Port: It's a travesty what the Trump era is doing to young Republicans
"There they are, just a few years removed from childhood, baptized in the mud of Trump-era 'conservatism,' sitting in Bismarck casting consequential votes on what the laws of North Dakota will be."
MINOT, N.D. — "Everywhere I look these days, I see young conservatives believing they should behave like jerks," notes columnist Jonah Goldberg in a recent newsletter. "Because they have no frame of reference, no meaningful political experience or memory of politics prior to this shabby era, they think being shabby is normal and smart."
Goldberg was writing about the young people at recent CPAC conferences, emulating Donald Trump with their extra-long ties and red hats and generally boorish behavior.
I couldn't help but think of this recent photo of some of the young Republicans currently serving in Bismarck.
The life and party of the ND legislature! pic.twitter.com/8bqYrXobqL— Brandon Prichard (@RealPrichard) March 21, 2023
Pictured are Rep. Brandon Prichard of District 8, Rep. Matthew Heilman of District 7, and Rep. Cole Christensen of District 24. They are three members of a group of young Republicans swept into office in recent elections, many of whom match Goldberg's description so perfectly it's painful.
All three of these lawmakers were part of a Young Republicans messaging group that frequently featured bigoted slurs and white supremacist tropes. In fact, pretty much every young Republican in the Legislature was a member of that group, looking on as some members referred to the gay community as "f---" and entertained Jewish media conspiracy theories.
Some members of that group were so unashamed when it became clear that I had their messages and was reporting on them that they mocked my efforts and doubled down on the slurs:
Though the churlish and even offensive behavior has hardly been limited to private messaging groups.
Here's Heilman, on Twitter late last year, retweeting a post calling Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, "anti-Christ" for supposedly persecuting Christians.
So true! https://t.co/KKLzdiSTfX— Matt Heilman (@MattHeilman7) December 27, 2022
Christensen has been known to celebrate the Fourth of July by pretending to drink eagle urine on TikTok (this post as since been taken down but the video was saved and sent to me by one of his constituents with the message, "This guy makes decisions on our behalf.")
Another of the Legislature's young Republicans, Rep. Nico Rios, from District 23 in Williston, spends his downtime from attending to the people's business in Bismarck by bragging on Twitter about his testosterone levels, among other inanities.
I am allowed to dabble with seed oils myself from time to time (rarely) cause my testosterone is so high it doesn't matter. I could smoke weed at a Nikki Haley rally and it wouldn't slow me down. Not one bit. https://t.co/vRDCfxDvZJ— Nico 🗿GRUGSKI (@grugSkiDynamics) February 23, 2023
I don't have the space in this column — or the will, frankly — to make an exhaustive list of the infantile antics of our Republican lawmakers who came of age in the Trump era, but you don't need me to either. If you've interacted with these young men, if you've followed them on social media, you need no introduction to their immaturity.
And yet, there they are, just a few years removed from childhood, baptized in the mud of Trump-era "conservatism," sitting in Bismarck casting consequential votes on what the laws of North Dakota will be.
It's not just the young Republicans who have come under the influence of the Trump era. We've all watched as previously respectable political figures — from former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani to Sen. Lindsey Graham — have immolated their reputations for the sake of ingratiating themselves with Trump and his movement.
There are a lot of reasons why these grownups abandoned decency. For some, it was about keeping themselves in the headlines. Others embraced Trumpism for the opportunity to fleece money from the rubes following the disgraced former president.
But there's a belief, held by many, that the Trumpist approach to politics will fade with Trump. Once he's gone, and the opportunities for grifting and clout-seeking dry up, things might get back to normal.
Except, as Goldberg warns, we have a generation of young Republicans who grew up in an era where pugnacious crudities and a complete lack of shame are the hallmarks of a winning strategy.
"Republican campaigns and congressional offices are crammed with young people who, under a different, earlier set of political and professional incentives, would in all likelihood grow up to be fairly decent and competent Republican operatives, policymakers, and politicians," he writes.
"But now they have an investment in the politics of obnoxiousness, conspiracy-mongering, and fan service because that is their only comparative advantage," he continues. "They brag about how the era of decent leaders has been overthrown and celebrate their own indecency in the process. Thinking about how to win over people who disagree with them is just a relic of the old weakness. The new strength is being cruel or insulting to get cheers from the people already on your side."
I suppose you could accuse me of just being old. Perhaps I've gone from Young Turk blogger to Old Guard columnist, but I like to think that even the younger version of myself, one who would have grown up in the Trump era, would recognize that political movements win through addition, not subtraction.
You can't grow your cause if you aren't persuading people, and while acting like a boor might have found a modicum of short-term success for Trump and his movement, I remain unconvinced that it's a sound long-term strategy.
Correction: Heilman retweeted a post describing Volodymyr Zelenksy as "anti-Christ." An earlier version of this column incorrectly described that phrase. The reference has been corrected above.