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Guy Benson, The Message Machine

He is the kind of 19-year-old who has contacts at the Pentagon and who refers to himself as being “on the record” in support of Social Security privatization. He is a conservative star on the rise.

Field Report, Christopher Hayes, Mar. 8, 2005

He is the kind of 19-year-old who has contacts at the Pentagon and who refers to himself as being “on the record” in support of Social Security privatization. He is a conservative star on the rise.

By Christopher Hayes

(This story was originally published in the Chicago Reader. This is its first appearance on-line)

Guy Benson is the kind of 19-year-old who has contacts at the Pentagon and who refers to himself as being “on the record” in support of Social Security privatization. He’s operations manager of Northwestern’s radio station WNUR, where he’s also one of the conservative hosts of the political debate show Feedback, and for the last three summers he’s interned at Fox News. A student at the Medill School of Journalism, he’s the most outspoken member of the Northwestern University College Republicans. When the Daily Northwestern needs a quote from a conservative about Howard Dean or a protest against the war in Iraq, they call up Guy.

I first noticed him while flipping through radio stations on a Sunday night. Down at the low end of the dial, 89.3, I heard a resonant baritone pummeling a liberal on the undeniable correctness of abstinence-only education. “You take a look at a Zogby poll from earlier this year,” he said. “By a five-to-one margin parents of America approve of character-based abstinence education. By a two-to-one margin parents disapprove or strongly disapprove of comprehensive sex education.” The voice was confident and polished, with none of the dweeby mumbling you normally associate with college radio, and for a moment I thought WNUR had been bought out by some right-wing radio syndicate. The show was a perfect facsimile of Crossfire or The O’Reilly Factor, its hosts dishing rhetorical zingers left and right.

When the liberal co-host said his concern was for the teens, not the parents, Guy let him have it: “This is a typical liberal argument, saying…parents are really no longer relevant members of the educational community. You’re pretty much saying the school, aka the government, is more qualified to teach your children what they should and should not be doing. You’re pretty much saying, hey, parents out there, you know, go to hell….The state knows better than you do on these issues so we’re going to teach whatever we want to teach.”

Eventually Guy identified the station as WNUR and himself as a college student. It was like the moment where Spider-Man is unmasked on the train, and the passengers gasp, “Why…he’s just a kid!”

Intrigued, I started an e-mail correspondence with him, and almost a year later we arranged to meet in his dorm room. In person he’s not so intimidating. Handsome but young-looking in baggy jeans, a sweatshirt, and a white Yankees cap, he has an almost preadolescent gee-whiz earnestness: Watching Northwestern basketball games is so much fun! His American presidency class is really cool! Ann Coulter is so awesome! “I love Rick Santorum,” he told me. “He’s, like, my favorite senator.”

But even in casual conversation, Guy is a near-constant torrent of quips and talking points, a 24/7 conservative message machine. Social Security is “headed for a crisis,” the gay marriage debate has been foisted on the public by “activist judges,” the war in Iraq was waged to “liberate the Iraqi people.” It’s hard to describe the dissonance you feel hearing those phrases come from the mouth of a teenager. It’s uncanny and a little unsettling. You feel like you’re in presence of a phenomenon, a prodigy. You feel certain that Guy Benson will be famous someday.

“Us vs. Them”

We were sitting in the common room of his suite in Northwestern’s Public Affairs Residential College. It’s your standard undergrad living space: ratty furniture, papers and course packets strewn everywhere, back issues of ESPN magazine. But instead of a Bob Marley or John Coltrane poster, Guy’s walls display an adoring photo of Ronald Reagan leaning against a column outside the White House and a poster of a bald eagle with the word courage across the bottom. Another poster is headlined “Take the Gore/Unabomber Quiz.” It excerpts paragraphs from Al Gore’s book Earth in the Balance and the Ted Kaczynski manifesto and asks the reader to identify who wrote what. “Modern industrial civilization, as presently organized, is colliding violently with our planet’s ecological system,” goes one item. “Isolated pockets of resistance fighters who have experienced this juggernaut at first hand have begun to fight back in inspiring but, in the final analysis, woefully inadequate ways.” (Answer: Al Gore.)

We’d just returned from the first College Republicans meeting of the semester. The Northwestern group is a branch of the College Republican National Committee, whose membership has more than tripled in the past six years. On the surface, it had looked like any other gathering of college kids: about a dozen students sitting around a classroom, sipping Diet Coke and munching on Papa John’s pizza. But as the group started discussing its agenda, I realized I was witnessing something extraordinary. If you’ve ever wondered where the legions of conservative pundits are trained and schooled, where the talk-radio hosts and cable news guests and best-selling authors of jeremiads with inflammatory titles come from, it all starts here, in little classrooms like this one. These humble gatherings, full of kids in Greek-lettered T-shirts and sweats, are the incubator for the future of the right wing.

What the entire meeting would boil down to was message discipline. College Republican President Henry Bowles III, a junior whose vintage T-shirt and carefully tousled hair made him look like the lead singer of an indie-rock band, got things started. He told the group that for the duration of the semester, each session would start with a presentation on some important issue. This week Ben Snyder, a member of Students for Life, would give a PowerPoint presentation about the upcoming Supreme Court battles titled “Us vs. Them.” And next week, said Henry, someone would be talking about the flat tax.

“Fair tax. It’s fair tax now,” said a guy in the front row wearing a Zeppelin T-shirt.

“Right,” said Henry. “Fair tax. That’s the euphemism.”

A little later, as Ben discussed the impending battle over Supreme Court nominees, he mentioned the possibility that Senate Republicans would rewrite filibuster rules so Democrats couldn’t filibuster judicial nominees. This strategy is often called the “nuclear option” because it could provoke a war between the two parties, but has, Ben told the group, “now been renamed the constitutional option.”

Guy was the most vocal person in the room, gently correcting his comrades’ facts and terminology, offering up tidbits and arguments that others might want to employ when arguing with liberals. It was clear that he’d done his homework. When Ben talked about renaming the nuclear/constitutional option, Guy raised his hand and provided some background. While liberals express outrage at the thought of amending Senate rules, he said, the practice of filibustering nominees “is at the very least extraconstitutional, perhaps unconstitutional.” Everyone in the room listened intently. In fact, he went on, during the Constitutional Convention no less a figure than James Madison had taken the president’s power to appoint his cabinet to be so strong he proposed that a two-thirds majority be required to vote down a nominee. “So,” he concluded, “I think that’s an interesting tool to use when you’re debating this issue with people.” The other kids nodded, looking serious.

I graduated from college four years ago, and I happen to have spent a good percentage of my time as an undergraduate talking about politics – in my case, sweatshop labor and other lefty causes – with my activist friends. With the possible exception of a few mild admonitions for language that wasn’t sufficiently PC, I never saw anyone interrupt anyone for slipping off message. I was also surprised to see the Republican kids collectively generating arguments to use when fighting with liberals, sharpening their talking points, and preparing for battle. My fellow liberals and I didn’t see ourselves as engaged in a war of ideas. We probably didn’t even realize there were any conservatives around to fight with.

The meeting ended with an announcement that the club would soon be conducting elections for officers. Someone asked Guy if he was going to run for president, since he seemed the obvious successor to Henry. Guy demurred, though, saying he thought an official position with the College Republicans might limit his future journalistic career.

As we walked out of the classroom, a pretty girl in a Tri-Delt sweatshirt approached Guy. “We haven’t ever met,” she said, “but I just wanted to say you always have really smart things to say in the meeting.” Guy went from confident to awkward nearly instantaneously. He’d just broken up with his long-distance girlfriend, the daughter of a family friend. (She was a Republican, “but not superpolitical.”) As he made small talk about Northwestern’s basketball team, the sorority girl brought up the one issue that’s sure to bring campus conservatives together: their loneliness in a sea of liberalism. “I’m the only pro-life member of my sorority,” she said proudly. Guy mumbled some words of encouragement before walking off.

Page 2: “The Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy”

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