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 in 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 lure young people – especially 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.

This book traces the tabling events on the movement’s campus, the structured training, the greedy conferences and the embrace of celebrity culture. It paints a portrait of a powerful, blessed movement that has grown, confrontational and, in many cases, incendiary. Spencer gives plenty of examples of communication strategies using “enraged mockery” and the gotcha game. There’s an “Affirmative Action Bake Sale” (Asian: $1.50; Caucasian $1, African American and Hispanic $.50), a “Professor Watchlist” and doctored videos of liberals behaving badly.

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Leading this nascent movement is Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk and talkshow host 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 upper echelons of Republican politics. Both Kirk and Owens became fixtures in former President Trump’s inner orbit. Then they backed Trump’s Big Lie effort, becoming a shock troop for the post-election misinformation campaign. Turning Point USA sent 350 people to Trump’s speech at the Ellipse on January 6, where he urged his supporters to storm the Capitol when Congress certifies the results of the 2020 election. (Kirk, who was not there and said he did not support the attack on the Capitol, but expressed anger Rebels are understandable.)

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Both Kirk and Owens grew up Christian and publicly and vocally embrace 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 the conservative Christian radio outlet, Salem Media.

RNS spoke to Spencer about his book and what this growing young conservative movement might portend for the future. Interview edited for length and clarity.

How did you get into this?

I was off and on a college campus and I began to encounter young gun rights advocates who were tabling and pushing for legislation to be enacted on campus. When you talk to them, they say they did this themselves. I just can’t believe it. I started looking at budgets and annual reports. And, I discovered the NRA and Gun Owners of America are pumping millions of dollars into college campuses for pro-gun policies. Then, perhaps, if gun rights groups do this, so will conservative groups. I found pro-life groups, anti-climate groups, libertarian groups. They all pump tons and tons of money onto college campuses. Then I went to the Leadership Institute, which serves as a clearinghouse for all these groups. That’s where I learned how to set them up.

Kyle Rittenhouse, right, is introduced to a cheering crowd by Charlie Kirk, center, 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, called "Kenosha On Camera," comes a month after Rittenhouse's acquittal of charges in the Kenosha shooting death in 2020. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Kyle Rittenhouse, right, is introduced to a cheering crowd by Charlie Kirk, center, 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, called “Kenosha On Camera,” comes a month after Rittenhouse was acquitted of charges in the deadly Kenosha shooting in 2020. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Did Charlie Kirk go through the program?

I’m not sure he was trained there. But anyone who works for him goes through the Leadership Institute. They bring those trainers to their conference, their campus. They are rightly included in this group.

How was Charlie’s religion growing up?

His family went to church, and in high school he joined a local Evangelical church. He admired Joel Osteen and quoted him and recommended him to friends. He told people early on that he wouldn’t have sex until he was married, and he wasn’t a drinker. His faith is essential to his understanding of how the world works or should work. Some of his first donors, Allie Hanley and (the late Wyoming businessman) Foster Friess, were deeply religious. He realized pretty early on, these evangelicals are good donors for him. Turning Point USA appears to be secular, but inside the organization the majority is Christian. Finally Turning Point moved to Arizona, then the organization was led by Tyler Bowyer, who is a Mormon, and now many Mormons work for Turning Point USA.

Where did their rage and taunting tactics come from? Does the Leadership Institute teach that?

The goal of The Leadership Institute is to win and do whatever it takes to win. Ridiculing and arousing and insulting progressive students are baked into structures and schemes to win hearts and minds. That is always the case. The thing with Trump is that he gets mean and encourages kids to be mean. He enables people to discover their inner bullies and exploit them. It’s rooted in anger and anxiety that students don’t feel they belong or can’t be heard. And then they’re taught, OK, this is how you can fight back. Find a way to hurt them. They teach them to use their phone weapons. Every time you come across progressive acting, turn it into a video. We will edit and touch it up. The Leadership Institute has a publication called Campus Reform, which is a vehicle for pushing the idea that conservatives on college campuses should not have free speech.

Do these tactics ever conflict with their religious values?

They say we are fighting a holy war. If you are in a holy war, the end justifies the means. Radicalism is the way to do this. Your way of life is very dangerous, the secular world is very dangerous, you must fight by any means.

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

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

How important was Christianity for Candace 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 and then dropped out and moved to New York. He let his religious beliefs fall by the wayside. He picked it up again when he joined the conservative movement. She tells the story at Liberty University. There’s a video of him telling his fall from grace and rebirth story, and it’s really interesting. She started to cry. Then she married a really religious guy, George Farmer.

You wrote that neither Charlie Kirk nor Cliff Maloney had a very high opinion of Trump at first. They change their minds in a kind of opportunistic way, right?

One of the things that Trump offers people is a lot of access. As long as you don’t have a relationship with him, you get a lot of benefits. There is no entry fee, except for your soul. You don’t need to have a law degree or much knowledge. It’s tempting. Also, Republicans fall in line. They are not comfortable with authoritarianism and hierarchy. They follow their leader. They see political leaders as vessels. If you think about it that way, it can be very forgiving.

What’s interesting 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 that if you want to get an engineering degree or a law degree it’s fine. But if you want to get a liberal arts degree, don’t do it. College is a scam. The benefits of overpaid professors. A biased class. The student body is awake and impatient. He described them as “islands of intolerance”.

You describe the conservative youth conference as this rowdy, raucous event where you find wine corks in the bathroom and drunk 20-somethings in the pool. How do they evolve?

When the conservative movement was building, it understood that people needed to come together. Youth groups started having their own conferences as well. In the last 10 years, they have become a crowded party. As conservatives have become more celebrity conscious and have worked on building their own shadow Hollywood, they began to see this event as a way to push out celebrities and personalities and turn this Lollapalooza festival for the right. The energy is very intense. They will get into this long line to meet Rudolph Giuliani or Dinesh D’Souza. They lionized these people. This speaker is like a minister. They got a crazy room. It’s 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 ambition knows no bounds. We’re not done with Charlie Kirk. He won’t go. He will only become more central to the story of Republicans in America.


Related: Poll: Nearly half of Americans think the US should be a Christian nation


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