Thanks to the old-time tricks of gerrymandering and voter suppression, Republicans currently control the presidency, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court and a majority of governorships and state legislatures. The one thing their scheming can’t get them, however, is the support of college students. This makes them feel very uncool. Their solution to this conundrum isn’t to abandon culture-war demagoguery and develop more appealing proposals around student debt — that might sow discord among the comfortable retirees who comprise their current base. Instead, they throw money at the problem.
Such was the genesis of Turning Point USA, a well-funded and well-connected nonprofit whose goal is to show 18-to-22-year-olds that “fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government” are indeed very cool, and perhaps even rad. Unsurprisingly, they are having a rough time of it. Turning Point USA is a cash pit that remains pathetically, woefully unsuccessful despite its millions of dollars in dark money and a glut of free media exposure for its founder.
Turning Point USA was founded in 2012 by Charlie Kirk, the teenage son of a McMansion developer in a wealthy Chicago suburb. Kirk, paradoxically enough, postponed college in order to found a nonprofit “grassroots organization” devoted to counteracting liberal bias in academia. This bizarre proposal — a “student movement” run by a non-student — won him an immediate five-figure donation from Foster Friess, the billionaire investor who bankrolled Rick Santorum’s failed 2012 primary campaign. By 2014, the organization was pulling in revenues of $2 million, and by 2016 that figure had more than doubled. Kirk himself, an expert self-promoter who fashions himself as a besuited Good Boy, quickly rose to fame as a frequent Fox News guest, Breitbart contributor, and Trump associate. His organization, though, has failed to catch up to his personal success.
I was introduced to Turning Point USA through its memes, which are just, well, appallingly bad. The briefcase-toting College Republicans who staff the organization seem to be entirely unfamiliar with internet culture, humor, and the basic principles of graphic design. Most of TPUSA’s creations use Impact font over square images, a practice that fell out of favor circa 2010 and is now virtually unheard of outside of “FWD:FWD:FWD:” email chains. Sometimes they follow the conventions of these anachronisms, which were character-based (“Philosoraptor,” “Condescending Wonka”) and usually attempted humor, but sometimes Turning Point will just print po-faced conservative maxims in Impact over pictures of Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory. In one particularly heinous example, 2010-style Impact text was added to the “Kermit sipping tea” picture that was briefly popular in 2014 — in October 2017. In the age of Know Your Meme and Vox meme explainers, it takes a special sort of moron to butcher a simple, well-worn joke this badly.
EXACTLY! 🙄 pic.twitter.com/i9xh7iG5lG— Turning Point USA (@TPUSA) October 15, 2017
When they venture outside the constraints of Quickmeme.com, the prodigies behind TPUSA fare a tad better aesthetically. One of their favorite formats, the call-and-response, is constructed like so: a liberal celebrity provides an innocuous quote, and then, beneath a divider, a random Shutterstock result for “woman thinking” responds with a rejoinder that falls flat. In one image from July, Katy Perry is quoted as saying “No barriers, no borders. We all need to just coexist,” and her foil, a stock photo of a black woman, replies: “...oh really? So when is your next concert in Syria?” Given that Shutterstock images typically cost around ten dollars and these images net, on average, 25 retweets, TPUSA will often replace the “woman thinking” with a much cheaper image of Charlie Kirk making the same expression. These perform even worse. In 2016, they inaugurated Turning Point News, a sort of low-rent Daily Caller that runs mini-articles with hysterical headlines like “SATANISTS ASK CHRISTIAN BAKER FOR SATANIC BIRTHDAY CAKE.”
Few modern-day social media teams are as incompetent as TPUSA’s, and the sorry state of their brand defies explanation. Web-savvy, underemployed young adults are an endless resource. Virtually anyone under the age of 35 can curate a semi-popular Twitter or Facebook page with minimal training and an entry-level salary. Even decidedly uncool companies like Arby’s and Denny’s are, at most, two weeks behind on meme culture. But somehow, despite being a self-described youth organization and receiving $5 million in funding last year, Turning Point USA manages to have the web acumen of a septuagenarian. As a result, their official Twitter has only accumulated 87,000 followers over five years; their Instagram has 23,000 followers, and their YouTube channel has just 2,400 subscribers. The Turning Point USA Facebook page, however, has 704,000 likes, but a quick glance at the comments under each post reveals a troubling pattern — the vast majority of its fans are senior citizens. Some representative old-guy comments on their most recent post: “Trump is the Preparation H to Barack Obamaroid.” “Obummer the Kenyan wonder !” “you leftists forget the CLINTON CRIME SYNDICATE ran all the cocaine in to [sic] Arkansas. They murdered those two boys who stumbled on their operation.” The big-money donors who opened their wallets to support Charlie Kirk’s “youth outreach” effectively spent more than $7 million to pander to their existing base of racist grandpas.
Turning Point’s efforts to recruit students to conservatism in real life have been even less successful. Their main activity seems to be staging tiny, near-daily protests where two or three students hold pre-made signs reading “socialism sucks” or “I love capitalism” in a far-flung corner of campus. They have hundreds of pictures of this strange ritual taking place in locales like the beach and the inside of a tree, but none show the reactions of other students. When they do interact with others, they tend to drive them further away from conservatism. One video on TPUSA’s channel, which has just over 1,000 views, features an interviewer smugly accosting self-professed socialists for hypocritically eating “capitalist pizza” and “capitalist French fries.” Got em! In one bizarre stunt, TPUSA activists graced their campus with a “free speech ball,” a giant beach ball students were encouraged to write on with markers, but the fun was short-lived — one of their peers poked a hole in the ball and scurried off, at which point the ball’s owners immediately called campus police. This tale of woe was related by Turning Point News in an article titled “FREE SPEECH BALL DESTROYED BY A COMMUNIST STUDENT AT UC SAN DIEGO.” At Kent State, one TPUSA supporter wore a diaper around campus to make some convoluted point about “safe spaces.” Really.
When they do make an effort to influence students through methods other than mockery and holding glossy signs on the quad, they run into legal trouble. As Turning Point USA is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the organization is prohibited from conducting political campaigns. At the University of Maryland, students discovered that TPUSA had been secretly funneling outside money into student government elections — a violation of both the rules for nonprofits and the school’s student government. They were also caught funding student campaigns at Ohio State University, where leaked documents provided to the school newspaper showed numerous violations of campaign finance rules. The leadership director of Ohio State’s TPUSA chapter was quoted as saying in a private correspondence: “Yes TP is funding the campaign but that’s very hush hush. Liberals consistently dominate campus student government and our goal is to take them out secretly without them knowing what’s coming.”
Turning Point USA is nothing more than a giant toilet for billionaire money, and its continued existence perfectly illustrates conservatives’ failure to build genuine youth support. Conservative media has no problem with youth representation, which is why Charlie Kirk has been far more successful than his brainchild. Fox News and Breitbart are perfectly happy to hire young, well-groomed ideologues to voice the anxieties of the elderly; Kirk, Ben Shapiro, and Tomi Lahren have all taken advantage of this. But when conservatives try to get their actual poll numbers up with younger generations, their machinations dissolve into a heap of discarded “I <3 the free market” signs. Their rhetoric simply doesn’t work. In order to gain support among students who don’t wear suits to class, conservatives would have to abandon their backwards social policies and offer young people a vision of the future with affordable health care, low student debt and stable employment. In other words, they would have to stop being conservatives.