How America’s conservative youth movement grew a powerhouse on the cult of rage

(RNS) — Polls show that younger Americans are more liberal than older Americans. But over the past decade, Republicans, aided in large part by major white evangelical donors, have invested heavily in building a well-organized conservative youth movement to draw 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 the Plot for Power” explores the main actors and their tactics.

The book traces the campus movement, highly structured training, raucous conferences and the embrace of celebrity culture. It paints a portrait of a powerful, well-endowed movement that has become increasingly brash, confrontational and, in many cases, incendiary. Spencer provides many examples of communication strategies using “angry banter” and “gotcha” games. There’s an Affirmative Action Bake Sale ($1.50 Asians; $1 Caucasians, $0.50 African-Americans and Hispanics), a “Professor Watch List” and elaborate videos of liberals misbehaving.

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This nascent movement is led by Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk and talk show host Candace Owens (and to a lesser extent libertarian organizer Cliff Maloney). In her book, Spencer describes their background, their knack for self-promotion and their rapid ascent to the upper echelons of Republican politics. Both Kirk and Owen became fixtures in former President Trump’s inner orbit. Later, they supported Trump’s Big Lie efforts, becoming a strike force in the post-election disinformation campaign. Turning Point USA sent about 350 people to Trump’s speech at the Ellipse on Jan. 6, where he encouraged his supporters to march on the Capitol while Congress ratified the 2020 election results. (Kirk, who was not there and said he did not support the attack on the Capitol, said the rebels’ anger was understandable.)

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Both Kirk and Owen were raised Christians and have publicly and vocally embraced evangelical identities. Kirk founded TPUSA Faith, whose mission is to “engage, equip and empower Christians to change the trajectory of our nation.” His podcast is on Salem Media, a conservative Christian radio site.

RNA spoke with Spencer about her book and what the future holds for this growing young conservative movement. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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How did you get into this?

I was off college campuses and I began to encounter new gun rights advocates who were filing and pushing legislation on campuses. When you spoke to them they said they do it themselves. I just didn’t believe it. I started looking at budgets and annual reports. And lo and behold, I found the NRA and the Gun Owners of America pumping millions of dollars into pro-gun politics on college campuses. Then I guess if gun protection groups are doing it, then so are conservative groups. I found pro-life groups, anti-climate groups, libertarian groups. They all pumped tons and tons of money into college campuses. I then went to the Leadership Institute, which serves as a clearinghouse for all these groups. There I learned how organized they were.

Kyle Rittenhouse, right, is introduced to a cheering crowd by Charlie Kirk, middle, founder of Turning Point USA, during a panel discussion at the Turning Point USA America Fest 2021 event, Monday, Dec. 20, 2021, in Phoenix.  Panel discussion, call "in Kenosha's cell," comes a month after Rittenhouse's acquittal in the deadly Kenosha shooting in 2020.  (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Kyle Rittenhouse, right, is introduced to a cheering crowd by Charlie Kirk, middle, founder of Turning Point USA, during a panel discussion at the Turning Point USA America Fest 2021 event, Monday, Dec. 20, 2021, in Phoenix. The panel discussion, titled “Kenosha On Camera,” comes one month after Rittenhouse was acquitted of charges in the deadly Kenosha shooting in 2020. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Did Charlie Kirk go through these programs?

I’m not sure he trained there. But everyone who works for him went through the Leadership Institute. They bring those instructors to their conferences and campuses. They are indeed included in these groups.

How religious was Charlie growing up?

His family attended church, and he joined a local evangelical church in high school. He admired Joel Osteen and quoted him and recommended him to friends. He told people early on that he wouldn’t have sex until the wedding, and he wasn’t a drinker. His faith is integral to his understanding of how the world works or should work. Some of his early donors, Allie Henley and (the late Wyoming businessman) Foster Fries, are deeply religious. He realizes quite early that these evangelists are a good donor base for him. Turning Point USA looks secular, but inside the organization the majority are Christians. Eventually, Turning Point moves to Arizona, and then the organization is run by Tyler Bowyer, who is a Mormon, and now many Mormons work at Turning Point USA.

Where do their rage and taunting tactics come from? Does the Leadership Institute teach this?

The goals of the Leadership Institute are to win and do whatever it takes to win. Mocking and inciting and ridiculing progressive students is built into the fabric and scheme of winning hearts and minds. It was always like that. The thing about Trump is that he became evil and encouraged children to be evil. He allowed people to find their inner bully and benefit from it. It’s rooted in resentment and anxiety that college students don’t feel like they belong or aren’t heard. Then they are taught: OK, here’s a way you can fight back. Find ways to make fun of them. They teach them to arm their phone. Whenever advanced acting feels weird, include it in the video. We will edit it and fix it. The Leadership Institute has a publication called Campus Reform that is a vehicle for pushing this idea that conservatives don’t have free speech on college campuses.

Do these tactics 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. Radicalism is the way to do it. Your way of life is so threatened, the secular world is so dangerous, you must fight it as best you can.

Conservative commentator and political activist Candace Owens speaks at a rally about the ellipsis at the White House on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, in Washington.  (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Conservative commentator and political activist Candace Owens speaks at a rally about the ellipsis at the White House on Saturday, Oct. 10, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

How important was Christianity to Candice Owens growing up?

His grandfather and grandmother raised him and they were very religious. They read the Bible at the table. She went to college, then dropped out and moved to New York. She let her religious beliefs pass her by. She picked them up again when she joined the conservative movement. She tells Liberty University. There is a video where she talks about her fall from grace and her rebirth and it is very compelling. She starts to cry. Then she married a really religious guy, George Farmer.

You write that neither Charlie Kirk nor Cliff Maloney initially thought very highly of Trump. They changed their minds in a kind of opportunistic way, didn’t they?

One of the things Trump is offering people is a lot of access. As long as you don’t have a disagreement with him, you get a lot of benefits. There is no entrance fee except for your soul. You don’t need a law degree or a lot of knowledge. It is attractive. Republicans are also falling in line. They are not uncomfortable with authoritarianism and hierarchy. They follow their leader. They see political leaders as vessels. If you think about it this way, it can justify a lot.

Surprisingly, despite all their work on college campuses, neither Charlie Kirk nor Candace Owens have a college degree.

Charlie keeps talking about how college is a waste of money and a waste of time. He believes that if you want an engineering degree or a law degree, that’s fine. But if you want a liberal arts degree, don’t. College is a scam. This benefits overpaid professors. Grades are biased. The student body is vigilant and intolerant. He describes them as “islands of intolerance”.

You describe conservative youth conferences as these raucous, rowdy events with wine corks in the bathroom and drunk 20-year-olds by the pool. How did they evolve?

When the conservative movement was formed, it realized that people needed to come together. Youth groups also started holding their own conferences. In the last 10 years, they have become a raucous party. As conservatives have become more celebrity-conscious and worked to build their own shadow Hollywood, they’ve begun to see these events as ways to push out celebrities and personalities and turn them into these Lollapalooza festivals. The energy is very intense. They got into those long lines to meet Rudolph Giuliani or Dinesh D’Souza. They lionize these people. These speakers are like ministers. They make the room crazy. They are something between concerts and revivals.

You argue 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 know no bounds. We’re not done with Charlie Kirk. He doesn’t go away. He will simply be more important to the story of Republicans in America.

CONNECTED: Poll: Nearly half of Americans believe the United States should be a Christian nation


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