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Dan Crenshaw knows how to make an entrance. Last Sunday, in front of a Houston crowd of about 2,000 Generation Zers ranging from ages 14 to 24, the 37-year-old congressman and former Navy SEAL rappelled down from the ceiling of the Hilton Americas. The audience erupted in cheers. Upon landing, Crenshaw gave a 20-minute speech about what conservatives believe.
Welcome to the Crenshaw Youth Summit. The congressman has gained an impressive following both on social media and “in real life,” but a youth conference run by a specific congressional office is still unusual. So, what was the point?
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“This isn’t a rally,” Crenshaw explained in his opening remarks. “I didn’t bring you here so we could bash Democrats.” Instead, “I brought you here so that you might have a better understanding of what it means to partake from the rich conservative traditions.”
That’s what attendees expected. “We heard about it and thought it would be a great opportunity to learn,” 17-year-old Walter Drawdy told the Washington Examiner. His brother Liam, 15, added: “I feel like this isn’t meant to give us the will to vote Republican but to inform us and make us understand what we would be voting for.” The brothers suggested that some of their friends who are “more moderate” would also be open to the ideas presented at the summit.
The focus on the ideas behind the ideology is a noble intention but presents a challenge: How do you balance the need to educate and inform with the need to retain the attention and enthusiasm of so young a crowd?
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For 24 hours, some of the most well-known conservatives appeared onstage for remarks or Q&As in morning and afternoon sessions: Ben Shapiro, Megyn Kelly, Dave Rubin, Benny Johnson, and others talked to the eager crowd about culture, politics, and their careers in media. Motivational speaker Tony Robbins was there, too.
“It was incredibly inspiring to see a politically diverse set of young people come together to fight for the America that their parents knew, that they see slipping away,” Dave Rubin told the Washington Examiner. Rubin took photos with young attendees who arrived Saturday night and then Sunday participated in an event describing his own pivot from left to right.
Two panels, one during each session, were clearly geared toward the younger generation present. The first discussed the controversial but important topic of human trafficking, including Courtney Litvak. She was a victim of trafficking, escaped, and then was later appointed to President Donald Trump’s Advisory Council on Human Trafficking. In the afternoon, a panel including Antonia Okafor, Benji Backer, Morgan Zegers, and the Washington Examiner's Elisha Krauss discussed how to communicate to young, would-be political activists. Okafor is known for her staunch advocacy of Second Amendment rights, and Backer founded an organization that advocates conservative solutions to climate change, a topic far more popular with this generation of conservatives than their predecessors.
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Wearing a red “Make America Great Again” T-shirt, Emma Vickers, 15, said she came to educate herself. “I just wanted to learn more about what conservatism is about and what we stand for.” Vickers said the event “is not changing my mind, but it’s building on what I already know.” She loved Megyn Kelly’s remarks, which included a lot of career advice and comments about media bias. “I watch her a lot,” Vickers told the Washington Examiner. “Everything she says I agree with.”
Kelly was the only female given the platform outside of a panel. Like some of the other speakers, including Tony Robbins, she focused less on conservative ideology and instead offered some real-world advice. Kelly encouraged students to do something outside of journalism first. (Initially, she encouraged those in the crowd not to become journalists, and Crenshaw pressed for her advice for those who want to anyway.) Kelly spoke to both life experience and real knowledge being crucial to any successful reporting career. “There’s something kinda sad about always being on the sidelines. Don’t spend your whole career on the sidelines reporting on what the players on the field are doing. Get out in the field for a while, so you know what it’s like. It will inform your life on the sidelines reporting a lot better.”
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Vickers’s attire pointed to the uniqueness of another feature of the conference — or, rather, an absence. Trump has been the center of the Republican and conservative worlds since launching his 2016 bid for the presidency, and in-person events designed to juice up large crowds are particularly his wheelhouse. Though Trump is out of office, he is flirting with another run for the presidency and, in essence, has frozen the field, with his would-be successors awaiting his next move before deciding on their own. Crenshaw’s event was a way around this stalemate: gin up conservative enthusiasm at an event without Trump attended by people young enough that many hadn’t voted yet. In this way, it wasn’t an attempt to pull Trump’s base away from him but a necessary recruitment of first-time voters and future activists. Building a movement around something other than Trump without antagonizing the former president is the tightrope Crenshaw is walking.
In some sense, the uniqueness of the conference was part of the point.
“No other politician does anything like this,” Justin Discigil, Crenshaw’s communications director, told the Washington Examiner. “Sure, they all speak at youth events, but none hold an event specifically geared toward engaging young conservatives. Dan is the next generation’s politician, between his pioneering of social media use and events like this.”
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Given the modest fee each student was charged, it’s unlikely Crenshaw’s campaign, which sponsored the event, profited. CPAC is probably the closest event conservatives have to Crenshaw’s Youth Summit. The Conservative Political Action Conference is usually held once a year in February or March in Washington, D.C. This year, one was also held in Dallas, Texas, over the summer.
While CPAC aims for a carnival-like atmosphere of enthusiasm and attendee participation, Crenshaw’s Youth Summit seemed to have a twofold focus: lean in on topics Generation Z is curious about, even if they’re uncomfortable — such as racism, human trafficking, and climate change — while also solidifying the attendees’ foundational conservative beliefs. Summitgoers were given a drawstring backpack with healthy snacks, water, and a pamphlet complete with a “Conservative Guide to Winning Debates” on topics such as the environment, immigration, healthcare, and student debt.
Still, can an event like this really shape the minds of Generation Z?
Jake and Cole Wakil, 15 and 16, attended the Youth Summit with two other friends. They were all convinced the encouragement factor added as much value as the potential for persuasion. “I came to see the people who I see online,” Cole told me. “I want to learn more about my values. This is reinforcing my beliefs.” He found the sessions to be interesting and compelling. “I think this would have persuaded an open-minded liberal friend,” Cole said.
One thing seemed certain: In a society that often pokes at Generation Z for being “too online” or “lazy,” those at Crenshaw’s Youth Summit seemed by and large to be very much enjoying an in-person event and eager to lap up new information. Crenshaw told the Washington Examiner the “event was a huge success.”
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The summit, he said, “is designed to give young conservatives the tools they need to stay excited and engaged in the conservative movement, and to grow it. That’s exactly what this year’s Youth Summit accomplished.”
Only time will tell — but that’s always the case when you’re betting on the future.
Nicole Russell (@russell_nm) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential blog.
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