Inside the Far-Right’s Fight for College Campuses

charlie-kirk-culture-war.jpg US-POLITICS-VOTE-1YEAR-YOUTH - Credit: Megan Jelinger/AFP/Getty Images
charlie-kirk-culture-war.jpg US-POLITICS-VOTE-1YEAR-YOUTH - Credit: Megan Jelinger/AFP/Getty Images

Award-winning journalist Kyle Spencer’s new book, Raising Them Right — The Untold Story of America’s Ultraconservative Youth Movement and Its Plot for Power explores a decades-long campaign — online and off — to lure unsuspecting young people into the far-right fold, capitalizing on magnetic celebrities like Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, the thermodynamic Black conservative Candace Owens, and frat-boy-handsome Will Witt, who uses his good looks and winning smile to peddle white-boy victimization and resentment. 

In this exclusive excerpt, Spencer chronicles life on the campus front lines, dispelling myths about who gets heard on the campus quad, and showing that right-wing activists aren’t suppressed victims of censored speech, but loyal recipients of donor money that is being artfully used to amplify their raging rhetoric, and affording them not less but more and more free speech inside higher-ed institutions and beyond. 

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“GO HOME, RACISTS!” BELLOWED a young white man in dark faded jeans, a lumberjack shirt, and a scraggly beard. He cupped his hands together to form a bullhorn, “Get a good look at your fellow racist students, right here!” The young man, later identified as a grad student named Oliver Baker, was objecting to a Turning Point USA volunteer table on the quad at the University of New Mexico campus in Albuquerque, where a handmade Magic Marker sign advertised an “Affirmative Action Bake Sale.” The pricing of the baked goods:

Asians: $1.50

Caucasians: $1.00

African Americans and Hispanics: $0.50

It was the fall of 2017, and there was a new American president in the White House, one with a flagrant disregard for civility, decorum, and government protocol. Trump, with his arsenal of politically incorrect digs, was a kid at heart — a mean-spirited kid, who was emboldening an entire generation of young, disaffected right-wingers who felt like outsiders on their campuses. Well, they were insiders now, and they were ready to rumble. In this new environment, TPUSA’s playbook — the carefully designed political pamphlets, the debt pong tournaments, and the “Cookies for Capitalism” handouts — seemed like quaint relics of a bygone era. Young college conservatives were embracing the us-against-them game, adopting some of the same brash tactics that had worked for the president as he wormed his way into the White House.

Cruelty, homophobia, and overt ethnic stereotyping were now tropes of everyday political discourse, as right-wing student activists performed “Coming Out Conservative” celebrations, mocking members of their campus’s LGBTQ communities. They held “Free Speech Ball Days,” rolling enormous beach balls across their campus quads for students to write whatever they wanted on them. “Go Home Illegals”? Sure! Why not? The more offensive the comment, the more powerful the point. These days, liberty seemed to mean the right, above all else, to be a jerk. They built Trump border walls out of cardboard. And they organized the aforementioned Affirmative Action Bake Sale, which was, on this particular day, being manned by one of TPUSA’s most popular regional directors, a University of Colorado dropout named Will Witt, a frat-boy-handsome activist — TPUSA’s favorite kind — in shades and a backward baseball cap.

Witt had begun batting for the right a year earlier, not long after, he claims, a University of Colorado teaching assistant gave him a lecture on “white privilege,” telling him that his mere presence as a white man was oppressive to the Black student sitting next to him in class. Outraged, he joined his campus TPUSA chapter, took the president post, then eventually decided he needed to take his fight on the road. He dropped out of college. Harnessing his confidence, his charm, and his new role as an employee at TPUSA, where he quickly landed a full-time job, he set out to tell conservative college kids around the country that silence was not an option.

On that day, Witt was accompanied by a few new recruits whom he was coaching as they sought to plant a chapter on the Albuquerque campus, a commuter school of 16,000, dotted with adobe-style structures typical of the region. The idea behind the stunt was to sell baked goods at different prices, depending on the customer’s race, as a way to protest admission policies that sought to diversify campuses. The fact that UNM didn’t use a race-based selection process didn’t seem to matter. The sale was designed to agitate, and it was serving its purpose.

While UNM may not have utilized affirmative action in admissions, the practice was common at colleges around the country, helping draw students from a variety of different backgrounds. And it was controversial, unpopular even, in progressive states like California, which had in 1996 passed a proposition banning affirmative action at public universities. (A 2020 ballot initiative affirmed that most California voters still didn’t support the practice.) But despite these findings, college students rarely expressed open opposition to the policy, which right-wing activists attributed to campus pressure by the “PC Police” to keep quiet. Some researchers, however, had a different idea: that there was actually a “hidden consensus” among students about the enormous benefits they derived from diverse learning environments. To test this hypothesis, researchers at Dartmouth and Stanford surveyed 8,000 college students and faculty members — between late-2016 and early-2018 — asking them who they would choose to admit to their schools from an eclectic pool of applicants. They overwhelmingly chose candidates with high academic merit who would add diversity to their campuses. Did young Americans want to learn in environments that represented the makeup of the country? It would seem that was a yes. And judging by how students reacted to Affirmative Action Bake Sales, there was something else many wanted: to avoid openly offending their peers of color with insults and allegations about why they were there. For right-wing activists this aversion to offending was an issue of free speech. For a lot of students, it was something else: common decency.

That afternoon, one of Witt’s volunteers, an olive-skinned girl in skinny jeans, held up a “Socialism Sucks” poster like a shield as a flock of angry kids — “The left-wing mob,” in TPUSA-speak — approached to join the heckler in condemning Witt and his cohorts. “Go the fuck home,” one shouted. A student on roller skates whizzed by, stealing a sign and shoving some pens and stickers off the table with her arm.

Witt, hands tucked inside his pants pockets, his shades now resting on the top of his baseball cap, smirked as the chants of racism continued. His underlings, including the young woman in jeans, were staying strong but feeling the burn. They would later tell him how discomfiting it had been to stand there and absorb such harsh treatment from their classmates. But that was what he was there to teach: calm and stamina in the face of the enemy. And anyway, for Witt, now a veteran at these campus culture-war games, the hecklers only affirmed what young conservatives were taught at the Leadership Institute, the far-right training academy where many of them now took classes: They’ll call you racist whenever they don’t have anything smart to say. Still, Witt, who could only take so much pushback, was ready to call it a day. He began boxing up the TPUSA swag, leaving another volunteer to film the mob. This was called “weaponizing your phone” — another Leadership Institute lesson. Such clips played well on Twitter and YouTube, and made for good lib-shaming, especially if you could catch the opposition using foul language or even violence. Such footage was also visual bait for aging donors who were horrified by what Charlie called “the intolerant left.” As one fundraiser told me: “Nothing scares a conservative grandparent more than the thought that their poor innocent grandkid is going to get indoctrinated in college and turn into a gay communist, BLM activist, antifa member.”

AMERICAN CAMPUSES HAD LONG BEEN hotbeds of political strife. But thanks to a steady stream of content now being captured on video, craftily edited for maximum shock value and shared online, it’s no wonder these donors felt threatened. From their perspective, campus libs had been torturing right-wingers for years, making one impatient demand after another. In the 1960s and 1970s, civil rights, gay rights, and feminist student activists had coalesced into a broad social movement. In the 1980s, they rallied against Ronald Reagan, and in the 1990s, demanded environmental justice and curriculum reform. They wanted more classes that focused on women’s studies and African American studies and the study of Native Americans. It was the beginning of the PC Police. And as far as a lot of right-wing benefactors were concerned, there were too many rules. Just as the libs in D.C., infatuated with corporate regulations, wanted to constrain what businesses could and could not do, conservative donors contended that liberal kids wanted to constrain what the donors’ children and grandchildren could and could not say, learn, even believe.

And now, as far as these donors could tell, things were getting worse. Today’s young left-wing protesters were no longer just outsiders banging on the campus gates with their disparate demands. They were insiders, manipulating from positions of political power, and forcing the arms of institutional leaders who were bending to their will for fear of retribution — or worse, violence. They were calling for the removal of statues they deemed offensive and seeking to change the names of buildings commemorating former slave owners. They were demanding a more “honest” treatment of history, what donors would soon be calling Critical Race Theory, or CRT for short. And they wanted a more “inclusive” exploration of art and literature. In the eyes of these conservatives, that meant disrespecting national heroes and obsessing about authors and artists from, as their president put it, “shithole countries.”

In the months after the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, which engaged a mob of Confederate-flag-waving white supremacists and resulted in the death of a 32-year-old paralegal, a nation already deeply disturbed by the Trump ascent focused its anxiety on openly racist nationalists, neo-Nazis, and militia members. The Proud Boys, the anti-government Oath Keepers, and the loose coalition of incels, trolls, and meme makers on the online forum 4chan who referred to themselves as Groypers were now America’s premier boogeymen. They were a collection of disgruntled outsiders who tended to blame their discontent on government as a whole and any group they saw as left-wing darlings: immigrants, women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community. But the real sign of the far-right’s growing power was not the presence of these loud and strident extremists, who populated the internet’s underbelly. It was the increasing omnipresence of ostensibly mainstream conservative groups, like Turning Point USA and others within the larger conservative movement, who were not outliers, toiling on their own, but well-funded establishment insiders who claimed mainstream status — all the while spewing content that could be mean-spirited, misleading, and scary. “I’m Pro Choice. Pick Your Gun,” read a TPUSA poster propped up on tables across American campuses around this time. Beneath those fighting words were three photos: a Glock 27, an AR-15, and a 12-gauge rifle. Another favorite among young conservative activists: “Gun Control Means Using Both Hands.”

If temperance and civility had once been a core value cherished by the American conservative and admired by the right-wing country-club set, those days were gone. An appetite for brash sensationalism and confrontational politics popularized by right-wing radio stars like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck had gone viral, and young Americans were leading the charge, as a resentful and raving president helped to supercharge the campus environment and make this kind of bullying cool. The nastier and more offensive you could be, the more likely you were to be heard. Never mind that Trump’s interest in the kind of skeletal government young conservatives tended to embrace was limited, at best. His policy initiatives would soon include farm subsidies, trade regulations, and government spending hikes — all policies Charlie and his crew swore against. It didn’t seem to matter. For young people who wanted to own the libs one showdown after another, Trump was the president they were looking for. And groups who adapted his in-your-face tactics were the new normal.

These groups, thanks to a well-established funding pipeline, were also drowning in cash. Even before Trump arrived on the scene, conservative donors had been pumping tens of millions of dollars annually onto campuses in their efforts to win over young people. And more alarmingly, they were grossly outperforming their counterparts on the left, according to researchers for Generation Progress, a left-leaning advocacy group that had sorted through years of tax documents in an effort to clock the right’s increased power and pull among the nation’s young.

In 2014 alone, Generation Progress found that the five top-spending conservative organizations that offered programming to groom young activists — including the Charles Koch Institute, the Federalist Society, and the Young America’s Foundation — spent $77 million, more than the $36 million spent by the five largest progressive organizations targeting young people, including groups such as the Feminist Majority Foundation and the public-health and social-justice group Advocates for Youth. These comparisons told only part of the story. The truth was the left simply did not have the well-coordinated educational infrastructure the right did. And large progressive activist organizations supported college students on a piecemeal basis, with ad hoc grants and leadership training. But they did not have the kind of robust budgets, common among groups on the right, earmarked just for campus outreach. These funding and networking disparities made it difficult for left-leaning college groups to launch comprehensive campus opposition campaigns and to offer clear alternatives to the messaging coming at students from the right.

In recent years, a few progressive donors had begun to take an interest in campus organizing. In 2013, San Francisco hedge-fund billionaire Tom Steyer launched NextGen Climate, pumping millions into an effort to mobilize young people around climate change. By 2016, after Trump’s election, Steyer reimagined the group as NextGen America, and by 2017 was amassing a paid army of impressively organized young people to register voters on their campuses and to door knock for Democratic candidates in the 2018 midterms. Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control advocacy group, founded in 2013 with seed money from former New York City mayor and billionaire benefactor Michael Bloomberg, would soon also double down on young people. After the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the group would pledge $1 million in grant money to support student advocates and grow its campus arm, Students Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. It was an effort to mimic what the NRA had been doing for years. But these were relatively new efforts and they were hardly the norm.

Further, stealth tactics employed by right-wing campus groups rendered the left’s job even more challenging. Their presence was ubiquitous, by design, but could often be deceiving. The 64-year-old Intercollegiate Studies Institute, with $16.5 million in its coffer in 2017, for example, posted pamphlets on bulletin boards inside campus buildings advertising its free offerings. The group’s name made it sound like an inviting haven for young intellectuals looking to expand their knowledge of history and philosophy. Funded by some of the Christian right’s wealthiest benefactors, its goal was much more narrowly focused than that. Its free classes, videos, and podcasts focused on faith’s role in the Constitution, the future of conservatism, and the perils of living in a “Woke World.” One class challenged ideas around the separation of church and state. Others emphasized the cultural superiority of Western civilization. The 71-year-old Foundation for Economic Education, often referred to as FEE (with an estimated $8 million in net assets in 2017), might easily appeal to a curious student interested in a more in-depth exploration of different economic models. But its hundreds of free classes promoted one distinct kind of economic model: libertarianism, the austere philosophy that shuns consumer-protection measures and union organizing. The Fund for American Studies — which spent over $11 million in 2017 — is not an apolitical academic institute, but an education center whose central goal is to “win over each new generation” to its extreme anti-government ideals that are billed on the group’s website as “the principles of limited government, free-market economics and honorable leadership.” And the Institute for Humane Studies, at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, is not a human rights advocacy group, but another peddler of libertarianism.

NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE - JUNE 25: Will Witt is seen on set of "Candace" on June 25, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee. The show will air on Tuesday, July 6, 2021. (Photo by Jason Davis/Getty Images)
Will Witt on set of the show “Candace” on June 25, 2021 in Nashville, Tennessee\.

A common strategy among right-wing activists on college campuses was to pass themselves off as common-sense moderates, then subvert expectations by eventually introducing more right-wing ideas. Students showing up for a documentary about global warming or a panel on the Second Amendment might discover they were suddenly facing highly produced programs designed by well-funded think tanks pushing climate-change denial or extreme gun rights.

Recent grads employed by the vaguely monikered climate-denying group Collegians for a Constructive Tomorrow (CFACT) often showed up outfitted in hiking boots and lumberjack shirts to recruit students — making them unrecognizable from typical tree-hugging Bernie fans. They led group hikes, beach cleanups, and “eco summits.” And it was during those casual get-togethers where they introduced ideology deemed both radical and dangerous by a wide swath of Americans — for example, that “the global-warming narrative is all about government control” and “the science behind climate change is not settled.”

Other right-wing groups took a brasher approach. In 2017, the anti-choice activist group Created Equal presented college students on their way to class with video images displayed on large Jumbotron screens of bloody fetuses, crushed heads, and tiny fingers and feet. Activists clutched microphones and called out to classmates that the solution to unwanted pregnancies was not to “dismember and decapitate innocent children.”

Also, in 2017, gun advocacy groups were going after college students with their own innovative strategies designed to broaden support for firearms. In addition to online campaigns that featured hot, gun-toting coeds, these groups were focusing a notable part of their activism on recruiting young women on their campuses. They promised a new brand of feminism: empowerment via weaponry. Conservatives had long insisted that reports of campus sexual assault, violence, and aggression were grossly overplayed by the left to instill unnecessary fear in young women. But now, conservative groups were exploiting those fears to sell guns. In addition to its pro-gun college workshop NRA U, the National Rifle Association also offered a college version of its “Refuse to be a Victim” program that taught young college-aged women “personal safety strategies” to protect themselves from the “dangers” of campus life, including sexual assault. The program did not expressly teach about firearms, but it did handily introduce young women to a lobbying group whose aim was to curry support for them.

In addition, gun-rights advocates like Antonia Okafor, a Black twentysomething Texan whose parents hailed from Nigeria, were appearing in NRA ads targeting millennial women. In her 2016 ad, Okafor proclaimed: “I am not the victim you need me to be.” Soon after, she began touring campuses as a paid rep for Gun Owners of America, telling students, “Gun rights are women’s rights” and selling firearms as feminist tools of equity and empowerment.

The advocates’ push seemed to be working. In 2017, a senior at Kent State in northeastern Ohio showed up on campus the day after her convocation ceremony in a white minidress, with a graduation cap that read “Come and Take It,” and a black AR-10 hanging from a strap around her shoulder — scaring the hell out of her fellow students. That same young woman soon got a nickname from her supporters: “Gun Girl.”

Students for Concealed Carry was also going gangbusters, launching campus-carry initiatives through laid-back, flip-flop-wearing dudes who manned campus quad tables expounding on “liberty” and the sanctity of the Second Amendment. By fall 2017, campus-carry advocates, with the support of the larger pro-gun movement, had clocked victories in 11 states. Laws differed, but at some schools, students could now carry weapons to class.

Online newspapers — The College Fix, founded in 2011, and Campus Reform, a then eight-year-old arm of the Leadership Institute — fed the rage machine, stoking demand for content that depicted liberal students and their administrators as out of control and intolerant. The Young America’s Foundation spent generously in 2017 to bring Fox News personalities, Breitbart editors, and conspiracy theorists like Dinesh D’Souza face-to-face with young audiences in campus auditoriums. If they managed to kick up some controversy — as when Ben Shapiro, the editor of the far-right political website the Daily Wire, gave the finger to a roomful of progressive protesters in Madison, Wisconsin — all the better.

Because being offensive was no longer something you had to apologize for. It was cunning and cool. It was sticky. It drove engagement.

With tensions rising around the country, and many progressives experiencing increasing fear and rage at Trump’s presidency, it wasn’t hard to catch an angry assistant professor or usually mild-mannered lefty student driven mad by TPUSA’s more aggressive stunts. And TPUSA chapter leaders and staff members were at the ready, watching for outbursts, provoking them if they could, and capturing them on their iPhones. Their videos were quickly slapped together for maximum impact, given sassy titles, and sent out into the cyberworld, where, if all went as planned, they went viral. Circulating online in late 2017 was the video of an anti-Trump grad student at the University of Illinois who grabbed a TPUSA member’s phone — after the student hollered at him, “No one is scared of you 50-year-old man. Don’t you have kids to look after?” — then threw the phone across the lawn, cracking it. It was, it seemed, designed as a visual reminder that liberals were violent.

Turning Point USA’s Affirmative Action Bake Sale in September 2017 was not the only conservative happening stirring up controversy at the University of New Mexico. In the wake of Trump’s election, the school, which had long prided itself on its diverse student body, had become a target of right-wing activism. Just eight months earlier, in January 2017, UNM’s Republican club had hosted alt-right provocateur and former Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos for a rowdy evening of entertainment and insults. Then, too, tempers flared. Five hundred attendees arrived for the event, while a thousand protesters marched outside, clutching signs that declared “Immigrants Are Welcome. Fascists Are Not” and “Go Home Milo.” Dozens of local police officers in riot gear were also on hand to keep the peace. During his talk — “America Deserves Borders” — Yiannopoulos posted the ICE hotline number up on a large screen and encouraged students to “purge your local illegals.” He told the room that Muslim values and American values “were incompatible” and insulted several women in hijabs, telling them: “You’re wearing a hijab in the United States of America. What is wrong with you?”

Also making their presence known on the UNM campus were members of CFACT, the national climate-denying youth group, helping students stand up “against the green lie.” The national group was bringing its campaigns — “Keep Calm, Climate Changes,” for example — to campuses around the country in its efforts to squash “liberal hysteria” about the Earth’s health and share “cold, hard facts” about the environment, according to glossy pamphlets the group distributed. Wind farms, students around the country were told, were inefficient. What passed the efficiency test? Coal.

As for Will Witt, he would not return to UNM again that year. Soon after the bake sale, the charismatic upstart was hired by Prager University, a far-right “education” site that produced eye-catching five-minute videos designed to preach the right-wing gospel in deceptively simple terms to young web dwellers looking for quick answers to culture-war conundrums. Some of Prager U’s favorite video offerings were self-explanatory: There Is No Gender Wage Gap and Why You Should Love Fossil Fuel. Others, less so. He Wants You was a peppy defense of men who leered at women.

PragerU was founded in 2009 by Dennis Prager, a 71-year-old Los Angeles talk-radio star with a mop of chalk-white hair and vitriolic feelings about Obama (he once criticized him for not being masculine enough), along with a former Hollywood producer named Allen Estrin. Prager U had the financial backing of Dan and Farris Wilks, two billionaire Christian-right fracking giants who also bankrolled the Daily Wire. Executives boasted that its videos had received millions of views. By 2021, that number would skyrocket to billions, Prager U would allege, as the site increasingly became a teaching tool for other right-wing youth groups who aired Prager U videos during their campus get-togethers.

Witt was hired by Prager U to produce his own content: three-minute man-on-the-street videos, online versions of the agitating activism he had been doing for TPUSA. In one of his most popular, Witt dressed up as a sombrero-wearing Mexican with a fake mustache taped to his mouth and a poncho. He rambles around UCLA’s campus, shaking a maraca and asking students: “Do you find this outfit offensive?” The liberal students respond just as he hopes they will, and sure enough, he catches it all on film. “Cultural appropriation!” one young woman cries, as Witt rattles his maraca. Last time I checked, the video had been watched close to 2 million times.

From the book “Raising Them Right: The Untold Story of America’s Ultraconservative Youth Movement and Its Plot for Power” by Kyle Spencer. Copyright © 2022 by Kyle Spencer. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers

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