Politics

How Kaitlin Bennett Became a Bona Fide Conservative Media Star

Kaitlin Bennett at a protest at Kent State University.
Kaitlin Bennett at Kent State University in September 2018.*
Shay Horse/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Conservative activist Kaitlin Bennett arrived on the campus of Ohio University on Monday to film candid interviews with students about Presidents’ Day. Instead, she was quickly surrounded by student protesters, who hounded her off campus within two hours. Bennett posted a video online in which she called the fracas a “riot.” The university’s police department said in a statement that Bennett had not alerted them about her campus appearance, which prevented them from planning protection for her. Police also said the event “did not rise to the level of a riot,” involving only strong language and splashing water. Bennett may not have finished filming the video she planned to shoot, but the one she made instead surely reached an even broader audience. The incident had one clear takeaway: Kaitlin Bennett has turned herself into a bona fide conservative media star.

That’s an identity she has been working toward since she was an undergraduate at Kent State University. As a student, Bennett was an outspoken gun rights activist who organized an open-carry demonstration on campus. She had also served as president of the campus chapter of Charlie Kirk’s Turning Point USA (a nonprofit whose mission is, in its own words, to “identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote freedom”), devising a viral stunt in which club members wore diapers to ridicule “safe spaces”; she resigned when the event became a national laughingstock and the national group distanced itself from her chapter. In her bridge-burning resignation letter, Bennett called Turning Point “an organization founded by a college dropout who hires some of the most incompetent, lazy, and downright dishonest people I have ever encountered.”

Bennett finally broke out nationally when she carried an AR-10 rifle to her graduation in May 2018. The rifle, slung across her back in a viral photo, was a protest against a university policy barring students from carrying concealed weapons on campus. Her back is to the camera in the photo, blond curls cascading down over the rifle and her short white dress. She wears heels and carries a graduation cap with a rifle cutout and the slogan “COME AND TAKE IT.” The photo was an instant sensation. She appeared on Fox and Friends and started referring to herself as “Kent State gun girl.”

Since then, Bennett has become a kind of roving citizen-journalist, carrying a microphone around college campuses and other hotbeds of progressive politics, and provoking interviewees into offering “intolerant” or nonsensical political opinions. In some ways, she is a familiar type, one of the social media figures Mel magazine deemed “MAGA thirst traps.” She frequently posts provocative self-portraits that juxtapose her Instagram-friendly appearance with various combinations of firearms, American flags, and Trump gear. Like Tomi Lahren, to whom she is often compared, Bennett has a knack for turning scorn of the left into admiration on the right. She now has 293,000 followers on Twitter and 154,000 on Instagram, where her bio reads in part: “monetize the haters.”

But Bennett puts a twist on Lahren’s penchant for “owning” her opponents: She appears far more willing to depict herself being ignored, reviled, and mocked on camera. “I just want you to know, I’m gay, I’m disabled, I hate you,” one interlocutor tells her. In another clip, she interviews an Australian who asks her to name the Australian prime minister, which she can’t do. His friends roar with laughter at her, while she blusters about not caring about the rest of the world. More often, interviewees calmly shut down her leading questions by stating that, for example, they simply don’t care who uses which bathrooms on campus, or whether a men’s bathroom is stocked with free tampons. “Every single clip I’ve seen of her makes me wonder if whoever’s in charge of posting these just lacked the self awareness necessary to never let these clips see the light of day,” one Twitter user wondered recently, “or if they’re just masochists.” Like Lahren and other young Trumpy activists, Bennett is a firehose of loud, petty insults directed at lefties of all stripes. But unlike those people, she also seems happy to play the fool herself when it suits her aims.

Arguably the most cringeworthy aspect of Bennett’s reputation is the rumor that she, uh, defecated in her pants at a frat party at Kent State. The story has never been substantiated, and by now circulates more as a joke than a factual accusation. At Ohio University this week, students chanted “Where’s your diaper” and “shit your pants” and tossed rolls of toilet paper at her as she walked across campus. (They also chanted “We hate fascists.”) Rather than avoid the topic, Bennett includes clips in her own videos of her interviewees mocking her to her face about the alleged incident. At the University of Akron, she asked a student if he would date the Trump supporter if the supporter were a girl. “It wouldn’t prevent you from shitting in your pants,” the student replied.

Bennett has served as a correspondent for Alex Jones’ conspiracy-mongering InfoWars; last year, she was ejected from a Bernie Sanders town hall event in Youngstown. Her primary outlet is Liberty Hangout, a website founded in 2015 by her now-fiancé, Justin Moldow. Initially named Young Jeffersonians, the site was incendiary from the start; one early post, written by Moldow, compared Abraham Lincoln to Hitler and Stalin. The site has since transformed into “THE OFFICIAL HOME OF KAITLIN BENNETT,” as its site banner boasts. When I counted on Wednesday, Liberty Hangout’s homepage featured more than 40 photos of Bennett. (An interview request emailed to Liberty Hangout received no reply.)

Bennett, for her part, has turned her brief, haphazardly planned visit to Ohio University into several days of fervent media coverage. On Fox and Friends on Wednesday morning, she argued that public universities should not receive federal funding if conservatives don’t feel safe on campus. She has also vowed to return to Ohio University, this time bringing “an army of gun owners for an open carry walk through campus.” “Nothing the left does will make me go away,” she tweeted on Tuesday. “Their hatred makes me stronger.” Bennett might not always look like a winner in her confrontations with progressives or the mainstream media. But she’s still managed to strategically combine the lib-owning rhetoric of the trollish right with something the rest of her cohort is less adept at feigning: a thick skin.

Correction, Feb. 19, 2020: Due to an editing error, the photo caption in this post misstated where the picture of Bennett was taken. It was at Kent State University, not Ohio University.