How youth activists energized the right — and drove politics into madness

Author Kyle Spencer on how right-wing funders turned Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens into media superstars

By Kathryn Joyce

Investigative Reporter

Published October 14, 2022 6:00AM (EDT)

Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens of Turning Point USA speak on the University of Colorado Boulder Campus on Wednesday Oct 3, 2018. (Paul Aiken/Digital First Media/Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images)
Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens of Turning Point USA speak on the University of Colorado Boulder Campus on Wednesday Oct 3, 2018. (Paul Aiken/Digital First Media/Boulder Daily Camera via Getty Images)

Fifty-eight years ago, young conservatives flocked into a San Francisco ballroom, eager to nominate their hero for president: Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, who had urged the Cold War right to embrace "extremism in the defense of liberty." But just a few months later the energy of the Republican National Convention of 1964 — later dubbed the Woodstock of the right and the birthplace of modern conservatism — seemed to hit a wall, as Goldwater lost the 1964 election by a humiliating 16 million votes, one of the biggest landslides of modern political history. 

In the aftermath, the defeated Goldwaterites famously set about building a new conservative machine that could eventually help them win. Realizing that part of what they had lacked in 1964 was the left's support among the young, building a right-wing youth movement became something of a mission. Over the following decades, that choice paid off in spades, as generations of Republican leaders, grassroots activists and right-wing intellectuals found a level of conservative institutional support and opportunities that young lefties could only dream of. 

But over the last 10 years, the role of right-wing youth movements has grown even more central, helping to establish the guiding narratives and elevating some of the most visible faces of conservatism today, as journalist Kyle Spencer writes in her new book, "Raise Them Right: The Untold Story of America's Ultraconservative Youth Movement and Its Plot for Power." 

Spencer's book traces the shape of this movement through a focus on three of its most outspoken and effective leaders: Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, commentator and "Blexit" creator Candace Owens and embattled former Young Americans for Liberty head Cliff Maloney. Despite the juvenile aggression of much of their activism — from affirmative action bake sales to diaper-clad protests against "safe spaces" — the movement's promise to transform liberal college kids into right-wing firebrands has drawn support from such patrons and mentors as Ginni Thomas and Donald Trump Jr. Whether their activism was originally sparked by genuine conviction or just a quest for fame, all three have helped mainstream some of the right's most radical ideas. 

Spencer spoke with Salon this week.

Figures like Charlie Kirk have become such fixtures on the right that it's hard to remember what things were like before they arose. What have they changed about movement conservatism? 

Charlie Kirk in particular arose amid a sort of anti-Obamaism. Obama's two campaigns really revolutionized the use of the internet as a political tool, as young people used social media to spread his message. When Charlie decided to build his movement, he saw a catching up that had to happen, and essentially decided he wanted to mimic what the Obama kids had done. They were coming from a sense that they had missed the ball, which is always how Republicans build their movements: out of a sense that they're getting beaten by the other side.

Most young people vote Democrat. That's an undeniable fact. So in trying to activate young conservatives, Republicans are always trying to shave away at the edges of the Democratic Party — particularly among white men, though we're also starting to see it among young Latino and Black men too. They've found they can add male voters, in particular, to the Republican Party with the right messaging. A lot of the messaging that seems to work is about the left's supposed "intolerance" and the idea that men are being beaten down by progressive ideas. 

How did Turning Point USA use college campus dynamics — like its early "Professor Watch List" and its later protests — to build its movement? 

We think of college campus activism as being progressive by definition. Traditionally it's been that way, from the Civil Rights and free speech movements in the 1960s. But even in the '60s, there was strong right-wing activism on campus happening too. And what happens with right-wing activists is they often have to be a lot louder, more radical, more creative. When progressives or Democrats are activating on college campuses, they're really registering people to vote; they're saying, we know most of you agree with us, so we just need to get you involved. But Republicans and conservative activists need to change hearts and minds. They do that by being really in your face, with mockery, inducing rage and loud, aggressive efforts. 

In the book, I write about an incident at the University of New Mexico in 2017 where Turning Point USA held an "affirmative action bake sale": a right-wing activism tool that tries to depict the ills of affirmative action by selling baked goods at different prices, depending on a person's race. So white people pay more, and Black and Latino people pay less. It's an effort to send the message that if you're white, you have to pay more — financially, emotionally and academically — to get to college. 

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That bake sale was extremely unpopular, extremely poorly received by people on campus, who became very upset about it and called the TPUSA activists racist or disgusting. But that resulted in the group getting media attention, from local press to national coverage by the AP. So you saw these activists who knew that most people would find their bake sale disgusting, but also knew there would be a few people who would say, "Oh, yeah, I think that, too," and that would essentially pull a few people in. So again, it's Republicans understanding that they'll never win over the Democratic base, but they can shave away at the edges. 

Republican donors care a lot about what's happening on college campuses. There's a sense in the country that colleges are places where you don't have a voice if you're conservative. And one thing right-wing youth activists do really well is to highlight any instance that suggests intolerance by the left, against the right. That does well with right-wing media like Fox News, of course. But it starts to bleed into more moderate conservative outlets, and even left-leaning outlets, too, so that once these stories arrive at the New York Times, they've been distorted enough that it actually looks like a serious problem. That in turn raises money for conservatives and also starts to turn off moderate voters to young Democrats and progressives, and creates this general idea that Democrats are intolerant. 

That seems similar to the way that figures like Candace Owens have built their profile, denouncing what they call leftist "victimhood politics" while simultaneously embracing a form of right-wing victimization. 

Yeah, victimhood politics and the politics of resentment are tools the right uses a lot. What I think is interesting is that progressives are very concerned with trying to help the person lowest on the totem pole. When Democrats express concern about victims, what they want to do is help them. When Republicans focus on victimhood, it encourages anger and resentment, and they use it more as a tool to do things that are egregious in the name of being a victim. Election denial was rooted in a sense of victimization. Refusing to take a COVID vaccine took on this sense of victimhood. When people stormed the Capitol, they cast themselves as victims of the system, who could therefore do something illegal and violent. Victimhood is a great tool for the right to essentially destroy norms.

You write a lot about the personal backstories and the ambition for power or fame of the right-wing leaders you profile. How do they compare to the young foot soldiers they're trying to activate?

Charlie and Candace both like their fame. Cliff Maloney, I think, is more concerned with being a power broker and having influence behind the scenes. I would also say that Kirk is more of an ideologue than Owens, who was a liberal before she became a conservative. So in some ways she's a wannabe celebrity looking for an idea to latch onto, whereas Charlie really believes these things. 

But more generally, one thing I came to understand in my reporting is that the Republican Party is now a celebrity-making machine. That seems counterintuitive, because we know Democrats are more closely allied with Hollywood. But they have come to understand they need a base for their movement and when they find people willing to be spokespeople for conservatism, they cultivate them immediately. They bring them in, they train them, they teach them. They will actually dress people! 

The Republican Party is now a celebrity-making machine. When they find people willing to be spokespeople for conservatism, they cultivate them. They bring them in, they train them, they teach them. They'll actually dress them.

For a lot of young conservatives engaged in politics, the truth is that if they want to become celebrities or stars, they can. You'll see that with Turning Point's "ambassadors," who are encouraged to go out and co-brand themselves and their organization with Turning Point USA. You can go to conferences and learn how to brand yourself, how to work social media, how to start publications. One of the perks of the movement now is that it's a door to fame if you want it to be. 

But for the young conservatives who aren't trying to become well-known activists, Charlie and Candace still serve as role models. One thing I find so fascinating about Charlie is that he was a geek in high school. He was unpopular, he wasn't respected, he didn't have any prestige. Then he started to sell conservatism as something cool you can join — something that was a social movement as well as a political movement. He understood that a lot of conservative kids are also geeks on college campuses, also misunderstood and mocked. So he said, this is a place for you to belong. 

You talk about the right-wing conference circuit, where so much of that training and social movement building takes place, as being akin to a "PornHub for politics": different events that appeal to all different flavors of conservatism. Could you talk more about that?

In the 1960s, after Barry Goldwater, all these wounded Goldwaterites arrived in D.C., determined to build a movement that could take over the country. They had an understanding that lots of things had to happen, among them the need to get conservatives together to share ideas, network and make friends. So conservatives have had a conference culture for years. But in the last 10 or so years, that movement has really extended itself to young people. You see more and more of these young conservative conferences popping up, as a way for young people to get together, network and get trained, but also because the Republican Party has become this celebrity-making machine. 

They're opportunities for young people to meet their heroes: You can watch Tucker Carlson wail and rant, see Dennis Prager yell about horrible Democrats, or get on line to get your videos signed by Dinesh D'Souza. So conferences have become almost like rock concerts with all these celebrities roaming around. They are also really expensive. Donors spend millions of dollars donating to youth groups to hold these conferences. So young people who come often get free hotels, free food, obviously free entertainment and lots of swag. It's like a groupie bonanza for young conservatives. And they're fun. It's almost like spring break. 

Republican donors are always concerned about the fact that young people are most often progressive or liberal. They're constantly trying to come up with creative measures to recruit young people. That sense of urgency allows them to think long term about how to grow this generation of conservatives. And that means they spend a lot of money: On a yearly basis, Republicans spend three times more than Democratic donors on youth groups and recruiting young people. You also see conservative donors developing personal relationships with young conservatives, because they see them as so important to building the movement. So young conservatives get special treatment, whereas Democrats tend to take their young activists for granted. It's a real problem.

There are other right-wing youth movements that have come out in opposition to either Charlie Kirk personally or to the brand of conservatism he stands for, from the white nationalist groyper movement, which made its name protesting TPUSA events, to newer strains of conservatism that reject libertarianism. Where do they fit into the picture?  

Turning Point USA is arguably the largest conservative youth movement in the history of our country, so everybody is going to position themselves in relation to it. Everybody is going to have an opinion about Charlie, whether they're in alliance with him or in opposition. For young conservatives, he's the center everyone else is circulating around. In terms of more radical groups, I think the most interesting alternative to Charlie are groups like the Proud Boys or Oath Keepers. Those groups generate a lot of attention, fear and anxiety, but I think groups like Turning Point USA are far more dangerous, because they hold a lot of the same views but package them in a much more palatable manner. They're not targeting the fringe, but everyday students and moderates. In doing that, they have a much better chance of gaining more followers and normalizing these ideas. 

Republicans spend three times more than Democratic donors on youth groups and recruiting young people. Young conservatives get special treatment, whereas Democrats tend to take their young activists for granted.

For example, Charlie talks about the idea that racism doesn't exist in this country anymore, and that if you focus on it, you're just looking for problems. Turning Point USA put out this "pro-choice" poster, where the "choice" is between three different guns. In one talk in an Oklahoma church, Charlie described a gun strapped to a parishioner as "an extension of who you are," saying it was necessary to "defend you against evil." He's constantly telling young people that the left wants to take away their freedom. He told people in Idaho they should kick federal agencies out of the state and refuse to enforce unwanted federal laws. That's radical stuff. 

How does all this compare to earlier generations of right-wing movement building, and what should the left learn from this? 

For one thing, their social media prowess is definitely a new bent in the movement, as is this obsession with celebrity culture. 

I think what the left can learn is that it needs to invest in its young people. There's a lot of internecine warfare between young progressive activists, establishment donors and the Democratic Party. That has to stop if Democrats really want to win elections and to save democracy. There are differences in how young progressives think about things. They can often be more "radical" than their elders. But those aren't irreconcilable. Everyone doesn't have to agree on everything. What everyone has to agree on is that it's important to beat the Republicans. 

One thing Republicans do really well is to have everybody messaging together. Democrats are constantly complaining that their young activists are messaging in ways that are ineffective or overly radical. But if they had a better rapport with their young people, they would be able to prevent some of the messaging they find problematic.

Also, young conservatives are winning the social media war. They are much better at getting their message across online. Partly that's because messaging hate is a lot easier than messaging some of the more complex ideas that Democrats stand for. But Democrats also don't understand how expensive it is. When I was at Turning Point USA headquarters, they had actual wings of their headquarters dedicated to social media. They spend millions and millions of dollars a year on social media outreach, on testing messaging, on creating advocates for their cause who can go online. Democrats have to understand that they have to use social media better, and they have to spend the money to do it. It's not accidental that the conservatives have gotten so good at this.

By Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce is an investigative reporter at Salon, and the author of two books: "The Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking and the New Gospel of Adoption" and "Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement."

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