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Young Conservatives Learning to Be Cool Jerks

By John Rolfe / Red Hook, N.Y.

The right wing’s recruitment of college students has been having some success
The right wing’s recruitment of college students has been having some success

At the heart of the right wing’s book banning and interference in education is a massively funded, well-organized effort to roll back decades of liberal and progressive influence in America by creating a new generation of politically-active conservatives. Kyle Spencer spent four years exploring this movement for her disturbing 2022 book, Raising Them Right: The Untold Story of America’s Ultraconservative Youth Movement and Its Plot for Power.

Ever since FDR’s New Deal in the 1930s, conservatives have been trying to reverse the tide of what they believe is anti-American socialism (basically, any government involvement in the affairs of citizens even if it protects them from harm).

The hard-right, nationalist faction that now dominates the Republican Party was born in the 1960s in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and has been battling feminism, LGBTQ rights, environmentalism and government regulations ever since. Essentially libertarian and fiercely for laissez-faire capitalism, the radical right’s rage was energized by the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and the passage of his Affordable Care Act in 2010.

Bankrolled by an army of conservative billionaires such as Charles Koch, Peter Thiel, Sheldon Adelson, and the DeVos family (Betsy, the far-right daughter of a billionaire industrialist, served as Donald Trump’s controversial Secretary of Education), it has given birth to organizations like the Heritage Foundation, Federalist Society, and Leadership Institute, plus countless small, grass roots groups.

Its goal is simple: take and secure power in every area of American life from the federal government on down to state capitals, town halls, election boards and, of course, public education.

Its philosophy: Every person for themself and if you are suffering from poverty or deprivation, it’s your fault and your responsibility to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. If you can’t afford boots or none are available, tough. Figure out how to make them.

The problem, of course, is that the radical right’s cherished ideas — dissolving the separation of church and state and slashing public assistance, health care, education, workplace safety, and consumer and environmental protection in the name of “liberty” — are about as popular with most Americans as kidney stones.

Selling ordinarily idealistic, inclusivity-minded young people on things like materialism, a fully free-market (buyer beware!), ignoring climate change, and excusing racism, xenophobia, sexism and homophobia — is about as easy as peddling hot sauce in Hades. But that isn’t stopping the hard right from trying.

In politics, each side ordinarily sees the other’s ideas as dangerous, so it’s only natural that a key part of the right’s strategy is limiting kids’ exposure to frank discussions of America’s troubled racial history and current conditions as well as LGBTQ points of view and the benefits of diversity.

Leading the new wave: Charlie Kirk, Candace Owens, and Cliff Maloney
Leading the new wave: Charlie Kirk, Candace Owens, and Cliff Maloney

At the center of Spencer’s book are three brash young stars of the new right: Charlie Kirk, Candace Owens, and libertarian Cliff Maloney. Kirk’s group Turning Point USA, Maloney’s Young Americans for Liberty, and Owens’ multimedia stardom and status as a pop culture influencer have taken a page from Obama’s old playbook and gotten actively involved on the internet and on college campuses.

They are working to lure students to the MAGA cause with propaganda blitzes, seminars on attracting voters to conservative candidates, and an appealingly hip “let’s party!” spirit of camaraderie. Activities include plenty of free food, booze, weed and a “hubba hubba, baby” attitude toward women.

It’s no surprise that Fox News has been a notorious hotbed of sexism and sexual harassment or that Donald Trump’s infamous “grab ‘em by the p---y” Access Hollywood tape was shrugged off on the right as locker room talk or even admired.

Recruits are taught they shouldn’t care about anyone or anything but themselves because being required to give any of your wealth to others is un-American. Thanks in no small part to Trump’s rise to power, reality and facts are what you say they are and being an in-your-face jerk is seen as a virtue. At Turning Point USA events on campuses, even when emotions are running high due to school shootings, Kirk brazenly displays slogans like “I’m Pro Choice. Pick Your Gun” and “Gun Control Means Using Both Hands.”

Owens, who now ranks with Kanye West as a prominent Black ultraconservative, has also been scorned for praising Hitler. Owens also recently ignited outrage by complaining about the “ridiculous” presence of a physically disabled person in an advertisement for underwear — “inclusiveness” that is just too much for Owens to accept.

The right’s young minions, like the right in general these days, can’t or refuses to grasp the wisdom in the old maxim “Honey catches more flies than vinegar.” Turning Point USA has become notorious for staging provocative events like its “Affirmative Action Bake Sale” at the University of New Mexico (Albuquerque) where Asians were charged $1.50, Caucasians $1, and Blacks and Hispanics 50 cents. Guest speakers like provocateur Milo Yanopoulos, Proud Boys founder Gavin McInnes, and even Trump-appointed Appeals Court Judge Stuart Kyle Duncan are self-defeating by calling out liberals and swapping insults with protestors on left-leaning college campuses. But that doesn’t matter when confrontation is the name of the game. Triggered liberals who get angry are portrayed on social media as unhinged. But while Kirk complains that campuses are “islands of intolerance,” today’s conservatives are not exactly known for tolerating dissent, especially in their own ranks, either.

Signs of the polarized times on college campuses
Signs of the polarized times on college campuses

There is a growing weariness with the constant attempts by each side to shout the other down. Some colleges and universities are working to make sure diverse viewpoints are heard and shown at least a decent measure of courtesy. That works in the right’s favor. According to recent polls, about 25 percent of voters age 18 to 23 like Trump and 22 percent of high school seniors now identify as conservative.

That’s far from a majority, but it’s not necessary to convert everyone, just enough people to take positions of significant power and influence. Mitch McConnell, Mike Pence, Karl Rove, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham and Dinesh D’Souza are among the 200,000 alumni of the Leadership Institute that was founded in 1978 by Morton Blackwell, a disciple of hard-right icon Barry Goldwater. Many of the others are active in local politics.

I have liberal views about many things, particularly social issues, but there are traditionally conservative principles I admire, particularly personal responsibility — whenever possible, not on an absolute basis. My problem with conservative politics in general has always been its kneejerk opposition to things that strike me as only fair and even necessary, like ensuring equal rights for all, environmental and consumer protection, and labor unions or at least safe, good-paying jobs.

I thought right-wing stalwarts like Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, Michele Bachmann, Pat Buchanan and Rush Limbaugh were odious, but then along came the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz, Tucker Carlson and a host of others who are even worse in their sneering contempt for civility, decency, kindness and truth.

Judging by the efforts of Kirk, Maloney and Owens and the seeds they are sewing, the next generation of conservatives is going to be even more obnoxious. Countering their influence in the public arena, particularly schools and civic affairs, is going to be one of the great challenges for anyone who believes that a collective, inclusive spirit that still respects the individual is essential to the well-being of a free nation.


John Rolfe is a former senior editor for Sports Illustrated for Kids, a longtime columnist for the Poughkeepsie Journal/USA Today Network, and author of The Goose in the Bathroom: Stirring Tales of Family Life. His school bus drivin’ blog “Hellions, Mayhem and Brake Failure” is parked on his website ( with the meter running.



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