We will never understand teens. As soon as adults assimilate a piece of information about teens, like, "What is up with that frog on the unicylce?" or "Are they actually setting themselves on fire?" the teens have already moved on to the next thing, or become 20-somethings and made way for the next incomprehensible batch of youth.
For instance, I think I get why teens tweet "fuck me daddy" at Donald Trump (because it's funny). But what about the teens who say they actually, honestly support the GOP candidate? What's going on there?
I'm talking about teens like my friend Diane's 18-year-old brother, Mike. A few weeks ago, he proudly announced to his family that he plans to cast his first-ever presidential ballot for the bold entrepreneur who gave the world Trump Steaks. Diane loves her brother, but she has no idea why he's doing this. "I think he just, like, thinks Trump is cool," she told me.
"I don't wanna say I like Donald Trump as a person," Mike told me over the phone when I asked him why he planned on voting for the Donald. Instead, Mike said that he shared more "critical beliefs" with Trump on stances such as immigration, taxes, and prioritizing the well-being of our veterans. "I'm not gonna go to his rallies or buy a Make America Great Again hat or anything," he said, "but if I had to make a choice between Clinton and Trump, it'd be Trump."
Mike told me his father is conservative, which seemed to be a running theme among the Trump Teens I spoke with. "I grew up every night watching the news during dinner, having my parents talk to me about it," a teen named Campbell told me. He's a recent high school graduate from Orange County, California, where he was a standout tight end on the football team. He called me while he was on a road trip to Kansas State—he's attending school there this fall, and he was heading there to hang out with his new fraternity brothers. (Despite the fact that he hasn't started classes yet, he told me he's already pledged Sig Ep as part of "an informal pre-rush thing.")
Like Trump himself, Campbell tended to deal in absolutes. "I'm watching the news and I see all these people burning American flags, and it makes me sick," he told me, kind of making me wonder what news he was watching. He then asked me if I thought Hillary Clinton should have been indicted because of her emails, and before I finished replying, he began rattling off the text of the laws that she'd supposedly violated. It's hard to argue with a teen when he's reading laws at you, so I told him that I felt like Trump had gotten away with doing things at least as bad in his long business career. "But there are loopholes in the system that he takes advantage of," argued Campbell. "They're not necessarily illegal."
I got the sense that Campbell would have been a young Republican no matter which generation he was born into. He told me that he was a conservative because "small government's huge to me. I think we should have lower taxes, and we need to cut our spending."
Talking to Trump Teens can be a lot like watching Fox News secondhand. When I was exchanging Twitter DMs with Addison, a 16-year-old Trump fan, she told me that the "huge rise of left-wing social justice warriors" has her worried about "the direction this country's headed in." She added, "We live in a culture of self-proclaimed victims and politicians, and the media is thriving off of perpetuating that."
Addison isn't old enough to vote, but she and a friend started an anonymous, pro-Trump Twitter account, where they attack feminism, Black Lives Matter, immigration, firearm regulation, and (especially) Hillary Clinton. She told me she felt like she had to remain anonymous when posting this stuff in order to avoid "a very obvious double standard." She continued, "I can't proclaim my point of view because if I do I'm 'shoving my racism and bigotry down people's throats,' but [other people] have no problem shoving their views down mine."
Pablo Barberá is an associate professor at USC's School of International Relations who studies the ways in which social media affects the traditional forms of political communication. He told me that even if teens like Addison are tweeting and retweeting offensive stuff, she might have no idea that she was being offensive. Instead, her actions were part of a cycle of "herding behavior" he's found in online political communities. While he's observed this behavior on both the right and left, Barberá told me that it's particularly prominent in right-wing spaces such as Reddit, 4chan, and the alt-right Twittersphere. When conservatives are only interacting with their own posts and memes, he said, "it creates this echo chamber environment where your prior beliefs are confirmed, and you start believing in even stronger messages." A teen caught up in this environment, Barberá told me, is more likely "to perceive these messages as completely valid without realizing they might be racist or xenophobic."
Teens like Addison and Campbell are a pretty extreme minority—Trump is wildly unpopular among young people, and a majority of voters under 30 think he's a racist. But the unpopularity of your views doesn't necessarily lead you to question them. UC San Diego sociologist Amy Binder, one of the authors of Becoming Right: How Campuses Shape Young Conservatives, spent a lot of time observing young Republicans at a large public university on the West Coast. "Their whole thing was, 'We're a persecuted minority, so let's just go big,'" she said. That meant young conservatives would do things like hold affirmative action bake sales, which is where students of different backgrounds get charged different prices for cookies, or stage a "Catch an Illegal Immigrant" game, which is exactly what it sounds like. "My sense is that Trump would love these kinds of actions, and would celebrate them for being politically incorrect," Binder told me.
As every parent knows, teens are impulsive, say what's on their minds without thinking through the consequences, overreact to perceived slights, and often refuse to admit when they've screwed up. Even if Trump isn't winning over many actual teens, he's clearly speaking their language of petulance and pettiness.
"These kinds of provocative things are now starting to get said by actual politicians," Binder said. "Knowingly or not, he's taking a page from their book."
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