I hope you appreciated your recent introduction to the future leadership of the Republican Party this past week. It happened in Charlottesville, Virginia, where hundreds of neo-Nazis and white nationalists marched under the banner of “uniting the right.”
Among those white nationalists was James Allsup, a speaker at the rally, who was also the president of the Washington State University College Republicans, until his resignation this week. He was elected to that position in 2015, and “radicalized” the organization, according to a fellow students.
Another attendee was Peter Cvjetanovic, a college student from Nevada. When photos began circulating of Republican Senator Dean Heller posing for a photo with the avowed white nationalist, it was explained that Heller couldn’t have known of Cvjetanovic’s abhorrent beliefs, as the photo-op happened merely because Cvjetanovic was a member of the College Republicans at the University of Nevada at Reno.
I’m far from the first to make this joke, but one way Senator Heller might’ve been able to tell that this kid was racist was that he was a member of the College Republicans.
I’m not merely being glib: Racial resentment has been a driving force behind College Republican recruitment for years, but at this point it’s really all they have left to offer. In the age of President Donald Trump, what inspires a young person not merely to be conservative or vote Republican, but to get active in organized Republican politics? Do you think it’s a fervent belief that Paul Ryan knows the optimal tax policy to spur economic growth? Or do you think it’s more likely to be something else?
Everything that has happened in American life since the election of George W. Bush, the last point at which the generation currently entering its 30s was “up for grabs,” has only served to drive young people away from the Republican Party. At the absolute most, based on polling and election data, only about a third of adults under 30 are Republicans. According to Pew, nearly half of those young Republicans left their party at some point in 2016, with 23 percent of them changing their affiliation for good.
Meanwhile, everyone else in the broadly defined Millennial generation, and even many among the more-conservative Generation X, has become more liberal over the last decade. The Republicans have essentially lost a generation. (Republican pollster and author Kristen Soltis Andersen is my favorite authority on this subject, because she is watching her own movement refuse to grapple with these facts).
Despite that, the Republican Party will continue to field candidates and win elections for the foreseeable future. The two existent parties are entrenched in our electoral system—they effectively control ballot access at every level—so a Whig-style collapse seems out of the cards. The GOP, despite the aging and eventual die-off of its current base of support, will continue to win lots and lots of elections. So they’ll continue to need candidates.
Meanwhile, the only people entering the Republican Party candidate pipeline in the Trump era almost have to be allied with the alt-right, because the alt-right absolutely comprises the only effective and successful youth outreach strategy the GOP currently employs. The future leaders of the GOP aren’t the hooded Klan members or Nazi-tattooed thugs who presented the most cartoonish faces of hate in Charlottesville, but they are their clean-cut fellow marchers, and the many young right-wingers around the nation who sympathize with their cause.
While only a few hundred white nationalists descended on Charlottesville to unite the right, and only a couple of those white nationalists have been identified as active College Republicans, College Republican chapters have been signaling their sympathies for the goals of the marchers ever since the rise of the alt-right.
Cast your mind back to the time when the greatest threat to free speech in American civic life was liberal students attempting to shut down conservative celebrities on college campuses. What was the actual cause of that spate of stories? It was college Republican groups constantly inviting alt-right darling Milo Yiannopoulos to speak at campuses in order to drum up controversy. It is a trolling tactic, yes, but it is also a pretty clear sign that college Republicans are allied with Milo Yiannopoulos.
Elliot Kaufman, writing in The National Review, blames College Republicans for elevating alt-right figures like Milo. He points out that the Columbia College Republicans—Columbia! Surely the last vestige of legacy admissions drawn to conservative politics mainly to protect their inheritances, right?—have already extended speaking invites to Pizzagate propagandist Mike Cernovich and, even more bizarrely, Tommy Robinson, founder of the crypto-fascist English Defence League. They could not be making their affiliations any clearer.
The pool of people the Republican Party will be drawing from when selecting candidates a generation from now will contain these men and hardly anyone else. Cvjetanovic wasn’t the only marcher photographed with a current Republican elected official. Allsup, the erstwhile WSU College Republicans president, was photographed with Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers. “I communicate with people from their office on a fairly regular basis,” he told his student paper a few months ago, also mentioning that members of his organization had earned internships and jobs in her office.
This is the state of the GOP leadership pipeline. In a decade, state legislatures will start filling up with Gamergaters, MRAs, /pol/ posters, Anime Nazis, and Proud Boys. These are, as of now, the only people in their age cohort becoming more active in Republican politics in the Trump era. Everyone else is fleeing. This will be the legacy of Trumpism: It won’t be long before voters who reflexively check the box labeled “Republican” because their parents did, or because they think their property taxes are too high, or because Fox made them scared of terrorism, start electing Pepe racists to Congress.
These future Republican elected officials could easily look very much like rally attendee Nicholas Fuentes, a Boston University student until his decision this week to leave the school. He didn’t appear to be a formal member of any young Republican organizations, but he was a self-described Republican. In interviews, he denies being a white supremacist. On Facebook, after the rally, he wrote: “The rootless transnational elite knows that a tidal wave of white identity is coming.”
That “tidal wave” represents a fraction of the actual American populace, but it will have an outsize grip on the Republican Party for years to come.