cj pearson 20 under 20

His classmates call him ‘Mr. President,’ and with good reason.

Emerging politico C.J. Pearson has interviewed presidential candidates on his YouTube channel, stumped on Fox News, and helped introduce legislation. He’s arguably the most incisive commentator on social media right now, and as America coasts into election season, he’s just getting warmed up.

While he’s been vlogging since February, he made national headlines in September over his provocative response video to President Obama. POTUS had just invited another American middle schooler, Ahmed Mohamed, to the White House after he was allegedly profiled and detained for bringing a homemade clock to school. Pearson took issue with the invite, and his blistering argument quickly moved into a series of Red State haymakers.

Scrolling through his YouTube channel, it’s clear why his work resonates with so many people. He’s a black voice of dissent who came up speaking with grace and assertiveness on all the Republican party’s outrage issues of the fall: Benghazi, radical Islam, student protests at the University of Missouri, the Black Lives Matter movement. He’s never fazed by the comments and actively subtweets his haters.

His voice is organically crafted, based on DIY research and development—he’s most certainly not a prop. In fact Pearson went from being the only Republican in his family to ditching the party altogether in late November. He’s an activist, orator, and swashbuckling independent.

He says he came about his conservative-leaning philosophical outlook during the 2008 election when a second-grade school project meant researching the candidates.

“While I didn’t understand the issues as well as I do now, I definitely did get a good insight and exactly how politics worked and how it affected discourse,” recalls Pearson, on the phone with the Daily Dot from his home in Grovetown, Georgia. “On election night, watching the polls as they came in, I remember staying up until midnight.”

The political process and its idealistic civic duty component piqued his interest. At 11, he went door-to-door on behalf of Rep. Rick Allen (R-Ga.) and fell in love with grassroots organizing. Two days after the 2014 election, he helped start the political group Young Georgians in Government and serves as its executive director. He’s also helped the Republican National Committee with its minority engagement efforts. Pearson’s the student body president at his middle school. He says his classmates call him “Mr. President.”

“None of the current candidates [for president] have shown a genuine concern for the hurdles young people across are facing, and I shouldn’t have to choose the lesser of two evils.”

“I think the only way that we win in 2016 and beyond is not by preaching to the choir but by growing our congregation,” Pearson says, with the crispness that astute craftsmen use on cable news.

When we first spoke in October, “we” meant the GOP. But following a series of increasing frustrations with his team, he decided to become a free agent and has been been lending Bernie Sanders support on Twitter.

“If I had to vote today, I wouldn’t vote,” Pearson now tells the Daily Dot via email. “None of the current candidates [for president] have shown a genuine concern for the hurdles young people are facing, and I shouldn’t have to choose the lesser of two evils.”

When footage emerged last month of a Chicago Police Department officer killing unarmed teenager Laquan McDonald, who was shot 16 times, Pearson’s YouTube channel offered a knuckles-to-desk indictment of the injustice. Days later, he told CNN he was done with Republican politics.

“He was shot 16 times for literally no reason at all,” he says. “To the people defending what this police officer did: You are literally insane… The Supreme Court said you cannot shoot a suspect who posed no imminent danger.”

In some ways, Pearson’s an average teenager: He listens to Ariana Grande, his favorite athlete is Tom Brady, he fervently watches Empire and American Horror Story. But things changed when his first YouTube upload in February, one that took direct aim at Obama, went viral. That’s a testament to the message, sure, but also to his calculated charisma.

“I expected to get a few hundred views; it got more than 2 million views,” Pearson says. “I thought, ‘Hey, I’m pretty good at this; let’s keep it going.’”

He’s confident across channels and knows where to get reactions: “The way that the media is hardwired now is that young people aren’t looking to TV for their news, but when you see it on Twitter, it’s getting their interest.”

“I definitely do hope to one day serve my community as my community has served me.”

Rallying and representing his generation is an underlying aspiration for Pearson. He says that despite being in a predominantly conservative town, his classmates routinely talk about presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders with learned nuance.

Rallying and representing his generation is an underlying aspiration for Pearson. He says that despite being in a predominantly conservative town, his classmates routinely talk about presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders with learned nuance.

“I’m the most politically savvy in my circle of friends, but I will say that teenagers are extremely vocal about what’s happening in their country,” Pearson says. “I’ve seen a complete increase in their interest in politics since Donald Trump has entered this race for president.”

From August to November, Pearson worked with the Cruz campaign as a sort of social media liaison while chairing Teens for Ted. When he left the organization, he quickly wrote me to clarify his departure came with a lack of bad blood or, rather, as I suspected, burnout from balancing the eighth grade with Cruz obligations:

“I left the Cruz campaign because I believed my calling was bigger than one single campaign. Bigger than one single election. Bigger than 2016 as a whole. I believe my calling is to be a voice for the voiceless, a fighter for the underdogs, and a champion for the Millennial generation—something much easier to do on my own than apart of a presidential campaign.”

Pearson is far too young to worry about a work-life balance, and he admits it.

“I live a very public life that’s extremely political,” Pearson says. “But at the end of the day, it’s definitely important to me to have a childhood still and to be a 13-year-old kid and hang out with my friends and just grow up with them.

“I’m the type of person that’s really snarky, and I will just throw it right back at you and then shrug it off,” he adds later. At this stage, he chiefly values the respect of his parents: “If they support me, I don’t care what anyone else thinks.”

“I believe that young people deserve a voice in their government.”

Make no mistake, Pearson is still figuring it out, and he occasionally still shows his age.

In September, he garnered headlines after claiming that President Barack Obama had blocked him on Twitter. The incident was textbook political grandstanding and, for thousands of Pearson’s fans, delectable, instant gratification. Even Michael Brown, the former FEMA director under Pres. George. W. Bush, congratulated him on the occasion.

As mainstream news outlets tried to verify Pearson’s claim, the conservative activist put out a Facebook statement to his more than 100,000 Facebook fans to defend his character. “The leader of the free world doesn’t stifle free speech,” Pearson said in the video, which was viewed more than 500,000 times. “I stand by the screenshot. I think the screenshot is quite clear. He blocked me, and now they’re backtracking?”

As he admits months later, Pearson posted the doctored screengrab in error, sans verification.

“I was with my friend. I had logged onto my Twitter account on his phone and he had shown me [the screenshot],” Pearson says. “He screenshotted a picture and he sent it to me. I immediately posted it; probably should have fact-checked it. I made a mistake.”

Like a seasoned politician, even when Pearson slipped, he was quick to make the most of it, writing off the gaffe with wit and a less-than-subtle jab at Trump.

It should come as no surprise then that he’d like to hold office one day. In fact, Pearson’s group introduced the Young Georgians in Government Act of 2015 this year. The constitutional amendment has 13 sponsors in the House and aims to lower the age required to hold state office in the House of Representatives to 18 and the Senate to 21.

“I believe that young people deserve a voice in their government,” he says. “I also believe that if you can lay down your life for your country, you should be able to represent your community in the state legislature.”

His activism, youth, and Web fame may make that seem like an insincere long-term goal, but he’s quick to quote John F. Kennedy’s “ask not” speech line and expresses an earnest interest in community service.

“I definitely do hope to one day serve my community as my community has served me,” Pearson says. “I think I have traits that can move our country forward, be it in public office or behind the scenes influencing a lawmaker.”

Illustration by Tiffany Pai

Layer 8
Why Ana Kasparian is a rising star of liberal news
The Young Turks’ co-host is ready for primetime.
From Our VICE Partners

Pure, uncut internet. Straight to your inbox.