(RNS) — Polls show that younger Americans are far more liberal than older Americans. But over the past decade, Republicans, largely with the help of 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 Its Conspiracy for Power” explores the main characters and their tactics.
The book describes the movement’s on-campus events, 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 bold, confrontational and, in many cases, inflammatory. Spencer gives many examples of communication strategies that use “furious mockery” and “gotcha games”. There’s an Affirmative Action Bake Sale ($1.50 for Asians; $1 for Caucasians, $0.50 for African-Americans and Hispanics), a “Professor’s Watch List” and snarky videos of liberals behaving badly.
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 his book, Spencer describes their background, their ability to advertise, and their rapid rise to the highest echelons of Republican politics. Both Kirk and Owens have become fixtures in former President Trump’s inner orbit. They later supported Trump’s “Big Lie” efforts and became the shock troops of the post-election disinformation campaign. The turning point in the US sent about 350 people to Trump’s speech at the Ellipse on Jan. 6, where he called on his supporters to march on Capitol Island as Congress approved the 2020 presidential election. election results. (Kirk, who was not there and said he opposed the attack on the Capitol, nevertheless said the rebels’ fury was understandable.)
Both Kirk and Owens were raised Christians and have publicly and vocally embraced an evangelical identity. Kirk founded TPUSA Faith, whose mission is to “engage, equip and empower Christians to change the trajectory of our nation.” His podcast is broadcast on Salem Media, a conservative Christian radio station.
RNS spoke with Spencer about her book and what this growing young conservative movement might hold for the future. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get into it?
I was out on college campuses and began to encounter young gun rights advocates who were proposing and pushing for campus carry laws. When you talked 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 discovered that the NRA and Gun Owners of America are pumping millions of dollars into college campuses for gun policy. Then I thought, if gun rights groups are doing it, so are conservative groups. I found pro-life groups, anti-climate groups, libertarian groups. They all pumped tons of money into college campuses. Then I went to the Leadership Institute, which is the clearinghouse for all these groups. Here I learned how they were organized.
Did Charlie Kirk survive those programs?
I’m not sure if he trained there. But everyone who works for him has passed the Leadership Institute. They bring those instructors to their conferences, their campuses. They are definitely 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 marriage, and he wasn’t a heavy drinker. His faith is inseparable from his understanding of how the world works or should work. Some of his early donors, Allie Hanley and (the late Wyoming businessman) Foster Friess, are deeply religious. He realizes quite early that these evangelicals are a good donor base for him. Turning Point USA appears to be secular, but within the organization, the vast majority are Christians. Eventually Turning Point moved to Arizona and then the organization was run by Tyler Bowyer who is a Mormon and now many Mormons work at Turning Point USA.
Where do their anger 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. The mockery, incitement and taunting of progressive disciples is baked into the structure and scheme of winning hearts and minds. It’s always been that way. The thing about Trump is that he was mean and he encouraged kids to be mean. He allowed people to find their inner bully and take advantage of it. It stems from resentment and anxiety that college students don’t feel like they belong or can’t be heard. Then they’re taught, “Okay, here’s a way to fight back.” Find ways to make fun of them. They teach them to weaponize their phone. Every time you think progressive acting is stupid, put it on video. We will fix and fix. The Leadership Institute has a publication called Campus Reform, which is a vehicle for promoting the idea that conservatives on college campuses do not have free speech.
Do these tactics ever conflict with their religious values?
They say we are in a holy war. If you’re in a holy war, the ends justify the means. Radicalism is the way to do it. Your way of life is so risky, the secular world is so dangerous that you need to fight it as best you can.
How important was Christianity to Candace Owens growing up?
She was raised by her grandfather and grandmother, who were very religious. They read the Bible at the table. She went to college, then dropped out and moved to New York. She left her religious beliefs behind. After joining the conservative movement, she took them up again. She tells the story at Liberty University. There is a video where she tells the story of her fall from grace and her resurgence, and it is very compelling. She starts crying. Then she married a really religious guy, George Farmer.
You write that neither Charlie Kirk nor Cliff Maloney initially had a very high opinion of Trump. They changed their minds in a kind of opportunistic way, right?
One of the things Trump is offering people is a lot of access. As long as you don’t mess with him, you get a lot of perks. There is no cost to enter except for your soul. It is not necessary to have a law degree or a lot of knowledge. It’s tempting. And the Republicans are falling in line. They are uncomfortable with authoritarianism and hierarchy. They follow their leader. They see political leaders as Indians. If you think like that, it can pay off big.
Surprisingly, neither Charlie Kirk nor Candace Owens have a college degree, despite all their work on college campuses.
Charlie keeps talking about how college is a waste of money and a waste of time. He thinks if you want to get an engineering or law degree, that’s fine. But if you want to get a liberal arts degree, don’t. College is a scam. This is good for overpaying professors. Classes are biased. The student community is awake and impatient. He describes them as “islands of intolerance”.
You describe conservative youth conferences as these loud, boisterous events where you find wine corks in the bathroom and twenty-somethings by the pool. How did they evolve?
As the conservative movement was emerging, he realized that people had to come together. Youth groups also started holding their own conferences. Over the past 10 years, they’ve become wild parties. As conservatives became interested in celebrity and creating their own shadowy Hollywood, they began to see these events as ways to displace celebrities and personalities and turn them into these Lollapalooza festivals. The energy is very intense. They will get in these long lines to meet Rudolph Giuliani or Dinesh D’Souza. They lionized these people. These speakers are like ministers. They drive the room crazy. They are something between concerts and revivals.
You say 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. It doesn’t disappear. He will simply be more important in American Republican history.
RELATED: Poll: Nearly half of Americans think the United States should be a Christian nation