NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland—The most popular organization at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) is one most famous for filming its members wearing diapers on a college campus.
Turning Point USA’s Thursday-night bash was the most sought-after party at CPAC, the annual conference of right-leaning college students, presidential aspirants, overly passionate political junkies, and attention-starved conservative media stars.
White House communications director Bill Shine, a former Fox News executive, mingled with guests in the party’s VIP section, while serial plagiarist Benny Johnson—now TPUSA’s chief creative officer after leaving The Daily Caller in February—warmed up the crowd. On the sidelines, conspiracy theorist Jacob Wohl chatted with college students drinking a tequila cocktail called “Mexico Will Pay for It.”
The party also served as a celebration of the group and its founder Charlie Kirk, the baby-faced conservative pundit whose popularity is on full display this week at CPAC.
Among the high-profile attendees was lawmaker Rep. Dan Crenshaw (R-TX), who rose to fame for his beef and eventual reconciliation with a Saturday Night Live cast member, and members of President Trump’s innermost circle.
Former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle spoke briefly at the TPUSA party, saying the executive director of the college conservative group “always brings the house down.”
Her boyfriend Donald Trump Jr. toasted Kirk, too, recalling how he initially dismissed him, but eventually came to love him for “kicking some ass for the youth of America.”
“This didn’t exist a few years ago. Charlie, thank you for doing that man,” the president’s son said. “Thank you for making me party, and making people see what this party is all about.”
Each year, the conservative conference buzzes with the energy—and the tension—set off by combining the right’s various factions and superstars. And each year, the ethos of the conservative movement is typically reflected by the group holding court the most.
For example, Breitbart News—now seemingly a non-entity compared to TPUSA—blew out its budget in 2017 for a post-CPAC party on a boat, the same year white nationalist Richard Spencer was kicked out of the conference. And while many attendees found 2018’s CPAC conference to be sleepier than past years, that conference was when conservative media stars like Dr. Sebastian Gorka, freshly ushered in by the Trump era, were swarmed by supporters seeking selfies.
This year, TPUSA took its turn in the bizarre CPAC spotlight.
“For years it’s been a revolving door of who is bubbling to the top of the conservative movement,” BlazeTV host Eric Bolling told The Daily Beast.
“A couple years ago, Ben Shapiro was that guy. It feels it’s moved to TPUSA,” he observed.
The group has an outsized presence at the 2019 conference. According to a Turning Point spokesman, at least 30 staffers and more than 100 “student ambassadors” have flocked to the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center to represent TPUSA.
The group’s evening bash featured a mechanical bull ride, a cardboard cut-out of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY)—the conservative movement’s newest villain—with “pendeja,” Spanish for moron, scrawled on her face, and prominently placed TV screens featuring pro-Trump memes on loop.
CPAC attendees gave Kirk two standing ovations for his Thursday afternoon speech, which he used to position Turning Point USA as the right’s first line of defense against insurgent leftists like Ocasio-Cortez.
“For years, I have warned the conservative base that there is going to be a socialist under the age of 35 who’s going to come to Congress,” Kirk, who is 25 years old, said.
Speaking earlier in the day, the pro-Trump CEO of the pillow company My Pillow dubbed Kirk and the group’s communications director Candace Owens “two of the most amazing speakers I’ve ever met.” During her speech, Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel also praised TPUSA leadership.
“People like Candace Owens, like Charlie Kirk, we need more leaders like that,” the powerful Republican Party official declared.
At TPUSA’s exhibit booth, a crowd of Kirk fans waited for the chance at free stickers and buttons. One of the group’s signs mocked the “Coexist” bumper sticker—a plea for peaceful relationships between all religions— by replacing the religious symbols with guns and bullets.
Nearby, Turning Point fans posed with a life-size cut-out of Kirk dressed in his signature outfit: A navy suit and sneakers.
Grant Newcome, a student at Maryland’s Salisbury University, walked away from the booth excited about his new TPUSA “Socialism Sucks” button. Newcome said Kirk and the organization have reached out to millennials on campus, while other conservative groups have failed to reach young people.
“I just love the way he goes on campuses and challenges the academics to their faces,” Newcome said.
Even Turning Point’s critics have noticed the group’s outsized presence at CPAC.
Kevin Martin, a young conservative activist who has organized students and anti-Turning Point dissidents, and created a rival group, remarked that TPUSA stepped up its CPAC operation “big time.” Kirk walked right past him, trailed by students pleading for selfies.
And while the group has been warmly embraced at CPAC, TPUSA faces increasing flak from the outside, and from within its own ranks.
Owens—who roamed the halls Thursday surrounded by an entourage, a bodyguard, and selfie-seeking fans—shot to fame last year after Kanye West tweeted positively about her. But she alienated the rapper by falsely claiming that he had designed the logo for “Blexit,” her group devoted to convincing African-Americans to vote Republican.
After Owens blundered through a bizarre statement about Adolf Hitler in December, making international headlines, several Turning Point campus chapters called on her to resign as the national organization’s communications director.
Turning Point has also been plagued by leaked internal chats and text messages that show its members making racist remarks—often making its members sound more like the alt-right than a mainstream conservative group. In one set of leaked chats, members joked about Muslim refugees raping people, and discussed dressing up as ICE agents to “aggressively grapple Latinas and deport them.”
In a leaked text exchange, TPUSA’s former national field director Crystal Clanton remarked: “I hate all black people. Like fuck them all... I hate blacks. End of story.”
But none of that mattered Thursday night.
Sporting an oversized red MAGA T-shirt, Kirk led the bar in chants of “USA” and “build the wall,” while exhilarated, blazer-clad fanbros swarmed to take pictures and videos of him.
At one point, Kirk took the stage to thank attendees and proudly survey his new kingdom.
“This is MAGA country,” he shouted.