If anyone needed proof of the influence of Turning Point USA, take a look at the outrage that Kanye West has stirred up in the past month, which all started with a single tweet in which the rapper praised Candace Owens, the group’s communications director. Before then, if you knew about TPUSA it was likely because of its attention-grabbing stunts—members once wore diapers to protest “safe spaces” at Kent State—and the high profile of its founder, 24-year-old Charlie Kirk, often hailed as the leader of the next generation of Republicans. But most people don’t know just how potentially dangerous this group can be, because they haven’t seen it up close as I have. In my career as a conservative student activist, I’ve witnessed the group deteriorate from a harmless free market advocacy organization to the breeding ground of the “alt-lite.”
In December, Crystal Clanton, the group’s former national field director, was outed for saying “I HATE BLACK PEOPLE. Like fuck them all… I hate blacks. End of story,” in text messages to another TPUSA employee employee. Yet one day after the New Yorker published these text messages as part of a longer story on the group, President Donald Trump tweeted his support of Kirk. A few months later, HuffPost reported that one of Clanton’s replacements, Shialee Grooman, had once tweeted, “I love making racist jokes,” and “All I get is nigger dick.” HuffPost also found that two other employees—including their former Midwest regional field director Timon Prax—had posted tweets that included racial jokes and the use of the word “nigga” by a white guy.
In response to the controversies, TPUSA sent an internal memo to employees asking if anyone had posts “that could potentially damage your credibility or the credibility of the organization” and added, “If you are interested in ways to lock down your social media to make it less accessible to the public or ways to better control your online profiles to separate your professional and personal life, please contact your manager or me directly.”
Beyond those individual incidents is the organization as a whole, which attracts thousands of wide-eyed young conservatives—some of them still in high school—to conferences where Donald Trump, Jr. has been a speaker and where attendees chant “lock her up!” whenever someone mentions Hillary Clinton’s name. Before students leave these donor-subsidized safe spaces, recruiters make sure they sign up for campus activism kits, offering propaganda such as “Fossil Fuels Save Lives!”
Hyped up by anti-left rhetoric and tantalized by whispers of job prospects in the conservative movement, students then go back to campus forgetting that the real world isn’t a never-ending Trump rally. They organize speaker events, recruit more naive kids, and may even run for student government on a TPUSA-sponsored ticket. (The group has raised more than $2 million to fund campus elections, but it’s not clear how much of that money has been spent on candidates—when Politico contacted students supposedly backed by TPUSA, they all said they weren’t affiliated with the group, and some even condemned it.)
I knew to stay away from TPUSA as far back as two years ago, when it launched the Professor Watchlist project, a McCarthyite database listing hundreds of college professors who have liberal or left-leaning views according to their students. No other conservative group would dare hang a wanted poster on professors while also claiming to support diversity of ideas and free speech.
I’ve seen TPUSA up close as well. In January, I first noticed the chapter at the University of Massachusetts Boston, where I'm a student, when its members tried to bring Lucian Wintrich, the founder of Twinks for Trump and White House correspondent of the notoriously conspiratorial website Gateway Pundit, to speak on why “it’s OK to be white.” When I found out about this, I searched my network to find a contact at their national office to warn them of who they were inviting. My email received no reply, and unsurprisingly, the school postponed the event due to security concerns; it was later canceled after TPUSA asked the chapter to no longer host the event.* (This followed a November scuffle at a speech he gave at UConn that ended with him being arrested, though a breach of peace charge was later dropped.)
One of the main grievances of the conservative movement has always been pointing out the hypocrisy of the left for disinviting speakers and violating the principle of free speech. But when TPUSA chapters invite speakers like Wintrich or Milo Yiannopoulos, they aren’t honestly trying to create a forum of intellectual discussion, they’re seeing how far they can push their college—with the goal, perhaps, of going on Fox News and starting a career as an oppressed conservative.
I see TPUSA is less a conservative organization than a cult of personality around Trump, with Kirk as the high priest.
I’ve heard many TPUSA student activists justify their tactics saying that when their schools violate the First Amendment it will help push moderate students further to the right, but I’m convinced that most of them are really just interested in loudly asserting their presence on campus instead of engaging in reasoned debate.
Many of my friends and allies have either attended or spoken at TPUSA conferences, putting me in the awkward position of recognizing that even good people can get sucked in by political opportunism. While they justify their involvement as a means to grow their base—even if it means sharing the stage with some less than ideal figures—I see TPUSA is less a conservative organization than a cult of personality around Trump, with Kirk as the high priest.
TPUSA breaks with traditional conservatives in nearly every possible way, yet they’ve managed to make themselves platform for up-and-coming political celebrities like Owens, who last month tweeted, “I truly believe that @realDonaldTrump isn’t just the leader of the free world, but the savior of it as well. May God bless America—the last stand for western civilization.” As a Christian, watching anyone use the word savior for anyone besides the son of God is frankly jarring.
There are alternatives for students looking to get involved in conservatism. Standing athwart against the all-consuming wave of Trumpism, Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), a student activist group founded by conservative icon William F. Buckley, continues to memorialize the legacy of Ronald Reagan’s personality. I’ve been to two of their conferences and once tried to start a YAF chapter before committing to a career in journalism. I don't believe Trump has been involved with the organization, although it has invited Vice President Pence to speak—a man of faith who has much more in common with Reagan than Trump does.
Non-Christian conservatives who are more excited to promote fiscal conservatism and free markets can seek out libertarian student organizations like Students for Liberty. Trump’s commitment to conservative economic orthodoxy is shaky at best—why attach yourself to a group that simply going to endorse whatever he says?
Finally, If you find yourself in the midst of an identity crisis as a conservative on a liberal campus, you should join the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. That’s another organization founded by Buckley, but with an emphasis on reading groups and academic conferences. There you’ll build up your ideology while learning on campus how to integrate with the rest of society.
Whatever you do, don’t stunt your intellectual growth by living in Trump’s fantasy. College is the time to figure out how to survive in the real world, and I feel sorry for the people hiding in TPUSA’s safe space.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the sequence of events that led to Lucian Wintrich
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Will Nardi is a junior at the University of Massachusetts Boston and the founder of theClassyLibertarian.com. He is also a Young Voices Advocate.