Entering the Marriott Marquis’s main salon Monday, I encountered the unison screaming of almost 500 youths. You know that clip of a crowd of eight-year-olds screeching along to “Old Town Road” at a basketball game? Imagine that, but in a hotel conference room with low ceilings.
Conservative icon Graham Allen was getting the Turning Point USA Teen Summit crowd revved up and ready to take back America. As he asked the “ladies” and “dudes” of the crowd to identify themselves with respective shrieking and hollering, I realized just how young they all sounded. And, looking around, I realized how young they all were. Being a relative youth myself, I thought I would have had at least a slight chance to pass for a very well-developed high school senior, but after looking over the four gangly boys to my right who looked like they could be snapped in half by a firm handshake, I knew there was no way I was going to blend in.
Not to mention the fact that I had clearly missed the dress memo. There seemed to be two options for girls; those who wanted something more comfortable than “my first business casual” or a bright blouse with white jeans and wedges opted for some kind of American paraphernalia, with many sporting T-shirts reading “Don’t Hate U.S. Cause You Ain’t U.S.” or “Big Goverment Sux.”
— Brad Fox?? (@BradIsAFox) July 21, 2019
In true DC style, the boys gravitated toward suits or—shudder—the oft-memed gingham shirt and khakis ensemble. They could have passed for Hillterns were it not for the fact that they tended to clock in at around five feet tall and 102 pounds. For all present, the finishing touch to any outfit was a MAGA hat, either in classic red or a variety of other colors.
As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Turning Point USA can’t have any political affiliation and doesn’t explicitly endorse the Republican party. What it does endorse are conservative values of free markets, fiscal responsibility, and limited government. The organization has been described as “the sexier version of College Republicans” by its members and tries to help conservative teens and young adults spread their values on their high school and college campuses. The group’s “Teen Student Action Summit” is an annual event that brings together conservative teens—mostly in high school—from across the country to get them excited and energized about spreading conservative values to their peers at home.
The speakers for the first day included TPUSA founder Charlie Kirk, Congressman Matt Gaetz, Allen, presidential aide Mercedes Schlapp, Fox host Greg Gutfeld, and US Senator Mike Lee of Utah. I had expected Schlapp and Lee to drive the most engagement. I was dead wrong. Where Allen and Gutfeld were spontaneous and charismatic, Schlapp and Lee were orderly and professional; you could practically smell the Washington on them.
That wasn’t really what these kids were interested in. Why listen to someone’s stump speech when you could be entertained? Lee attempted to connect with the crowd by informing them that his office serves “Jello every day at 3:30,”, but his efforts paled in comparison to Kirk and Gutfeld chatting about how, as in their view, Bernie Sanders used to write violent erotica.
Gutfeld, a former editor-in-chief of Men’s Health who’s known for his politically incorrect comedy, also riffed on Tucker Carlson, saying, “Can you imagine what it’s like being Tucker’s booker? It’s like trying to convince a tree to jump into a woodchipper.”
But among all the jokes there were some more serious jabs about the media “wanting there to be more hatred than there actually is” and about the danger of AOC and “The Squad.” In a rather surreal moment, some crowd members booed the mention of Oprah, prompting Gutfeld to differentiate between “old, ‘you get a car’ Oprah and new Oprah” in the same way some people differentiate the merits and musical stylings of old and new Kanye.
In a moment of inclusion, Allen grew serious when answering a teen’s question about whether all LGBTQ rights should be respected, saying that there needed to be a separation between church and state and that all Americans, regardless of sexual orientation, should have the same rights. Immigrants who came to the US illegally, on the other hand, Allen argued, were not Americans and therefore didn’t deserve full rights, and encouraged a young man to “stand up and fight for our unborn” after he described abortion as an “evil atrocity” backed by shouts of “murder” from the crowd.
After listening to speakers for nearly four hours, many of the attendees seemed to get antsy listening to Lee pontificate about Thomas Paine and the intricacies of federalism and hustled out to an ice cream social on the Mezzanine Level. In the room, many of the teens took what looked like their first stabs at networking, but some just joked around with their new friends. One girl turned to her cohort in a state of shock, whispering, “Oh my god, I totally left my wallet downstairs.” She then announced a little too loudly, “There’s like 300 dollars in there,” sending the girls into a fit of giggles.
Jack Rafferty, a tall kid in a suit and a MAGA hat, was regaling some very interested girls with his opinions on how Trump was breaking ground in the North Korean peninsula. The rising college junior from Buffalo said he was frustrated with the “social justice warriors” like Megan Rapinoe “siding with the liberal way of looking at things.” He said he was sometimes attacked on social media by his liberal friends.
Other teens, too, said being open about their conservative beliefs and support of Trump exposed them to vitriol. Sammy Balyasny, an 18-year-old from Pittsburgh, said he was harassed on the street one day for wearing a MAGA hat. When he was unable to de-escalate the situation, he called 911. Balyasny said the police that arrived complimented him on his hat, and one even showed him a picture on his phone of a banner in his office with President Trump with the background of an American flag, holding a gun.
Balyasny also shared that he had heard on MSNBC that the Supreme Court was planning to remove presidential term limits to make it “like in China, where you can be president forever.” He noted it “probably wasn’t true, since it’s MSNBC” (in fact it is not true; Balyasny was perhaps referring to a story about presidential hopeful Tom Steyer‘s proposal about Congressional term limits). I asked him if he would like Trump to serve for life. “I would say yes,” he replied, smiling. “The way that America is winning currently, my answer is yes.”