News & Politics

The Mission: Make Conservatism Cool. The Strategy: A Mechanical Bull and a Cardboard Cutout of AOC.

A report from Turning Point USA's CPAC party.

A reveler at CPAC on Thursday. Photograph by Evy Mages

Fort Washington, Maryland, was the place to be Thursday if you wanted to rip a vape next to Jacob Wohl. Young MAGA-ites wafted their Juul clouds right next to the conservative provocateur’s face at Turning Point USA’s “Americafest” party at CPAC last night. 

TPUSA’s new chief creative officer, Benny Johnson*, billed Americafest as “the most patriotic party in history”: “Beer, bourbon and a mechanical bull. What more could you ask for?” he wrote in a pitch to potential guests. It worked–many conference veterans who I asked for guidance about CPAC after hours told me TUPSA’s party would be the hot ticket of the weekend. 

It took me 20 minutes of waiting in line before I could find out. TPUSA’s party had all the trappings of a typical youth Trump-land soiree:

Kitschy drink specials 

There was Brett Kavanaugh “I like beer” beer, the T-RUM-P Derangement Syndrome rum and coke, the Mexico Will Pay for It tequila sunrise, the Sarah Sanders bourbon on the rocks, The Wall (whiskey neat), the AOC juicebox, and the Russian Collusion vodka soda.

Bizarre photo opportunities

So many cardboard cutouts of celebrities—many of them not linked to the administration—like Michael Jackson, Tom Brady, Chris Pratt, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, Monica Lewinsky, Drake, Marilyn Monroe, Joe Rogan, Bob Ross, and even Benny Johnson. There was also a corner dedicated to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who apparently lives rent-free in the heads of many at the convention. The New York Congresswoman’s cutout portrayed her holding a fist to the sky. Next to the standup, a sign announced the “Socialism Bread Line,” and there were a dozen or so loaves of, ahem, white bread. 

Later, when I was on my way out, I circled back to find that some rascals had written “#AnnieBronx” and “pendeja” across fake-AOC’s face.

On the dance floor, a few attendees danced in a circle to a censored version of Kanye West’s “I Love It.” When the DJ shouted out lines like “where the single ladies at?” no one cheered in response. There wasn’t even a sad “woo hoo.” Others who paid $80 for a VIP pass got access to an “upstairs exclusive VIP-only section” (those of us downstairs had a clear view of it), a meet-and-greet with special guests (we general admission folks could simply approach them once they left the stage), and an open bar (a legitimate perk). 

As time dripped by, I thought one of those VIP guests might redeem the soirée. Perhaps we’d see TPUSA big shot Charlie Kirk, who ardent fans believe to be the great redeemer of young Trumpism, rally his mostly college-aged base into doing what college students do best: drink a lot and cause a scene. Then Donald Trump Jr. took the stage. And because 2016 is never quite over, Jr. and Kirk led the room in chants of “Build the Wall!” and “U-S-A!” He delivered a boilerplate speech about his love for his father, his love for America, and his love for diversity: “Honestly diversity, like the other side says we don’t have…they can’t say that anymore, because I’m seeing, feeling it.” (By my count, the male-female ratio was about 60:40, with white bros making up much of the crowd; there were maybe 20 percent people of color.) He then thanked the crowd’s determination to “fight the good fight” and added that he, too, had made a few sacrifices, including “traveling the country this fall with Kimberly,” referring to his girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle. The line didn’t exactly land. “No one’s buying it!” he said after a smattering of laughter.

In the time between Jr. cleared the stage and Representative Dan Crenshaw’s appearance, a few people rode the mechanical bull tucked away in the corner (yes, there was one of those, because #America, remember?) but most folks kept to themselves.

It didn’t help if you were wearing a badge that clearly marked you as a member of the media. I talked to one partygoer in the bathroom line, but she ran into the single stall before I could get her name or more than her opinion that this party seemed “fun enough.” By the time Crenshaw was on the mic 40 minutes later, he struck a theme that seemed to underpin this entire event: that the GOP wasn’t full of old, stuffy white men anymore.

“I don’t think there are any old and weird people in here. You guys are awesome,” Crenshaw said to half-full bar that was completely decked out with Americana. “We must fight the culture war better, and part of that is making conservatism cool again.” Soon afterward, Senator Ted Cruz stopped by to lead a “socialism sucks” chant, and then most of the party cleared out. 

I decided to use one of my drink tickets to down a Yuengling before I left. Two Billy McFarland look-alikes wearing shirts with their top two buttons undone (let’s call them Chad and Rory) talked over me to order their drinks. “I’m not a piece of shit,” Chad said. “That’s where you’re wrong,” Rory replied. I quickly chugged half of my beer before hustling to the CVS down the block to call an Uber.

As I waited for my driver to pick me up under red, white, and blue string lights that cast a patriotic reflection on the street below, I spotted a group of very gleeful—and possibly inebriated—young folk linking arms and singing Queen’s “We are the champions, my friends / And we’ll keep on fighting till the end.” Perhaps the young GOP has found its fight song after all.

* I worked with Johnson at Independent Journal Review.

Staff Writer

Brittany Shepherd covers the societal and cultural scene in political Washington. Before joining Washingtonian as a staff writer in 2018, Brittany was a White House Correspondent for Independent Journal Review. While she has lived in DC for a number of years now, she still yearns for the fresh Long Island bagels of home. Find her on Twitter, often prattling on about Frasier.