“Daniel Di Martino, go back to Venezuela.”
Daniel’s face dropped when I read him the tweet. He’d already seen it, but it still stung. It was launched at him by a stranger on Twitter — by a man with the last name González, ironically — just days earlier. I was 20 minutes into my interview with Di Martino, and this was the first time his smile was replaced by a straight face.
His words were slow and measured. “Look, I think that the American people are some of the nicest people in the world,” he said, drawing out each syllable. “I’m just worried about people, you know, the ones who tweet stuff like that. The isolationist, nationalist, xenophobic wing that wants to take over the party.”
Di Martino, 22, is a proud conservative. He came to the U.S. from Venezuela at age 17 to study, first at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, then at the University of Kentucky, and now as a Ph.D. candidate in economics at Columbia. He’s a poster boy for the American Dream — an immigrant who goes from nothing to something, receiving the best education, with civic engagement to boot.
But in political circles, he’s a novelty. He’s a Latino, pro-immigration Trump supporter — which, Di Martino would have you know, is not as unique as you’d think. There are thousands, even millions of them, exit polling shows. And as someone who saw the terrors of socialism firsthand in his home country, Di Martino fervently supports free markets and the alternative to what he calls “the extreme left.”
His rise as a political commentator earned him a trip to the White House on the National Day for the Victims of Communism in 2019, where he met with then-President Donald Trump. (“He’s a very good guy,” Di Martino recalled.) But he recognizes the GOP faces a course correction — and the post-Trump GOP, if it wants to win another election, will need to make some changes.
The cheery, ever-smiling politico is up to the task. He’s already preached his brand of conservatism as a guest on both CNN and Fox News, his charisma reminiscent of a TV evangelist, sermonizing against the woes of socialism, not sin. He’s a sign of a new wave of conservatives, as adamant on the social issues that younger people care about as the fiscal ones the old folks revere.
Di Martino knows where he wants the next conservative movement to go. He just needs to convince everyone else.
The next conservatives
I set out to discover what the next swath of conservatives would look like, talk like and vote like. The GOP, after Trump’s election loss and the insurrection at the Capitol, is in shambles. Reporters are asking Sens. Ben Sasse, Susan Collins, Mitt Romney and others what the future holds for the party. No one is asking its next generation of leaders — the ones who will take over when Sasse, Collins, Romney and others are afterthoughts.
Those future leaders, and their 18- to 29-year-old colleagues, turned out in the 2020 election at all-time highs. Tuft University’s CIRCLE estimates that 53-56% of eligible young voters cast a ballot, up from 42-44% in 2016. Analysts suggest the turnout rate among young voters was the highest ever recorded.
“Across the board, we’re seeing people get engaged in totally record-breaking numbers,” Courtney Britt, southern regional vice chair for the College Republican National Committee, told me. “People are starting to feel that their votes really matter, which is awesome.”
Young conservatives have dreams of a more inclusive, more diverse, more exciting GOP. They just don’t know how to get there.
Less awesome for the 25-year-old Britt and her Republican colleagues is how young people voted. In the presidential election, the 18- to 29-year-old bloc was the most reliably blue segment — 62% of young people cast ballots for Biden, with only 35% voting for Trump.
While 2020 exit polling shows a shift to the left among young voters, young millennials and voting-age Generation Z don’t fit into neat partisan boxes. The Harvard Youth Poll — a biannual study of eligible voters ages 18 to 29 — recently transitioned from defining clusters as “Republicans,” “Democrats” and “independents,” and instead chose more general labels: multicultural moderates (15%), the center-left (28%), engaged progressives (15%), and the disengaged (31%). The “MAGA Gen” (11%), Trump’s right-wing base, makes up the smallest portion of the group.
Britt and her College Republican teammates know what the data suggests, but they aren’t necessarily worried. More than anything, they see an opportunity to find a niche in a changing political landscape — and for them, it’s a matter of messaging, not morphing.
“Young people really do identify with a lot of the beliefs and the ideas that the Republican Party stands for,” Britt explained. “And so it is more an issue of making sure that people know that’s what we stand for, and messaging that to them so they understand it and engage with us, and feel their vote matters.”
Others aren’t convinced. Messaging is important — but even the best marketing can’t sell a lousy, outdated product. Young conservatives have dreams of a more inclusive, more diverse, more exciting GOP. They just don’t know how to get there.
I tracked down the young conservatives who’ve cemented themselves as thought leaders in this next movement. Some of them, like Britt, are involved with organizations, like the College Republican National Committee or the American Conservation Coalition. Others, like Di Martino, have found a niche in independent punditry and political commentary.
All of them, though, have big ideas. They just need the party to listen.
A house divided
Mike Brodo, a 21-year-old junior at Georgetown, started the group Gen Z GOP last summer with a handful of friends. He knew he wasn’t the only young conservative who felt abandoned by the Republican Party. They began with a podcast, then launched an all-inclusive organization — a one-stop shop for advocacy, policy and community for dissatisfied Gen Z Republicans.
Its priorities — fiscal responsibility, limited government, strong international presence — are coupled with the younger generation’s yearning for inclusion, moderation on social issues and a “big tent” philosophy.
Brodo knows there are disagreements on what it means to be a conservative today. But just as important as what the issues are, he says, is the rhetoric we use to present them.
“It doesn’t matter if we’re addressing problems if we can’t discuss them,” he said. “If we can’t work with the other side, or even some people within our own party, about how we can move forward, it’s useless.”
Brodo knew that the majority of young Republicans — rather, those who still identified as Republicans — voted for Trump, and he had to find a way to access them, too. He needed someone on his team who could relate to them — someone who wasn’t “a blind supporter of the president,” in his words, but who was realistic about the road ahead for the party.
He chose Javon Price, campus chair for Georgetown’s Students for Trump. He’s a former White House intern and a political junkie. And as a Black man, he takes social issues seriously and trusts conservative, free-market approaches to fighting class inequality.
And, lest any question remain, he is no “blind” Trump supporter. “Damn straight I voted for the president,” the 23-year-old told me in early January. “It didn’t turn out the way I hoped, but I don’t regret my decision.”
In recent months, Gen Z GOP has grown. Young conservatives across the country have connected through social media and the website. While a policy platform — fiscal conservatism, moderate on social issues — is laid out on their site, the founders stress the importance of reforming political rhetoric, not just policy. That’s what’s dividing America more than anything else.
“We have to repair our dialogue, to be able to respectfully disagree with people,” Price said. “And it’s going to take work. And I think organizations like Gen Z GOP are up to the task.”
Brodo agreed, but he is now more hesitant to place that responsibility on partisanship. He was an independent before diving head-first into the conservative movement, and after the events of Jan. 6, he realized how far his party really strayed. To him, more is rotting within the GOP than its dialogue. He officially unenrolled from the Republican Party and resigned his position as chair of Gen Z GOP that same day.
“The ship of partisan politics has sailed for me,” he tweeted. He sees a more influential future for himself divorced from the toxicity of his former party.
But he knows where he stands. His party left him, not vice-versa.
The conscience of a conservationist
In 2008, Benji Backer sat glued to the TV. The 10-year-old had never watched a political debate before, and Barack Obama and John McCain, the two candidates for president, were on the screen. Backer’s parents were undecided voters at the time. He had already made his mind up, though, on one thing: politics fascinated him.
He didn’t know much yet, but he liked the way the two men — opposites on many issues — could have a civil dialogue and speak with such eloquence and intellect. His interest in politics had already been piqued by elementary school civics classes and a family trip to Washington. But something about that debate lit a flame.
He went on his parents’ computer and googled political platforms for the two main parties. He chose to be a Republican on the spot — “John McCain inspired me,” he said — and immediately decided to get involved. As an elementary schooler, he started phone banking and door-knocking for local campaigns. Much to his parents’ chagrin (they were fairly neutral politically) he put up yard signs and slapped bumper stickers on the family vehicles, advertising his favorite local candidates.
When Scott Walker ran for reelection as Wisconsin governor in 2012, political prodigy Benji Backer — then a 14-year-old — was the campaign’s top phone-caller. He made 25,000 calls. “By that age, my voice had changed,” Backer recalled, laughing. “I didn’t get questioned on my age as much as when I was 12.”
Since forming the American Conservation Coalition in 2017, Backer has become the most recognizable conservative voice on climate change not holding public office.
By the time he reached college, Backer’s two passions — conservation and politics — began to collide. He loves the outdoors, but whenever he told friends he was a conservative and he stood for conservation, he got sideways looks. He couldn’t understand it, and couldn’t understand why so many Republican lawmakers were unwilling to take a science-based approach to climate change.
Since forming the American Conservation Coalition in 2017, Backer has become the most recognizable conservative voice on climate change not holding public office. After the Green New Deal picked up steam in 2019, he and his team were some of the first to counter it.
The American Climate Contract presents market-based, limited-government solutions to climate. “The market, state and local governments know how to fix this better than the federal government does in many cases,” he told me. “If you’re not empowering local and state governments and individuals, you are losing this battle.”
Now a 23-year-old University of Washington graduate, Backer’s dedicated himself full time to his advocacy work. He sees a future where conservatives can embrace science and find climate solutions that uphold conservative values. His organization’s marketing megaminds call it “The Right Way Forward” or “The Green GOP.” Backer calls it common sense.
“There’s nothing conservative about where the conservative movement is at, and there’s nothing American about it, either,” he said. “The Republican Party of the future, and conservatism of the future, needs to invest in solutions that protect the one thing that keeps us going as humans, and that is nature.”
‘Black and conservative are not opposites’
While the rest of the country inched hesitantly into the New Year, Georgians were in the middle of an election that most of us abandoned in November. The politicos didn’t forget, though. Georgia became a battleground.
In the final weeks of December, canvassers from all 50 states flooded into the Peach State, either fighting for a historic victory to turn the state blue, or warning of a detrimental Democrat-controlled Congress.
Its results were historic. In addition to awarding both of Georgia’s Senate seats to Democrats for the first time in nearly two decades, Georgia’s first African American Democratic senator, Raphael Warnock, was elected.
Many people viewed that as a victory for Black Americans. Olivia Rondeau knew the history. But when she went to Georgia in late December to campaign, and as a self-described “conscious Black conservative,” she was campaigning against Warnock.
Rondeau, 19, has garnered a significant following on Youtube and social media for her political commentary. Unlike some other Black conservatives, like Candace Owens, Rondeau argues that systemic racism exists and is a proponent of fighting the racial wealth gap. She’s a fan of decentralized government and individual liberty. But social issues — like fighting racism — are at the forefront. She calls it “radical conservitarianism,” a mix between conservative and libertarian ideals.
“People can call me a liberal for that. I don’t care,” she said.
While she was canvassing in Savannah last month, police were called on her and her white coworker. The officers first stopped her coworker, but when he explained what he was doing, they allowed him to keep going. The police then stopped Rondeau, questioned her and detained her for nearly half an hour.
She’s had similar experiences before. While working on a statewide race in Missouri, police were called on her five times and called her racial slurs. “I’m used to it,” she says.
It’s an indictment on our nation’s state of race relations, and it goes beyond parties. But the conservative movement has a long way to go. Most of the Black conservative commentators Rondeau sees have to talk down on their own demographic to gain credibility. She hates that.
“You can be conservative, but you don’t have to hate Black people,” she explained. “You don’t have to hate yourself. You don’t have to be racist. You just have to come up with solutions.”
Disillusioned, not disengaged
In late May 2020, the United States was on fire. As wildfires charred the Pacific Northwest, the flames of social unrest, mass unemployment and a ravaging pandemic raged through the country, too. When one Black Lives Matter protest erupted outside the White House, Secret Service whisked Trump away to a secure bunker.
Alexandra Bowman loved the irony. While the country burned, the president hid out in a bunker. That’s the type of content political cartoonists crave.
Before long, the 20-year-old finished a cartoon parody of the final scene of Lion King — Trump, represented as the antagonist Scar, lounging in a bunker, while Pride Rock burns in the background — with flames labeled “climate crisis,” “mass unemployment,” “pandemic” and “racial injustice” burning everything around.
Within an hour of the cartoon being tweeted, she got a call from Steve Schmidt. Schmidt is a former Republican campaign strategist and now runs the Lincoln Project, a never-Trump PAC made up of disillusioned Republicans and former Republicans. He loved Bowman’s work and offered her a job with Lincoln Project on the spot.
Bowman said she had to accept. She grew up in a conservative household, but now describes her family, and herself, as subscribers to the “never-Trumper, moderate, centrist” ideology. She may fit into the Harvard Youth Survey’s cluster of “disengaged” — representing nearly a third of young voters, the largest cluster by far. Make no mistake, though — she’s very much engaged in politics. She’s just an independent, disengaged from the partisanship.
Though she’s more conservative than most Democrats, Trump’s presidency was antithetical to her ideology, and her cartoons don’t hide that. And that’s exactly what Schmidt & Co. loved.
Bowman described to me her vision of a conservative movement that she could support — a return to conservative values on fiscal matters with moderate stances on social ones. She described an embracing of LGBT community and immigrants as hallmarks of conservative acceptance. She emphasized promoting economic opportunity for all and fighting injustice in our systems.
“So, in your view, Trump does not represent the Republican Party,” I said, my question coming out more as a statement.
She sighed. “I think unfortunately, right now, he does, but he needs to not.”
To Bowman and her team, an intruder took control of the ship, and they fought to throw him overboard before the whole boat sank. But now that he’s formally out of office, she and her team remain hard at work. The ship is still sinking.
‘We need bridges, not walls’
In 2019, 22-year-old Charles Ferry was eating dinner with a dozen other College Republican leaders. The chairman of the Southern Virginia College Republicans, Ferry and his friends all fall under Courtney Britt’s regional supervision. Most were from Virginia or the South; Ferry grew up in rural northern Utah and had only moved to Virginia for college three years previous.
The conversation drifted to politics, then to Washington, then to Trump’s stringent immigration policy. Most of those present expressed support for increased security at the southern border. “How do you feel about building the wall?” someone asked Ferry.
“I’m going to be honest,” he said. “I don’t think any of you know what you’re talking about.”
The room fell silent. “None of you have lived near the border,” he said. “None of you have lived on farms. None of you understand the grit and value that migrant workers bring to our agricultural sector.”
Ferry wasn’t wrong. He grew up on a farm in Box Elder County in Utah that his family has owned for six generations. Migrant labor is vital to their success. He knows migrants, and his compassionate views on immigration are shaped through that lens.
He’s no quasi-conservative, though. He jokingly installed a shrine to Ronald Reagan in his bedroom, positioned directly above a pistol mounted on his wall (less jokingly). His views on constitutional freedoms, free trade, abortion and most hot-button issues are as conservative as they come. But he’s seen the value of immigrants in a free market, and he knows that structural immigration reform should be a priority — a necessity, even.
A few months before he silenced his friends to crickets about a border wall, he was back home in Corinne, due west of Brigham City, working on the family farm. He developed a friendship with Pablo, a Mexican migrant laborer hired on a temporary visa. They got to know each other “as coworkers first, then as friends, then as hermanos,” he told me. They never talked about politics, but they discussed family, faith, sports, societal views and everything in between.
The more they became acquainted, the more disconcerted Ferry became. “Pablo’s from a rural area in Mexico, deeply rooted in a religion, with traditional family values, just like me,” Ferry said. “How is it that I can say, with near certainty, that he would vote Democrat?”
Ferry paused, collecting his thoughts. “That’s when I realized our party botched race relations.”
Fixing America’s broken immigration system — the visa backlogs, the low ceilings on refugee admittances, the immigration caps — is step one for the Republican Party that Ferry wants to see. He believes in legal immigration and border security, like most conservatives. But he recognizes that most unauthorized immigrants enter illegally because they have no other feasible path.
Di Martino agrees. Like Ferry, he’s seen the effects of America’s immigration system firsthand. Unlike Ferry, he’s lived it. “The legal immigration system is messed up,” Di Martino said. “It’s a social issue, not an economic one. The economic issues against immigration are bogus.”
What’s a conservative?
In his 1960 book “The Conscience of a Conservative,” Barry Goldwater outlined the ideals to which conservatives subscribe. “The conservative approach,” he wrote, “is nothing more or less than an attempt to apply the wisdom and experience and the revealed truths of the past to the problems of today.”
Goldwater’s premise held fast through the Reagan years, the Bush administrations and beyond. But as Trump emerged to transform the GOP, what was considered “conservative” lost its mooring. It was no longer “truths of the past” with practical application. It was whatever the populists wanted it to be.
Unless something changes, the younger generations could legitimately prevent the GOP from winning a presidential election in the foreseeable future.
Only 11% of 18- to 29-year-olds support the Trumpian mold of right-wing politics. Within a decade, Gen Z and millennials will make up the majority of the voting population. By 2036, they’ll be 60% of the electorate. And their aggregate disillusionment from conservative politics, in its current shape, is no better illustrated than in their 30-point favoritism to Biden over Trump. Unless something changes, the younger generations could prevent the GOP from winning a presidential election in the foreseeable future.
The GOP gatekeepers can prevent that from happening, but time alone won’t heal the their wounds. The consistent pattern in American politics — that young liberals become more conservative as they age — is meeting its match in millennials, who simply stay more liberal than their predecessors. But millennials and Gen Z are also much more likely to disaffiliate themselves from political parties and register as independents. The battle to be won for the Republican Party, then, is among unaffiliated voters and disillusioned conservatives.
That’s the demographic the GOP needs to target — the ethnically and ideologically diverse millennials and Generation Z. If it can win back some of them, the GOP has a shot.
That will take serious posturing and some fundamental changes. Social issues, like immigration and race relations, will need to be reconsidered. Climate change needs to be taken seriously. The GOP, in short, needs to listen to its younger members. They have ideas. They just need to be heard.
Young conservatives could save the party. If the GOP vanguard listens, there’s hope.