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Documentary shows teenage politicians growing up post 9/11

The game of politics makes some people gag. But for others, it’s what they live for.

Meet DJ, Ben and Nick — the protagonists of the new documentary “Follow the Leader,” which just received a $27,000 boost on Kickstarter.

The film follows these young men from the age of 16 through their first year in college. At age 16, all three have political ambitions to be national leaders.

Director Jonathan Goodman Levitt calls it a “political coming of age story” — an accurate title since two of the boys go through a serious political transformation. The project was born out of Goodman-Levitt’s hypothesis that the 9/11 attacks drastically affected the political beliefs and mindset of an entire generation of young people.

He chose these three particular boys for their personalities, their leadership abilities, and because of what they represented.

“They all represent traditionally the type of people who have been leading the country since its founding,” said Goodman Levitt. “In some ways I went into the film wanting to explore how traditional leaders, or traditional young leaders, or members of the status quo if you will, respond to a time of change in the country. That’s why we have all white guys in the film.”

DJ Beauregard, Ben Trump and Nick Troiano were all presidents of their high school classes. They won debate trophies, speech competitions and were running political campaigns by the age of 16.

Beauregard grew up in Methuen, Massachusetts and wasn’t interested in politics until September 11. He told Youth Radio, “I saw how President Bush and other people were leading the country in the days and weeks after, and I was really inspired by their leadership. I decided I wanted to do what they did. I wanted to be a national leader at some point,” he said.

Beauregard was a conservative all his life, but realized that in Massachussetts he would be more successful working for Democratic campaigns. So he switched parties. At 16, he managed the political campaign for a city councilor. Soon after, he was asked to join the campaign of then Governor Deval Patrick. Former Governor and 1988 Democratic Presidential nominee Michael Dukakis also became his personal mentor, and eventually, he worked on Hillary Clinton’s campaign for president.

“I started to question what I was doing, what my motives were. They were not public service, but to advance my own career and my own goals. I came to the conclusion that I can’t do this for the rest of my life,” said Beauregard. Now, Beauregard is working at Starbucks and getting his master’s degree in management and leadership.

Ben Trump was also conservative as a teenager, and remained a conservative through high school and into college. He brought back from the dead the College Republicans group on his college campus, and was one of few students opting out of the Barack Obama hype in 2008. Now, he works as a risk analyst for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and will start a Ph.D. program in health policy this fall.

Troiano started out as a Republican, but in college, decided that neither party completely satisfied him. He now identifies as a “radical centrist.” He worked for a group called Unity 08, and then for Americans Elect — both organizations pushing for bipartisan or alternative leadership. “Re-imagining the way we choose our leaders in the primary process, re-imagining the way we finance elections in this country, the way we draw congressional districts…It’s hard for government to do anything right, if we don’t get governance right,” said Troiano. Now, Troiano is working for a start-up called the Millennial Trains Project.

When I spoke with the three of them individually, now 23 years-old, they said it’s hard not to cringe at their 16-year-old selves. And you can’t help but laugh at how serious they take politics in the film. Beauregard for instance, sets the Star-Spangled Banner as his phone’s ringtone. Troiano has a mousepad that looks like the presidential seal. And Trump is so nervous on election day, 2008 that he throws up in the bathroom.

But ultimately, all three of them think the film has a powerful message for young people, and agree on a few takeaways.

First, it’s okay to change your mind. “Flip-flopping has become a negative term because it usually refers to people who do it in an expedient way to get elected,” said Troiano. “But being open to changing your mind based on new facts and circumstances…is something to really desire. That’s how we make progress in this country,” he said.

Secondly, the negative campaign messaging of today’s presidential race is not productive. “We need to go back to the days where people have their disagreements during the day, they make their case. But afterwards, they need to be able to have a cup of coffee with each other and say, ‘You’re not a bad guy,’” said Beauregard.

“Trying to rouse the population into an irrational argument where they’re going to hate one another, is a terrible thing no matter who wins,” said Trump.

And finally, young people can make a difference. “I can make a big impact on the world outside of politics. You don’t have to be a governor, you don’t have to be a senator, you don’t have to be a president to change the world,” said Beauregard.

This article was originally published on Turnstyle.com on August 13, 2012.