The kids are far right
It had been a typically busy day for the conservative rabble-rouser.
Already that morning, Nicholas Fuentes, a Boston University freshman from Illinois, had attended an anti-Trump rally on campus clad in his red “Make America Great Again’’ cap. (“Causin’ some mischief,” as he’d put it). He’d followed that with an on-camera school newspaper interview and an afternoon Twitter feud with a political writer.
Now, in a makeshift studio inside a friend’s dorm room, he was rolling through his nightly, hourlong Web video show, “America First,” a surprisingly polished production showcasing his views on illegal immigrants (“I want all of them out”), the social-justice organization ACORN (“thugs”), and President Trump’s recent speech before Congress (“Gave me the chills”).
Trump’s unlikely rise to power has boosted a new sect of young conservatives who, like Fuentes, are vying to become players in a quickly evolving right-wing media landscape.
Brash, articulate, and telegenic, they espouse controversial opinions in a world where progress is measured in clicks, social media followers, and Fox News appearances — and where, as Fuentes puts it, “a nobody can become a somebody,” sometimes overnight.
Look no further than the recent rise of some of the far right’s most recognizable young stars, individuals who parlayed inflammatory speech into mainstream celebrity.
There is Milo Yiannopoulos, a 32-year-old self-described Internet “troll” who, until undergoing an astonishing fall from grace last month, had become a face of the far right’s next generation.
And Tomi Lahren, a 24-year-old whose fiery diatribes have earned her appearances on a slew of high-profile television programs — and some recent trouble with her own network.
There are others, too. The 30-something Paul Joseph Watson has built a massive following as a YouTube personality and editor-writer for the Infowars website run by radio host Alex Jones. Julia Hahn was a rising star for the conservative website Breitbart News before being plucked — at the age of 25 — for a job in the Trump administration.
“If you’re a young, ambitious person who wants to make a name for yourself, it would be a pretty smart idea — especially if you’re a young, attractive person — to start saying radical, right-wing things,” says Matt Lewis, a conservative columnist and author of the book “Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP Went From the Party of Reagan to the Party of Trump.”
Unlike their liberal counterparts, the right seems to boast a farm system of sorts dedicated to developing young media talent.
Many novices get their start with appearances on conservative talk radio (Trump adviser Stephen Miller was on Larry Elder’s show while in high school) or through online or local access television (Fuentes had a show before starting at BU).
Then there’s the Leadership Institute, a nonprofit that provides aspiring conservative activists and journalists with everything from mentorship to television training. Funded by individual donors and conservative foundations, some led by activist philanthropists including Charles Koch and Richard Uihlein, the institute saw its contributions jump from roughly $14 million to $24 million between 2014 and ’15, while its Campus Reform website has become a proving ground for college conservatives.
A number of the student-produced pieces are picked up by larger outlets including the Drudge Report and TheBlaze, founded by Glenn Beck and available on the Web, cable TV, and radio.
“In some cases, these stories have been so good, or so compelling, that we’ve . . . [helped them] pitch them out to Fox News,” says Bryan Bernys, vice president for campus programs at the Leadership Institute.
For those looking to further develop their brand, there are YouTube channels. Among the best known is Right Side Broadcasting Network, an Alabama-based startup with 248,968 subscribers as of Wednesday afternoon — compared with MSNBC’s 413,199 — which live-streamed Trump campaign events and has been given access to the White House press room. (It also hosts Fuentes’s show.)
And there are various websites — the Daily Caller, Breitbart News — some of which seem more than willing to march out an increasingly eclectic host of characters in an attempt to see what sticks.
“Because it’s a hungry market, people are going to throw chum in the water,” says Ben Shapiro, a prominent conservative author and commentator who founded the Daily Wire website.
Perhaps no one epitomizes this new path to prominence more than Tomi Lahren.
Barely removed from her senior year at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, she debuted her own show on the One America News Network in 2014, serving a year there before moving on to TheBlaze. Since then, she has continued her rise, becoming a Fox News fixture and appearing recently on HBO’s “Real Time With Bill Maher” and “The Daily Show With Trevor Noah” — as an outspoken opponent to the shows’ left-leaning hosts.
Here in Massachusetts, meanwhile, there is Kassy Dillon, a junior at Mount Holyoke College, who has established herself as a prominent conservative on the traditionally liberal campus.
She founded Lone Conservative, a website that has published the work of more than 60 writers, mostly students. She contributes regularly to the Leadership Institute’s Campus Reform site, and, at just 21, has already appeared on Fox News after shooting a viral video of a protester disrupting a conservative speaking event at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. (She also boasts a Twitter following of more than 30,000.)
Like many her age, she has witnessed the rise of those like Lahren. And while she notes her aspirations differ from Lahren’s — “I’d rather be active with the issues themselves and base my writing and commentary on my experiences,” she wrote in a recent e-mail to the Globe — the two no doubt share an understanding of the importance of at least one core concept: self-promotion.
As Dillon explains it, the way to successfully stand out in a quickly growing sea of voices is to develop strong principles, stick to them, and “promote them at every opportunity.”
Still, it can be a tricky prospect — remaining relevant and provocative enough without going too far.
Yiannopoulos learned this the hard way last month, when a years-old video surfaced of him appearing to defend pedophilia. Within hours, he was disinvited from a speaking engagement at the Conservative Political Action Conference, resigned under pressure from his job as an editor at Breitbart, and was dropped from a book deal with Simon & Schuster.
And this week, Lahren’s show, “Tomi,” was suspended by TheBlaze after she angered countless conservatives by describing herself as an abortion-rights supporter Friday on ABC’s “The View.’’ (“I’m for limited government, so stay out of my guns, and you can stay out of my body as well.”)
“There are always people who are going to say, ‘This is my ticket; I’m going to make sure my campus burns down, I’m going to be on Fox News a bunch, and that’s going to be my path to the spotlight,’ ” says Jim Eltringham, formerly of the Leadership Institute and currently a Republican campaign consultant. “The problem is: That’s a spotlight that burns out quick.”
Back in the dorm room, Fuentes was wrapping up his show.
His parents, he admits, are sometimes concerned about the amount of time he devotes to politics. Fuentes, an international relations and political science major, answers by telling them the country is in the midst of a historical moment.
Trump’s rise, he says, has provided an unlikely opportunity.
And now is the time to take advantage.
“Trump is a rocket ship,” says Fuentes. “And everyone is trying to attach themselves to it.”