The conservative movement's young rock stars are wooing millennials

By Avi Asher-Schapiro

It’s a bracing time to be a young conservative. College campuses are ablaze with debates about trigger warnings, free speech, and safe spaces, the internet is a haze of Trump-themed political memes, and their man's in the White House. For young people of all stripes, Donald Trump’s presidency has made debating politics feel more urgent. But for young conservatives, it’s a unique moment: for the first time in their adult lives, conservative politics are ascendant, and the GOP controls both elected branches of government.

Young conservative activists have often been political iconoclasts — if not social outcasts — on most college campuses. While there have always been conservative student groups for that small minority who identify as right-leaning, a new generation of organizations now feel poised to substantially widen support for conservatism among their peers. With a little help from a few deep-pocketed donors and telegenic young missionaries, a few rebellious, independent-minded youth are actively trying to brand themselves as an authentic political movement for the millennial generation.

Charlie Kirk, the president of the youth conservative group Turning Point USA, is something of a rock star among millennial conservatives, and, as it is for many of them, the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is his Woodstock.

Tall and lean with a classic boy-next-door look, he can barely walk a few feet at CPAC without getting pulled aside by an admirer. Kirk started Turning Point in his parents’ basement back in 2012, with seed money from the multimillionaire investor and evangelical Christian activist Foster Friess. Now his group claims to have a presence on over 1,200 college campuses and is breaking into high schools as well — and nearly 100 of his members descended on CPAC this weekend, easily identified by shirts bearing the slogan #BigGovernmentSucks.

Kirk spent the last few months doing campaign events with Donald Trump Jr., preaching conservatism to the under-35 crowd. His elevator pitch goes something like this: “Do you trust government?” he’ll ask. “And if you don’t, then why would you want to make it even bigger?”

Young people man the Network of Enlightened Women table in the Exhibitor Hub during the first day of the Conservative Political Action Conference. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

At CPAC, Kirk moderated a serious-minded panel on government waste with two conservative think-tankers, a journalist from the right-of-center Washington Examiner, and tea party congressman Barry Loudermilk — all easily twice Kirk’s age. Young people, Kirk explained to his audience, are a natural constituency for conservatives with an anti-government message. “We have the troops in the right position,” he said. “Now we just have to take the territory.”

It’s true that millennials entering college are more conservative than their parents were, but not by much: less than a quarter identify with the political right. And the free-market ideas campus conservatives are pitching may be a tough sell to most young Americans. A recent Harvard/Institute of Politics poll found that most 18-29 year olds oppose capitalism altogether — and more than a quarter told pollsters that they associate it most closely with “greed.” Although Trump did over perform among young voters in certain swing states,  he only won 37 percent of the millennial vote nationally, just one point more than Mitt Romney in 2012.

Just two years ago Trump, then-famous for his reality TV shows and for championing conspiracy theories about President Obama’s place of birth, was booed by the rank-and-file conservative activists at CPAC; he canceled his speech in 2016 amid rumors of an organized walk-out. There are still young conservatives who think that the president isn’t one of them. “His comments on immigration cannot be justified,” said Alexander Craig, the North American Executive Board Chair for the libertarian group Students for Liberty. “I do not support him.”

But Craig’s aversion to Trump — commonplace just two years ago — is now rare among young activists here. “I feel like a kid in a candy shop,” one Turning Point Point activist said to another after Trump addressed attendees. “Praise the god emperor,” another joked. “Daddy’s in the house.”

Most of the millennials at CPAC, even those who didn’t support Trump in the GOP primary, argue that the president is best thing that could have happened to their movement.

“He’s the only president who’s entered office as pro-gay marriage,” said Ryan Stoehrer, a 17-year-old high school senior and president of Turning Point USA’s Long Island chapter. Stoehrer, who has gay family members, likes having Trump at the head of the party, because it allows him to make a pure economics pitch to his peers who might otherwise focus on social issues. A clean-cut kid with a thick Long Island accent, Stoehrer likes debating the virtues of capitalism. When he wears his TPUSA geer, he hopes the #BigGovernmentSucks logo will spark debate with strangers on the street.

For the last few months, Stoehrer has been meeting with other TPUSA activists at a rented out conference room at a local Panera Bread, working through an activism kit shipped out for free by TPUSA. He envisions the group as a place to win over converts, and he’s currently working to organize a public debate with a socialist student at his nearby high school. “I don’t think I can convert people who I call the ‘loud left,’” Stoehrer said. “But we have to talk.”

A young woman at the Conservative Political Action Conference on February 23, 2017. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Sophia Whitt, a senior at Kent State University in Ohio, is one such convert. She arrived on campus a liberal, but after being sexually assaulted outside her apartment in 2015, she felt compelled to buy a gun for her own protection. That experience, she said, got her interested in gun rights, and stimulated a political conversion that led her to TPUSA. “I began to think on my own,” she said. “ I started thinking differently, and not always worry about offending people.”

That’s a familiar theme among activists: once young people stop worrying about being "offensive," conservative ideas will begin to make more sense, and defending them against their more liberal peers becomes a welcome challenge.“ Our activists find pride and joy in being the conservative warrior on campus.” Kirk said outside his organization’s well-manned booth. “It’s becoming more culturally rebellious to be conservative.”

That rebellious spirit was on full display after hours at CPAC, when young activists roamed the streets outside the convention center looking to get drunk and party.  One group of young people who just a few hours earlier had been eloquently defending free-market capitalism inside the convention center, drunkenly ambled up to a statue of Marilyn Monroe a block from where the conference center. “Grab her by the pussy,” one young man said, echoing Trump's now-infamous comments captured by Access Hollywood, as he shoved his hand between the statue's legs. “Take a picture,” he said. “I’m all about transparency.”

A willingness to be unfiltered, brash, and even a little offensive is major part of the ethos among young conservatives at CPAC. Many young activists wore images of a snowflake with a line through it — a dig what they see as a tendency on liberal-dominated campuses to treat everyone like a “precious snowflake.” Conservative activists argue that the overly sensitive tone of liberal politics on campus will repel young people over the long term, and drive them into the arms of the more rough-and-tumble conservative groups. Indeed, Stoehrer, the high school activist in Long Island, ruled out attending University of Buffalo after seeing the school promoting videos about white privilege on its YouTube page.

Editor's note (April 16, 2019 at 4:44 p.m. ET): Stoehrer disputes statements attributed to him about his future academic plans and informs Tribune that he committed to attend the University of Buffalo shortly after the article was published.

But while conservative activists insist they are experiencing a swell of grassroots support on campus, it’s hard to know for sure. Two CPAC attendees who identified themselves as former Trump campaign staffers sneered when asked about TPUSA grassroots support among millennials. “It’s an astroturf movement,” a former policy advisor to the Trump campaign said. “It’s a few rich donors writing Charlie a big check.”