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Political 'Counterculture': Young Republicans Hold Unique Space In The Trump Era

Donald Trump greets a crowd, including many younger supporters, after delivering his acceptance speech at the New York Hilton Midtown on election night 2016. Many younger voters have left the GOP since Trump took office.
Chip Somodevilla Getty Images
Donald Trump greets a crowd, including many younger supporters, after delivering his acceptance speech at the New York Hilton Midtown on election night 2016. Many younger voters have left the GOP since Trump took office.

Robert Lee, Chelsea Magee and Colt Chambers are political activists who all sound pretty typical for their generation when it comes to issues like immigration and same-sex marriage.

Lee, a self-described atheist, insists he doesn't "want to spend one dollar building a wall with Mexico." Magee, a 33-year-old in suburban Atlanta, says if you want to marry someone of the same sex then it's "between you, your spouse and God." And Chambers insists a "true Republican" shouldn't care about same-sex marriage because "the government shouldn't be so involved in everyone's every day lives."

But they are all Republican activists. Lee is the former president of the Georgia Young Republicans, where Chambers is now state chairman.


Research has consistently shown that on LGBT rights, climate change and immigration, young Republicans are adopting more socially liberal policies than their elders.

Despite their break with the mainstream of the Republican Party on some social and cultural issues, Lee, Magee and Chambers all voted for President Trump in 2016.

"I think there is a generational gap within the Republican party," said Chambers. "Because I know my family members ... that are a lot older than I am that are hard core Republicans, social issues are a huge part of how they vote."

But the reality is young people are abandoning the GOP. These activists represent a generational shift marked by different motivations for aligning with the GOP, moving away from social issues entirely to focus on fiscal issues and limited government. They hope that can be a way to grow the party in the years ahead, even if many of their peers are driven away right now.

Last year, the Pew Research Center found that 23 percent of young Republicans defected from the party after Trump's election. "Trump's message being centered around reclaiming a past, or a way of life that used to be, has exacerbated [the] generational divide," said Kristen Soltis Anderson, a GOP pollster who has studied younger voters.


Make the GOP "cool" again

Jake Evans, a dapper 31-year-old lawyer in a tan suit with a pocket square, leads the Atlanta Young Republicans, a group that's home to about 400 members - the largest in the country (tied with Washington, D.C.), Evans points out with pride.

"We're trying to... make it cool to be a young Republican, because in the city of Atlanta it's cool to be a Democrat," Evans said, on a recent night after a board meeting of the Young Republicans at his law offices in Buckhead, an upscale district of Atlanta.

Evans, in some ways, represents the more moderate, highly-educated wing of the Republican party. He talks about growing up in a world where he's become "accustomed" to seeing different kinds of people - racially and religiously.

"And so, not only as a generation, but as an organization, we try to make it extremely important to welcome effectively everyone," Evans said.

That message of inclusion resonated with Sunita Theiss, an Indian-American who grew up in Atlanta.

"People assumed because I was a minority, and a woman and the product of immigrants, and because I'm vocal about issues of race that I was liberal," said Theiss.

Theiss has considered herself a conservative for years, but she never previously participate in party politics. "I was for a long time afraid of getting involved," she said.

Theiss did not vote for President Trump (she still has some qualms about how he's governing). But on the heels of the 2016 election, she says she "outed" herself as a conservative and joined the board of the Atlanta Young Republicans

"I got more involved because I guess I felt like things weren't representing what I thought and what I had to say," she said.

Theiss is now specifically working on engagement with women.

The Atlanta Young Republicans are more diverse than the average GOP organization. Later this month, they're hosting a panel on hip hop and politics. And during the 2016 election, they held a bipartisan debate watch party with young Democrats.

In a nutshell, they're trying to create a distinct brand within the GOP.

Many traditional Republican meetings begin with a display of patriotism and religion. But Nick Carlson, a 28-year-old who works for a realty company, says the Young Republicans in Atlanta traditionally begin their events with music.

"We don't start with the Pledge of Allegiance or with a prayer or anything like that," he explained. "Usually it's just turn the music off and thank them for coming."

The appeal of the counterculture

But Jake Evans, who finds that most young Republicans in Atlanta are fiscally conservative and socially agnostic, recognizes how younger voters have fled the party in the age of Trump.

"(Trump) has polarized a lot of people. I just don't think you can deny that," said Evans. "My biggest qualm with Trump was the way he handled Charlottesville. He needed to be unambiguous about that. It's inappropriate. Period."

Evans is referring to last August when President Trump blamed both sides after deadly violence erupted between white supremacists and counterprotestors in Virginia.

Evans says the way the President sometimes talks about race has made it "more difficult at times to be Republican." But he also believes "the media hates Donald Trump" and feels that the entire party is, at times, unfairly blamed for the actions of one man.

"Could Donald Trump be better at times?" he asked rhetorically, and then answered his own question. "I mean, I think he could. I undoubtedly do, but, I don't think you can extrapolate for the next 50 years and say the Republicans aren't gonna be a minority party."

Most of the young Republican activists NPR recently interviewed in Georgia voted for Trump. Some say he's doing better than they expected. And a few were enthusiastically behind him from the moment he announced his candidacy.

That is not the norm for their generation. And so even if they are adopting more culturally progressive stances, Dave Marcus, a writer with the conservative news site The Federalist, says there's still a feeling of "marginalization" among young Republicans.

"To some extent people like Trump really play into this notion that conservatives are - I don't know if 'cool' is the right word, but at least now the 'counterculture,'" he said. "Progressives have a disproportionate amount of cultural power, so young conservatives and young Republicans really feel like they're the ones running against the cultural current."

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