An hour or so into Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw’s conservative youth confab at the downtown Hilton Hotel in Houston this past weekend, technical difficulties began to mar the affair.
A video call with Jordan Peterson, the provocative right wing professor the New York Times once called a “custodian of the patriarchy,” began to glitch. As staff tried to fix the sound, Crenshaw, standing on the stage in the hotel’s ballroom, improvised. Turning to the audience, which had pushed up close to hear him speak, he began taking questions.
“What are we gonna see next, Governor Crenshaw or President Crenshaw?” one attendee asked.
The crowd — hundreds of teenagers and 20-year-old conservatives largely from Texas — went absolutely wild.
“Like a good politician, I have to say Congressman Crenshaw is what you’ll see next,” Crenshaw said. “I don’t know, you know, but to answer that honestly, always will keep options open.”
It was a brief moment in a two-day affair that saw more than 2,000 young people gather to hear from conservative media luminaries like Ben Shapiro, Benny Johnson and Megyn Kelly. And while the weekend gave the whiff of a bar mitzvah for the MAGA faithful — with purple, blue, and green lasers shot over the crowd and techno and pop music blaring from the speakers — political veterans also called it an innovative approach to campaigning from Crenshaw and his congressional campaign committee, which paid for the event.
Rather than spending money to reach voters through rallies, television ads, town halls or even in the digital space, Crenshaw plopped himself in one spot, got free media coverage and had supporters come and pay to see him. In the process, he managed to score emails, phone numbers and addresses for highly committed supporters—among the most valuable currency in the campaign world.
“It is novel and I think that we’re going to see more of it, especially on the right,” said Alex Skatell, a former GOP digital consultant who founded a conservative news site. “Instead of using his brand to elevate other youth groups around the country he can sort of capture that enthusiasm.”
The Crenshaw Youth Summit is the logical extension of the celebrification of politics. It also underscores how the currency of campaigns has shifted from ideas and traditional forms of communication to communities and shared moments. What Crenshaw was building in a ballroom in Houston was the type of infrastructure that could serve him well down the road: a list of engaged, young, conservative activists, the type who were actually willing to spend their weekends and money to go see political celebrities speak.
“You are identifying that you can have a list of people who is interested in what he’s doing, support him, and may be interested in supporting him in future campaigns, whether it’s a reelection to Congress or higher office,” said Patrick Ruffini, another Republican strategist and founding partner of Echelon Insights. “The side benefit is that you have a list of thousands of, you know, strong supporters who I think they can call upon in future campaigns.”
Not everyone can pull it off. But Crenshaw seems to have the touch. He is one of the higher-profile members of the House and is well regarded among conservatives for aggressively challenging liberal lawmakers and members of the press. He has not shied away from taking divisive positions on some hot-button issues and, for a period of time, pushed doubts about the validity of the 2020 election. The former Navy SEAL, along with other members of Congress, signed onto an amicus brief in the aftermath of the election in a lawsuit contesting the 2020 results. More recently, however, he went viral for challenging a voter pushing election fraud conspiracies.
In Houston this past week, he was the star of the show. Per the urging of signs scattered across the conference, young attendees flooded social media with posts lionizing the congressman and the event. “What a night to remember. Got to take pics with pretty much all of my idols today,” said one attendee in an Instagram post. “Who ever said don’t meet your heros (sic)?,” said another, whose post included a photo of a signed box for a collectible Dan Crenshaw action figure.
Many attendees waited patiently in a line that zig-zagged around the convention room to take a photo with Crenshaw or have him sign a copy of his book, Fortitude: American Resilience in the Era of Outrage. Megan Erwin, a 23-year-old student at Western Governors University, likened him to “Texas royalty” or the “Queen of England but for Texas.”
“I’d do anything I could, I’d go door to door,” said Chris Arnold, an 18-year-old from Spring, Texas, of a potential Crenshaw bid for the presidency. It was his second year at the Crenshaw Youth Summit. “I’d do anything that he would need me to do.”
Interviews with dozens of attendees illustrated the potential benefits that this kind of flashy and boisterous school dance-campaign rally-Ted Talk amalgamation could provide Crenshaw as he looks to become a leading voice of the next generation of the Republican Party.
In an age where Facebook advertisements and pithy tweets are among the most important campaign tools, Crenshaw has added another approach. His campaign, which charged $15 a ticket, said that the event was not designed to turn a profit, though young people were lining up to purchase Crenshaw merchandise with whatever money they had: T-shirts for $30, mugs for $25, a Christmas sweatshirt for $50, and so on. Instead, in a statement, Justin Discigil, a campaign spokesperson and Crenshaw’s communications director, said that the youth summit was meant to reinforce Crenshaw’s “position as a national leader in the conservative movement.”
“The point of any political movement is to grow it,” Crenshaw told the crowd on Sunday morning, after showing an introductory video in which he played a James Bond type figure, narrowly escaping Antifa’s grasp and skydiving to safety.
“I put together the Youth Summit so that the younger generation may have a better understanding of what it means to be a conservative,” Crenshaw elaborated in a statement after the event, adding that the conference gave young people “a reason to stay excited and engaged” in the movement: “To grow it we have to be persuasive. To be persuasive we have to know what it is we stand for.”
Speakers talked guns, abortion, wokeism, the crisis of masculinity, and other hot-button issues among conservatives. Johnson showed a video of his infant daughter tearing a mask off his face.
“My daughter is nine months old, and she’s still smarter than Dr. Fauci,” he said, greeted by cheers from the audience.
The first night of the conference featured a performance from a Blink-182 cover band — whose music is probably older than most of the young attendees — known as Blink-281. Kids took photos with oversized glasses and funky hats at a Crenshaw youth summit photo booth. Some snapped selfies with panelists.
Make America Great Again hats dotted the room. But the clear intent from the organizers was to turn a cult of Trump into a cult of Crenshaw. Chairs were outfitted with American flag drawstring bags marked with Crenshaw’s face and name. Among the gifts: a Dan Crenshaw notebook with a Dan Crenshaw pen. On Sunday, this reporter could spot no one besides herself, save another attendee who wore so many masks his face was invisible, wearing any sort of face covering.
Campaign veterans said they couldn’t recall a congressional candidate using his campaign funds to pay for such a youth summit like this before. But there have been conservative groups that have organized similar affairs. The most obvious of them is CPAC, the self-described largest gathering of conservatives in the world, which has been hosting its own conference for decades and has recently begun putting together several such events a year, sometimes in different states and continents. Turning Point USA, a conservative student movement, also hosts six national and eight regional conferences of its own each year.
Those events, organizers say, have become integral parts of the DNA of the Republican Party: serving as both platforms for conservative luminaries and money-makers for the hosts. What Crenshaw has done is create a CPAC all for himself; one that his fellow Texas Republicans want a part of. Among the other groups that were looking to take advantage of the influx of potential new voters, donors, and volunteers at the summit were Texas governor Gregg Abbott’s campaign, Young Conservatives of Texas, and Harris County Republicans.
“Hopefully, they understand the importance here that they can be the next volunteers, the next possible candidates as well,” said Sharon Leal, a precinct chair with the Fort Bend County Republican Party who was registering voters at the summit. “If we don’t nurture that, somebody else is already trying to do that.”
“Crenshaw is a very young congressman who could have decadeslong involvement in politics, and he’s appealing to this next generation,” said Tim Cameron, a Republican strategist and founder of FlexPoint Media. “There are people that will be attending that event that likely have huge followings on social media, and I’m not even referring to the speakers.”
Indeed, among the crowd were members of @theRepublicanHypeHouse, a TikTok page with 1.2 million followers that posts conservative content on the app (who in an interview complained of repeatedly being banned by TikTok). Politicians, they argued, need to better capture Gen Z’s attention and while Crenshaw’s conference is good, it needed to be just the start.
“They’re over here trying to be all like professional, and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m this perfect person,’” said Lance Johnston, a 19-year-old influencer who helps run the account,. “Be more fun, go out and like make memes. Roast [each] other — Yeah, literally, I want a politician instead of like having a debate, I want them to tweet memes at each other roasting each other. That’s what will actually keep people involved in politics.”