June 18, 2018 at 3:28 PM
DALLAS — Deep in the basement of a concrete hotel by the airport, inside a bunkerlike conference room flanked by security guards, two young conservative superstars sit in a virtual bubble.
Throughout the building, like-minded travelers are gathering for a four-day Young Women’s Leadership Summit hosted by a conservative group known as Turning Point USA. They pack the Hyatt’s elevators and line up to meet their idols: Tomi Lahren, Dana Loesch, Kellyanne Conway. At the bar, they buy drinks they’d only recently come of age to purchase and lounge by the pool draped in Trump-branded towels.
This is a place where right-leaning women who feel under attack on their liberal school campuses can don their MAGA hats, profess their Ben Shapiro crushes and question the existence of the patriarchy without fear of insult.
And here, at the heart of it all is Candace Owens (28, black, tall, endorsed by Kanye West) and Charlie Kirk (24, white, taller, embraced by Donald Trump), the hosts of the conference, creators of a genuine safe space for the right.
“I wouldn’t call it a safe space,” says Owens, bristling at a term that conference attendees associate with ninny liberals afraid of differing points of view. “I would call it a comfortable space.”
Yet as the conference kicks off, things aren’t as comfortable as Owens and Kirk might have hoped. Days before, Owens had teased her scheduled talk on Twitter by bashing the Me Too movement as a salve for weak women who couldn’t handle themselves around men. Her remarks shocked some of the group’s devotees and allies.
The controversy quickly brought the simmering tensions among young-conservative groups to a boil. The vice president of Young America’s Foundation, a fellow right-leaning organization, wrote a memo advising conservative students to stay away from Turning Point. The group was a parasite, the memo said, a Potemkin village made of pilfered email lists and unearned bona fides. Good for the photogenic leaders at the top, who had become celebrities with the help of Twitter accolades from Kanye West and regular appearances on Fox News, but bad for the conservative movement.
Now here were Kirk and Owens, the leaders of the pro-Trump vanguard on America’s college campuses, preparing to throw their biggest women’s summit to date.
Walk out of this conference room, through the door that locks automatically when shut, into the beige expanse that is the basement of the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport Hyatt Regency, and Kirk's vision of a political revolution unfolds before you. The future is female. There's the makeup booth hosted by the Conservative Political Action Committee, the pink posters that say "COEXIST" in letters made of guns.
Young women from 48 states have traveled here to listen to speeches by Jordan Peterson on political correctness run amok or catch a glimpse of Fox News host and Don Jr. dater Kimberly Guilfoyle. They attend breakout sessions about building a #brand and developing right-wing Instagram pages. This is a place to learn how to become a conservative celebrity from those who have already made it.
And look, here comes one now. Even in a sea of blondes, even in her skintight camo pants, Tomi Lahren can’t blend in. She walks like a magnet through the throngs, drawing fans to her amid the “Socialism Sucks” posters and “Trump Girl” shirts. The selfie line is at least 200 deep, and when she makes her way onstage, the audience is so quiet you could hear a snowflake melt.
“I think if all of us stand up and make a movement out of saying, ‘Enough is enough’ about being treated differently because we’re conservative,” she says. “It almost sounds a little bit like a political Me Too movement. But I think if the liberals can stand up and say Me Too about sexual harassment and assault, why can’t we stand up and say Me Too about being disenfranchised as conservatives?”
This is what the people came to hear: they are not alone, they are powerful, they too can be just like Lahren. Which is, what exactly? She’s a political commentator and a staffer for a Trump-aligned group. But she’s more than that, she’s seen. She’s heard.
“It’s kind of freeing to come here to be surrounded by a lot of people who have the same beliefs as you,” says Reagan Tapley, 21, a senior at an “extremely liberal” college. “It doesn’t feel as terrifying to wear a hat that says ‘Make America Great Again’ because the odds are pretty low that anyone is going to come up and harass me.”
“I’ve never been in a scenario where I can sit in a room and voice my opinion and no one backlashes me,” says Alex Owen, 18, a recent graduate from a Denver high school.
Kirk founded Turning Point in 2012 with the goal of combating liberalism on college campuses. They keep a list of supposedly anti-conservative professors, they raise money from some of the biggest Republican donors, and they have chapters at hundreds of schools. They’re growing, but exactly how big they are getting is a matter of debate.
Earlier this month, Young America’s Foundation distributed a 12-page memo to their members that they eventually made public after it leaked in the media. If TPUSA represents the new, Trumpian, wing of the Republican Party, then YAF would be the more-traditional William F. Buckley types. The two don’t always get along.
In their memo, YAF warned young conservatives to stay away from TPUSA, painting Kirk as a charlatan who inflated his organization’s influence and padded the group’s numbers with “racists and Nazi sympathizers.”
They ridiculed TPUSA for its most-famous incident, one in which members dressed in diapers to poke fun of “safe spaces” at Kent State University, and said that beyond drawing celebrities and boosting their own fame there was nothing to the still-young organization.
This was not, YAF contended, a group conservatives should take seriously.
And yet, Kirk and his organization have the ear of at least one Republican institution that matters: the White House. Kirk has interviewed the president, campaigned with Don Jr., and is at the White House so often that Mercedes Schlapp, a senior adviser to the president who traveled to the conference, says there’s a West Wing couch that should have his name carved on a plaque above it.
Kirk feels a shift happening on college campuses and hopes Turning Point can help reinvigorate the conservative movement. That will take women, he says, thus the conference.
At times, the experience here borders on Gwenyth Paltrow levels of Goopiness. “Be it and do it, don’t just say it and claim it,” says guru Kellyanne Conway.
The third day of the conference closed with a pajama party. No boys allowed.
In all, the whole thing is, as Schlapp puts it, a place to get away from all the negativity, a “sisterhood.”
But no sisterhood is without family drama.
Three days before the conference, Owens tweeted that "the entire premise of #metoo is that women are stupid, weak & inconsequential." It got 22,000 likes but also plenty of dissent.
Kimberly Corban, a rape survivor and guns rights activist, responded on Twitter that she disagreed with Owens, and in Dallas said she worried the conference might send mixed signals about coming forward to report sexual abuse.
After she spoke, women lined up to meet Corban. They told her about being assaulted while serving in the military, about being harassed on campus. They cried, hugged and thanked her for being an inspiration.
And yet, their overall sentiment about the Me Too movement was ambivalence.
“What makes me cautious of it is that I fear with so much energy in the movement, I worry that men will get falsely sucked into it,” says Emma Mull, 18.
Holed up in the conference room, Owens and Kirk can’t avoid the topic as they sat for hours of interviews with various news outlets. Owens’s controversial tweet hadn’t gone away.
“I don’t want to make this the focal point of our conversation, so if we could wrap this up, that would be good,” Kirk says. “But I do want to say this, we have to be very careful when we have these conversations not to loop every single instance into a five-letter hashtag.”
To limit the controversy over Owens’s stance, Kirk had encouraged attendees not to attack her publicly or boo her on stage. Not that she’d be backing down.
“This idea of everything being sexual harassment was not something I learned growing up,” she says, sitting next to Kirk. “When a guy smacked my ass when I was 13, I turned around and I said don’t you effing touch me and that was it.”
When she takes the stage to share her Trumpian conservative vision, she doesn’t mention Me Too and finishes her speech to a wild ovation. The audience jumps out of their seats to run through the dark and meet her outside. They tell her they love her.
On Twitter and in conservative backchannels, Owens is vulnerable. Here she is still safe. Or comfortable, anyway.