The Next Generation of Conservatives Is Hoping to Make Its Mark… After Trump

young conservative
Attendee at the 2018 Young Women's Leadership Summit hosted by Turning Point USA at the Hyatt Regency DFW Hotel in Dallas, Texas. Photo credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Some days it seems, at least from reading the mainstream news or cable television, that all millennials are voting for Democrats, or that college-educated kids are all going to be part of the “blue wave.”

In fact, there is a whole cadre of young Republicans and conservatives populating college campuses, who see themselves as the post-Trump future of the Republican Party.

Journalist Eliza Gray recently went looking for the heart and soul of young conservatism as part of a story for the Washington Post Magazine. She shares some of her findings, in this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, with Jeff Schechtman.

Gray interviewed over 50 young conservative leaders. She started with College Republicans, and her search took her to groups that ranged from William F. Buckley’s Young Americans for Freedom, to organizations founded in the Reagan era, to libertarian offshoots of the Ron Paul campaign, as well as some Christian groups.

While Trump is certainly not the model all of them want to emulate, and they are hardly falling in line behind his approach of being “light on policy and heavy on combat,” some still see him as a means to implementing their own policy preferences.

According to Gray, the libertarian streak is perhaps the most prominent feature of these young conservatives, some of whom have taken to calling themselves Conservatarians. But even with their libertarian leanings on issues like sexual preferences and foreign policy, the vast majority are strongly pro-life. And many agree with Trump in his attacks on both the media and popular culture.

As for young, moderate Republicans, they have, says Gray, become an endangered species; according to her research, many were turned off by the rise of Trump.

Gray explains why the biggest heroes of many young conservatives are commentator Ben Shapiro and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley. Most are not fans of Sean Hannity.

There is also very little hero worship for what some see as a mean, frequently crude, ideologically fickle 72-year-old man. Many realize they will have to fight to rebuild the party and conservatism in their own image.


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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. Millions of words have been written about millennials and the Democratic Party. The debate about how left they are, how involved they are, how can, or will they be mobilized to participate in the midterms are all subjects of feature stories and cable news fodder. It all goes with the old adage, the origins of which are a bit murky, that if you’re not a liberal when you’re young you have no heart, and if you’re not a conservative by middle age you have no head. The fact is there are many young conservatives, be they Young Republicans, College Republicans, or members of many other groups. Some are traditional conservatives, some libertarian, some Trumpian, and some trying to define a new millennial approach to what it means to be a conservative or a Republican.
Clearly like the divisions on the left, the gap between Donald Trump and Edmond Burke is wide, but filled with opportunity and consequences for the GOP of tomorrow. We’re going to talk about this today with my guest Eliza Gray. Eliza has written and edited for Time, Newsweek, and The New Republic; previously reported from London, Washington, and Brussels, and has written cover stories about transgender rights, campus rapes, synthetic drugs, and hiring practices. Her work has been nominated for numerous awards and she’s appeared on TV, radio, and podcasts. It is my pleasure to welcome Eliza Gray here to talk about her recent article in The Washington Post Magazine: “The Next Generation of Republicans: How Trumpian Are They?” Eliza Gray, thanks so much for joining us.
Eliza Gray: Thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Jeff Schechtman: In order to do this project, you set out to interview an awful lot of young conservatives, young Republicans. Talk a little bit about that process first.
Eliza Gray: Yeah, so I had this assignment that I needed to talk to 50 young conservatives under the age of 24. That was my assignment. I started with college Republicans because I knew that if I reached out to the leaders in those groups that I would start to get a bit of a picture. I think what my editor and I agreed was that I really wanted to reach out to the future leaders of the party, people who really were aspiring to be involved. So, not necessarily just totally average voters, which you could certainly argue was a flaw, but I think that was a group of people I was looking at.
So, I started with the College Republicans, and then I realized as I was talking to them that there are a lot of other groups, not all of them actually get along. Just like as you said in your intro with Democrats, there are different kinds of Republicans, and so there’s a new group called Turning Point USA, founded by a firebrand Charlie Curt who’s very Trumpian. He had a big political action conference last December. There were like 3,000 kids there. And he himself is in his mid 20s, early 20s. So, there’s that group that had cropped up … was new from when I had been in college.
There’s the Young Americans for Liberty, which has been around for … it sort of came out of the Ron Paul campaign for president a few years ago. They are huge. They’e actually bigger than the College Republicans now, which reflects a growing popularity of libertarianism among young conservatives. And then there was the Young Americans for Freedom, which was a Buckley-created group that’s also around. And also some women’s groups.
So, I really tried to find variance, places along the ideological spectrum by reaching out to these different groups. And I also talked to some people who have graduated from college, and are working in Republican politics. I tried to look at various states. I focused on big states, and big political states. I didn’t talk to somebody from all fifty, but made sure I hit the big ones like Wisconsin and California and Ohio, and places like that.
Jeff Schechtman: Did you find among these young people that given political correctness, given the vast numbers of young Democrats, and young liberals on campuses today, that it is harder for them to be a Republican or be a conservative on campus? And given that it might be harder, did it redouble their commitment to whatever their ideology might be?
Eliza Gray: Yes and no. I think that it has always been difficult to be a Republican on campus. That is not a new phenomenon as of the last decade. When William F. Buckley founded Young Americans for Freedom in the 60s that was already an issue. Certainly during the counterculture of the 60s I think there was a lot of anti-conservative sentiment. Certainly Ronald Reagan in the run up to his election, and in the years that he was president throughout the 80s, he was very active with the Conservative Political Action Conference, which is a young conservative conference that happens in DC every year. He spoke to young conservatives about the problems of Marxism on campus. So this has always been an issue for conservatives on campus.
I do think that it has reached something of a fever pitch though. I think that particularly with regard to sensitivities on the left when it comes to things like safe spaces, and saying that certain people… and identity politics. This idea that if you are a white man your position on any number of subjects isn’t valid and you shouldn’t share it. You’ve seen a push from young conservatives on campus against what they see as violations of their free speech. And that is new. And that is a flip of course, from the 60s when liberal activists on campus would have seen their free speech as a cause celebre.
Now you’re seeing that on the right among young people, saying that their speech is being stifled. I think that they’ve got some good points there. I certainly think it has not radicalized, but certainly made them even more eager to be provocative and bold because they know that their liberal classmates are going to perhaps be unreasonable in their response. I think that that motivates them to be even more offensive. Does that make sense?
Jeff Schechtman: Indeed. I guess the overlay to that then is that given there was this underlying desire to be provocative and bold, and to engage in many cases in their conservativism, whatever the brand might be, as kind of an intellectual exercise. How has that changed in the Trump era? Has it hurt or helped the efforts of conservatives to be more aggressive, to be more bold, and experimental?
Eliza Gray: I think what I found is that the Trump era has hurt that because I think leading up to Trump I think a lot of … To the extent that young conservatives did like him, and what I found was that by and large they tended to be less enthusiastic about him. But to the extent that they liked him, one thing that they did love is that he hit back against the media, and Hollywood, and popular culture. The Harvard Institute of Politics does a youth survey every year, and you see a lot of mistrust among young conservatives towards the media in the same way that you would see that amongst much older generations of conservatives.
So, I think when candidate Trump emerged I think you saw a lot of young people sort of excited to see him hitting back at some of the people who they felt a little bit oppressed by ideologically on campus. So for example, the lead of my story, the really, really wonderful young man, Jacob Heinen, who is studying agriculture at the University of Washington. He had a really hard time when he arrived on campus because he came from a rural town. He found that everything he said in class people were offended by and wanted to treat him like he was a horrible person just because he was conservative. They weren’t really interested in having arguments based on principles or ideas, but just really based on identity and name calling. And so, he was excited about candidate Trump because it was this provocative way of fighting back. He helped build a wall on campus, so that protestors would come. But then I think when Trump got elected and he started seeing some of this nasty rhetoric really continuing on and being about immigrants and certain groups, I think he was really turned off by that.
As Ben Shapiro, a young conservative whisperer has said, “Sometimes Trump hits the hammer with a nail. And sometimes he hits the media, and other times he hits a puppy.” Where the puppy is a person who doesn’t deserve to be hit. And that doesn’t feel satisfying to young people. They don’t want to see vulnerable people being hit by the president. They want to see powerful institutions that they don’t feel great about being hit. And so, I think in a lot of ways Trump has made it more difficult for them to figure out how to be on campus because he’s hitting these groups that they don’t think deserve to be hit. I think it’s undermining their sense of being underdogs as well because suddenly their guy’s in office, right. And so, it changes the game for them. I think in a good way actually I think you’re seeing students moving away from some of that provocation, not everywhere.
Milo Yiannopoulos came to Berkeley. I think he’s fallen out of favor. You’re just not seeing him getting invited anymore. And when I was talking to young people, even the people that were a little bit more to the Trumpian end of the spectrum were not excited about Milo, and didn’t want to be associated with him in any way. So, I think you are seeing a little bit of a retreat from that. I think that’s potentially a good thing.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things you point out though is that a lot of people see that Trump is a way to move the Conservative Movement in a more libertarian direction. Talk about that.
Eliza Gray: I’m not sure people necessarily do see Trump as a way of moving the party in a more libertarian direction. I mean I guess with regard to foreign entanglements and wars potentially. Although Trump did get involved in Syrian airstrikes, which is certainly disappointing to some libertarians. I’m actually not sure that the libertarians see Trump as a libertarian figure. I think that libertarians … But I do think that a lot more young people are libertarian. What’s interesting is this emergence of a term called conservatarian, which I heard a number of times. The idea is sort of libertarian except you’re also pro-life and pro-Israel sometimes. I think young people are very pro-life, and they are doubling down on that. So, I think you’re seeing a lot of young people who are libertarian when it comes to foreign wars and not getting involved, and also in terms of gay rights, and issues around gender, but no so much around abortion, which is sort of a shift.
Jeff Schechtman: Which raises the question of how involved are young Christian leaders and religious leaders active in conservative movement on college campuses?
Eliza Gray: So, I think certain leaders are Christian colleges where you’re going to see more of that, but I think actually Christian conservatives at the college level are a little bit on the back foot because right now with issues around identity I think that Christian conservatives do tend to feel a little bit less comfortable with the shifts that we’re seeing around gender fluidity among young people. Also, issues with regard to free speech with regard to gay marriage. So, the cake baker who’s being asked to bake a cake for a gay wedding, I think you’re seeing Christian conservatives aren’t really on board with that. But I also think that young people understand how important it is to be tolerant.
I think that they don’t really know how to articulate their views on religious grounds without offending people. I certainly don’t want to offend anyone who’s listening to say that these are really delicate issues. I think there are people out there though who do differ on issues regarding gender and sexuality on religious ground. I think they don’t know how to talk about those issues without seeming like they are intolerant of others, if that makes sense. So, I think that’s making it difficult for them to communicate their beliefs.
I think libertarians are just getting a lot more traction with young people because I think young people of this generation [inaudible 00:14:57] where they grew up during the Iraq War. So, a lot of young people I talked to were coming of age, coming of consciousness when 9/11 happened. So, their first memories like six, seven years old when the Twin Towers were hit, and so I think that you see a lot of opposition to foreign entanglements. And also they are disillusioned a bit with … They don’t think they’re going to see Social Security, right. They know that they’re going to be saddled with mountains of student debt. So, I think the libertarian message of government waste resonates a lot with them, with young people.
Jeff Schechtman: What impact has Trump had and these changes in conservatism on the campuses that you’re talking about? What impact has it had on traditional moderate Republicans that were part of a lot of these organizations, like College Republicans?
Eliza Gray: I think the moderates feel really, really alienated. I mean one of the hopeful things that I tried to put forward in my piece, although I think that young Republicans that have held on do really want to move away from the cult of personality, and towards principles and ideals, which I think is … regardless of your political beliefs I think that that’s a good thing. I think a lot of us are longing to be having conversations that are based on principles, and ideas, and policies as opposed to this personality, or that personality, or somebody who looks like this, or looks like that. But I think that young moderates definitely that are holding on are hoping to build something like that, but I think a lot of them are really hanging on by a thread.
I cited in my piece a Pew survey, which showed that between the spring before Donald Trump’s election, and then the spring after the election a quarter of people aged 18 to 29 who identified as Republican had switched to the Democratic Party. So, they lost a lot of people, Republicans did. The young moderates that I spoke to were extremely concerned about Donald Trump particularly because of what they see as an encouragement of White Nationalism. They were really disturbed by the march at Charlottesville, and the fact that the president was not emphatic about denouncing those protestors.
I think a lot of them are seeing an association between the Republican Party and racism. I think they don’t deny that it existed for a while, but I think that they felt that previous Republican leaders have tried to push those elements of the party away rather than embracing them. I think their perception is that the president is embracing them, those elements, and that I think has made a lot of them wonder whether they can continue to be associated with the Republican label.
Jeff Schechtman: But there’s also among some of them you talk about a sense of pragmatism that they have to take that in order to get the things they like, like tax cuts or Neil Gorsuch.
Eliza Gray: Yes. I think that that’s something that’s going on more in older generations. There’s sort of a Faustian bargain of, well maybe we can look the other way on some of these on correction, and treatment of women, and uncouth personality on Twitter in exchange for conservative judges and tax reform, right. I think you’re seeing that a lot with older people. I will say, I want to be clear, I do think actually young people are more idealistic, so one of the findings of my piece is that I think more than less actually aren’t okay with that. They want to see those two things separated. They want their leaders to take Trump head on and admit that there are problems while still praising him when he does good. But I think that there definitely were some young people I talked to who were very much taking that pragmatic approach like, I’m going to praise Trump when he does good things, and I’m going to hit back when he does bad things. And ultimately he’s going to be the vehicle by which I can get through the policies that I believe in.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that you mentioned in the piece that I guess a lot of young Republicans, young conservatives had issues with, with respect to Trump, was a sense of meanness. Talk about what you heard in that regard.
Eliza Gray: Yeah. I hit it a little bit before. I think that young people are really sensitive to these issues of race and gender and identity in a way that their older generations are not. So, I think even if you talk to a young person who is conservative, who maybe does think it’s okay for us to have stronger borders, they aren’t going to be comfortable with describing immigrants in unkind terms because they actually do understand that immigrants are just coming here for a better life. They are familiar with young people their age, DACA recipients who were born in this country and have never known anywhere else. Most of the Young Republicans I talked to where in favor of the Dreamers, Daca recipients staying in the country even the ones that tended in the Trumpian direction.
I also saw criminal justice reform as being super popular among young conservatives. In fact, it’s a huge area of agreement between Democrats and Republicans. In my dreams I wish that we could see some movement there because it just feels like that’s where there’s a lot of agreement in a world where we disagree on quite a lot. And even as I mentioned the Christian conservatives who maybe have some theological opposition to issues around gender and sexuallity really, really, really want to find a way to move forward in a positive and respectful direction of people who are gay, and so I think that’s a real shift.
The idea, if you can picture in your mind, a very stereotypical older Republican man in his 60s who says really politically incorrect things. You’re just not going to see that among younger people in their 20s. They’re much more understanding. They’ve grown up in a much more diverse world than that, and they understand that, and they want to be able to move forward and build bridges in that way. So, they may disagree with how Democrats want to handle things, but they don’t want to be intolerant and nasty in their approach.
Jeff Schechtman: Which goes to two heroes of the movement that you mentioned in the piece. One you mentioned briefly before, Ben Shapiro who’s become kind of a rock star among conservatives on college campuses. The other is Nikki Haley. Talk about both of them.
Eliza Gray: Yeah. I’ll start with Ben Shapiro. He gets 15 million downloads a month for his podcast, The Ben Shapiro Show. He’s wildly popular. I mentioned in my piece he came up unprompted in more than a third of my conversations when I just asked people open ended who do you admire? And Ben Shapiro just by far and away the only person that was constantly, constantly mentioned, and in really glowing terms. I think what’s important then is to look at Ben Shapiro and why is he so popular with young people and what does he represent? I mean Ben Shapiro is not a Trumpian conservative. Unlike Sean Hannity or a lot of people on Fox News who tend to be very all in for Trump, that is not the approach Ben Shapiro takes. He does take a, I will praise him when he does good, I will hit him when he does bad approach, which resonates really well with young people because they want honesty and intellectual honesty. So, they don’t want you to say that Trump is perfect because they know that that’s not true, and they want somebody who’s going to be honest with them about that.
I think Ben Shapiro also appeals to young people because he does appeal to ideas and philosophies. He likes to talk through arguments and why he believes what he believes. He doesn’t do it as much from an identity perspective, but more from a “here’s the logic behind my arguments”. I actually do think he does it in a really respectful way, which appeals to young people. Now look, there are a lot of listeners who are probably hearing me right now, and if they know about Ben Shapiro they think they really don’t like him. They think that he’s a prick, and that he’s the … but actually, if you watch a video of Ben Shapiro speaking on a college campus, there’s one of him at Ferris State, in which he’s putting out arguments that I find fairly offensive about transgender people. However, I would say he’s trying to do it in a way that does allow for some back and forth. He’s not just shouting down the person that he’s talking to. He is having an engagement in a, I would say a respectful way.
It’s sad that we’re in a place now where that feels like a revelatory thing, but I am trying to communicate that I think that young people do want to have conversations that are respectful and thoughtful. And that’s why they’re so … I mean that’s not what we’ve seen from the president. I think regardless of where you stand politically I think you’re not seeing a whole lot of thoughtful engagement there. And it’s not what you’re really seeing from Sean Hannity, and so that’s not what young people want. They really want engagement on an intellectual level. And that’s why Ben Shapiro appeals to them so much.
As for Nikki Haley, I think Nikki Haley has done a … I think she’s such a person to watch. She has threaded a needle between the Trumpers and the Never Trumpers beautifully. I think she’s in the administration, but she’s emerged as a person a lot of people thought of as an independent thinker. Kassy Dillon, one of the … who loves Nikki Haley, one of the people I interviewed. She’s a pragmatist, so she’s one of those folks who is fine with Trump to some degree because he’s helped put in the policies she likes, but one of the reasons she really loves Nikki Haley was because Nikki Haley stands up to Trump, and has her own positions, and is willing to go away from the administration when she doesn’t agree with him. But, I think that’s another indicator of these young conservatives rejecting the older generation’s wholesale embrace of Trump and everything he does. I think it shows that they are not going to … that they notice the things that he does wrong, and they’re not going to just stand by. They want to see criticism.
Jeff Schechtman: And finally Eliza, how is the Conservative Movement on campus today viewing the Democrats moving further and further to the left? How are they seeing that? How are they reacting to that?
Eliza Gray: Yeah. I mean I think on campus what you’re seeing more reaction to than you would maybe amongst older people is identity politics. So, I think the reaction is less towards Democratic Socialism, which to be fair came up … I mean Democratic Socialism has emerged more recently than when I was speaking to Alexandria Ocasio Cortez who’s running in New York. Her newsworthiness has happened after these conversations, so I didn’t really get an opportunity to talk to them about things like that, Medicare for All. But I think where it’s manifesting itself is more this sense that I guess is identity politics. The sense that because of your race or your gender that’s the driver of your politics and what you believe. I think that is potentially pushing conservative students away from Democrats, and more to the right, and that’s where you’re seeing a little bit of radicalization.
Jeff Schechtman: Eliza Gray. Her article, “The Next Generation of Republicans: How Trumpian Are They?” appears in the July 16th issue of The Washington Post Magazine. Eliza, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Eliza Gray: Thank you.
Jeff Schechtman: And thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.
If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find this by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from miscellaneous conservatives (Gage Skidmore / Flickr – CC BY-SA 2.0) and Nikki Haley (US State Department / Flickr).

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