The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The rise and fall of right-wing influencers — as tracked by TPUSA

A collage of promotional placards from Turning Point USA social media accounts. (TPUSA/The Washington Post)

If you are familiar with the group Turning Point USA, it may be because of an incident that occurred back in 2019. President Donald Trump was appearing at an event hosted by TPUSA, offering one of his standard multidirectional riffs on politics and culture. Behind him, a screen showed the presidential seal — except not really. The eagle at the center of the logo had been replaced with a double-headed bird plucked from Russia’s coat of arms.

Not the headlines either TPUSA or Trump were hoping to generate.

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Despite that setback, TPUSA has grown in influence in the years since. Aimed at engaging young people in right-wing politics, it holds regular conferences with celebrities from the Republican Party and conservative media world. And, as the group’s clout and self-confidence have grown, its events have gotten flashier.

Here’s what a TPUSA conference looked like in 2015.

And here is “AmericaFest” last year.

It’s just a whole different thing, powered by big injections of money and by the eagerness of TPUSA stalwarts like Charlie Kirk and Candace Owens to inject themselves into hot-button political conversations.

On Thursday, the group published one of its now familiar slate-card promotions for its upcoming conference.

It’s a who’s-who of a particular cultural universe, from Charlie Kirk himself at top left down to former Trump administration staffer Kash Patel at lower right.

It’s a bit like those music festival posters that list a broad array of acts, big names plastered at the top but a long list to ensure potential customers that they’ll be getting their money’s worth. It’s a very Trumpian approach to promotion: List enough things and you’ll probably offer something that might get a potential supporter to pony up.

These promotion cards, too, have glammed up over TPUSA’s history. Here’s one from 2018, with a more modest lineup — and more modest graphic design elements.

(This promotion may have been created by the designer who lost his job following the 2019 Russian eagle debacle, but I digress.)

But consider what we have here. An organization, focused on increasing its footprint in right-wing culture over time … and doing so, successfully. An organization that also is unabashed about self-promotion, one that regularly shares slates of upcoming speakers as an enticement to its audience. Enticements that necessarily reflect the salability of participating speakers in TPUSA’s eyes.

In other words, by collecting and analyzing these promotional slates, we can get a sense for the ebb and flow of power and appeal in the right-wing world over time.

So I did. I pulled about 20 social media posts delineating speaker lineups at upcoming events from 2018 to this year. I indexed where individual politicians, conservative media personalities and other figures appeared on the slate, generally taking my cues on importance from where Kirk himself was positioned.

And then, since the number of people on each slate varied over time, I categorized each person’s appearance on each slate on a scale from 1 to 10. A rating of one meant the person appeared in the worst 10 percent of slots (like Dennis Prager on the second slate above); a rating of 10 meant showing up in the top 10 percent (like Kirk through Donald Trump Jr. on the most recent slate). I skipped TPUSA events that were focused on specific demographic groups, since those tended to be weighted to members of that group.

Below, every person who appeared on one of the slates, where they were positioned and when.

Now let’s discuss what this tells us.

Let’s start with former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani. He appeared on two slates, both promoting TPUSA’s conference in December 2020. And on both slates, he was in the pole position at top left.

Why? Because this was the era in which he was hyping Trump’s unfounded claims about election fraud. He was a good get in the moment — and a marker of loyalty to Trump himself by having him appear as a top-tier guest. And then he wasn’t included on any other slates again.

Check out Seb Gorka, the former Trump administration official turned-fish-oil-pill salesman. He appeared on slates in 2018 and 2019 but only once since. Gorka, it seems, is no longer a hot property.

That sole appearance in 2021 is interesting, though. Here are three of the speaker slates promoting that year’s Student Action Summit.

The one on June 1, 2021 …

… on June 22 and …

… on July 16, the day before the summit began.

Notice that Gorka appears only on the middle one, second row at far right. (That’s the 12th slot of 18, so Gorka is rated a 5 for this slate.) But also notice how that slot changes. In the first slate, it’s occupied by Fox News host Jesse Watters. In the second, Watters is dumped for Gorka. In the third, he’s back.

Or look at Jack Posobiec. (If you aren’t familiar with some of these names, trust me: it’s okay.) He starts out in third row, third slot, is kicked to third row sixth slot and ends up in the third row, fourth slot. More important than TPUSA’s Benny Johnson; less important than former White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany.

McEnany appears on these slates a lot. Her overall average slate-location rating is 8.3, just above Eric Bolling and just below Sean Hannity.

One thing that’s interesting about the TPUSA lineups over time is that the vibe changes. In the early slates, you have a lot of appearances from people like Mark Levin and Glenn Beck, commentators not known for their appeal to younger people. Even Dinesh D’Souza, whose misleading movie about election fraud captivated Trumpland this year, fell out of popularity after the Trump era.

Another thing that’s interesting about the slates: Elected officials are often in the second or third tier. On average, people who were serving in office when they appeared on a slate were rated at 5.6 — about in the middle of the pack. That’s in part because Donald Trump was always slotted in the prime position while other, lesser-known officials, like Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), are not. (Donalds’s average position is 3.8.)

In fairness? Politicians are indeed less of a draw than media personalities. They often get top billing simply for sycophancy reasons.

So who are the current stars of the TPUniverse? Of the available slates for the three conferences over the past year, the top five average slate locations (excluding TPUSA organizers) belong to McEnany, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), Tucker Carlson and Greg Gutfeld of Fox News and Donald Trump Jr. These are the people TPUSA thinks are most likely to appeal to their target demographic, which, again, is ostensibly young people.

Congratulations to them. And to those mired in the bottom decile of slate positioning? Fret not. It’s an honor just to appear.