(RNS) – Surveys show younger Americans are more liberal than older Americans. But over the past decade, Republicans, aided heavily by major white evangelical donors, have invested heavily in building a youth movement well-organized 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 Unseen Story of America’s Ultraconservative Youth Movement and the Plot for Power” explores the key players and their tactics.
The book traces the adventures of a campus organization, formal training, amazing meetings and embracing celebrity culture. It paints a picture of a powerful, highly capable, conflicted and, in many cases, mob-like organization. Spencer gives several examples of communication strategies using “angry sarcasm” and gotcha games. There’s an “Affirmative Action Bake Sale” (Asians: $1.50; Caucasians $1, African Americans and Hispanics $.50), a “Professor Watchlist” and popular videos of liberals behaving badly.
Leading the fledgling movement are Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk and talk show host Candace Owens (and, to a lesser extent, libertarian editor Cliff Maloney). In his book, Spencer describes their background, their ability to promote themselves and their rapid rise to the top ranks of Republican politics. Both Kirk and Owens became members of President Trump’s inner circle. They later supported Trump’s Big Lie efforts, becoming terror soldiers for the post-election disinformation campaign. Turning Point USA sent about 350 people to Trump’s speech on the Ellipse on January 6, where he encouraged his supporters to go to the Capitol as Congress certifies the results of the 2020 elections. (Kirk, who was not present and (We don’t support the attack on the Capitol, though he said the rebels’ anger was understandable.)
Both Kirk and Owens were raised as Christians and have publicly and verbally embraced their evangelical identity. Kirk founded TPUSA Faith, whose mission is to “unite, equip, and empower Christians to change the course of our country.” His podcast is played on the conservative Christian radio station, Salem Media.
RNS spoke with Spencer about his book and what this growing movement of young activists could mean for the future. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
How did you get into this?
I was on college campuses and I was starting to meet the young gun rights advocates who were passing laws and pushing campus laws. When you spoke to them, they said they were doing this themselves. I just couldn’t believe that. I started looking at budgets and annual reports. And lo and behold, I found out that the NRA and Gun Owners of America were pumping millions of dollars into college campuses for pro-gun policies. Well, I thought, if gun rights groups are doing this, so are conservative groups. I’ve got 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 Center, which serves as a clearinghouse for all these groups. That’s when I learned how they were organized.
Did Charlie Kirk go through those shows?
I’m not sure he trained there. But everyone who worked for him went through the Leadership Institute. They bring those educators to their meetings, their campuses. They really put it into these groups.
How old was Charlie?
His family attended church, and when he was 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 would not have sex until marriage, and he was not a heavy drinker. His faith is central 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 in advance, these evangelists are a good source of donors for him. Turning Point USA looks secular, but within the organization the majority are Christian. Finally Turning Point moved to Arizona, and now the organization is led by Tyler Bowyer, who is a Mormon, and now many Mormons work at Turning Point USA.
Where do their angry and sarcastic tactics come from? Does the Leadership Institute teach that?
The goals of the Leadership Institute are to win and do whatever it takes to win. Teasing and teasing and taunting progressive students is incorporated into the structure and strategy to win hearts and minds. It was always like that. The thing about Trump is that he was evil and encouraged children to be evil. He made people find their inner bullies and capitalize on them. It stems from anger and anxiety that college students feel inadequate or unheard. Then they are taught, OK, this is how you can fight back. Look for ways to tease them. They teach them how to use their phones. Whenever you find someone who is still playing, get it on video. We will fix it and beat it. The Leadership Institute has a publication called Campus Reform, which is a vehicle for pushing the idea that conservatives on college campuses do not have free speech.
Do these tactics always contradict 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 this. Your way of life is very dangerous, the world of the world is very dangerous, you should fight it as much as you can.
How important was Christianity to Candace Owens growing up?
His grandfather and grandmother raised him, and they were very religious. They read the Bible at the table. He went to college and dropped out to move to New York. He let his religious beliefs slip. He took them back when he joined the cult. He tells the story at Liberty University. There is a video of him telling his fall from grace and rebirth story, and it’s very powerful. He starts to cry. Then she married a real religious guy, George Farmer.
You write that neither Charlie Kirk nor Cliff Maloney have a very high opinion of Trump in the first place. They changed their minds by some chance, didn’t they?
One of the things that Trump gives people is a lot of access. As long as you don’t fight with him, you get a lot of good stuff. There is no cost to enter, except for your soul. You don’t need a law degree or a lot of knowledge. It’s tempting. Again, the Republicans fall in line. They are not satisfied with the authority and authority. They follow their leader. They see political leaders as vessels. If you think about it that way, it can be very self-explanatory.
Surprisingly, for all their work on college campuses, neither Charlie Kirk nor Candace Owens has 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 that’s fine. But if you want to get a liberal arts degree, don’t. College is a scam. It benefits overpaid professors. Groups are biased. The student body is awake and impatient. He describes them as “islands of impatience.”
You describe well-behaved youth gatherings as these loud, rowdy events where you find wine corks in the bathroom and drunk 20-somethings in the pool. How did they evolve?
When the conservative movement was being built, he understood that people should come together. Youth groups started having their meetings, too. In the last 10 years they have become violent parties. As conservatives became aware of celebrities and worked to build their own shadow in Hollywood, they began to see these events as ways to push celebrities and celebrities and they’re turning these Lollapalooza parties into privilege. The energy is very strong. They would join these long lines to meet Rudolph Giuliani or Dinesh D’Souza. They cheated these people. These speakers are like servants. They make the room crazy. It is something between concerts and revivals.
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 are limitless. We’re not done with Charlie Kirk yet. He doesn’t go. He will simply be at the center of the story of the American Republic.
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