said of the Leadership Institute. "That (connection) seems like dangerous ground."
Blackwell said criticism like that was immaterial, because "the average student has never heard of the SPLC."
As for DeAnna, he was even more dismissive, saying he and his colleagues have more important matters to worry about.
"The death of the West is happening," he said. "If that is true, what else matters?"