This week’s conference of the astroturfed pro-Trump youth organization Turning Point USA might have had the worst array of featured acts of any event in human history. That may seem like a reach, given the dire lineups at disastrous gatherings like Woodstock ‘99 — which devolved into a massive structural fire during a Red Hot Chili Peppers performance — and the recent OZY Fest, which featured Malcolm Gladwell as a headliner.
But nothing heretofore could ever match the complete dearth of humanity on display at what was called the TPUSA High School Leadership Summit. Thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Heritage Foundation and Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University, roller-backpack dorks from all across the country only had to travel to D.C. and pay $15 a head to hear the oratory of Donald Trump Jr., Rep. Louie Gohmert, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Sebastian Gorka, Ken Bone, ex-BuzzFeed plagiarist Benny Johnson, and the 16-year-old who got his MAGA hat stolen at Whataburger earlier this month.
The central conceit of the TPUSA scam — that it is in any way a genuine youth movement and not just a venue for also-ran grifters and tryhard Twitter trolls to grab up as much Koch and Mercer money as they can before Don Jr.’s inevitable indictment spikes the fun — falls apart when met with even an iota of critical thinking. By now, Turning Point USA’s motives could not be more obvious if their logo was a pair of Sperrys grinding fresh dogshit into a square of astroturf. Only the most willfully naive spectator could fall for the meager wiles of someone as dumb as TPUSA founder Charlie Kirk — especially since his bag of tricks has remained in stasis since he first became a political D-lister in 2015. After all, this is an organization whose former national field director was caught texting another employee "i hate black people. Like fuck them all . . . I hate blacks. End of story." Who could be dumb enough to take them at their word?
Kimberly Guilfoyle says her favorite factoid number is zero, because it’s the number of days “crooked” Hillary Clinton has been in presidential office. Response from the crowd is a round of “lock her up”: pic.twitter.com/PZelhgoKkY— Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks (@ayoonhendricks) July 25, 2018
Enter The New York Times, which treated the conference to two separate articles this week, both with the bemused tone one might use to cover a niche gathering like BronyCon. The first, Alexandra Yoon-Hendricks’s “A Place Where Conservative Teenagers Feel Free to Be Themselves,” devoted only two words, “controversial policies,” to the actual beliefs of the attendees and speakers, many of which border on outright white nationalism. The remainder of the article cast these wayward teens in the most favorable possible light: as misunderstood outcasts finally encountering a friendly peer group after years of supposed ostracization. According to Hendricks, the conference was “a chance for the teenagers to reject the stereotype that their generation is exclusively liberal and to finally be themselves, ‘Make America Great Again’ hats and all.” How inspiring. “We all just met and we’re like best bros now,” said one 17-year-old before pulling her new friends into a “tight hug.” The disconnect between the cheerful tone of these articles and the disturbing nature of their content — disaffected white teens being goaded into adopting farther and farther right politics with the help of dark money — is genuinely nauseating.
On July 26, there was a second Times article about TPUSA by reporter Dan Levin, this time a series of softball interviews with conference attendees. “We sat down with a few attendees to hear what it’s like for them to be red in schools they say are overwhelmingly blue,” it reads. A 15-year old told Levin that “Whenever I’m in a class and I share my political opinion, I’m basically the bigot, that’s what I’m called.” When asked where he gets his information, he cited Fox News and Rebel Media, a Canadian alt-right publication that has employed several well-known neo-Nazis and infamously sent a reporter to Charlottesville to praise the “rising white racial consciousness” of the violent 2017 Unite the Right rally. (That reporter, Faith Goldy, was later fired after agreeing to an interview with neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer.) When asked what he learned from the summit, he said: “It’s making me more confident to go back to school. There are lots of liberals at my school, and I’ll feel less embarrassed about saying what I believe and really standing for it.”
Even through this absurdly kind portrayal, the attendees can’t help but reveal their disingenuousness. The ethos of TPUSA, after all, is one of self-victimization and an unquenchable thirst for publicity — despite Sen. Orrin Hatch and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley both warning the audience against making “owning the libs” the beginning and end of their activism. But without “owning the libs,” what would remain of the organization? The most well-known TPUSA creation was a 2017 display at Kent State in which students donned diapers and baby clothes in order to lampoon “safe spaces.”
The ringleader of the diaper event, Kaitlin Bennett, has since embarked on a solo project of tweeting professionally shot pictures of herself carrying assault rifles on campus with captions about “liberal tears.” That sort of low-effort provocation is TPUSA’s bread and butter, and it’s hard not to view every teen mentioned in these Times articles as a budding Bennett imitator rather than a “leader.” Jarrett Wiggonton (oof), an 18-year-old conference attendee, told Yoon-Hendricks that “at a recent pep rally, his and his friends’ Trump signs and paraphernalia were confiscated by teachers.” A pep rally? Who brings political signs to a high school pep rally? Someone who badly wants to hop on the liberals-censored-me bandwagon and score an interview with Tucker Carlson or Jesse Watters, that’s who. Thanks to the human Golden Retrievers the Times sends to cover these events, Wigginton didn’t even have to drive to the Fox studios to get his ill-conceived manufactured outrage into the national media. There it is, unvarnished, in the paper of record.