When a young man walked onto Kent State University’s campus wearing a diaper on Oct. 18 last year, some might have imagined he lost a bet and was paying the price.
In reality, it was a stunt promoted by TPUSA — Turning Point USA, a nonprofit college conservative organization. Members of the organization wearing diapers set up a “safe space” with toys and even a baby gate at Kent State to mock progressive students’ demands for safe spaces.
It backfired. The public mocked TPUSA instead of the “liberal snowflakes” they had aimed to satirize.
This event sums up what TPUSA and its founder, Charlie Kirk, stand for: attempting to trigger the left, no matter the cost.
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Kirk started TPUSA in 2012 with the mission to “educate students about true free market values.” The group advertised itself as similar to other notable college conservative organizations such as the Leadership Institute and YAF, Young America’s Foundation. TPUSA was going to groom the next generation of great conservative leaders.
Yet over time it became clear that TPUSA was more interested in “owning the libs” than persuading college students to support free markets and individual rights. A leaked memo from YAF’s vice president and general counsel Kimberly Begg aired Kirk’s dirty laundry. It accuses Kirk of focusing primarily “on building his own brand, not strengthening the conservative movement.”
It’s easy to see why YAF would accuse Kirk of only being interested in celebrity status. After all, both Kirk and TPUSA spokesperson Candace Owens canceled a speaking event for students at Virginia Tech and Liberty University at the last minute to hang out with Kanye West.
After the diaper stunt backfired, higher-ups in TPUSA allegedly threw Kaitlin Bennett, the former president of Kent State’s chapter, under the bus to protect Kirk’s image. Bennett resigned, but not before penning a scathing resignation letter claiming TPUSA leadership lied about not endorsing the event.
Other accusations include Kirk overstating his organization’s impact and boosting TPUSA’s numbers with white supremacists. Several TPUSA members have been caught making racist or homophobic comments, as documented by The Huffington Post.
“I HATE BLACK PEOPLE,” former TPUSA national field director Crystal Canton once texted a fellow employee. She was replaced with Shialee Grooman, who also posted racist and homophobic tweets before quitting Twitter.
Instead of collaborating with other student conservative organizations, TPUSA has alienated its conservative siblings, either by poaching their members or taking credit for their events, as Begg claims in her memo. Now YAF is blacklisting TPUSA, and other conservative organizations may soon follow.
“The long-term damage TPUSA could inflict on conservative students and the conservative movement can no longer be ignored,” Begg wrote. “Although it runs counter to our instincts to advise students against becoming involved with other organizations, students deserved to be warned about TPUSA.”
Kirk could have made a difference on college campuses across the country where conservatism is often not well represented or sometimes viewed as a threat.
Pundit Megan McArdle has argued that colleges have created an image of hostility to conservatism: “It started with students pressing for speakers to be disinvited from graduation speeches — sometimes liberals, but often conservatives. Then angry minorities were allowed to shut down conservative speeches with increasingly raucous protests that eventually turned to violence.”
With this sort of atmosphere, it’s no wonder some conservative students have flocked to provocative figures such as Kirk. TPUSA offered an opportunity to fight back against a liberal majority, but in a way that poisons the movement it supposedly represents. Defending freedom of speech is made harder when those who are championing it constantly espouse racism and homophobia.
TPUSA doesn’t have to represent the future of college conservatism. Substantive political discussions go a lot further in changing minds than juvenile stunts. If college campuses are hostile to anything right-of-center, and evidence suggests they are, TPUSA is only adding fuel to the fire by promoting trollish behavior.
Lindsay Marchello is an associate editor with The Carolina Journal. Follow her on Twitter at @LynnMarch007