On its face, a youth-centered, grassroots American movement that is both faith-based and conservative shouldn’t surprise anyone, and that’s how most people viewed Turning Point USA back in 2012 when it was first founded by a then 18 year old, right-wing activist named Charlie Kirk. But in the nearly 10 years since, TPUSA has morphed into something else entirely: a powerful political tool of the radical right that spreads vaccine and election fraud misinformation and is growing increasingly and dangerously violent in its rhetoric. Its recent conference, AmericaFest 2021, attracted top Trump acolytes such as Sebastian Gorka and Kayleigh McEnany; conspiracy theorist Congress members including Reps. Marjorie Taylor Greene, Louie Gohmert, and Lauren Boebert; and even Fox News host Jesse Watters.
TPUSA, like much of today’s Republican Party, wears deplorability like a badge of honor. As Chris Hayes of MSNBC noted, “It has proven that on the right, people acting as terribly as possible seems to be the thing that makes you most adored. It’s not just rhetorical, they are literally celebrating killing people.” To underscore this point, a key attraction at this year’s showy conference in Phoenix was Kyle Rittenhouse, the now 18-year-old two-time killer in Kenosha, Wisconsin who was recently acquitted on all charges on grounds of self-defense. Rittenhouse received a hero’s welcome at the conference and drew cheers when he said he was considering suing the media for how he was portrayed.
Sometimes, the glorification of violence is more than just an undercurrent. Fox host Watters urged attendees to aggressively confront Dr. Fauci in public if they encounter him. Watters’ choice of words was, in a word, horrifying. “Now you go in with the kill shot, deadly. Because, with an ambush, he doesn’t see it coming.” Watters added, “This is when you say: ‘Dr. Fauci, you funded risky research at a sloppy Chinese lab. The same lab that sprung this pandemic on the world. You know why people don’t trust you, don’t you?’ Boom, he is dead! He is dead! He's done!” (Watters’ discredited claims about lab funding and Chinese lab release still hold currency in far-right circles.)
Dr. Fauci, who has received constant death threats in his position as head of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, fired back, saying Watters ought to be fired for his incendiary and violent language. “That’s horrible. I mean, that is such a reflection of the craziness that goes on in society,” said Fauci. “The only thing that I have ever done throughout these two years is to encourage people to practice good public health practices, to get vaccinated, to be careful in public settings, to wear a mask, and for that you have some guy out there saying that people should be giving me a kill shot, to ambush me?” Fox News nonetheless stood by Watters. “[I]t’s more than clear that Jesse Watters was using a metaphor for asking hard-hitting questions to Dr. Fauci about gain-of-function research and his words have been twisted completely out of context,” Fox News said in a statement Tuesday.
Kirk had already done serious damage to national vaccination efforts through another non-profit by reportedly running Facebook ads claiming that the government had “NO RIGHT to force you to inject yourself with an experimental vaccine,” and warning that in response to advice about shots “LOCK YOUR DOORS, KIDS!!” On college campuses, Kirk and TPUSA had been busy spreading vaccine misinformation, with Kirk even blasting out text messages charging that Biden had sent “goons DOOR-TO-DOOR to make you take a covid-19 vaccine.”
The 2020 election and its aftermath gave TPUSA additional fodder for its disinformation and conspiracy efforts. The group helped amplify and spread Trump’s lies about the election, and Kirk even boasted on Twitter two days before the January 6 insurrection that he had organized some 80 busloads of protestors to the “March to Save America” rally. Those protesters included Robert Palmer, the man who struck Capitol Police with a fire extinguisher and was recently sentenced to 63 months in prison. (After the attack on the Capitol, Kirk deleted his tweet.)
The atmosphere of violence at TPUSA feeds and encourages radicalism even as its speakers couch their words carefully enough to avoid a visit from the FBI. During yesterday’s AmericaFest conference, former Trump advisor Sebastian Gorka fielded a question from a young attendee about when they should use the Second Amendment as it was intended—to overthrow a tyrannical government. According to an NBC reporter, this was the second question about shooting from the audience microphone. Gorka responded to cheers that the Second Amendment is “the final guarantee of your freedom, period.” But then he demurred on the question of government overthrow, evoking Trump’s “Stand back and Stand by” moment, saying, “But people ask me, ‘When’s the civil war gonna start? When’s it gonna start?’ And I say, ‘Slow down.’”
Similarly, Rep. Louie Gohmert was captured on video appearing to endorse a “Second Amendment Option.” The moment was staged by an undercover activist who asked Gohmert about January 6. “I was there on the 6th, and thank you for fighting for all of us man,” the activist began. “Was there more we could have done?”
Gohmert responded, “Yeah, there’s a lot more, but we need a lot more people doing it than just a handful of us.”
“Are we getting toward Second Amendment solutions at some point?” the activist asked. Gohmert nodded, so the activist pressed, “You think we are?”
Gohmert replied, “Well, I’m still in it because I think we can.”
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