When looking at some of the demographic trends in the United States, it’s easy to trick oneself into thinking that young Republicans are a dying species.
That’s far from the case, Kyle Spencer reports in her new book, “Raising Them Right,” which lays out how the conservative movement is investing in young people and turning them into lifelong loyalists.
Spencer, a contributor to the New York Times and various other high-profile publications, became interested in organizations that have spent millions of dollars on training and recruiting young people in the course of her reporting on education. The Leadership Institute, an instructional organization launched in 1979 that trains young conservatives to be political operators, spent $24 million in 2020 alone. Conservative donors also poured money into Turning Point USA, a youth activist group founded by Charlie Kirk.
“They understand so many young people come to college with very little civics education and very little understanding of American history,” Spencer told Grid. “So if they tell you something like, ‘Oh, you know, actually, the Founding Fathers never mentioned democracy in the Constitution, therefore, they didn’t really believe in democracy. We don’t live in a democracy …’ And the next thing you know, they’re pushing authoritarianism.”
In the book, she describes how conservative stars like Kirk and Candace Owens shared a resentment that took root early in life and was amplified after the election of Barack Obama, launching them into conservative superstardom. But much of the work is done more subtly, inviting students to vaguely labeled extracurricular groups referring to civic education and leadership principles before introducing more radical ideas.
“These kids are all trained — they know what to say, they know how to say it, they literally know where to stand on the campus to get more traction,” Spencer said. “Then you look over at the Young Democrats [of America], they have no money. They’ve had very little training, and they hand you a pen and a pamphlet. So if you’re a kid who doesn’t know a lot about politics, you don’t know really where you belong, and you’re looking for friends, you’d run to the Turning Point table in a heartbeat.”
Ahead of the midterms, some of these conservatives are “trying to sour their classmates on the Democrats so they won’t go vote” — something that, Spencer told Grid in an interview, is a form of youth voter suppression.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: You’ve written high-profile stories over the years about education — things like common core, diversity in the classroom and work-readiness programs. So how did you decide to look at this aspect of a very different kind of education?
Kyle Spencer: I was on and off college campuses a lot, and I started to see these young pro-gun activists pushing this state legislation that would permit their classmates to have handguns in their backpacks. They would tell you that they were doing this single-handedly, that they were marching to their state legislatures, and they were getting this legislation passed. And these were like flipflop-wearing dudes who looked like they were more comfortable with a beer in their hand at their frat houses. And I just didn’t believe it.
So I started digging into student groups and their budgets. I started looking at tax documents, and I started looking at annual reports. And it became clear to me that these groups were not doing this on their own. They were actually the face of a much bigger, adult movement, which was being funded by groups like the NRA and then of course the more radical Gun Owners of America.
G: It struck me that these groups introduce themselves subtly — like people drinking beers and as flannel-wearing hipster types. I also just didn’t know about all of the millions of dollars going into this movement. Is it a kind of subtle movement?
KS: These folks have really come to understand what’s going on in this country in terms of tribalism and how much tribalism plays out on college campuses. Tribalism is really, on a college campus, kind of cliques: “We’re the more religious conservative folks, and those guys over there are the radicals — they’re the lefties, they’re the communists, they’re the weirdos.” But they’re using tribalism and clique-ism on a college campus to stoke culture war issues, which then of course become political, because that’s what the Republicans traffic in.
The other thing is that they understand, and they use to their advantage the fact that so many young people come to college with very little civics education and very little understanding of American history. So if they tell you something like, “Oh, you know, actually, the Founding Fathers never mentioned democracy in the Constitution, therefore, they didn’t really believe in democracy, we don’t live in a democracy …” And the next thing you know, they’re pushing authoritarianism. … So if you walked on a college campus, on the one side, you would see a table that was Turning Point USA — there are balloons, there’s candy, there’s swag. There are posters that the organization has spent millions of dollars figuring out what themes are going to be effective, what terminology to use, what the photo looks like of the guy who’s on the poster — should the person have a beard, should they have glasses? I mean, this is granular stuff they spend millions of dollars on.
Then they’re like, “Come to our pizza party, come to our gun-range event.” Then you go to the pizza party and someone’s talking to you about how climate change is not a thing, or faith and government ought to be aligned. They start pushing all these ideas. But it starts very, very innocuous. They really play on people’s desire to make friends.
G: As we get closer to a critical midterm election, what role are these activated young conservatives playing?
KS: These young conservatives on the college campuses like to traffic in culture wars, and they don’t like to traffic in a lot of facts. They don’t want to get into a conversation about what Build Back Better has really done. They don’t want to get into a conversation about [President Joe] Biden’s student debt relief. They don’t want to get into too deep a conversation about [Dobbs v. Jackson].
They want to stay focused on — “Biden’s an idiot, he keeps falling off his bicycle, Biden’s too old, Biden is slurring his speech … and that other kid over there he’s probably here because of affirmative action and shouldn’t be here because he’s taking the slot of your friend who didn’t get into this college.”
They don’t traffic in actual issues. They’re not necessarily out there campaigning — and certainly a lot of these groups can’t anyway because of their tax status, their nonprofit status. They’re not going to traffic in actual political issues. What they’re going to traffic in is trying to sour their classmates on the Democrats. And it’s a kind of voter suppression that people don’t really talk about. It’s a kind of youth voter suppression, which is really to dissuade them from going to the polls.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.