Last week, thousands of conservative high school and college students gathered for the annual Turning Point USA (TPUSA) Student Leadership Summit in West Palm Beach, Florida. The summit was held near Mar-a-Lago, and Donald Trump showed up himself for a last-minute talk on the conference’s third day, during which he launched into a weird diatribe against wind power that went viral.
The event consisted of talks, networking events, and workshops, all of which were pretty much what you would expect at a gathering of the right that included Ben Shapiro, Sarah Sanders, and the president: Capitalism is good. Impeachment is a sham. The left wants to take your guns and turn the country into Venezuela. Antifa are the real fascists. Blah blah blah something to do with how referring to trans people by their correct pronouns is the same as 1984. Someone would say that socialism is bad and the crowd would cheer. Then someone would say "AOC" and the crowd would boo.
A few times speakers said something so wild it stopped me dead in my tracks. Like when Ann Coulter compared Ilhan Omar to Josef Mengele. Or when Dinesh D’souza said, "To me democratic socialism differs from socialism kind of in the way that gang rape differs from individual rape."
At the networking events, I chatted to students who told me their views haven’t made them super popular on their college campuses, so it was nice for them to be around like-minded people. One student told me she was too scared to tell her roommates that she’s a conservative because she was worried they wouldn’t want to be her friends anymore.
The organizers seemed to have made a few attempts to make the conservative messaging more appealing to young people. There were a bunch of selfie stations dotted around, and the Ayn Rand booth had graphic novels and a downloadable emoji keyboard. Sean Hannity was wearing a hoodie.
The talk I saw that seemed to be the most explicitly crafted towards young people was one by disgraced BuzzFeed editor and current TPUSA employee Benny Johnson, who talked about the left’s inability to meme. Johnson came out on stage accompanied by someone dressed as "Left Shark," firing a T-shirt cannon into the crowd and screaming, "Who’s ready for some memes?"
"The left can't meme," he said. "We're having more fun than them. We're way funnier. We're more awesome."
On big screens at the side of the stage was a slideshow of conservative memes to underline Johnson’s point. The memes included:
- Baby Yoda wearing a TPUSA shirt and hat, with a laughing Kanye in the background.
- The painting American Gothic but with Greta Thunberg and David Hogg’s faces photoshopped on to it.
- A photo of AOC looking confused, captioned "So am I the president now?"
More than once, Johnson paused mid sentence because he was laughing at the memes too hard.
"They don’t want to speak your language, they don’t understand you." Johnson, 32, said. "They don’t understand us. The way that we communicate."
Here are some other things I saw while wandering around the event: