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Inside Ted Cruz's Doomed Attempt to Start a Young Conservative Revolution

On his first campaign swing through New Hampshire, the Texas Senator tries to rouse an "army of young people" to embrace the right-wing fringe.

by Livia Gershon
Mar 31 2015, 6:47pm

Speaking in New Hampshire last Friday night, Ted Cruz recalled a snarky aside written by New York Times columnist David Brooks, identifying Cruz and Karl Marx as the two people who "believe that power can be wielded directly by the masses." Being lumped in with Marx is a bit unusual for him, Cruz noted, but he's thrilled to be dismissed as a wacky populist by an Establishment shill like Brooks.

Cruz, the junior Senator from Texas and fir st official Republican presidential candidate for 2016, was keynoting the New England Freedom Conference, put on by Young America's Foundation, a far-right group that's focused on uniting college and high school students to oppose liberalism for more than four decades. YAF and Cruz are kind of perfect for each other: Both present an image that's equal parts youthful optimism, serious intellect, and right-wing absolutism . And naturally, both are pretty obsessed with Ronald Reagan.

At the keynote event, both Cruz and Andrew Coffin, director of the Reagan Ranch in California, which YAF runs, mentioned that when the Texas Republican got married in 2001 he brought his entire wedding party to the ranch as part of the matrimonial festivities. Before Cruz spoke, the organizers played a video that consists entirely of Reagan's contemporaries—Jimmy Carter, Sam Donaldson, George H. W. Bush and others—calling the Gipper dangerous, ignorant, and otherwise awful.

The final clip, of Keith Olbermann cheerfully saying, "Reagan's dead, and he was a lousy President," drew gasps from the audience. The mental leap we were clearly expected to make was that Reagan was one of humanity's most brilliant leaders of all time, rendering his detractors laughable fools. That might be debatable at best in many other contexts, but here it didn't even need to be spelled out.

Young Reagan lovers file in to the auditorium at the YAF Conference in New Hampshire. Photos by author

Coffin drew a historical parallel: Like Reagan, Cruz, the first official Republican candidate of 2016, is under attack by people who underestimate the man and fail to grasp the transformational power of a radically anti-government stance. Cruz has said he wants to build "an army of young people," and his speech to the YAF audience felt a tiny bit like Chairman Mao urging young revolutionaries to tear down the political traditions of the previous generation. He urged the students to rise up against the national debt run up by "your deadbeat parents and grandparents."

"I think every young person, after you go in and vote, ought to go out and punch your parents in the nose," Cruz told his young listeners.

After the speech, there was a film that YAF made in response to Occupy Wall Street, a liberal movement that, despite having almost no mainstream political relevancy, remains a bogeyman for the American right-wing. A montage of images sets the terms of the conflict in the film: radical rioters, communist dictators, and dystopian automatons marching in line, juxtaposed with clips of a family buying a house, young people graduating college, and corporate executives looking at pie charts in modern offices. Students are urged to take on their socialist professors and speak out for patriotism and free enterprise. "It's OK to be outnumbered," one narrator promises. "Conservatives are always going to be outnumbered on campus." Music soars.

Other speakers at the conference included Robert Spencer—a longtime Islamophobe who has written that there is "no distinction in the American Muslim community between peaceful Muslims and jihadists"—as well as John Stossel, a noted fan of price-gouging hurricane victims, and Alex Marlow, the editor-in-chief of Breitbart.com. In other words, it was a friendly audience for Cruz, a conservative media darling whose scorched-earth approach to governance has made him a favorite among right-wing activists.

Cruz and the YAF faithful talkes about young people as a natural constituency for conservative values—cynical about politicians and worried about government intrusion in their lives. But polling doesn't exactly bear this out, revealing that hard-right young people actually tend to be outnumbered by their more liberal peers. As a group, millennials are disaffected from the political system but also more supportive of a big government than older generations. And of course, gay marriage is another massive barrier between conservative Republicans and young voters.

Conservative teens flock to YAF to take a right-wing respite from campus liberalism.

Even in the hardcore environment of the YAF conference, only a minority of attendees I spoke with were fans of Cruz. The Tea Party firebrand is disliked even by members of his own party for his doomed effort to somehow stop Obamacare by shutting down the federal government, and recent 2016 surveys show Cruz polling at around 5 percent among likely Republican voters in early voting states.

At YAF's conference in New Hampshire, Eric Dubbury, who's studying the music business at the University of Southern California, told me he's been part of lots of conservative and libertarian events, including other YAF forums. He insisted he has the "upmost respect" for Cruz, but he added that he's hoping to work Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's campaign in 2016. "He's presidential material," Dubbury said of Walker. "He always carries himself with class and dignity. He's a calm, collected person."

Daniel Tiso, left, and Conor Kilgore, two New Hampshire high-school students who say they're already in the bag for Rick Perry.

Daniel Tiso and Conor Kilgore, two local high school students who worked for a conservative congressional candidate last fall, also said they wouldn't be signing on with Cruz. "We're looking for more executive experience in our nominee," Kilgore told me. "We like Rick Perry."

"We think this is [Perry's] year, and we think he can really take the White House," Tiso added.

Cruz poses with a new recruit.

Still, if there's a group of young people prone to be favorably disposed to a highly educated radical conservative, it's the YAF crowd. Among the Cruz fans here was Zane Richer, an 18-year-old prep school student who responded to my questions in a soft voice and quoted Thomas Jefferson. Richer told me he became interested in politics while learning about American history in the third or fourth grade. Trying to understand the connections between the classroom lessons and the modern political scene, he started copying out sections of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution each day after school.

Today, Richer is a political blogger in New Hampshire, the first-in-the-nation primary state where YAF held this weekend's conference. And he's a big fan of Cruz. "I think that he is willing to stand for principles, as opposed to flipping on issues," Richer said. "I don't agree with him on everything, but I think he believes what he believes."

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