Gen Z conservatives build new groups for anti-Trump Republicans
Posted September 2, 2020 6:21 p.m. EDT
CNN — Elle Kalisz watched both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions over the past two weeks as a person without a party.
A senior at American University, Kalisz, 21, grew up in a small freight town on the border of Illinois and Wisconsin, where she was taught to "work for what you have," but to "love your neighbor," she said. She considers herself a young conservative, but for a while now, Kalisz said she has been unable to associate with either party and was disappointed with what she described as "harmful and hateful rhetoric" and the notion of "fear" perpetuated during the RNC.
Meanwhile, she said watching the DNC was also upsetting; it's hard for her to watch the Democrats describe themselves as the only solution for issues like climate change or fixing racial disparities, she explained.
Kalisz isn't alone. Many center-right Gen Z voters, who prioritize small government, capitalism and free market values but care deeply about climate change, racial justice and health care access (all issues embraced by the Democratic Party), say they feel lost and without a home in the current political conversation.
These voters are disillusioned with Trump and the state of the Republican Party, which they say is one that spews hate and misinformation. But they are also uncomfortable with Joe Biden and the Democratic platform.
"Right now your option as a Gen Z voter is a set of specific policies that are being pushed by the left that you don't agree with or a party that can't even say that these are an issue, so where do you go?" Kalisz asked.
As of June, 22% of young voters (ages 18-36) identified as Republican, while 34% identified as Democrats, according to GenForward, a survey associated with the University of Chicago. An additional 29% of young voters identified as independents, and the remaining young voters were undecided or declined to respond.
The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts found that some young voters who previously voted for Republican candidates are likely to vote for Biden in November. According to its research, almost 20% of young voters who voted for a GOP candidate in 2018 and 8% of young Trump voters in 2016 are planning to support Biden.
A home for the young and disaffected: College Republicans for Biden and 'gen z gop'
In March, college students at American University launched College Republicans for Biden, a group of young conservatives disaffected with Trump who are proud to support the Democratic nominee. According to Christopher Trzaska, the founder of the group, College Republicans for Biden is now on many campuses around the country and intends to "go all in for Biden," he said, because Biden is not only a "palatable, but also a preferable" alternative to Trump.
Trzaska jumped on the Biden bandwagon early on in the Democratic primary; as a conservative, Trzaska said he likely would not have supported progressive candidates like Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, or really any of the other Democratic candidates. Trzaska believes that Biden would be apt to lead the country on day one because of his decades of foreign policy experience.
"Donald Trump is destructive to Democracy," Trzaska said, explaining his reasoning for supporting Biden. "From our perspective... I'm referring to this election specifically, and getting a message out there that young people do not have to fall into the dichotomy of hard core Democrat leftism that often happens on college campuses, nor do they have to fall into the Trump cult of personality trap that is also seen on college campuses."
College Republicans for Biden has ambassadors and representatives on campuses across the country to help students see that they're "not alone," Trzaska said. The group hopes to demonstrate to like-minded young conservatives that it's OK to feel upset with the current state of the Republican Party, to seek change, and to vote for Biden in this moment.
Trzaska thinks "there's still hope that the Republican Party can be saved, that people are willing to put in the work, and young people are willing to say, 'this Trump thing was a mistake, it backfired horribly, let's go try something new, let's rebuild the party,'" he said.
One group, putting in the work that Trzaska referenced, is "gen z gop."
Earlier this summer, four young Republicans from Massachusetts -- Mike Brodo, Ryan Doucette, Samuel Garber and John Olds -- united to start a podcast that would provide young conservatives with conversation on issues they care about that they felt were being ignored by the Republican Party.
But before dropping their first episode, the founders decided they needed to be more than a podcast.
The group launched an organization: "gen z gop," which aims to be a home for young Republicans, seeking nuanced debate based off fact and science, looking to build the future of the Republican Party. The group is based off three pillars: "finding balance," "formulating solutions" and "focusing on the future," and so far is entirely self funded by the founders.
According to Brodo, the executive director of gen z gop, they aim to start a movement within their generation and within the Republican Party at large.
In late July, the group launched with a video on Twitter. The following day, their first podcast episode, titled "republicans, we've got a problem," went live on Spotify and Apple Music.
"Over the past few years, our political system has proven broken. Our party hijacked. Our values forgotten. As Republicans, we believe that the party of Lincoln is worth saving from its current flirtation with authoritarian populism. But we do not seek to return to the politics of the past," gen z gop says in their launch video. "We seek to present a new vision."
Part of gen z gop's vision, they explain, includes building a Republican Party that pursues climate change solutions, proclaims "Black lives matter," and looks to private public partnerships to provide an alternative to Medicare for All.
"We need a party that can embrace discussion in nuanced ways so that we can have debates in the first place... if you look at a Gen Z voter and you asked, 'What do they care about?' And they say 'climate change, racial injustice,' you know, 'healthcare,' they're only going to vote for Democrats because... that's the party that's talking about those issues. But we don't want the country to go down that path... we want the Republican party to have good faith actors that come to the table and embrace the issues," Brodo said.
Building a broad gen z coalition
Brodo started his political career in 2016 at the age of 16, knocking on doors in New Hampshire for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who was then running for president. Following the 2016 election, Brodo chaired the Massachusetts Teenage Republicans where he met Doucette and Garber, who both went on to chair MA Teenage Republicans as well.
Doucette, chief of staff for the group, and Garber, its communications director, brought Olds, who they knew from local Massachusetts campaigns, into the mix. Olds serves as the group's political director.
Brodo, now 20 and a junior at Georgetown University, said the group initially received criticism because it was founded by four White men from the same state.
Since their launch, gen z gop has expanded in gender, racial and geographic diversity.
So far, the group has received over 200 applications and has convened a team of 30 members, demonstrating the appetite from young people to rewrite the narrative of the current Republican Party, they say.
According to the groups' founders, their organization includes members from Massachusetts and Illinois, as well as Virginia, North Carolina, Missouri, California, Kentucky, Mississippi, Florida, Texas and New York. Members include those who identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian, White and mixed racial backgrounds.
While most members of gen z gop are center right, the group does not intend to be a monolith, and so far, according to Javon Price, diversity of thought is one of the things he appreciates most about the group.
Price, a 22-year-old senior at Georgetown University from Northern Virginia, was formerly the co-chair of Georgetown's chapter of Students for Trump. He now serves as the director of external affairs with gen z gop.
Asked why he joined gen z gop, Price said that as a young Black man, he does not believe the Republican Party has ignored Black and other minority communities, but he believes the Republican party hasn't paid the Black community and other minority communities the attention they deserve.
"I think that frankly, a lot of Black and brown communities are more conservative in nature and the party has to do justice due diligence to reach out to us. It'd be a good idea."
Price says that with his involvement, he hopes to show that young Black men can identify as conservative, even if it's not the most popular or cool thing to do.
"It speaks volumes of the organization," Price said of his prior involvement with Students for Trump, adding that gen z gop is not an election-based organization. "gen z gop is an organization that's focused on really policy and the solutions and policy issues that we want to put forward."
"What we're trying to do is more than an election in November ... The conversation that we're trying to start here is ensuring that issues that are related to young folk like ourselves are really being pushed. So we don't have to wait until we're in office. And these conversations need to start now because frankly these things affect us here and now."
Likewise, Trzaska said College Republicans for Biden has convened a group of about 30 students from across the country including members from Texas and California. Trzaksa said the group has also connected with former national security officials from what he called "Bush world," as well as certain Midwest faith-based organizations, he said.
Shifting the current dialogue
College Republicans for Biden and gen z gop are not the only youth-led conservative groups.
Turning Point USA, founded in 2012 by Charlie Kirk, has become a leading organization for young Republicans.
The group has fully embraced Trump and his rhetoric. Some of Turning Point USA's taglines include "Socialism Sucks" and "Big Gov Sucks." TPUSA members, including Kirk, frequently take to Twitter to criticize the left.
Kirk recently tweeted, "Democrats are the party of arson, riots, looting, and lawlessness," and has previously tweeted that "BLM inc is a domestic terror organization."
Kirk spoke at the Republican National Convention last week.
During his RNC speech, Kirk misled on pastors being locked up. He claimed that "bitter, deceitful, vengeful activists...have us locking up pastors," which is a false connection. Pastors in the US have been arrested for disobeying state and local social distancing orders during the pandemic by holding in-person church services.
Kirk has penned two books, "The MAGA Doctrine" and "Campus Battlefield: How Conservatives Can WIN the Battle on Campus and Why It Matters."
While Kirk represents a portion of right-leaning young voters, both College Republicans for Biden and gen z gop aim to provide alternative spaces for young conservatives on college campuses.
Brodo told CNN that gen z gop hopes to build a counter movement to Turning Point USA on the same side of the aisle, calling Turning Point USA "extreme."
"Their messaging now is all about the culture war," Brodo said, speaking to the way that Kirk and Turning Point USA call out left-leaning thought on college campuses. Turning Point USA runs a website called "Professor Watchlist," which lists college professors who the organization say "discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom."
"Who gains from that?" Trzaska asked.
"We've seen a lot of people really shirk our responsibility to having an intellectual, honest debate about conservative policy position. And instead focus on, you know, getting as many liberals mad as they possibly can," he said, adding that some right-leaning groups on college campuses are "causing a ruckus for no reason."
Although College Republicans for Biden is outwardly endorsing and is built around supporting Biden, gen z gop is not.
When asked why they are not endorsing Biden, the founders of gen z gop said they don't feel they can associate with either of these candidates and they don't believe they have to take a stand in November's election to drive change in the future of the Republican party. With that being said, certain members of gen z gop will vote for Biden in November.
While they hope to one day endorse like-minded Gen Z candidates, for now, gen z gop is focused on starting conversation and bringing young people who may be turned off from politics to the table.
"I think that's kind of the core mission here is kind of trying to appeal to people our age, getting them involved in politics," Brodo said. "I think our biggest demographic that we're appealing to is actually people that are not political junkies like myself, that are always talking about it. It's the people that care about politics to the level that any citizen should, but are just so turned off because of how polarized and disgusting a lot of the discourse is today."