They were here to laugh: “It’s a war,” YouTube comedian J.P. Sears would say onstage, “don’t you want to be on a side with all the guns?” They were here to learn: Ben Shapiro would give them tips on how to destroy their liberal classmates in debates. They were here to shout guttural sounds with motivational speaker Tony Robbins (whose introduction video included clips of him helping Oprah walk on burning coals but neglected to mention a BuzzFeed News investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct; Robbins has vehemently denied wrongdoing and sued BuzzFeed over its reporting).
And they were here to queue up to shake hands and take pictures with Crenshaw, the eyepatch-wearing Navy SEAL turned congressman who many believe could be the future of a Republican Party that remains (in theory) undecided about whether to move on to its next leaders or reboot the Trump Show.
“Trump is not a god,” said conservative commentator David Rubin, mingling with the crowd. “Politics has to be bigger than one specific person.”
And so, here came a parade of other specific people. People such as occasional Trump critic Shapiro, former Fox News personality Megyn Kelly, the psychologist and self-help author Jordan B. Peterson (via video), and a slate of speakers that did not include Trump or anyone in his family.
One thing most, if not all, of those in attendance seemed to agree on: President Biden is dead wrong to be ordering vaccine and testing requirements for businesses with more than 100 employees as the delta variant drives surges in hospitalization and death in many Republican-dominated states, including Texas.
“I’m very very pro-vaccine, but I’m also more pro-freedom,” Shapiro told an electrified crowd, announcing his media company, the Daily Wire, was gearing up for a legal battle with the federal government over the new requirements.
“Who loves breathing sweet, delicious, free air, maskless?” shouted Benny Johnson, a Trump-loving meme-maker for Turning Point USA.
Harris County, where Crenshaw and company had convened the conspicuously maskless confab, had seen an average of more than 2,000 cases a day the previous week, prompting officials to urge unvaccinated people to stay home as much as possible.
At this very hotel in downtown Houston, dozens of traveling nurses from all over the country had flown in and were using the lobby downstairs as a staging ground; jumping on buses and being brought to hospitals in the area that were dealing with covid-related shortages.
“It’s pathetic,” said a nurse who had flown in from Boston and spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not authorized by her employer to speak to the media. “They are complaining about having their freedoms taken away. But the people in that room clearly don’t know real suffering.”
Among the conference-goers, most of whom didn’t notice the nurses going down the same escalators that brought them to the ballroom, the grave admonitions of public health authorities were ripe for the mocking.
“This room is absolutely jam-packed!” Rubin shouted over a Blink-182 cover band during the conference’s opening night, on Sept. 11. “And I’m fairly certain no one is going to die here!”
Rubin explained that he was sick of being surrounded by terrified, masked-up liberals in Los Angeles, where the only socializing he could do were the events he hosted in secret in his house.
But the Houston conference was more than a chance to breathe the sweet, carpet-shampoo aromas of a hotel ballroom without a face covering; it was an opportunity to start working out what exactly the conservative movement stood for beyond fealty to the ex-president.
Enter Dan Crenshaw.
“I’m trying not to shake,” a teenage boy whispered to his friend, when the Texas congressman first appeared on the opening night, striding through the ballroom to take photos with adoring fans.
With more than a million Twitter followers, Crenshaw has been described by his fans as an antidote to “the Squad” — the conclave of young liberals putatively led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) — someone who makes politics relatable and understandable to a next generation of potential voters. But it’s not just his Twitter game that gets people excited. Crenshaw is revered as a war hero, a Navy SEAL who lost his right eye to an improvised explosive device during his third deployment to Afghanistan. The eye patch Crenshaw now wears only enhances the idea that he’s a comic book supersoldier, almost like the “Rambo Trump” meme come to life.
“I love Trump, love, love Trump,” said Zerah Steltzer, 20, of Oregon. “But I think he’s getting too old, and it’s time for someone fresh in there.”
“If Crenshaw were to run for president,” said Esteven Lopez, 17, of Texas. “I’d have a hard time deciding between him and Trump.”
The two-term congressman is both Trumpy and not. He criticized Trump before he was elected but voted against both impeachments. He spoke at the 2020 convention, but made waves by not mentioning Trump’s name once. In December, after Trump lost, Crenshaw was one of 126 Republicans who signed an amicus brief supporting a lawsuit that aimed to delay certification of presidential election results in certain, strategically important states that President Biden won — tantamount to co-signing Trump’s false narrative that Democrats had cheated. (The U.S. Supreme Court snuffed out that legal challenge.) However, when 147 Republican members of Congress later voted against certifying Biden’s win, Crenshaw was not one of them. Recently, the Texas congressman told a fundraiser audience to not “kid yourself” into thinking that election fraud was the reason Trump lost the election.
Naturally, a Republican who refuses to be completely loyal to the party’s loyalty-obsessed leader is bound to face some blowback. When the speaker list for this youth conference became public, for example, the Big League Politics, a far-right, conspiracy theory-loving website, accused the congressman of hosting a “Never Trumper” RINO (Republican in Name Only) fest.
“I dismiss these people,” Crenshaw said of such critics. “And I think they’re stupid.”
His conference was not anti-Trump, but unlike the worshipful right-wing youth bonanzas held by Turning Point USA, it was not exactly a Trump rally, either. His name was hardly mentioned.
“They want to make the party all about Donald Trump,” Crenshaw said of the political left — and of some members of his own party — in an interview. “This summit is a reminder of what conservatism is, because it’s not anti- or pro-anyone.”
On the first full day of the conference, conservatism appeared to be, at the very least, pro-lasers and pro-fog machines. There was a screening of a mini-movie about Crenshaw escaping from antifa kidnappers and parachuting to the roof of the Hilton hotel, before rappelling down from the rafters and appearing onstage in camo pants and a tight black shirt.
“I went to St. Petersburg once,” Crenshaw told Kelly during one session. “The Putin fan base is very interesting. There’s, like, mugs with him in sunglasses and helicopters and fire behind him.”
“They like a strong man,” Kelly said. “They don’t want this whole Brooklyn, pumpkin-spice latte-drinking man that they are creating here. I don’t want that either.”
The merchandise store didn’t feature mugs of Crenshaw with sunglasses, but it did feature mugs of him with a Texas-flag eye patch and shirts featuring the congressman decked out in full combat fatigues, clutching a gun and smoking a cigar. But these visions of Crenshaw as the last action hero belie the fact that he is, in many ways, a traditional Republican politician — one who thinks that right-wing populism is not always great, and that maybe maintaining a military presence in Afghanistan is actually a good idea, and that “being nice” is an important skill to cultivate.
“I really like Crenshaw’s mentality, his morals, and I love the eye patch,” said Pete Empey a 19-year-old from Seattle. “Honestly I think everyone here is just figuring out their stuff. We’re still developing as humans.”
Last year, while the Trump White House was busy downplaying the pandemic, Crenshaw canceled his youth summer conference out of an “abundance of caution.” This year, deciding they weren’t “going to live in fear forever,” he declined to cancel, despite the delta surge.
“If you’re of student age and you’re unvaccinated, you are still better off than a vaccinated adult,” Crenshaw told The Post after the conference ended. “I follow the science, unlike everybody else, when it comes to covid fear porn.”
By Monday morning the kids had left, taking with them all they had taken in at the conference: talking points, punchlines, long-distance friendships and a reinforced understanding of their role in the fight for America’s future.
Back at the hotel, the nurses descended the escalators and jumped on buses bound for area hospitals.