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, largely aided by major white evangelical donors, have invested heavily in a well-organized conservative youth movement to attract young people — especially college students — Go to the right.

Kyle Spencer, a longtime education reporter for The New York Times and Politico, has now written a book about the work. “Raising Them Right: The Untold Story of America’s Ultra-Conservative Youth Movement and Its Power Conspiracy” explores key players and their strategies.

The book traces the movement’s campus table activities, highly structured training, raucous meetings and embrace of celebrity culture. It portrays a powerful, blessed movement that has become increasingly reckless, confrontational and, in many cases, inflammatory. Spencer provides numerous examples of communication strategies using “angry taunts” and trap games. There are “Affirmative Action Bake Sale” (Asian: $1.50; Caucasian $1, African American & Hispanic $0.50), “Professor Watch List” and doctored libertarian underperformance videos.

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Leading the nascent movement were American Turning Point founder Charlie Kirk and talk show host Candace Owens (and to a lesser extent liberal organizer Cliff Maloney). In her book, Spencer describes their backgrounds, their knack for self-promotion and their rapid rise to the top of Republican politics. Both Kirk and Owens have become fixtures in the inner orbit of former President Trump. They later backed Trump’s Big Lies efforts and became the commandos of the post-election misinformation campaign. Turning Point The United States sent about 350 people to a Jan. 6 speech at the Oval where Trump urged his supporters to head to the Capitol when Congress approves the 2020 election results. (Kirk was absent and said he did not support the attack on the Capitol, but he said the insurgents were understandably angry.)

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Both Kirk and Owens were raised Christians and embraced evangelical identities openly and verbally. Kirk founded TPUSA Faith with a mission to “engage, equip, and empower Christians to change the trajectory of our nation.” His podcast airs on conservative Christian radio station Salem Media.

RNS spoke with Spencer about her book, and what the growing movement of young conservatives could be a harbinger of the future. Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get into this field?

As I wandered around college campuses, I started meeting young gun rights advocates who proposed and pushed for campus carry legislation. When you talk to them, they say they do it themselves. I just don’t believe it. I started looking at budgets and annual reports. You see, I found out that the NRA and American gun owners put millions of dollars into pro-gun policies on college campuses. Then, I thought, if gun rights groups are doing it, so are conservative groups. I found pro-life groups, anti-climate groups, liberal groups. They are all pouring huge sums of money into college campuses. Then I went to the Leadership Academy, which is the communication center for all these groups. This is where I got to know how they are organized.

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

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

Did Charlie Kirk pass these plans?

I’m not sure he was trained there. But everyone who worked for him passed the leadership academy. They bring these trainers to their conferences, to their campuses. They really fit into these groups.

How religious was Charlie growing up?

His family went to church, and in high school he joined the local evangelical church. He admires Joel Osteen and quotes him and recommends him to friends. He told people early on that he would not have sex until he was married and that he was not an alcoholic. His beliefs are integral to his understanding of how the world works or should work. Some of his first donors, Ellie Hanley and (the late Wyoming businessman) Foster Freese, were very religious. He realized early on that these evangelicals were a good donor base for him. Turning Point USA may seem secular, but within the organization, the vast majority are Christians. Eventually Turning Point moved to Arizona, and then the group was led by Tyler Bowyer, a Mormon, and many Mormons are now working for Turning Point USA.

Where did their anger and taunting tactics come from? Does the Leadership Academy teach this?

The goal of the Leadership Academy is to win and do whatever you need to win. The taunting, incitement, and teasing of progressive students are all incorporated into heart-wrenching structures and schemas. This is always the case. The problem with Trump is that he gets mean and encourages his kids to be mean. He enables people to find their inner bully and take advantage of it. Resentment and anxiety are at the root of college students feeling that they don’t belong or be heard. And then they were taught, okay, here’s how you can fight back. Find a way to make fun of them. They teach them to weaponize cell phones. Every time you find a progressive performance quirk, put it on the video. We’ll edit and slap it on. The Leadership Institute has a publication called Campus Reform, which is a vehicle for pushing the idea that conservatives don’t have free speech on college campuses.

Do these strategies 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. Activism is the way to do it. Your way of life is so dangerous, the mundane world is so dangerous, and you need to do everything you can to fight it.

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

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

How Important was Christianity to Candice Owens’ Growth?

She was raised by her grandfather and grandmother who were very religious. They read the Bible at the dinner table. She went to college, then dropped out to move to New York. She let her religious beliefs be put aside. She picked them up again when she joined the conservative movement. She told the story at Liberty University. There is a video about her fall from grace and rebirth, which is very fascinating. She started to cry. Then she married a very religious man, George Farmer.

You wrote that neither Charlie Kirk nor Cliff Maloney initially spoke highly of Trump. They changed their minds in an opportunistic way, right?

One of the things Trump offers people is a lot of opportunity. As long as you don’t fight with him, you’ll get a lot of benefits. There is no cost to enter, except your soul. You don’t have to have a law degree or a lot of knowledge. It’s tempting. Also, Republicans are lining up. They are not uncomfortable with authoritarianism and hierarchy. They do follow their leaders. They see political leaders as ships. If you think so, it can be forgiven a lot.

Surprisingly, neither Charlie Kirk nor Candace Owens have a college degree, even though they both work on college campuses.

Charlie keeps talking about how college wastes money and time. If you want to get an engineering degree or a law degree, that’s fine, he thinks. But if you want a liberal arts degree, don’t do it. College is a scam. It favors highly paid professors. Classes are biased. The student body is awake and intolerant. He described them as “islands of intolerance”.

You describe conservative youth meetings as these raucous, boisterous events where you find booze stoppers in the bathroom and drunken 20-somethings in the pool. How did they evolve?

When the conservative movement emerged, it understood that people needed to rally. Youth groups have also started hosting their own conferences. Over the past 10 years, they’ve become raucous parties. As conservatives increasingly focus on celebrities and work to forge their own shadow Hollywood, they’re starting to see these events as a way to sideline celebrities and celebrities and turn them into right-wing Lollapalooza festivals. The energy is very strong. They would have long queues to see Rudolph Giuliani or Dinesh De Sousa. They worship these people. These speakers are like ministers. They drove the room crazy. They are somewhere between a concert and a revival.

You imply in your 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 are limitless. We’re not done with Charlie Kirk. He will not go. He will only be at the heart of the American Republican story.


related: Poll: Nearly half of Americans think America should be a Christian country


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