At the Conservative Student Action Summit, Plenty of Old Names, Ideas

Selling old, increasingly discredited ideas to a youthful audience isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Thousands of student activists are headed to South Florida this week for the right-wing version of spring break. What’s being billed as the largest gathering of young conservatives in the country will feature a full roster of red-state crowd pleasers like Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, Donald Trump Jr, Dinesh D’Souza and Sebastian Gorka. Attendees will also get “first-class activism and leadership training,” not to mention the chance to hobnob with the likes of James O’Keefe.

Meet Turning Point USA

Turning Point USA is the organizer behind the Student Action Summit and purports to be “the largest and most powerful campus activist program in America.” It’s certainly the best funded. While TPUSA was founded by 24-year-old Charlie Kirk, and presents itself as a student-driven group, the real power behind it is considerably older, not to mention wealthier. A number of Republican mega-donors have given massive financial support to the organization in hopes TPUSA can produce the next generation of right-wingers, at a time when most millennials are rapidly shifting left.

Grooming conservative activists isn’t TPUSA’s only goal. The group claims it seeks to “effectively push back against intolerance and bias against conservatives in higher education.” But as a review of recent campus controversies reveals, the real goal is to undermine trust in higher education by framing colleges as enemies of conservatism

Conservative victims

Consider the explosive issue of free speech on campus. Free speech is typically put forward as one of the reasons colleges must give a platform to “controversial” speakers like Richard Spencer to advocate ethnic cleansing, Milo Yiannopolous to publicly insult a transgender student or Charles Murray to explain why black people are genetically inferior to white people. But what about free speech that includes making an obscene gesture to a member of TPUSA? Unacceptable, as Courtney Lawton, a graduate student at the University of Nebraska discovered.

After Lawton was documented making an obscene gesture toward a student in a TPUSA booth in August 2017, the University of Nebraska removed her from her teaching position. As a group of professors pointed out in a letter to Chancellor Ronnie D. Green, silencing a university employee for offending a group that purports to be about campus free speech seems contradictory. But for the University of Nebraska, the political blowback was only beginning.

Since Lawton was removed, Republican officials have proposed cuts to the university budget and called for an end to tenure, and demanded that the university turn over faculty members who have publicly criticized members of the state government.

An unequivocal threat

The events at the University of Nebraska demonstrate just how far some administrations are willing to go to protect conservative students when their feelings are hurt. But TPUSA still portrays universities as a whole as an unequivocal threat. At the University of Wisconsin, a TPUSA chapter is appealing a suspension imposed by the student government after the group violated funding policy. The TPUSA chapter’s GoFundMe page doesn’t mention the violation. Instead, they imply “leftist pushback” is what really motivated the student government’s actions.

Maybe that’s why TPUSA has “secretly funnel[ed] thousands of dollars into multiple college student government elections to elect conservatives.” After all, if the only students in positions of power are those approved by TPUSA, then TPUSA chapters like the one at the University of Wisconsin aren’t likely to have to worry about pesky funding policies.

TPUSA doesn’t just target students who don’t share their political ideology. The organization targets professors as well, specifically through the infamous Professor’s Watchlist, which uses unreliable, incomplete or downright false information to target professors suspected of espousing liberal ideas.

Even the clothing sold by TPUSA pushes an anti-higher education agenda. One of its shirts reads, “I survived college without becoming a liberal.” 

In Prager we trust

The anti-higher education sentiment pushed by TPUSA raises a thorny question. If the students who are being feted at the Student Action Summit can’t trust their colleges and their professors, from whom should they get their education?

Dennis Prager, the founder of Prager U, is happy to help.

Prager U and TPUSA are deeply connected.  (TPUSA founder Charlie Kirk sits on Prager U’s advisory board while Prager U is a sponsor of TPUSA. Dennis Prager is also a featured speaker at the Student Action Summit.) Then there is their ideologically symbiotic relationship. TPUSA seeks to sow a distrust of higher education in young people, encouraging them to embrace conservative alternatives like Prager U. At the same time, Prager U’s videos push the kind of us vs them mentality that drives young people toward groups like TPUSA.

So what kind of education does Prager U offer? First, it’s important to note that Prager U is not a university at all, despite presenting its videos as “courses” that can be watched for “credits.” This appropriation of the language of a university gives a neutral veneer to highly partisan, misleading and simplistic videos that are presented as facts, not arguments.

Consider the “course” on feminism featuring Tammy Bruce, who bemoans that female college students don’t list “wife and mother” as a career goal and complains that feminists believe that they are equal to men in the “sexual arena.” Women are meant to “civilize men,” says Bruce, warning that when women don’t civilize men, society apparently “descend[s] into chaos and the law of the jungle.” And what about the contributions of men to women’s liberation? (This analysis goes into meticulous detail about all the problems with the “course.”)

The video on capitalism, featuring Jared Meyer, is equally problematic. It begins with the speaker declaring, “You can’t stand big government. Really. You can’t,” and ends by reminding viewers that they enjoy capitalism, “you practice it every day” and it’s “time to preach it.”

How can you tell you hate big government? It’s easy. Meyer explains that “going to the Apple Store [is] so fun, but going to the DMV [is] so painful.” The speaker fails to discuss areas like the environment, healthcare and infrastructure where what benefits a corporation can conflict with the needs of human beings. He also fails to address how the government has had to bail out corporations because their recklessness endangered the entire economy.

We shouldn’t be too hard on Meyer, though. After all, all of Prager U’s “courses” are only about five minutes long.

Hard sell

Spend enough time watching Prager videos and clicking around the TPUSA website and you too may be convinced that there’s a burgeoning “student movement for free markets and limited government.” But selling old, increasingly discredited ideas to a youthful audience isn’t as easy as it sounds. Getting 15- to 25-year-olds to embrace extreme free-market policies requires convincing them to overlook the fact that these same policies have directly contributed to financial meltdowns, and as George Monbiot writes, “the offshoring of wealth and power…[and] the slow collapse of public health and education [and] ecosystems.” Not to mention absurd levels of economic inequality that threatens to choke the very generation TPUSA is trying to appeal to.

Which may be why the biggest names at this week’s Student Action Summit aren’t young activists but right-wing hacks and has-beens, in search of a new market for the same tired products they’ve been selling for decades.