When, in October 2016, it was time to build the border wall — or at least a plywood replica on the campus of Washington State University — the job fell to Jacob Heinen. He was only a freshman, but he was one of the few College Republicans who knew how to work with his hands. When he was done, he spray-painted TRUMP across the wall in gold, then stood back and watched as a crowd of classmates showed up to protest his creation.
To Heinen, a conservative kid from a farming town, the stunt seemed like a good idea. He resented paying thousands of dollars to attend a school where he felt unwelcome. He saw liberal students as unwilling to engage in neutral debate; they treated political disagreements not as intellectual differences, he felt, but as moral ones. It was as if you came to college “just to learn why your political ideology makes you a horrible person,” Heinen told me. “It was [cast as]: If you were a good person, you’d believe in gun reform. If you were a good person, you’d believe in single-payer health care.” Even though Donald Trump hadn’t been his preferred choice for the GOP nomination, he liked that the candidate’s confrontational message gave College Republicans an opening to challenge the left’s dominance on campus. And the closer Trump got to winning in November, the more allies Heinen found: In 2016, he recalls, the WSU College Republicans increased their numbers from a half-dozen students to more than 40.
But after Trump won the presidency, Heinen wanted to move on from provocations like the wall to more civil discourse. His fellow College Republicans disagreed. He says they wanted to extend a speaking invitation to alt-right darling Milo Yiannopoulos. So Heinen quietly left the group. A few months later, when it emerged that the president of the WSU College Republicans had attended the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Heinen, who was starting a bipartisan political science club, made his resignation public.
When I spoke to Heinen by phone in March, he seemed exhausted by the president whose tactics he had once emulated. “I take it case-by-case. Neil Gorsuch and tax reform were awesome,” he said, referring to Trump’s nomination of the conservative Gorsuch to the Supreme Court in 2017. “But he’s also done really, really horrible things.” Although Trump’s election had done much to shape his college experience, Heinen insisted that the president hasn’t influenced his worldview. “What are Donald Trump’s political beliefs?” he asked. “You watch Twitter for an hour, and he changes his mind four times.”
I spoke to Heinen as part of a project to figure out how the next generation of Republican leaders is thinking about politics. Are they Trump supporters? Trump skeptics? Some mix of both? To try to answer these questions, I interviewed 52 young conservative leaders nationwide, most in their early 20s, in the hope of finding common threads, or illuminating differences, that might tell us where conservatism as a whole is going in the decades to come.
My initial challenge was to find a representative sample. I started with the College Republicans, a national organization with more than 250,000 members, figuring that this was where I’d find the future elected officials, donors, staffers, consultants, activists and writers who would someday define the post-Trump GOP. But I knew that the College Republicans wouldn’t give the full picture of what it is to be a young conservative today. There are more ideological sects, like William F. Buckley Jr.’s Young Americans for Freedom, founded in 1960, and the Leadership Institute, founded by a Reagan acolyte in 1979, plus newer groups including Young Americans for Liberty, a libertarian offshoot of Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential campaign, and the pro-Trump Turning Point USA, founded in 2012. I talked to members of all these factions, along with editors of conservative campus newspapers; people on Newsmax’s and Red Alert Politics’ “30 Under 30” lists; Christian leaders; staffers at the antiabortion group Students for Life of America; the founder of Students for Trump; and members of the conservative Network of Enlightened Women.
(My sample was in no way scientific, and it had notable omissions. I did not, for instance, seek out the white supremacists of the alt-right. I also conducted these interviews prior to the major political events of recent weeks — chief among them Trump’s family-separation policy at the border and Supreme Court Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s retirement.)
After talking to these young conservatives, I can report a few things that are generally true. Most see Trump as an imperfect means of implementing their favored policies. They’ve been pleasantly surprised by what he has delivered: Gorsuch, the tax law, deregulation. They wish Trump wouldn’t tweet like that. Almost none cared about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into possible Trump campaign-Russia collusion. The most admired person in the administration is U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley — and that’s because she stands up to Trump.
Perhaps the most striking thing is that Trumpism has not swamped more varied modes of conservative thought among young leaders. This is arguably in contrast to the trend in Washington, where fewer and fewer Republican politicians seem willing to defy Trump. Among young conservatives, there are plenty of Trumpists — as Heinen’s experience with his fellow Republicans at Washington State shows. Yet there are also many young conservatives like Heinen who are not falling uniformly in line behind Trump and his worldview.
Among the young people I spoke to, there were — in addition to Trump acolytes — pragmatists who support Trump as a vehicle to achieve their goals, moderates who feel pushed out of the party, libertarians who see Trump’s disruption as a chance to redefine conservatism, traditionalists for whom Trump’s character doesn’t fit the conservative brand, and loyal establishment types trying to keep everyone together. Oddly enough, the person who appeared to be doing the most to shape the thinking of the new generation of Republican leaders was not the president of the United States — but Ben Shapiro, a 34-year-old anti-Trump conservative pundit who came up unprompted in more than a third of my conversations. (More on Shapiro’s influence later.)
Heinen was one of the first people I talked to, and, in his complicated views, he turned out to be representative. He spoke about the Trump presidency with a sense of buyer’s remorse. Poking liberals has been a defining feature of campus conservatism for decades, and Heinen had built his wall in that tradition, not really considering whether Trump might actually get elected. After Trump won, Heinen suddenly had to reconcile his happiness about a conservative team in the White House with a growing apprehension that its rhetoric was dividing campus — and American — culture. “When Donald Trump was elected, I wondered, ‘Where do we go from here?’ ” he told me. “What made Trump ‘Trump’ was saying outrageous things. That was fine when he was campaigning. But now he has to make policy, and that means working with people on the other side.”
Like Heinen, Kassy Dillon is a conservative with a nuanced disposition toward Trump. Also like Heinen, her conservatism placed her at the center of campus controversy. In April 2016, when she was a sophomore at Mount Holyoke College, her editor at Campus Reform (a conservative website) sent her to cover a panel about political correctness at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She arrived at an auditorium packed with protesters booing at conservative comedian Steven Crowder, who paced the stage clutching a microphone and yelling, “Time to listen up, you silly liberal fruitcakes.” Milo Yiannopoulos approached the podium to deliver his trademark line: “Feminism is cancer.”
Dillon noticed a young woman sitting behind her who was, she says, “losing her mind.” Dillon held up her phone and began filming as the woman punched her fists in the air, screaming, “Keep your hate speech out of this campus!” A GIF of the video, dubbed “Trigglypuff,” went viral. Soon afterward, Dillon found herself in a town car on her way to a Fox News studio in Washington to record an interview. For the daughter of a single mother on welfare from Chicopee, Mass., it was a heady experience.
It wasn’t all fun, though. A friend of the student Dillon had filmed wrote an email to Mount Holyoke’s administrators calling for Dillon to be banned from college journalism, an email that Dillon distributed and that eventually landed on Breitbart News. The school did not take disciplinary action, but Dillon paid a social price. Students, she recalls, shouted slurs at her as she walked to class.
Rather than intimidating her, the episode galvanized Dillon. She started an opinion blog called Lone Conservative, which she says now has 215 contributors and has garnered millions of page views. She’s a regular speaker on campuses. In March, she attended a millennial conservative summit at the White House with the president and his daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump. Haley hosted her and other Lone Conservative contributors on a United Nations tour in June. (“Kassy is strong, smart and confident,” Haley said in a statement provided by her spokesperson. “Not only has she found the power of her own voice, but even more important, she’s using it to lift up other young people and encouraging them to make a difference.”) After graduation in May, Dillon went to work for Shapiro’s website, the Daily Wire.
On the surface, Dillon acts like a Trumpian firebrand. And yet, privately, she isn’t gaga over Trump, whom she approaches with ruthless pragmatism. “He tweets and it sucks and sometimes it can be funny,” she says. “I try to ignore it, or laugh it off.”
Dillon calls herself a “conservatarian” — she’s for free markets, she’d like to see marijuana decriminalized, and she wants the government out of marriage. She’s also pro-gun, pro-life and pro-Israel. As for immigration, she says: “I’m indifferent to the wall.” But, she adds, if Trump “doesn’t build it, we won’t do well in the next election.”
Yet after all these months, the combativeness that won Trump so many early young converts is giving her pause. It weighed on her conscience when the Internet made fun of the woman in the Trigglypuff video and her looks; she’s “haunted” by a picture she once took with Yiannopoulos.
She isn’t alone. The vice president of her blog, Alec Sears, 21, whose Twitter profile is a picture of him holding an assault rifle, says that working with the other side is a better path to success. “A lot of people don’t make it past the ‘triggering the libs’ point on the map of political growth,” he told me. “The people who are going to get stuff done five, 10 years from now are the ones who keep evolving.”
If young conservatives want a conciliatory approach to politics, however, they’d better hurry. Trump’s election turned off many young moderates during the most formative period in their lives. According to a May 2017 Pew Research Center survey, nearly a quarter of respondents ages 18 to 29 who identified as Republican in December 2015 had switched to Democrat by March 2017.
In my conversations, the moderates who remained in the party told me they were barely hanging on. A budding politico from Novato, Calif., Ben Rasmussen was a sophomore at Yale when the 2016 presidential primary race began. It was the first election he was old enough to vote in. “I was excited to cast that ballot and start my track record as a good young Republican,” he recalls. He watched in horror as Trump called Mexican immigrants rapists, made fun of the disabled and insulted veterans, while Rasmussen’s picks — first Jeb Bush, then Marco Rubio, then John Kasich — dropped out. “Throughout that time, the Trump campaign is gaining popularity,” Rasmussen recalled, “and it became harder and harder for me to confidently say ‘I’m a Republican,’ because every day he’s saying something that reflects badly on my party.”
After the moderate Republican group he created at Yale fizzled, Rasmussen abandoned his dream to work at the White House or on Capitol Hill. He graduated in May and started a job at a corporate intelligence firm. “There is a brain drain of moderate conservatives like me who entered college considering a career in politics and are less enamored of that idea,” he told me. “Trump brought out a dark element of the Republican Party. He dredged them up from the depths of the bog, and allowed them to feel at home in the GOP tent: the trolls, the racists and the neo-Nazis that for so long the Republican Party had pressed into the corners. Going forward, people like me will have no place in the Republican Party because we cannot have the same label as these people.”
During the 2016 election, Alec Dent from Lumberton, N.C., last year’s executive vice chairman of College Republicans at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, saw UNC’s more radical conservatives come out of the shadows. A handful found their home in Turning Point USA. Something of a campus proxy for Trump — the group’s founder, Charlie Kirk, has called Donald Trump Jr. “a personal friend” — Turning Point has become known for its anti-political-correctness, aggressive legal tactics and alleged associations with racism. At its December summit, the group’s message was light on policy and heavy on combat, with panels like “Suing Your School 101: Knowing and Defending the 1st Amendment on Campus.” That same month, the New Yorker reported that the group’s former national field director had texted “I hate black people” to another Turning Point employee (she emailed the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer that she had “no recollection” of those messages).
Dent was unnerved by the group’s arrival on his campus, but he’s nevertheless hopeful about the future. The Turning Point chapter at UNC, he says, is only a quarter the size of the College Republicans, whose leadership condemned racism on Facebook. (Grayson Haff, former president of Turning Point’s UNC chapter, told me that his group is sympathetic to Trump, but “doesn’t represent Turning Point’s national organization in everything we do. We are not a racist group.”) Still, Dent’s allegiance to the party is tenuous. “I’m not sure I will identify as a Republican for much longer,” Dent says. “I’m really curious whom the party nominates in 2024. If it’s someone who takes the same win-lose approach to politics as Trump, I think the Republican Party will have changed radically, and become a lot more populist and maybe even nationalist.”
If anyone thinks he can keep the moderates and the Trumpians together, it’s Jake Lubenow. The 22-year-old just spent his senior year at the University of Wisconsin at Madison as chair of the College Republicans — a serious job in a serious political state. Lubenow disapproves of Trump’s rhetoric, his tariffs and his wall. But he has always dreamed of a career in politics, and he’s not ready to give it up. “I think there’s a middle ground between the Never Trumpers and the Trumpians,” he told me.
Finding that middle ground hasn’t always been easy. Some members of his College Republicans board left the club rather than be associated with Trump; others chose not to list it on their résumés. But Trump brought a lot of newcomers to the party, too. Most College Republican leaders told me that they gained more members during the election than they lost. At Madison, Lubenow was determined to bring the Trump supporters into the fold, despite disagreements over things like trade. “There are a lot of people with different beliefs who call themselves Republicans. As long as they are coming to CR events, that’s a plus in my book,” he told me, before adding: “We try not to talk policy too much in our meetings.”
Ignoring policy differences might work in the short term, but for the movement to survive, young conservatives know, they’re going to have to define what they believe. The fight against political correctness has a way of drowning out everything else. “The lack of principles is an epidemic. I’m all for being against the left, but you have to have something to stand for. What’s the prescription for the problem you are trying to solve?” says Cliff Maloney Jr., 27, the president of the Ron Paul-inspired Young Americans for Liberty. Maloney hopes that libertarianism — cutting government, getting out of foreign entanglements, repealing Obamacare, leaving sexual orientation and gender identity alone — can fill the void.
A theater major in college, Maloney uses theatrics to get students’ attention — like building six-foot-tall digits to represent the $21 trillion national debt. The message appears to be getting through. In just 10 years, Young Americans for Liberty has grown to 300,000 members, more than the College Republicans. Maloney sees Trump’s disruptive election as an opportunity to nudge the conservative movement in a libertarian direction. “One thing Donald Trump has done is blown up labels. And everybody is trying to put the pieces together to define what does conservatism mean,” he says. “That’s a window for us.”
That, however, worries traditionalist conservatives, who are grounded in the Edmund Burkean values of virtue, manners, social norms and community rather than staunch individualism. These conservatives, who in my sample tended to be Christian but not necessarily evangelical, worry as much about libertarianism’s rise as they do about the way Trump’s moral deficiencies undermine their movement.
Peter Burns, 25,who works for In Defense of Christians, a Washington-based advocacy group that lobbies on behalf of Christians in the Middle East, sees a “decoupling of conservatism from faith” among his peers and a rise in pragmatism above principle — i.e., ignoring Trump’s personal failings as long as he delivers on policy, and abandoning the fight for religious freedom in policies relating to gender and same-sex marriage. Although Burns stresses the importance of accepting gay people, it’s clear that he can’t reconcile his peers’ liberalism on sexuality with the Christian principles behind his political ideology. To him the “conservatarian” set of ideas — pro-life, okay with same-sex marriage, caring about the free market above all else — “feels like picking and choosing.” He’s equally troubled by older Republicans’ devotion to the president. “It’s been difficult for me to see the gray heads of the movement go all-in for the administration,” he says. “I thought they were holding the line on issues of character.”
There are, of course, young conservatives who are more unabashedly Trumpist. Take Shekinah Hollingsworth, a recent graduate of Salisbury University in Maryland. Growing up half-Puerto Rican and half-black, Hollingsworth never felt fully accepted in either group. That alienation only solidified in college, where her conservative views — she’s hard-line on immigration and critical of the Black Lives Matter movement — have put her at odds with other students of color. After the election, Hollingsworth recalls wearing her Trump gear to an event the university put on to reassure students. She wanted her peers to see Trump supporters of all colors and genders. When she arrived, she says, “all the African American kids in the room were giving me dirty looks. They didn’t want to acknowledge that I could be a person of color and a Trump supporter at the same time.”
Hollingsworth doesn’t deny racism, and she doesn’t think Trump is perfect. She concedes that his immigration policy may have unintentionally made white supremacists more comfortable in the conservative movement. But she doesn’t want to accept the left’s narrative that America is institutionally racist — that the odds are stacked against her success. She likes Trump because he fights against those ideas. “Trump has a [gut-level] sense of patriotism,” she says. “He’s showing that we haven’t lost the cultural battles.”
Not all of my sources were troubled by Trump’s rhetoric. One was John David Rice-Cameron, president of the Stanford University College Republicans — who happens to be the son of Susan Rice, national security adviser and U.N. ambassador in the Obama administration. After praising Trump’s “principled realism,” his immigration policy, his support for Israel, his pro-life stance, his appointment of constitutional originalists to the bench and his successful deregulation, Rice-Cameron told me that Trump’s behavior doesn’t faze him. I asked him about Trump’s treatment of the media. “The press is still free to report the news as dishonestly as it wants,” he retorted. I asked about Trump’s perceived soft treatment of the alt-right. He called the alt-right “an ideological cancer” but redirected blame for racial division to the other side. “A large contingent of the Democratic Party has a fixation with race and sowing racial divisions,” he said, pointing to former vice president Joe Biden’s comments during the 2012 election that Republicans Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan would, figuratively, put African Americans “back in chains” by deregulating Wall Street. “If the healing is going to take place,” says Rice-Cameron, “it has to happen on both sides.”
And Ryan Fournier, 22, likes Trump because of his rhetoric. The former Sarah Palin acolyte started Students for Trump in his dorm room at Campbell University in North Carolina in 2015 because, as he puts it, “I was interested in Trump’s rhetoric. He spoke more freely than other politicians. … He talked about issues not previously in the political realm.” The Trump campaign ultimately invited Fournier to help build out its official youth arm.
For all the divergent versions of conservatism I found, I was struck by how frequently people mentioned one person who seemed to have the most influence on them and their peers: Ben Shapiro. A quick search for Shapiro’s name in my notes turns up statements like: “Ben Shapiro speaks for a lot of people,” “there’s a huge cult of Shapiro,” “my No. 1 right now is definitely Ben Shapiro. I think he’s a rock star.” Zach Talley, 24, a political consultant from South Carolina, put it most strongly: “People don’t just like Ben Shapiro,” he says. “They think what he thinks.”
At the helm of a podcast that reports getting 15 million downloads a month, Shapiro, 34, is something of a celebrity in the campus culture wars. His first book, “Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America’s Youth,” published when he was 20, was about the left’s ideological dominance of American universities. But though Shapiro owes his rise to a confrontational brand of right-wing politics, he has been peddling a softer approach in the age of Trump. He aims to bring traditionalists and libertarians together with a worldview that, in his words, seeks a “balance between individual rights and individual virtue,” like favoring legalization of marijuana but cautioning people not to smoke it.
Insulating the movement from Trump is essential to Shapiro’s plan to keep young people in the party. On his podcast, he praises Trump when he thinks he has stuck to conservative values and condemns him when he thinks he’s erred, a formula often repeated by the people I interviewed.
When I called Shapiro in May, he had a theory about his popularity with young conservatives: They embrace him because he gives them permission to like some of Trump’s policies without having to ally themselves with him. “People see who you voted for as a reflection of your character,” Shapiro told me. For young conservatives, voting for Trump made them seem like bad people in their peers’ eyes. Shapiro offers them a road map to feeling better about their beliefs, even though Trump is the messenger. “Young conservatives are still not super fond of Trump,” he explained. “They like his governance, they don’t like his rhetoric. If you acknowledge that cognitive dissonance, you resonate with them.”
That fit with young conservatives’ explanation for Shapiro’s appeal. “Trump could pull out the ‘Communist Manifesto’ and Sean Hannity would praise him,” says Jacob Hibbard, 25, a part-time radio host in Provo, Utah. “We think that’s garbage. If we wanted to be on the Trump train, we’d be there already. We want someone objective who will criticize Trump when he does wrong.”
For young conservatives, it became clear to me, the problem with Trump essentially boils down to his meanness. They may bristle at having to stay within the confines of socially acceptable speech dictated by liberals, but they don’t like what they see as Trump’s outright cruelty. “Trump is a hammer in search of a nail,” Shapiro says. “Sometimes he hits a nail and sometimes he hits a puppy.” When he hits Hollywood or the media, it feels good. When he targets the disabled or immigrants, it feels less satisfying. “Young people understand that it is a diverse society. They want to be tolerant of each other,” Shapiro says. His biggest worry about Trump is that he might “toxify” the party so much, young people will never vote for Republicans again. “That’s why it is important that conservatives stand athwart Trump,” he says.
But despite Shapiro’s best efforts, that’s not what elected Republican leaders appear to be doing. Instead, they seem to be slowly turning the GOP into what South Carolina congressional Republican nominee Katie Arrington has hailed as “the Party of Donald J. Trump.” This is exactly what many of the young conservatives I spoke to are resisting — a party that offers nothing but hero worship of a frequently crude, ideologically fickle 72-year-old man. They are hoping for ideas, principles, a worldview, a vision for America that they can articulate. That, however, may be something they’ll have to build for themselves.
Eliza Gray is a writer in New York.
Clarification: An earlier version of this article created the incorrect impression that John David Rice-Cameron has no objection to the alt-right. The piece originally stated that Rice-Cameron was asked about the alt-right and redirected blame to the other side. In fact, he was asked about Trump’s perceived soft treatment of the alt-right, and he called the alt-right “an ideological cancer” before redirecting blame to the other side. This version has been adjusted to reflect those comments.