How Young Conservative Activists Party at CPAC
More than a quarter of the attendees at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference were students, but, walking around the Gaylord National hotel and convention center, in National Harbor, Maryland, the proportion often seemed much higher. Early on Friday, the second day of CPAC’s main-event program, Senator Ted Cruz was mobbed by young people as he left the area outside the main convention hall. Some wanted to speak with him or offer prayers for him and his family. Most wanted pictures, including a particularly determined young woman who circled around the crowd clustered near Cruz and tried to cut him off.
“Senator Cruz!” she shouted. “It’s my birthday. I can show you my I.D.”
Cruz obliged her the photo—no verification necessary. “It legit is my birthday,” she said afterward, to no one in particular.
Although the inflammatory speeches of the main-event program capture the public’s attention, inside the convention center, well-funded youth groups battle for the loyalty of more than two thousand student activists. Perhaps the most prominent of these groups is Turning Point USA, a nonprofit that has a close relationship with the Trump family, and that, as Jane Mayer reported last year, may have violated campaign-finance laws in its support for Republican campaigns. It has also embraced some of the most pernicious forms of Trumpian identity politics, hosting events for the former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos. Mayer revealed that, in the summer of 2016, Turning Point’s national field director at the time sent a text to another staff member, saying “I hate black people.” But on the first night of CPAC, none of these controversies appeared to have slowed the group down, as it threw a buzzy party where Donald Trump, Jr., was a featured speaker and Cruz was a featured guest.
The party, called “Americafest,” was held at Cadillac Ranch, a Western-themed bar-and-grill. The walls were adorned with images of American flags and cowboys, guitars and cacti. For the evening, the restaurant also featured cardboard cutouts of figures of both admiration and derision: Marilyn Monroe, Ronald Reagan, Benjamin Franklin, Tim Tebow, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jeb Bush, Monica Lewinsky, Hillary Clinton. In its own corner of the bar, a cutout of Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was set next to a table piled high with loaves of plain white bread—for a “socialism bread line,” a nearby sign explained. By the end of the night, someone had scrawled the word “pendeja” (idiot) on her face.
Around 8 P.M., Donald Trump, Jr., appeared with his girlfriend, the former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle, on a stage next to a gyrating mechanical bull. He spent much of his speech leading the assembled young people in chants of “Build the wall!” and “U.S.A.!,” but he also took time to sing the praises of Charlie Kirk, the founder of Turning Point USA, whom, as he told a laughing audience, he initially regarded with skepticism, when he was asked to meet him during the campaign. “We don’t know what the hell we are doing,” he said. “And we don’t need someone else who doesn’t know what they’re doing!”
Kirk seems to know what he’s doing. Since founding Turning Point, in 2012, at eighteen, he has become one of the conservative movement’s most prominent pundits, speaking regularly on Fox News. During his rambling address that closed this year’s conference, Donald Trump called out to Kirk, and announced a forthcoming executive order on Turning Point’s signature issue, campus speech. Kirk, also spoke at CPAC, during which, in addition to the usual bromides against leftism on college campuses and rote praise for President Trump, he inveighed darkly against liberalism broadly speaking, dropping his student-government-president affect and pinching up seemingly every corner of his face with disgust.
“What I find is that we as conservatives say, far too often, ‘Well, we want the same thing as liberals. We just have a different way of getting there,’ ” he said. “I don’t want to live in the country that the socialist left wants to create,” he continued, wagging a finger. “We are not going in the same direction as the Democratic Party. I don’t want to live in a country where it’s O.K. to execute a newborn child. That’s not the country I want to live in.”
Candace Owens, Turning Point’s communications director, was also given a prime speaking slot. Owens, who is African-American, used her time to make the argument she is best known for: that African-American Democrats have been bamboozled into supporting a party that is as racist as it was during the Jim Crow era. One example of the Party’s racism, she said, was its support for abortion. “A hard-hitting truth,” she intoned dramatically, “is that the most unsafe place for a black child is not on the streets. It’s not when they see a police officer. It’s in their mother’s womb.”
This kind of sloganeering can go awry. Last month, a clip of Owens at an event in London, where she defended nationalism, went viral. “If Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, O.K., fine,” she said. “The problem is that he wanted—he had dreams outside of Germany. He wanted to globalize.” Afterward, several Turning Point chapters called on Owens to step down.
There were no signs of angst around Turning Point’s corner of CPAC’s exhibition hall, where on Thursday students gathered to take some of the group’s free gifts—including buttons that read “BDS = BS” and “Big Government Sucks”—and to buy the group’s popular “Socialism Sucks” T-shirts. Turning Point was far from the only group hawking freebies. The booth for Young Americans for Freedom, an affiliate of the Young America’s Foundation and one of the oldest conservative student groups, offered “Ben ShapHERO” buttons. (Ben Shapiro, a prominent young pundit, did not speak at CPAC this year, and spent much of the event criticizing Trump’s negotiations with North Korea on Twitter.) Last June, the Washington Examiner leaked a memo from Young America’s Foundation warning its members that Turning Point USA would damage “conservative students and the conservative movement,” citing Kirk’s knack for self-promotion and the group’s ties to “racist and Nazi sympathizers.” The memo was in keeping with Young America’s Foundation’s public criticisms of Turning Point, including a May release in which the organization castigated Turning Point for grossly inflating its membership numbers and framing itself as an umbrella organization for other conservative youth groups.
When I asked a student manning the Young Americans for Freedom table about the growth of Turning Point, he declined to talk about the group and instead spoke in broad terms about the importance of building a youth base for the conservative movement. So, too, did Alec Sears, the young vice-president of Lone Conservative, a Web site that publishes writing by conservative students, and a prolific critic of Turning Point on social media. (“Ironic,” he tweeted on Tuesday, “that, like socialism, TPUSA only works on paper or within small ethnically homogenous communities.”)
“It’s always good to share conservative values, and there’s different ways of marketing those and different ways of bringing people in,” he told me. “As long as they’re bringing conservatives in, training them, and equipping them to do well in life and in politics, then more power to them.”
At the mention of Turning Point, a smartly dressed young man at the booth for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, ready to discuss the conservative books and journals that the group promotes, smiled wanly. “We’re trying to educate,” he said. “There are a lot of groups out there fighting the fight for free speech, but what can get lost in all that are some of the great thinkers.”
The effort against supposed liberal indoctrination on college campuses has an extraordinarily long history in the conservative movement. A Washington Post article from 1956 reported the bemusement of some University of Virginia students over a contest run by William F. Buckley’s young National Review, which offered a hundred dollars to students willing to expose liberal “classroom indoctrination” from their professors. Five years earlier, Buckley’s first book, “God and Man at Yale,” had tackled the liberal biases purportedly imposed at that school, from which he graduated in 1950. According to the article, one U.V.A. professor responded with “a contest of his own, offering $5 for a documented essay on who Buckley is.”
Today, of course, conservative student activists venerate Buckley. One of the primary goals of CPAC is to connect young conservatives with opportunities to replicate his pathway to prominence on the right, as Kirk and many others have. At the booth for the Leadership Institute, which counts Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell among its alumni, affable members told attendees about the training and workshops on offer in public relations, public speaking, debate, and television. The Leadership Institute runs a student news Web site called Campus Reform, which, on a flyer, boasted of graduating journalists into conservative media and also outside of it, to places like Politico and CNN. “Expose Liberal Abuse, Change Your Campus, Start Your Career,” it read. Next to the literature, Campus Reform had installed a rudimentary television set, with a logoed backdrop, a camera, and a light stand, ready to illuminate America’s next young conservative pundits.