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

(RNS) – Polls show younger Americans are far 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 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 Plot for Power” probes the key players and their tactics.

The book tracks the movement’s campus launch events, highly structured training, raucous lectures, and embrace of celebrity culture. It paints a portrait of a powerful and well-endowed movement that has become increasingly brash, confrontational and, in many cases, incendiary. Spencer gives plenty of examples of communication strategies that use “angry banter” and head games. There’s the “Affirmative Action Bake Sale” ($1.50 Asian; $1 Caucasian, $0.50 African-American and Hispanic), the “Teacher’s Watch List,” and doctored videos of liberals behaving badly .

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At the forefront of this nascent movement are Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk and keynote speaker Candace Owens (and, to a lesser extent, libertarian organizer Cliff Maloney). In his book, Spencer describes his background, his knack for self-promotion and his rapid rise to the highest levels of Republican politics. Both Kirk and Owens became fixtures in former President Trump’s inner circle. They later supported Trump’s Big Lie efforts, becoming the 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 Capitol Hill as Congress certified the results of the 2020 election. (Kirk, who was not there and said he did not support the attack on the Capitol, but said the rioters’ anger was understandable.)

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Both Kirk and Owens grew up Christian and have publicly and vocally adopted 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 conservative Christian radio station Salem Media.

RNS spoke with Spencer about his book and what this growing movement of young conservatives may portend for the future. The interview was edited for length and clarity.

How did you get into this?

I was out and about on college campuses and starting to meet young gun rights advocates who were introducing and pushing for campus carry legislation. When you spoke to them they said they were doing it alone. I just didn’t believe it. I started looking at budgets and annual reports. And lo and behold, I found out that the NRA and the gun owners of America were pumping millions of dollars into college campuses for pro-gun policies. So, I thought, if the pro-gun groups are doing this, so are the conservative groups. I found pro-life groups, anti-climate groups, libertarian groups. They were all pumping tons and tons of money into college campuses. Then I went to the Leadership Institute, which serves as a clearinghouse for all these groups. That’s where I learned how organized they were.

Kyle Rittenhouse, right, is introduced to a cheering crowd by Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, middle, at a panel discussion at the Turning Point USA America Fest 2021 event, Monday, Dec. 20, 2021, in Phoenix.  The round table was called "Kenosha on camera," it comes a month after Rittenhouse was acquitted of charges in the deadly Kenosha shootings in 2020. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

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

Did Charlie Kirk go through these shows?

Not sure if he trained there. But everyone who works for him went through the Leadership Institute. They bring these trainers to their conferences, to their campuses. They are really integrated within these groups.

How religious was Charlie growing up?

His family attended church and in high school he joined a local evangelical church. I admired Joel Osteen and would quote him and recommend him to friends. He told people early on that he would not have sex until marriage and that he was not a drinker. His faith is integral to 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 very religious. He realizes very early on 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 moves to Arizona, and then the organization is run by Tyler Bowyer, who is Mormon, and now many Mormons work for Turning Point USA.

Where do their rage and taunt tactics come from? Does the Leadership Institute teach it?

The goals of the Leadership Institute are to win and do whatever it takes to win. Mocking, goading and mocking progressive students is built into the structure 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. It allowed people to find their inner bully and tap into it. It is rooted in 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. Find ways to make fun of them. They teach them how to arm their phone. Every time you come across some crazy progressive action, put it on video. We will edit it and turn it on. The Leadership Institute has a publication called Campus Reform, which is a vehicle for pushing this idea that conservatives on college campuses don’t have free speech.

Do these tactics ever conflict with your 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 at risk, the secular world is so dangerous, you must fight against it as much as you can.

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

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

How important was Christianity to Candace Owens growing up?

Her grandfather and grandmother raised her, and they were very religious. They read the Bible at the table. He went to college and then dropped out and moved to New York. He let his religious beliefs fall by the wayside. He picked them up again when he joined the conservative movement. She tells the story at Liberty University. There’s a video of her explaining her fall from grace and her rebirth, and it’s very compelling. She starts to cry. Then she married a really religious guy, George Farmer.

He writes that neither Charlie Kirk nor Cliff Maloney had a very high opinion of Trump initially. They changed their minds in an opportunistic way, didn’t they?

One of the things that Trump gives people is a lot of access. As long as you don’t have a fight with him, you’ll have a lot of advantages. There is no cost of entry except your soul. You don’t need a law degree or a lot of knowledge. This is seductive. Also, Republicans are 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 that way, it can excuse a lot.

What’s striking is that for all their work on college campuses, neither Charlie Kirk nor Candace Owens have a college degree.

Charlie talks all the time about how college is a waste of money and a waste of time. He thinks if you want to get an engineering degree or a law degree, that’s fine. But if you want to get a liberal arts degree, don’t. College is a scam. It benefits overpaid teachers. Classes are biased. The students are awake and intolerant. He describes them as “islands of intolerance”.

You describe young conservative conferences as these rowdy, rowdy events where you find wine corks in the bathroom and drunk twenty-somethings in the pool. How did they evolve?

When the conservative movement rose, he understood that people had to come together. Youth groups also began to hold their own conferences. In the last 10 years they have become outrageous parties. As conservatives have become more celebrity-conscious and have been working to build their own Hollywood shadow, they’ve begun to see these events as ways to push out celebrities and personalities and turn them into these festivals of Lollapalooza on the right. The energy is very intense. They would get in those long lines to meet Rudolph Giuliani or Dinesh D’Souza. They lionized these people. These speakers are like ministers. They make the room crazy. They are something between concerts and revivals.

In the book you suggest 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’s not leaving. It will simply be more central to the history of Republicans in America.


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