To Build a Theocracy

Facing I-45 north of Houston, next to a Lexus dealership, stands Grace Woodlands church. Inside, author Tanner Roberts, conservative strategist Greg Price, and political consultant Micah Bock shared their knowledge with 30-odd attendees of the Texas Youth Summit in a talk titled, “Communicating Effectively and Winning the Social Media War.”

Price framed the conservative cause as a grassroots, anti-establishment fight.

“Every power structure in America has fully embraced [the left’s] ideas,” Price said. “It is on the same side as the FBI, the CIA, Amazon, and Apple. You are not the anti-establishment anymore. You are the establishment, and that’s why it is so fun being on our side.”

Bock asked Tanner if conservatives could win the culture war through mainstream social media. Boycotting apps like Twitter and Facebook is horrible advice, Tanner responded. 

“You can get on [conservative social network] Parler and be in a conservative echo chamber, or you can do real damage in an arena with more eyes on you,” he said. “On Instagram, you have an audience that may not be into politics, but you have a chance to persuade them, and that’s our main goal.”

Price agreed. He has an account on Truth Social—the Donald Trump-backed Twitter-like service—but admitted he only uses it occasionally. 

“Bottom line is not a lot of people use Truth Social,” he said, suggesting that would-be conservative influencers get on as many platforms as possible—even Chinese-owned TikTok. “Take advantage of the fact that millions of people are addicted to this app all the time.”

The two-day affair attracted a few hundred participants, which included roughly an equal number of 12 to 26-year-olds—the target demographic, who received free admission—and adults. Among the more than 30 speakers, state Senator Brandon Creighton and state Representative Steve Toth previewed the upcoming Texas legislative session. Congressman Troy Nehls trashed the January 6 committee as a sham and repeated the Big Lie that the 2020 presidential election was rigged. Organizers relentlessly asked for donations to “save America” from the left, and politicians promoted their books and podcasts. Participants who bought $250 tickets to a VIP reception on Saturday had access to Fox News commentator Kayleigh McEnany, Congresswomen Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Congressman Matt Gaetz. Senator Ted Cruz and Donald Trump Jr. also made appearances.

Christian Collins, the summit’s founder, placed second in the Republican primary for U.S. House District 8 in March. He created the event, he said, “to identify, educate, and train students to promote principles of fiscal responsibility, free market, limited government, American Exceptionalism, and the Judeo-Christian principles this country was founded upon.” 

The summit’s rhetoric was militant and moralistic, portraying the right-wing political cause as a battle against evil—the same demagoguery Republicans have deployed for decades. Leaders repeatedly encouraged young conservatives to take up the struggle and walk fearlessly with God to defeat Democrats through social media and by running in local elections with school boards a favored target. “God is on our side,” I heard many times. The language was apocalyptic but always delivered with a smile.

Hannah Nehad, 16, and Melissa Duran, 23, had come to the Texas Youth Summit to network and learn from right-wing media stars about how to use their personal brands in service to the cause. A Sunni Muslim, Nehad wears hijab and had her phone ready to shoot video for Instagram stories. She has more than a thousand followers. Duran, a communications student in Houston, learned of the Texas Youth Summit by following Nehad.

“In the 2016 election, I was against Trump because I saw a lot of division,” Duran told me. “I thought he was against us.” 

Duran emigrated from El Salvador when she was 5 years old—“the right way,” she said (her parents waited 12 years in their immigration process). Slowly, Duran viewed Trump’s hardline position on illegal immigration as no different than other politicians. The only reason why people hated Trump was his personality, she said. 

“The hypocrisy shifted me to the right,” Duran said. At the Texas Youth Summit—her first—she found a like-minded tribe.

“I want to help the conservative movement win elections and push our agenda,” Nehad said. “RINOS [Republicans in name only] just run on lower taxes. I want to work with social conservatives.”

Both Nehad and Duran oppose abortion and the feminist movement. Their social media accounts depict them posing with assault rifles, right-wing advocates, and U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene. “MTG,” as the congresswoman is lovingly referred to on social media, is Nehad and Duran’s favorite politician of the moment.

“Drag is always wrong,” Nehad said. “LGBT is the worst thing in our society. It’s anti-white. They are teaching white kids to hate their race. White people should be able to take pride in their whiteness.”

Duran, whose Instagram account has more than 2,500 followers, has a post titled, “Three reasons why men should date conservative women.” Unlike feminists, she said in the short video clip, conservative women know they are authentically female, understand it is a privilege to hold U.S. citizenship, and are simply more attractive. She asked if I would take her photo for this story and put the picture on the cover of the Texas Observer. It would go viral, she joked. 

The lights dimmed over the 300 gathered in the main church auditorium on Friday evening. Grace Woodlands Senior Pastor Steve Riggle led an opening prayer under a massive, white cross on a stage lit in red and blue. Montgomery County Sheriff Rand Henderson led the Pledge of Allegiance. Constable Ryan Gable led a pledge to the Texas flag. Kenneth Omoruyi Gable dazzled with a saxophone rendition of the national anthem. Then pastors led the congregation in worship, singing “The Lion and the Lamb.” It was all pretty standard Christian nationalist fare.

The rest of the night featured politically charged speeches, personal stories, endless praise for former President Donald Trump, and heaps of anti-liberal invective from conservative stars that included headliner Ted Cruz, provocateur Candace Owens, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, and businessman Michael Seifert, who created an app that guides users to “patriot-owned” companies (the idea is to set up a parallel economy so conservative money stays in conservative hands). 

Paxton explained the purpose of the summit plainly: to attract constituents under 25 years old to the conservative side. 

“In my polling, it is this age we are not doing well with, and that means you guys have to help us,” he said. 

Cruz drew the most enthusiastic applause of the night. He told corny jokes about rich liberals in Martha’s Vineyard, and Nancy Pelosi flying away from D.C. on a broom. He shared a meme of himself that read, “this man ate my son.” Cruz retweeted it, adding, “he was delicious.” The point is, he said, laughter is powerful, especially in attracting the younger demographic Republicans need to survive.

“You have a voice on social media,” he said. “Use humor, tell stories, explain why it matters to you to be free.” He then plugged his weekly podcast, requested that everyone pull out their cellphones, and urged attendees to subscribe using a text code. 

Collins, the summit founder, posted streams of the speeches on his YouTube channel.

The following morning, the event continued with more speeches. Activists and merchants had booths in the church lobby promoting their causes and selling books by right-wing personalities. Several students wore “Surviving Liberal Indoctrination” t-shirts. 

Nehad and Duran connected with other social media combatants, exchanging contact information and ideas for collaborations. It seemed everyone had heard of each other online. 

Jack Francis, 22, creator of the Red Eagle Politics channel on YouTube, which boasts 143,000 subscribers, told me he learned of the Texas Youth Summit from a friend who saw a posting on Instagram. He came to meet like-minded conservatives. Francis posted his first video titled “WHY TRUMP WILL WIN!” in February 2019. It went viral, attracting more than 100,000 views.

“I wanted my channel to grow, but I didn’t know it would blow up,” he said. “I knew I could do it as a career in 2020.” 

Francis graduated from college in the spring with a degree in political science. Last month, Francis said he earned about $19,000 from his videos. He said he expects revenue to increase as the midterm elections in November approach before falling off. “It will grow larger before 2024,” he said. 

At another talk in a sun-filled side room called “Activist Training and Journalism” featured reporters Reagan Reed, publisher of the Texas Citizen Journal, and Brandon Waltens, managing editor at Texas Scorecard, a conservative political watchdog. Reed suggested the students consume news from as many sources as possible to understand how the media frames stories. After the talk, Nehad interviewed Waltens. Duran recorded the chat for Nehad’s Instagram account. 

“I have TikTok; I have Facebook, which is, of course, older people,” Nehad said. Her father has a Facebook page, “The Texas Backyard,” with more than 5,000 followers, where he posts interviews with local politicians and activists. He posted a video of his daughter interviewing Congresswoman Greene at the Texas Youth Summit. In the video, Nehad asked Greene if there was anything activists could do to stop a drag show at a progressive church in Katy later this month, open to all ages. 

“I don’t think that’s a church following what the word of God says,” the congresswoman said. “Anyone attending a church like that must realize that’s not a good church for them or their family.”

Food from Chick-fil-A, the fast food restaurant dedicated to Biblical values, was served for lunch. Afterward, a panel called “Overturning Roe v. Wade & Where the Pro-Life Movement Goes From Here” commenced beneath the giant cross. To say the mood of the post-Roe audience was optimistic would be an understatement. There was no doubt attendees wanted to ban abortion in every state. Speakers insisted there are “more of us than there are of them,” referring to their liberal opposition. The leftists, the speakers repeatedly insisted, have an outsized influence in schools, on college campuses, on television, and in Hollywood, but they have not yet seized control of social media. 

At 3:30, Donald Trump Jr. beamed in live from his Florida mansion for a pep talk, his toothy image projected on large screens on either side of the stage. Christan Collins sat alongside and guided the conversation. Trump Jr. warned the students of furries infiltrating classrooms to use litter boxes in front of children—a hoax currently spreading through Christan nationalist circles. Trump Jr. urged the young conservatives to work hard, speak their mind, and be brave.  

“Donald Trump was right about everything,” he said. “There is enough power on the other side that they can create what is or isn’t information.”

In a brief question-and-answer session, Melissa Duran asked Trump Jr. if his father would run in 2024. Trump Jr. said he hopes his father will. 

Florida Panhandle Congressman Matt Gaetz was the penultimate speaker at the Texas Youth Summit. 

He arrived in the church lobby shortly before his scheduled appearance. Giddy adults took pictures with the congressman. Hours before, the Washington Post had reported that Gaetz sought a “pre-emptive” pardon from the president for an alleged federal sex trafficking investigation. I asked Gaetz if he asked President Trump for a pardon. 

“I gave them a comment on that,” he said before his team whisked him away behind a backstage door.

“Congressman Matt Gaetz discussed pardons for many other people publicly and privately at the end of President Donald Trump’s first term,” a spokesperson wrote in an email to the Washington Post

On stage, Gaetz, whom Collins introduced as an “American First Leader,” emerged to a standing ovation. He began his speech by praising his wife of one year, Ginger, and explained how marriage has allowed him to “level up in life” with a sense of purpose and meaning. “Matrimony is a great thing, and it can make us all far better human beings,” he said. 

Congresswoman Lauren Boebert closed the summit in an off-the-shoulder white sweater, skin-tight jeans, and a Sig Sauer pistol strapped to her thigh. Only half of the auditorium stayed to hear her speak. Even Nehad and Duran didn’t stick around to hear the congresswoman’s vision of a riotous Declaration of Independence party thrown by the Founding Fathers. 

“They celebrated after they wrote that document with singing and laughter and dancing and fireworks and guns,” Boebert said. “Bang.”

The audience giggled. 

The congresswoman smiled broadly and crossed the stage. “And then they went out and fought the battle because they also understood,” she continued, “that we are co-heirs and co-laborers with Christ Jesus.” 

 

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