Matt Gaetz spoke at Texas Youth Summit after bombshell report he sought a pardon for child sex trafficking
Congressman Matt Gaetz speaking with supporters at a "Liberty for Trump" event. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

The worship space at Grace Woodlands church was peppered with red MAGA hats on Saturday, as young adults gathered to hear from leading conservatives often seen on Fox News.

In the hallways, a few people pushed strollers and others weaved through the crowd to get to the tables hawking shirts that read, “Let the revolution begin” or “Freedom is never more than one generation from tyranny.”

They were there for the fourth annual Texas Youth Summit, a two-day conference in which teenage and young adult Texans convened with politicians, ideologically aligned companies and political groups to hear lectures, meet in small groups and ultimately feel empowered, as the summit’s slogan says, “to be the catalysts to win the Culture War.”

Speakers included Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Donald Trump Jr., U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Georgia, talk show host Candace Owens and U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert R-Colorado, who wore a pistol strapped to her leg as she addressed the hall. As the headliners gave their speeches, a large cross from the churches’ sanctuary was illuminated behind them.

U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz R-Florida also spoke, the same day the Washington Post reported that he sought a preemptive pardon from President Donald Trump related to a sex trafficking investigation. On Saturday, Gaetz made no mention of the investigation, in which the U.S. Department of Justice was reportedly looking into whether he paid for women to travel across state lines for sex and had a relationship with a 17-year-old girl. Instead, he urged the young people in attendance to fight for conservative causes.

“If you're here with me on a Saturday, you came to this because you care — and it is because you know the fight we are in,” he said. “We're now in a country where you see grandmothers robbed in broad daylight in our major cities, and they are raiding the home of the former president of the United States. You used to only see this in the poorest third world countries on planet Earth.”

The summit was founded by Christian Collins, a former political staffer for Cruz and U.S. Rep. Kevin Brady R-Texas. Registration for the event, which was supported through donations and sponsorships from businesses like the right-wing cellphone company Patriot Mobile, was free for students ages 12 through 26, as long as they submitted a reference from an adult confirming “their interest in conservative politics.” Adults were able to buy a ticket.

According to its website, the summit strives 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 on.”

"The Left controls the education system, TV networks, Hollywood, and social media and they are influencing youth," the website reads. "It’s so important youth learn the Conservative Principles that have always made and will continue to make America exceptional."

For attendees, the stakes were high.

“I'm so conservative, I love my country. … So all of that stuff is just stuff we need to strive for. And they're trying to take that away from our country,” said Manny Galvan, president of his Houston high school’s Turning Point USA chapter. “Every day we sit here, so the more we do nothing, the more that's getting taken. The more we're trying to fight back, the more we can gain.”

But attendees also had differing views on what the culture war means.

“It's not a literal war, but it is a metaphorical war for the battle of ideas,” said Collins, the event's founder. “We are working to educate young people with conservative and most importantly, Judeo Christian values so that they have the right worldview when they go off to college, or when they're in their high schools, because of what the left is doing.”

Paideia Classical School was one of the organizations tabling at the event. They have four campuses across Texas, with three of them opening up within the last three years.

“We are trying to create critical thinkers with our classes,” said Louise Davidson, who was working the table. “Many people just accept what they first see without any research.”

Some panels at the event urged attendees to question established research, raising conspiracy theories around COVID-19, cellphone towers and more. But more than anything, the event focused on the idea that liberals inside and outside the government were taking the country in a dangerous direction.

“When it comes to this organization, we're a nonprofit dealing with conservative issues, and we're addressing the issues as opposed to specific groups,” Collins said. "We're really trying to tackle the ideas, the ideas are important to us. And so if we think your idea is wrong, then we will address the idea but I mean, we're not trying to go after anyone's identity.”

Phill Cady, an Air Force veteran who moved to Texas from California, set up a table to register people to vote. He said he’d register anyone to vote if they asked — even if they didn't agree with him.

“Some people just see MAGA and think bad,” he said, pointing to his red “Make America Great Again” hat. “I am a Republican, but I'm not here to support that.”

But from many, the message was to do more than vote. In order to win the culture war, strong political action and mobilization was needed.

“If you're a digital warrior, get better at it,” Gaetz said. “If you make phone calls and knock on doors, become more efficient, become an organizer and activist.”