A Place Where Conservative Teenagers Feel Free to Be Themselves

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WASHINGTON — By the end of the night, Austin Juersivich, an 18-year-old attending a conservative leadership conference for high schoolers, had nearly lost his voice. That didn’t stop him from beaming.

“That tells you how much I liked it,” Mr. Juersivich, of Akron, Ohio, said with a raspy voice on Tuesday.

The four-day gathering, organized by Turning Point USA for about 700 high-school-age conservatives from across the country, is being marketed as a leadership conference that gives teenagers the tools needed to network, organize and campaign while hearing from a who’s who of politics and the news media.

“They’re teaching us about how to handle politics and how to live in a world where some things aren’t good to say in public and how to deal with backlash on that,” said Genna Montalbano, a rising junior from Houston.

But an elegant dinner Tuesday night at Trump International Hotel featuring Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, Donald Trump Jr. and Turning Point USA’s 24-year-old founder, Charlie Kirk, revealed that more than anything, this week is a chance for the teenagers to reject the stereotype that their generation is exclusively liberal and to finally be themselves, “Make America Great Again” hats and all.

“You are the only real rebels left in this country,” Mr. Trump said, to thunderous applause.

For some, the conference is an opportunity to swap stories about the struggle to express their conservative opinions at school. Jarrett Wiggonton, an 18-year-old from Virginia, said that at a recent pep rally, his and his friends’ Trump signs and paraphernalia were confiscated by teachers.

“This is the first time I’ve been with many young conservatives, because it’s a pretty unpopular opinion with people my age,” he said, as a boy next to him tried to redo his bow tie using a huge mirror.

Students paid $15 to attend the conference, lodging included, after being selected through an application process. The dinner was an additional $50 — all in all, a sweet deal to meet their political idols or other like-minded youths.

“We all just met and we’re like best bros now!” said Megan Scott, 17, of Marlborough, Mass., pulling Mr. Juersivich and Khaliq Rodriquez, a 16-year-old from New York, into a tight hug.

Earlier on Tuesday, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke about universities “coddling our young people,” he praised the teenagers before him, saying: “I like this bunch, I got to tell you. You’re not going to be backing down,” adding, “Go get ’em, go get ’em.”

Attendees took the initiative, filling the room with chants of “lock her up,” the refrain frequently used by Trump supporters to demand the jailing of Hillary Clinton.

That the stunt was picked up by CNN was particularly exciting for one group of about 10 boys, neatly dressed in blazers and khakis, waiting outside the hotel’s ballroom about an hour before Tuesday’s dinner began. Most had bought their first suit for the occasion (“such a pain” to wear, according to one). They wanted to be first in line to register to get good seats.

“I started that; anyone in the front row can confirm,” Kevin Lee, a 16-year-old from Boyertown, Pa., said of the chant. “I yelled it and then everyone else in the room started yelling it, and I was like, ‘Yes,’” he said, drawing out the last word.

The other boys gave approving comments and nods. They had met only the day before, but they already chattered and gossiped like close friends: They were buzzing about a riveting debate between Mr. Kirk and Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks and a star of the television show “Shark Tank,” that had happened a few hours before. Being a part of Trump’s political movement, they said, helps you bond fast.

“It’s a family,” said Owen Nell, a rising junior from Lancaster, Pa., wearing a Gadsden flag pin, which depicts a coiled rattlesnake above the phrase “Don’t tread on me,” a symbol that has been adopted by Tea Party and gun-rights supporters.

In many ways, the youth-focused conference is as much about being there as is it is about being able to say to the world — through selfies and online posts — that you were there. A swarm of attendees rushed toward the stage at the conclusion of the dinner to snap photos with Mr. Trump and the Fox News host Jesse Watters, who spoke earlier in the day.

Controversial policies or down-ballot races were of interest to the large list of speakers, including JT Lewis, 18, who spoke at a panel about prioritizing school safety programs over gun-control laws.

“I think it was a really great crowd. I think everyone was receptive to the idea,” said Mr. Lewis, whose brother was killed in the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. “I think it’s energizing, all these kids here.”

But the liveliest talk among the teenagers was general gossip circulating in the conservative press and political world. A speech by Jeanine Pirro, a Fox News personality and former judge who recently had a heated interaction with Whoopi Goldberg, was especially a hit with the young crowd.

“I wanted her to spill some tea,” said Christian Hernandez, an 18-year-old from Orange County, Calif.

After the dinner, dozens lined up to get a copy of Ms. Pirro’s new book, “Liars, Leakers and Liberals: The Case Against the Anti-Trump Conspiracy” (which could be purchased for $30 at the event) signed by the author.

At the end of the night, some teenagers milled about the lobby of the ballroom for last-chance photos, while others headed out into the muggy night to return to their rooms at George Washington University, which is hosting the conference. Mr. Trump, the former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle and Mr. Kirk retreated from the evening’s festivities, surrounded by security guards as they made their way up a large set of carpeted stairs.

“Sleep well, Charlie!” one boy yelled after them, as the entourage disappeared into the hotel, with a wave from the young leader.

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