Narrative and Analysis from a Socialist’s Infiltration of TPUSA’s 2017 Student Action Summit
Content Warning: Sexual assault and white supremacist rhetoric are briefly discussed in this piece.
It started as a lark. At the tail end of this past November, a fellow DSA-LA member posted a link to the attendee application for Turning Point USA’s 3rd Annual Student Action Summit. The convention for the college conservative non-profit offered “first-class activism and leadership training” and boasted a star-studded roster of right-wing ghouls and careerists as guest speakers.
“ I’d love to see YDSA members crash TPUSA’s Hitler Youth event, get high, and do some Fear and Loathing-style reporting.” my comrade joked. I applied, with a fake bio touting myself as a “classical Liberal and constitutional Conservative”, and lamenting that my alma mater didn’t have an official TPUSA chapter. A few hours after submitting, I found out that my former university actually did have a chapter, but the next day, I saw my application was approved. I was going to West Palm Beach.
The quick approval of my application revealed a lack of vetting on TPUSA’s end, but for the sake of prudence, I confirmed under a fake name, and touched base with the Palm Beach DSA organizing committee to make sure I had allies in the area in case anything went south. There was some surreptitious fundraising for travel, hampered by the short time frame and the need for operational security. My comrades in LA expressed some concerns, some skepticism, but overall were supportive of the idea; pitched not as a stunt to disrupt the convention, but as opposition research for our oganizers. The trip of course, wasn’t officially sponsored or sanctioned by any DSA chapter, officer, or body.
In the intervening weeks, I binged on PragerU videos and Ben Shapiro’s obnoxious podcast to help “get into character”, and on the night of December 18th, I caught my redeye to Palm Beach. I arrived in the early afternoon on the 19th to a crowded hotel lobby, smiling and exchanging pleasantries with kids in MAGA hats. Flashing my credit card was all it took to get into my alias’ comped hotel room, and simply stating my fake name got me my attendee packet and lanyard. While in line for entry, I saw Dennis Prager slumping by, encircled by his entourage of aides and assistants.
The opening session was lead by guest of honor Donald Trump Jr., and TPUSA founder and Executive Director Charlie Kirk. Kirk is the 24-year-old son of a Trump Tower project manager, with a fleshy, shapeless face and oversized gums. Not long into his opening “JUICE-by”, Kirk began playing the hits.
“A couple ground rules” Kirk began, “There will be no Safe Spaces, no Trigger Warnings — !” before being drowned out by cheers and applause. He plowed on, touting the convention as a message to “the media, colleges, and the elites that our generation will not embrace Socialism”, and lauding Trump’s children. Trump Jr. took the stage and credited Kirk, who joined the Trump campaign team barely two months before the general election, for the novel idea to campaign in Michigan. Throughout Trump Jr.’s half-hour, which was intermittently interrupted by his young children crying, the attendees uniformly applauded his list of Trump presidency highlights; the move of the US’s Israeli embassy to Jerusalem, promising that Trump’s border wall will indeed be built, and “Giving law enforcement and the military the respect they deserve”, to which the first to stand and applaud was a diminutive, floppy-armed African American boy. There were “Hard Day’s Night”-esque shrill screams at the name-dropping of Ben Shapiro, boos and hisses at the mention of CNN, and tepid chants of “Lock her up”. Trump Jr. parroted a favorite line of Charlie Kirk’s: “Colleges are creating a world where everyone looks differently, but thinks exactly the same.” Cheers. Applause.
Jet lag sapped the last of my energy, and I dipped out of the convention hall to find a meal and get some sleep, missing the next two uninterrupted hours of Dennis Prager, Dinesh D’Souza, and Ben Shapiro’s talks.
My assigned roommate came to the hotel. He was a soft-spoken North Alabama student going back to school after a stint in the Marines.
“So, you think Trump Jr.’s gonna be running for office?” I asked him.
“Dude, you took the words right out of my mouth!” he gleamed.
The 20th was the first full day of the convention, kicked off by Brian Kilmeade and Joe Walsh. Walsh sprinted out calling on the crowd to “Stand up! Don’t you dare sit down, we’ve got a country to get back!” In the lull between the general sessions and the breakouts, I got a photo with Walsh doing a white man’s approximation of a B-boy squat.
In the bathroom, I overheard two kids commiserating; “Hillary’s a good folk enemy,” one said, “She’s fun to hate, but we should move on to actual policy.”
The first batch of “Breakout Sessions” came that afternoon. I had began my preparatory diet of right-wing videos and podcasts expecting that I’d have to engage in active, round-table discussions at these sessions like I experienced at DSA’s national convention this past August. But TPUSA’s breakouts took no such approach. These were lectures, pure and simple, with light Q&A’s at their tail end.
“How to Build a Viral Image” began with Joshua Feuerstein, the Arizona pastor who became a social media sensation through selfie footage of him hollering in his car about Starbucks holiday cups while wearing a backwards red MLB cap, affecting the visage of a strung-out Fred Durst. He cited his “Dear Mr. Atheist, Allow me to destroy evolution in 3 minutes!” video as a case study in “opposition marketing”. In the algorithmic world of social media, all attention is ripe for monetization, and Feuerstein’s videos gain most of their traction from stoking the outrage and riding the “your friend commented on” trains of liberals trying to debunk his ramblings.
Immediately after came Bill Whittle, a former TV editor and now right-wing blogger with a bio so short on notables he has to pad it by mentioning his amateur aviation hobby. His website is devoted mostly to his various microbudget film projects, eternally searching for a distribution deal like the proverbial Wandering Jew. His main shtick is setting a timer and showing how fast he can have a wordy retort to a common liberal charge against the right. True to this form, his “Socialism is for Suckers” seminar consisted of ten minutes of concern-trolling about Venezuela, saying that Castro was secretly a near-billionaire, and chiding Bernie Sanders for having three houses. The other thirty-five minutes of his slot were devoted to asking attendees to ask him questions “Like a liberal” and watch him retort in less than a minute like he was in an episode of The West Wing penned by current-day Mamet instead of Bush-era Sorkin.
“What about the socialism of countries like Sweden?” one kid asked. “Sweden”, Whittle posited, “Is now the rape capital of the world.” There it is. For the uninitiated, the canard of Sweden’s “sexual assault epidemic” comes from a white supremacist distortion of the facts. Sweden leads developed western countries in rape reporting, but rhetorical gymnastics turn this into a charge that Sweden’s lax, leftist immigration policies have allowed a horde of Muslim migrants to capture their gentle womenfolk. Same as it ever was, the mainstream right exists to launder, professionalize, and render respectable the bugaboos of the reactionary paranoiac. The racist’s mythology of dark-skinned savages gets paired with distorted and misconstrued stats, and the suit-and-tie right wing gets to ask: “How can it be racist, if it’s factually true?” reinforced in Charles Murray-apologist Ben Shapiro’s favorite catchphrase: “Facts don’t care about your feelings”.
I missed the talk by James O’Keefe, of Project Veritas fame. Jane Mayer, writing for the New Yorker tweeted after his seminar on his designs to get campus conservatives spying on their leftist and liberal schoolmates. The tactic emulates right-wing sting operations such as the infamous 2015 videos wherein a purported Planned Parenthood rep discusses the sale of “baby parts”. In November of 2015, a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood clinic was attacked at gunpoint by Robert Lewis Dear Jr. After three deaths and nine injuries, he was taken into custody, during which he muttered “no more baby parts” to the arresting officers.
At about 5:30pm, I returned to my hotel room to offload the photos and video I had collected for the day. Across the hall, I overheard yelling from the facing hotel room. One girl charges her roommate with “Making lies that I’m embarrassing you”. A third accuses one of them with “being a professional victim”, a charge popularized in 2014 by anti-feminists looking to slander the recipients of online abuse during the “Gamergate” debacle.
The summit’s flagship banquet was slated for that evening. A small contingent of local anarchists, Women’s March-affiliated liberals, and a few members from the Palm Beach DSA organizing committee came to protest outside the convention center. “Libs are gunna outnumber the radicals so the consensus was to just blend in.” a PBDSA comrade texted to me, “The vote to even attend was contentious”. Later on, a local DSA member said that the protest out front “felt like a trap”. Their demonstration was quickly and vastly outnumbered by TPUSA attendees. They took photos and videos, hurled nerdy attempts at verbal abuse, and tried to bait the protestors into some kind of debate. At some point, a protestor and a TPUSA attendee had some sort of dialogue, wherein the TPUSA kid dismissed their connection to the alt-right. “They’re small and nobody likes them”. A Kekistan flag was briefly unfurled over the protestors by a Summit attendee.
While I wrapped up uploading my footage and prepped to leave my hotel room, a DSA comrade told me that two people had been struck by a car, “real bad”. Fears of a second Charlottesville sped me out the door. I arrived to the front of the convention center. The protestors had been divided into separate clusters by the Turning Point crowd. One kid held his phone and read off a protestor’s banner.
“‘Make Racists Afraid Again…’” he read to his camera, “So, your message is fear?” he said with mock-skepticism that may as well been paired with the “Thinking Face” emoji.
Two separate Turning Point kids attempted to “infiltrate” the protest. One, a tall lanky boy sporting a red tank-top and a bag branded with FEE, claimed that he had an ‘H’ for Hillary shaved into his chest hair. FEE is a libertarian think tank, and one of the corporate sponsors of TPUSA’s summit. Another was a bleach-blonde girl claiming that her pronouns were “Ze, zir”, and rambled something about misgendering being cruel because it “puts people in a box.” The protestors ignored these “infiltrators” or looked on them with incredulity. They both called their infiltration successful on Snapchat and Instagram.
The protestors left, and the TPUSA kids collected and began chanting “USA! USA!” to themselves. I found a place to change out of my attendee costume, and met with two of the local DSA members and their co-protestors at a local pizza joint. They had been shafted by the mostly-liberal contingent of their demonstration, who were easy prey for the TPUSA kids to bait into pointless “debates”, breaking up and atomizing their contingent and sapping them of the opportunity to display a mass, united front. One of the DSA’ers told me of problems at previous demonstrations; while the liberals have been a good source of numbers, they have been difficult to pull into direct action; a thousand-plus-person march stayed on the sidewalk rather than enter an easily-closable street. They showed me the photo of one of their comrades, the boyfriend of a local Communist, who had also successfully applied and infiltrated the convention.
Gossip around the convention hall the next day would report that the two hit in the car crash were TPUSA attendees, struck by a random accident rather than a Charlottesville-style murder attempt, crossing in a main thoroughfare of West Palm Beach’s downtown district where the traffic is fast and heavy, and the walk signals are mistimed and unreliable.
I returned to my hotel room, somewhat nervous that I’d be recognized by the Turning Point-ers, devising contingency plans in case I was met with my roommate asking why a photo of me with the protesting leftists was spreading around the SAS2017 hashtag. Instead, I came back to see my roommate asleep in his bed, with Fox News playing on the room’s TV.
On the 21st, I arrived at the convention center in time for the talk by Sebastian Gorka. His melodramatic cadence and Bond-villain Received Pronunciation accent earn his inane tautology a lot of credence on the right wing, while making him a memetic figure of note on the radical left.
“This man hates Political Correctness” he declared regarding Trump. “This man understands we are at war. This man wants us to win.”
Gorka continued, calling Steve Bannon “The sharpest strategic mind in America today”, and characterizing liberals as having “been brainwashed for forty years.”
“But”, Gorka said, holding up his fingers in a tight, pincer formation, “the brain-washing is this deep. It’s incredibly shallow.” As had been a recurring theme at the Summit, Gorka rallied the attendees to win the day by dragging their liberal schoolmates into pointless, exhausting debates.
I took a photo with Gorka after his talk, and took the time between his slot and the breakouts to grab food and peruse the convention hall. The exhibitor booths were mostly abandoned, and I saw Larry Schweikert, author of the Howard Zinn-countering “A Patriot’s History of the United States” looking lost, but standing near a table stacked with copies of his phonebook-sized tome. I strolled around the partition between Exhibit Hall B and Exhibit Hall A, and saw that a black fabric wall had been propped up to obscure the third of the hall’s chairs that were left empty.
A Venezuelan kid entered the Q&A line during Charlie Kirk’s half-hour with Greg Gutfeld. He voiced his appreciation for Gutfeld and Kirk, saying that in his flight from Venezuela, he had to leave “my country, my family, my family businesses…” Businesses. Plural. Gutfeld answered a question about the resurgent popularity of Socialism in America with “This is the consequence of a great country; it allows people the leisure time to come up with really bad ideas.” Almost fifty years after the death of the Hippies, the right-wing answer to leftism is still aimed squarely at them.
I grabbed a table in Hall B and began eating an overpriced chicken wrap. A pair of younger attendees sidled up to my table, one saying to the other “I know this is his event, but I’m getting my fill of Charlie Kirk”. They chatted about several speakers, among them Anthony Scaramucci, cancelling on their speaking engagements last-minute, leaving Kirk to fill time. The updated agenda on the convention’s website listed six different slots of “Speaker TBA”.
We shared where we were from. My “Los Angeles” sighed dismissively gained their respect. “You’re in the belly of the beast”, one sympathized. One asked, regarding the rich Venezuelan kid’s story, “How can anyone still defend Socialism?” I tried to paraphrase a left-wing argument from a right-wing voice.
“They’d probably say: ‘Hey, before the Chavez regime, you had multiple businesses, you were wealthy, but what about all your workers who were starving?’” They nodded along, one of them mentioned something about reading the subreddit “r/LateStageCapitalism”.
I made “Suing Your School 101” my final breakout session. There, a rep from the “Alliance Defending Freedom”, listed by the SPLC as an anti-gay hate group, laid out the tactics by which students can wave threats of lawsuits to break through their schools’ attempts to curtail contentious organizing and demonstrating by right-wing actors. The ADF speaker, amid Powerpoint slides set to the sampled hook from DJ Khaled’s “All I Do is Win”, offered the ADF’s pro bono legal services to the crowd, and brought up the kids at the center of some of their star cases, including a girl who fought against a school putting up disclaimer and trigger warning signs on her anti-abortion table.
That afternoon, Jane Mayer’s New Yorker piece on TPUSA went live. It details the internal discrimination problems, campaign finance violations, dark money, and sinister agenda to not just secure a place for conservative speech on campus, but to actively sabotage liberal and leftist campus organizing. Her piece is comprehensive, taking direct information from disillusioned former Turning Point staffers, as well as internal brochures meant for high-end donors. It represents the deeper, internal findings that were far beyond the reach and purview of my trip, and it’s essential reading for those concerned with TPUSA’s growth and activity. Link here. With the release of Mayer’s piece, I considered it unnecessary for me to sit through any more of the convention’s boilerplate reactionary proselytizing.
I returned to the hotel, where my roommate voiced his excitement to go see Tomi Lahren speak. Her timeslot would be characterized by liberal use of the anti-liberal neologism “snowflake”. I packed my bags, taking up my DSA comrades’ invitation to a Winter Solstice party at one of the local anarchist houses, and a ride to the airport the following morning. Before I left, I dropped a few scraps of paper in the convention center detailing “Solidarity Forever” lyrics and scratched-on enclosed A’s and HamSick seals. I made sure to target the meeting rooms that were inaccessible to anybody without an attendee lanyard. Best to keep them humble.
I attended Turning Point USA’s Student Action Summit curious to find what the youth wing of the American conservative movement’s core political projects were. I wondered if there were campus anti-bathroom bills or networks to report undocumented students in the works. In that prefiguring, I made the mistake of thinking like an organizer. I thought like somebody who has to do politics. TPUSA are in no such position.
In reporting to my comrades back home, I paraphrased a Christopher Walken line from the mob movie King of New York: “You guys got fat while everybody starved on the street.”
While the contemporary mainstream right loves to adopt the trappings and posturing of an aggrieved class, their core political projects and organizational methods betray them having the laziness and complacency of people who have always been welcome in the window of acceptable discourse. TPUSA’s Student Action Summit bore exceptionally little similarity to a political strategizing convention, but passed well as a Republican Comic-Con. Rather than being a place for the attending students to activate as political operatives in their own right, they served as both consumer and product; there to be marketed to, and to be marketed themselves in-turn. As always, TPUSA’s goals are simply to cultivate and maintain a stock of young bodies to run through their nepotism mill; to keep a generation of children of privilege populating the halls of power in media and government, and maintaining the security and influence of reactionary ideology in American politics.
Meanwhile, they serve to launder and professionalize the ideas and talking points of the less-respectable corners of the far-right. While the rank-and-file of TPUSA swear up and down, and truly do believe that there is a vast gulf of difference between them and the open white nationalists, their policy proposals, their values, and their rhetoric are all Diet Coke versions of the neo-Nazis’; Less flavor, but hardly any better for your health.
While the Obama years, and the growing popular interest in anti-oppression theory have made conservative politics even more uncool among young people, the right still has more than ample access to the mass media and institutions of political power. Their obsession with the culture war is facile and feeble, and amounts to little more than a branding exercise. Ten years ago, Proposition 8 loomed over my home state. Today, conservatives are fighting lawsuits over their right to not bake cakes for gay weddings. They can’t even prevent the weddings anymore.
In the culture war, the right has done nothing but concede territory. They fall back into petty, vindictive subterfuge as they lose each new skirmish and a new oppressed minority gains a higher foothold in their climb to complete enfranchisement. And with the next skirmish, the right will triangulate again. Where they lost on “Marriage is between a man and a woman”, they shifted to a “Freedom of Association” fight over gay wedding cakes. Today, they bandy about “there are only two genders!” as a rallying cry. Tomorrow, there will no doubt be a genderfluid opportunist serving as a corollary to last year’s Milo Yiannopolous.
This failure of the mainstream right to actually win any of these culture war proxy battles is the thundering engine of the Alt-Right’s rage. And unless the Alt-Right gets the reckoning they demand, (the one they pretend is more genteel and sensible than the outright genocide they secretly salivate for) that is the only way these battles will ever end. Freed genies don’t go back into their bottles; Nonbinary kids aren’t going to climb back into the closet. And on the Alt-Right front? Well, this past week saw Richard Spencer trying to stir the pot between defenders of Ta-Nehisi Coates and supporters of Cornel West, either because he’s so honestly deluded that he will find some common cause with the growing Left, or because he’s too afraid of receiving a Black Bloc fist to his face to go outside anymore, and needs to desperately reach out for some degree of relevance from whatever hole he’s crawled into.
While I don’t see how the mission of us on the resurgent Left has changed at all, I do think TPUSA’s convention presents a reification of our priorities.
- We must directly engage and organize the working class, and rebuild class-consciousness. Memes shared among the hip, college-educated, middle-class youth can be good and effective propaganda, but their reach and their impact is limited. The Socialist movement must be reunited with the Labor movement, and we must help our fellow proletarians form the language necessary to express their position as workers in an anti-worker regime.
- We must reunite the analyses of economic oppression, and identity-based oppression. The liberal application of identity politics has been influential in popularizing anti-oppression analysis, but because of liberalism’s refusal to combat capitalism, or to even deny capitalism as a prima facie given, they will never have an effective answer or offense against white supremacy, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, et al. Meanwhile, the right is more than happy to beat liberals at their own superficial game of “representation”; the TPUSA crowd had a decent smattering of PoC and Jewish attendees, and it is easily conceivable that there were gay conservatives among them, too. Without material analysis, cynical tokenism easily passes for corrective representation.
The false dichotomy between a liberal Identity Politic and a materialist Class-Consciousness as represented by the fight between Clinton-backing liberals and Sanders supporters in 2016 must be summarily collapsed, and their analyses synthesized. This is a tag-team fight. If we, as the opposition to reactionary politics fail to reunite these analytic tendencies, we will be eternally trying to pin one opponent, leaving our backs open to its partner.
- We must demonstrate and display the vast difference between liberals and actual Leftists. The American working class can smell the hypocrisy of the mainstream neoliberal, who evangelizes anti-oppression and drops occasional hints of pro-worker sympathies, but whose policy proposals always steer back to promoting the interests of the economic elite. Disillusionment with liberalism makes apolitical Americans easy prey for the right’s adoption of shallow populism. Our work is on the ground, among the people, strengthening their communities, building networks of mutual aid, and educating as we go. It is there that we will strengthen our cause and gain the yet-to-be-radicalized to our side.
- We must be open and transparent about our politics. As the Cold War and its decades of anti-communist propaganda fade into obscurity, we have the opportunity to expose our yet-to-be-radicalized friends and neighbors to the Socialist values of equality and radical democracy. The right has atrophied in their ability to counter Socialist policies, relying on aging, cobwebbed fears of totalitarian regimes and “Big Government”. We have the opportunity to reveal that the capitalist “free market” project is simply Big Government of, and for the bourgeoisie. We can teach Socialist ethics not as an adulation of the State, but a demand for a State that is finally, fully and truly controlled by the people, or else dissolved for an alternative, popular organizational structure.
- We must support and defend our younger comrades’ ability to organize and assemble on their school campuses. The right has long considered the university to be a site of leftist indoctrination. They may be inaccurate, but they are certainly hell-bent on bringing about the inverse reality; turning the university into a stronghold of capitalist and reactionary hegemony. Jane Mayer’s piece on TPUSA’s internals reveals that in the center of the non-profit’s agenda is a five-point plan that ends with their underlings, once elected to student government associations, destroying anti-hate speech policies and suppressing activism and organizing counter to their ideological bent; including a push to completely ban any and all Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions activity. This is a textbook case study of Karl Popper’s “Paradox of Tolerance” if there ever was one. Where the right starts fights and lawyers up, we will have to respond in kind. And wherever TPUSA collects, we will have to be there, exposing the suppressive end goals behind their Free Speech posturing.
My thoughts are still fresh and forming from my trip, and I expect them to change and refine upon further reflection and discussion. I hope that this piece proves useful to my comrades and organizers from across every corner of the resurgent American Left. I want to thank the various members of DSA Los Angeles and Palm Beach who made this trip possible, and the unaffiliated comrades who offered support, aid and comfort before and during this excursion. For the sake of their security and privacy, I will withhold their names unless otherwise authorized.
During my final evening in Palm Beach, after abandoning the convention for the anarchists’ Solstice party, I found myself struck by a sense of difficult-to-articulate hope, and as profoundly cliched as it is, I recalled a passage of Marx from The Civil War in France, wherein he contrasts the bourgeois exiles amassed in Versailles, and the revolutionary populace of the Paris Commune.
There it was, this Assembly, the representative of everything dead in France, propped up to the semblance of life by nothing but the swords of the generals of Louis Bonaparte.
Paris all truth,
Versailles all lie; and that lie vented through the mouth of Thiers.
Solidarity forever. Thank you.