(RNS) – Polls show younger Americans are more liberal than older Americans. But over the past decade, Republicans, helped in large part by major white evangelical donors, have invested heavily in building a well-organized conservative youth movement to attract young people — especially college students — to the right.
Kyle Spencer, a longtime journalist who has reported on education for The New York Times and Politico, has now written a book about the effort. “Raising Them Right: The Untold Story of America’s Ultraconservative Youth Movement and Its Plot for Power” investigates key players and their tactics.
The book traces the movement’s campus tabling events, highly structured training, raucous conferences, and embrace of celebrity culture. It paints a portrait of a powerful, well-organized movement that has grown increasingly violent, confrontational and, in many cases, incendiary. Spencer gives plenty of examples of communication strategies using “angry sarcasm” and gotcha games. There’s an “affirmative action bake sale” (Asians: $1.50; Caucasians $1, African Americans and Hispanics $.50), a “Professor Watchlist” and doctored videos of liberals behaving badly.
Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk and talk show host Candace Owens (and, to a lesser extent, libertarian organizer Cliff Maloney) are leading this new movement. In his book, Spencer describes their backgrounds, their knack for self-promotion and their rapid ascent to the upper echelons of Republican politics. Both Kirk and Owens became matches in ex-President Trump’s inner circle. He later supported Trump’s Big Lie efforts, becoming shock troops for the post-election disinformation campaign. Turning Point USA sent about 350 people to Trump’s speech at the Ellipse on Jan. 6, where he urged his supporters to march on the Capitol as Congress certifies the 2020 election results. (Kirk, who was not there and said he did not support the attack on the Capitol, nevertheless said the rebels’ anger was understandable.)
Both Kirk and Owens were raised Christian and have publicly and vocally embraced an evangelical identity. Kirk founded TPUSA Trust, whose mission is to “engage, mobilize and empower Christians to change the trajectory of our nation”. His podcast airs on Salem Media, a conservative Christian radio outlet.
RNS spoke with Spencer about her book and what this growing movement of young conservatives has in store for the future. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get into this?
I was out and about on college campuses and I started seeing young gun-rights advocates proposing and pushing campus-carry laws. When you talk to them they say they are doing it on their own. I didn’t believe it. I started looking at budgets and annual reports. And lo and behold, I discovered that the NRA and Gun Owners of America are pumping millions of dollars into college campuses for pro-gun policies. Then, I thought, if gun rights groups are doing this, so are conservative groups. I found pro-life groups, anti-climate groups, libertarian groups. All of them were pouring tons of money into college campuses. Then I went to the Leadership Institute, which serves as a clearinghouse for all these groups. I learned there how organized they are.
Did Charlie Kirk go through those programs?
I’m not sure he trained there. But everyone who works for him went through the Leadership Institute. They bring those coaches to their conferences, to their campuses. They are really embedded in these groups.
How religious was Charlie growing up?
His family went to church, and in high school he joined a local evangelical church. He admired Joel Osteen and referred him and recommended him to friends. He told people he wouldn’t have sex until marriage and he wasn’t a drinker. His faith is integral to his understanding of how the world works or should work. His first donors, Allie Hanley and (the late Wyoming businessman) Foster Fries, are very religious. They realized very early on that these evangelists were a good donor base for them. Turning Point USA appears to be secular, but the majority within the organization are Christians. Eventually Turning Point moved to Arizona, and then the organization was headed by Tyler Bowyer, who is a Mormon, and now a lot of Mormons work for Turning Point USA.
Where do their anger and taunting tactics come from? Does the Leadership Institute teach that?
The goals of the Leadership Institute are to win and do whatever it takes to win. Mocking and provoking and ridiculing progressive students is baked into the structure and schema of winning hearts and minds. It was always like that. The thing with Trump is that he was mean and encouraged kids to be mean. He enabled people to find their inner bully and capitalize on it. It is rooted in resentment and anxiety that college students don’t feel like they belong or are heard. Then they’re taught, well, here’s the way you fight. Find ways to make fun of them. They teach them to weaponize their phone. Every time you find progressive acting awkward, get it on video. We edit it and slap it. The Leadership Institute has a publication called Campus Reform, which is a tool for pushing the idea that conservatives have no freedom on college campuses.
Do these techniques ever conflict with their religious values?
They say we are in a holy war. If you are in a holy war, the ends justify the means. Fundamentalism is the way to do this. Your way of life is very much at risk, the secular world is very dangerous, you must fight at any cost.
How important was Christianity to Candace Owens growing up?
Her grandparents raised her, and they were very religious. He read the Bible at the table. She left for college and then left for New York. She let go of her religious beliefs. She picked them up again when she joined the conservative movement. She tells the story at Liberty University. There is a video that tells the story of her fall from grace and her rebirth, and it is very compelling. She starts crying. Later she married George Farmer, a truly religious man.
You write that neither Charlie Kirk nor Cliff Maloney initially had a high opinion of Trump. They changed their minds in a kind of opportunistic way, right?
One thing that Trump offers people is a lot of access. As long as you don’t fall out with him, you get a lot of privileges. There is no entry cost except your soul. You don’t need to have a law degree or more. That’s fascinating. Well, the Republicans fall in line. They are not uncomfortable with dictatorship and hierarchy. They follow their leader. They see political leaders as vessels. If you think about it, that’s a lot to forgive.
Remarkably, for all their work on college campuses, neither Charlie Kirk nor Candace Owens has a college degree.
Charlie talks all the time about how college is a waste of money and a waste of time. They think it’s better if you want to get an engineering degree or a law degree. But if you want to get a liberal arts degree, don’t. College is a scam. This benefits highly paid professors. Classes are biased. The student body is awake and intolerant. He describes them as “islands of intolerance”.
You describe conservative youth conferences as these rowdy, rowdy events where you find wine corks in the bathroom and drunk 20-somethings in the pool. How did they evolve?
As the conservative movement was building, it understood that people needed to convene. Youth groups also started their own conferences. In the last 10 years they have become rough parties. As conservatives became more celebrity conscious and worked to build their own shadow Hollywood, they began to see these events as ways to exorcise celebrities and personalities and turned them into these Lollapalooza festivals for power. The energy is very intense. They get these long lines to meet Rudolph Giuliani or Dinesh D’Souza. He turned these people into lions. These speakers are like ministers. They go crazy in the room. They are something between concerts and revivals.
You suggest in the book that Charlie has his own political ambitions.
I don’t know if he wants to be the next Rush Limbaugh or the President of the United States. But his ambitions knew no bounds. We’re not done with Charlie Kirk. He’s not going away. He is going to be more central to the story of Republicans in America.
Related: Poll: Nearly half of Americans think the US should be a Christian nation