Once upon a time, a shiny new trio of young conservatives — Ryan Costello, Carlos Curbelo and Elise Stefanik — wanted to help build a modern, millennial Republican Party. The 30-somethings, all sworn into Congress in 2015, understood that millennials often agreed on many of the nation’s core problems, and believed it was up to them to offer conservative solutions. They were out to create a new G.O.P. for the 21st century.
“Whether it’s environmental policy or immigration policy, the younger generations are more open to the America of tomorrow,” Mr. Curbelo told me in 2018, when I interviewed him for a book about millennial political leaders. “We certainly have a lot of work to do on all those issues. The good news is that we have a lot of younger Republicans in Congress, and they all get it.”
It was clear, even then, that millennial voters across the political spectrum cared more about issues like racial diversity, L.G.B.T.Q. rights and college affordability than their parents did. Polls showed that young Republicans were more moderate on some issues than older ones, particularly on questions of immigration and climate change.
So Mr. Curbelo and Ms. Stefanik teamed up to fight for immigration reform, particularly for protections for young immigrants. They refused to join the right wing’s fight against marriage equality, likely recognizing that most young people embraced L.G.B.T.Q. rights. And Ms. Stefanik introduced a 2017 resolution, along with Mr. Costello and Mr. Curbelo, calling for American innovation to fight climate change — one of the strongest climate change statements to come out of the Republican Party in years. (Some octogenarian Republicans remained skeptical of climate science; just two years earlier, Senator Jim Inhofe brought a snowball onto the Senate floor to prove that global warming was a hoax.)
But their visions of the “America of tomorrow” hadn’t foreseen Donald Trump.
By 2018, Mr. Trump’s antics had helped lead Mr. Costello to opt for early retirement. That fall Mr. Curbelo, a sharp critic of the president, lost his re-election bid. Mia Love, the only Black Republican woman in Congress, was also defeated in the Democratic wave that year. Another young House Republican, Justin Amash, left the party in the face of Trumpism and dropped his bid for re-election in 2020. And Will Hurd, a young moderate and one of the few Black Republicans in the House in recent years, also decided not to run again.
Ms. Stefanik is one of the few of this set who survived, but only by transforming into a MAGA warrior. By 2020, she was co-chairing Mr. Trump’s campaign and embracing his conspiracy theories about a stolen election. Her pivot paid off: This month, she was elected to the No. 3 position in the House Republican Party. She is now the highest-ranking woman and most powerful millennial in the House G.O.P.
But a comparison of her past goals and present ambitions makes clear that Ms. Stefanik has morphed from optimist to operator, choosing short-term power over the long-term health of her party.
When I interviewed Ms. Stefanik in 2018 and 2019, she seemed to understand that the Republican Party was in trouble with young people. “The G.O.P. needs to prioritize reaching out to younger voters,” she told me. “Millennials bring a sense of bipartisanship and really rolling up our sleeves and getting things done.” Now she has tied her political career to the man who has perhaps done more than any other Republican to drive young voters away from her party, resulting in surging youth turnout for Democrats in the 2018 and 2020 elections.
Ms. Stefanik’s rise — and her colleagues’ fall — is not just a parable of Trumpism. It’s a broader omen for a party struggling to reach a 21st-century electorate. She ascended by embracing a movement that is all about relitigating the past rather than welcoming the future. Now she and other new Trump loyalists in Congress are caught between their party and their generations, stuck between their immediate ambitions and the long-term trends. The G.O.P. has embraced a political form of youth sacrifice, immolating their hopes for young supporters in order to appease an ancient, vengeful power.
Of course, the road to political obsolescence is littered with the bones of political analysts like me who predicted that demographics would be destiny. But Mr. Trump didn’t just devastate the G.O.P.’s fledgling class of up-and-coming talent. He also rattled the already precarious loyalty of young Republican voters; from December 2015 to March 2017, nearly half of Republicans under 30 left the party, according to Pew. Many returned, but by 2017, nearly a quarter of young conservatives had defected.
Millennials and Gen Zers were already skeptical of the G.O.P., but Mr. Trump alienated them even further. His campaign of white grievance held little appeal for the two most racially diverse generations in U.S. history. Youth voter turnout was higher in 2020 than it was in 2016, with 60 percent of young voters picking Joe Biden. His youth vote margin was sufficient to put him over the top in key states like Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Georgia, according to an analysis by Tufts University, and young voters of color were particularly energized.
Contrary to conventional wisdom that young people are always liberal and older people are always conservative, most voters form their political attitudes when they’re young and tend to stay roughly consistent as they age. And anti-Trumpism may now be one of the most durable political values of Americans under 50. By the end of Mr. Trump’s presidency, after the Jan. 6 insurrection, almost three-quarters of Americans under 50 said they strongly disapproved of him. Even young Republicans were cooling off: According to a new CBS poll, Republicans under 30 were more than twice as likely as those older than 44 to believe that Mr. Biden was the legitimate winner of the 2020 election and roughly twice as likely to believe the party shouldn’t follow Mr. Trump’s lead on race issues.
“Younger conservatives aren’t focused on the election being stolen or the cultural sound bites,” said Benji Backer, the president of the American Conservation Coalition, a conservative climate action group. He told me that Ms. Stefanik had “distanced herself from the youth conservation movement,” after years of being one of the most climate-conscious Republicans in Congress. Now, he said, “peddling misinformation about the election and Jan. 6 has made it harder for young people to look up to her as a future voice in the party.”
The new G.O.P. of 2015 has been replaced by a newer G.O.P.: a cohort of young Republican leaders who seem far more concerned with owning the libs on social media than with proposing conservative solutions to issues that matter to young people.
This cohort includes millennials like Representative Matt Gaetz and Representative Lauren Boebert as well as Representative Madison Cawthorn, a Gen Z-er, all Trump loyalists who voted to overturn the electoral vote result. Mr. Gaetz introduced a bill to terminate the Environmental Protection Agency, Ms. Boebert introduced a bill to designate antifa as a “domestic terrorist organization,” and Mr. Cawthorn has so embraced the Trumpian ethos of rhetoric as leadership that he once said he “built my staff around comms rather than legislation.”
It’s clear that this version of the Republican Party is firmly the party of old people: Mr. Gaetz and Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene kicked off their America First tour with a Trumpian rally at the Villages, Florida’s famous retirement community.
Once, the young leaders of the G.O.P. were trying to present next-generation solutions to next-generation problems. Now they’ve traded their claim on the future for an obsession with the past.
Charlotte Alter is a senior correspondent at Time and the author of “The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For: How a New Generation of Leaders Will Transform America.”
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