News & Politics

10 Things I Learned at Turning Point USA’s Teen Summit

Last week in DC, I found a place where people like Lindsey Graham, call Don Jr. "Daddy," and you're no one without a MAGA purse

All photos by Jane Recker.

Last week, I spent three days at Turning Point USA’s Teen Student Action Summit at the Marriott Marquis Hotel in downtown DC. TPUSA 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 gathers conservative teens—mostly in high school—from across the country in a different host city to get them excited and energized about spreading conservative values to their peers at home. Here are ten takeaways from my time at this year’s summit, which took place at the Marriott Marquis.

1. Politicians are rock stars to these kids

When I was in high school I could name the President, the Vice-President, and maybe a few members of Congress. Here, Senator Lindsey Graham was described as a “savage” for the way he flayed the left during Brett Kavanaugh‘s confirmation hearings, and has been elevated to a god-like status via a meme made by TPUSA’s chief creative officer, Benny Johnson. That doesn’t even touch the level of love these kids have for The Donald, though: TPUSA staffers had to corral kids back to their hotel rooms in the middle of the night after they tried to sleep on the conference hall floor to get good seats to see the President speak the following morning.

2. Trump thinks he could have gone pro

According to Trump’s intro video (which was joined by a doctored Presidential seal that read “45 is a puppet” at its conclusion), Trump in high school was “socially popular with men and women,” and “gravitated towards sports, or rather, winning at sports;” his coaches even thought he had what it took to become a pro baseball player.

3. Trump’s voice is easier to take in person

The President spoke for an hour and 20 minutes and exhibited a total lack of rhetorical structure. Though he spoke behind teleprompters, his speech felt off the cuff—500 soundbites sewn together to sound like a presidential address. But in person, his voice doesn’t sound like an out-of-tune trombone like it does on TV. Some other takeaways from his speech:

  • Apparently people in California who’ve immigrated illegally vote as many as three or four times by wearing different hats as disguises.
  • Trump believes he is the only President to shake the hand of every single Air Force Academy graduate after giving its commencement address. Many of the cadets, he claimed, thanked him for single-handedly saving America.
  • On the Mueller hearings: “I have an article where I have the right to do whatever I want as President, but I don’t even talk about that.”
  • If you haven’t had “fake news” screamed at you by a thousand irate MAGA-hat wearing teens under the direction of the leader of the free world, you’re missing out on a yuuuge experience.

4. The conference’s racial dynamics played out in unexpected ways

Though the overwhelming majority of conference-goers were white, there were more diverse attendees than I expected. On an elevator, I saw an interesting spat take place between two black men wearing red hats. One, in a Nats bucket hat, chided a man underneath a foam MAGA cap the size of a cooler for attending the conference, saying he was betraying other black individuals. “I’m not black,” foam-hat man replied. “I’m American, and so are you.” “You are black,” said bucket-hat man, “and you’re an Uncle Tom.” “Yeah, that’s right, I am an Uncle Tom, I’m proud to be an Uncle Tom,” foam-hat man said. “That guy doesn’t even know his own history. He’s a Democrat? That’s the party of slave-owners.”

5. Jared Kushner is somehow less impressive in real life

Jared Kushner sounds exactly like Michael Cera. I’m still processing that the pasty man-child I saw onstage was a father of three; Ivanka could destroy him with one cool flick of a perfectly manicured finger. He and TPUSA founder Charlie Kirk chatted about how the Trump administration had landed both the Olympics and the World Cup for the US, while President Obama had failed to secure either. Kushner also offhandedly mentioned, “Happy people are not usually on Twitter.”

6. Charlie Kirk knows how to get teenagers together

Kirk is crazy young; with his circular visage and large, close-set eyes, his appearance is reminiscent of a gingerbread man. At 25 years old, he’s grown an organization he founded right after graduating high school into a 501(c)(3) that brings in over $8 million a year and has implemented chapters in over a thousand campuses across the United States. Two years ago, the Teen Student Action Summit had just 150 attendees. This year, more than 1,500 came to DC from across the country.

7. But TPUSA’s control of the attendees was not complete

While staff members assured me that every minor at the conference had chaperones who conducted room checks and periodic in-person and text check-ins, there still seemed to be a loose grasp on logistics. In one instance, dozens of attendees began to flow out of the conference room, to the terror of one of the staffers outside. She frantically yelled that everyone under 18 needed to stay in the conference, but with no clear way to identify minors from non-minors save their inconspicuous nametags, the crowd breezed past her out into the hotel. As she went to chase them down and wrangle them back in, dozens more poured out. Those older than 18 were left to their own devices as they “were adults.” I found this somewhat concerning, given that both the Washington Examiner and the Daily Beast have published allegations of heavy underage drinking and sexual assault at previous TPUSA conferences. When I asked Kirk about these allegations, he said “you’re going to have to enlighten me, because I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

8. When in doubt, dress like Old Glory

If you ever find yourself invited to a conservative teen-focused black-tie affair like, say, TPUSA’s Liberty Gala in the Trump International Hotel’s Presidential Ballroom, you can’t go wrong with an American-flag-red dress. If you’re going to eschew the red, white, and blue (you communist), make sure it’s worth the cost of your treachery. A notable example: a girl around 16 years old floated through the ballroom, Cinderella-like, in a gorgeous pearl-beaded, backless mauve number that effortlessly draped behind her and had to cost over a thousand dollars. And as far as accessories go, Gucci and Coach purses are so Obama-era. Update your wardrobe with a MAGA crossbody or a Mar-A-Lago-gold clutch with “Trump” on one side and “2020” on the other. Things are a bit easier for the gentlemen: as long as you wear a suit or tux you should be fine. Just remember, black tie has a strict no-hat rule—unless it’s a classic cherry-red MAGA ballcap of course.

9. Conservative teens, they’re just like us!

While the adult donors at the front of the room were engrossed with speakers  like Jeanine Pirro and Nigel Farage, the teens in the back of the room brought back memories of my high school prom. The façade of the hotel served as the perfect backdrop for Insta-worthy photo carousels designed to make followers green with envy. One girl, bored by the speakers, spent roughly ten minutes creating the perfect Boomerang of the ballroom for her Insta story. Girls traveled in packs to check out the hotel’s golden bathrooms and take mirror selfies. So. Many. Mirror selfies.

10. Donald Trump Jr. to Chicago: Fuhgeddaboudit

It’s a scientific fact that there’s no better way to start your morning than by hearing a teenage girl scream what sounds like “we love you daddy” at Donald Trump Jr. (who sounds remarkably like Ray Romano). Don Jr. said that Obama had “no leadership experience” before taking office as President, apparently not counting the Senate terms Obama served in Illinois and the US. He instead chose to focus on Obama’s work as a community organizer in Chicago, intimating that any chump could collect signatures. And speaking of Chicago, Don Jr. hates the Second City more than the left hates America. Speaking about the Jussie Smollett case, Don Jr. expressed skepticism that “two white guys could make it in downtown Chicago for more than seven or eight seconds before being shot.” For what it’s worth, the Streeterville neighborhood in downtown Chicago where Smollett said he was attacked has seen a grand total of zero murders in the past year. Statistics aside, as a proud product of Chicagoland, I hereby call on the Five Families (Giordanos, Lou Malnati’s, Uno’s, Gino’s East and Pizano’s) to boycott Don Jr. and condemn him to the inferior East Coast thin crust in perpetuity as punishment for his blasphemy.

Jane Recker
Assistant Editor

Jane is a Chicago transplant who now calls Cleveland Park her home. Before joining Washingtonian, she wrote for Smithsonian Magazine and the Chicago Sun-Times. She is a graduate of Northwestern University, where she studied journalism and opera.