politics

How a New Conservative Student Activism Group Became a Joke Before it Started

This weekend saw the launch of Turning Point UK, a British chapter of an American conservative youth movement.

by Tom Whyman
05 February 2019, 9:46am

Image: Turning Point UK on Twitter

Another year, another young British conservative group over before its even started. In 2018, it was Activate; this year, it's "Turning Point".

For the uninitiated, Turning Point USA is the right-wing campus activist group led by small-faced boy (and frequent Fox News guest) Charlie Kirk – he of "if liberal professors don't discriminate against conservatives, then why do conservative students get lower grades?" fame. Since their founding in 2012, Turning Point have established themselves as a major source of culture war bullshit in the United States. According to their website, they have chapters on over 1,300 school and college campuses, and also run national training events for young conservative activists.

The general narrative that the group likes to push is one that has, by now, become familiar to the point of tedium: conservatives on campus, they claim, are being persecuted and marginalised for their beliefs; liberal hegemony and safe space politics has turned universities into "islands of totalitarianism" where it's become unacceptable to speak up for the perfectly reasonable principles of "freedom, free markets, and limited government". Armed with only a victim complex (and sometimes a diaper), Turning Point's mission is to win otherwise lost hearts and minds for the noble cause of conservatism.

In practice, however, the group is involved in all sorts of shady shit. Turning Point high-ups have been accused of racial bias, and the group has used its money to interfere in student government elections. It has also been accused of aiding a number of Republican political campaigns, in an apparent breach of campaign finance laws (technically, Turning Point is registered as a type of non-profit group, which is required to be "non-partisan").

Turning Point also maintains the website "Professor Watchlist", which seeks to "expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom". Unsurprisingly, the site has been linked to the harassment of professors – a major threat to academic freedom, as brought to us by the ostensible free speech partisans.

Last year, the group appeared to receive the support of Kanye West, who tweeted praise for their outreach director, Candace Owens (he subsequently distanced himself from Owens) – known for her criticism of Black Lives Matter. But much more important has been the support of a network of controversial right-wing donors. Kirk founded the group with seed money from Foster Friess, the evangelical businessman who bankrolled ultra-conservative former senator Rick Santorum's presidential campaign in 2012, and has since attracted plentiful funding from a horde of other rich white men.

This weekend, the group used some of that money to launch Turning Point UK (with the help, apparently, of Nigel Farage), a move that has already drawn support from a number of Tory MPs, including Priti Patel, Steve Baker and Jacob Rees-Mogg. The group is headed by George Farmer, the son of long-time Tory donor Lord Michael Farmer, who has been photographed drinking with conspiracy theorist Infowars editor Paul Joseph Watson, and has called London Mayor Sadiq Khan a "twat" and a "cuck". He is the fiancée of Turning Point USA's Owens.

A video announcing the launch stands on familiar right-wing talking-point terrain. Campuses, according to its ominously-soundtracked opening sequence, have become hegemonic spaces of pro-Corbyn sentiment and "left-wing hate mobs". No one wants to question anything and no one wants to work hard. Ideas can't be debated because things like racism are assumed to be bad in advance, before anyone has had the chance to use Logic and Reason. "It's time for a turning point," say a series of young men and women.

Among them are familiar faces, such as Tom Harwood, current writer for Guido Fawkes and former joke candidate for the presidency of the National Union of Students. Also involved in the group is Darren Grimes. Turning Point UK's website lists Grimes as an "esteemed pundit and journalist", which seems like a bit of a stretch given that he's best-known for being subject to a police investigation over the funding of his Brexit campaign group.

So is Turning Point UK here to stay? Will its funding and profile see it succeed where previous attempts to establish a social media-savvy right-wing youth organisation have failed?

Perhaps not. Turning Point might be a big thing in the States, but for whatever reason, Britain – despite our broadly terrible politics overall – seems not to tolerate young men who look like aspiring estate agents telling us we need to be more right-wing.

No sooner had Turning Point UK launched its Twitter account than it was followed by a series of parodies – some posing as the national Turning Point UK account, others as the accounts for individual Turning Point UK chapters. Simultaneously, genuine accounts for Turning Point UK chapters were also established. In a short while, the number of Turning Point UK Twitter accounts became vast, almost uncountable. New ones were appearing all the time. And the thing was, it became increasingly difficult to tell which were real, and which were fake.

Soon, Turning Point UK accounts were publishing lists exposing other Turning Point UK accounts as fakes; others were announcing (genuinely?) that they were now being run directly by the national organisation. But who could tell if the exposes weren't just another layer of the parody?

And so the inherent ridiculousness of the whole thing was exposed – reality had merged with the joke. There is no amount of dark money in the world that can save you from that. Anyone in the UK thinking of joining or establishing a Turning Point chapter at their university must now know that they are walking into certain embarrassment. I wouldn't be surprised, in fact, if a number of "official" Turning Point chapters had already been established, all OKed by the national organisation, precisely as a joke. There is simply no way of knowing: the organisation has only existed in public for a few days, but it has already been comprehensively rinsed.

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