The Corner

Benji Backer and the Pressure to Be Precocious

Benji Backer has a lot of feelings about Jonathan Krohn. That’s because Backer, 16, of Appleton, Wis., is (as far as I can tell) the youngest person to speak at CPAC since Krohn, then 13 and now 19, spoke on a panel at the conference in 2009 and then became a conservative media sensation. Three years after that appearance, Krohn became a bit of a PR challenge for the conference’s organizers when he told Politico that he wasn’t conservative anymore. Krohn has since moved on; he’s currently reporting from Cairo for the Daily Beast. But many in the conservative movement haven’t.  

I sat down with Backer on a window ledge outside the Gaylord Convention Center’s ballroom a few hours before his speech, and in the first five minutes of our conversation he brought up Krohn.

“I think I’m the new Jonathan Krohn in that I’m the youngest person in this movement that has been recognized for speaking out,” he tells me. “But I’m not the next Jonathan Krohn in the fact that I’m going to flip-flop; I’m not the next Jonathan Krohn in the fact that I’m going to go on the front page of the New York Times in five years and be a liberal. But I am Jonathan Krohn in that I’m speaking out and I’m being heard, and that was my ultimate goal when I started getting into politics.”

Goal: realized. Backer drew national media attention last April when he published a write-up at FreedomWorks charging that teachers at his school were harassing and bullying him for his conservative activism. It wasn’t the beginning of his involvement in the conservative world — at age ten, he was enthralled by the presidential debates and got his parents to put up bumper stickers and yard signs for McCain; in the years since then he’s made thousands of calls for Wisconsin Republicans — but it put him on national conservatives’ collective radar. Since then, Backer has spoken to a crowd of 2,000 at Americans for Prosperity’s Defending the American Dream Summit in Orlando, been named to CPAC 2014’s Top 10 Under 40 list, traveled the country speaking to college students about the importance of political activism, and gotten his own PR director.

His speech tonight will top all that. He found out he’d be speaking at CPAC on Monday, started writing his speech, scrapped the speech on Tuesday, and finished writing a new one today. When I spoke with him he was sporting a dark suit; red, white, and blue tie; and cowlick. He tells me he’ll need to change ties before his speech, though. And he says he’ll have a windsor knot.

He’s nervous. He should be. He has the kind of platform congressmen would cagefight over: ten minutes before the announcement of the straw-poll results and just 30 minutes before Sarah Palin’s keynote. Not bad for a teenager who was just recently licensed to drive.

And his parents are missing it; they had a prior commitment back in Wisconsin, where they’ll be watching the opening night of the school musical that stars Benji’s sister. He has good things to say about them.

“They’re so supportive, and I couldn’t ask for better parents,” he says. “They’ve raised me as a great role model to others across this country.”

Backer answers questions before I think them up. I didn’t ask about Krohn, for instance. I also didn’t ask about his future plans, and didn’t need to because after chatting about how he found his PR director (Scott Jones, who Backer says has close relationships at Fox News, took him out for dinner in Texas and then offered to do pro bono representation), he tells me that elected office is very much on the table.

“If America’s not on the right track by the time I’m 25 or 30, and if we’re still going on the wrong track, I will run for office,” he says. “But if we’re getting back on the right track and they don’t need a voice like me in Washington or in my state then I won’t run. I’d almost rather not run, because I’d rather raise a family and be home with a wife and kids.”

One thing I did ask him was whether he felt pressure to be precocious.

“What do you mean?” he asks.

Does he feel compelled to be impressive?

“There is a lot of weight on my shoulders,” he answers. “And I think it’s different for people my age, because people my age often aren’t even able to speak in front of a class of 25 people a lot of times. But I feel as if I’m one of the main speakers of my age group, my generation in the conservative movement.”

It’s a fair analysis. If he’s not already, he will be after tonight.

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