Earlier this month, controversial right-wing student movement Turning Point USA launched its UK branch with a disastrous social media campaign.
The official launch was drowned out by fake Twitter accounts. Since the official Turning Point UK (TPUK) account is unverified, events became very chaotic, very fast.
Young politicos’ Twitter feeds were soon awash with memes referencing the many embarrassing public episodes of Turning Point USA.
The most common themes included allegations of elitism, references to when its founder Charlie Kirk wore a nappy in public to make a statement about safe spaces, as well as jokes about Kirk’s supposedly small face.
The Turning Point brand is intensely controversial, for more serious reasons than the dimensions of its leader’s facial features.
The organisation is rigidly conservative and staunchly pro-Trump. It cites its core values as limited government and free speech but it has attracted more attention for allegations of racism and connections to the far-right.
More recently, Candace Owens — Turning Point’s Head of Communications, who is engaged to George Farmer, the CEO of the UK branch — attracted much criticism for apparently defending Hitler.
At an event to announce the launch of TPUK, Owens was asked about nationalism in Western politics, to which she replied:
“I actually don’t have any problems at all with the word ‘nationalism’. I think that the definition gets poisoned by elitists that actually want globalism. Globalism is what I don’t want. Whenever we say nationalism, the first thing people think about, at least in America, is Hitler.”
Not content with having unnecessarily associated Hitler with the political philosophy she was trying to defend, Owens went on to dig a even deeper hole for herself by suggesting that he was, in fact, not far wrong.
“He was a national socialist,” she continued. “But if Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, OK, fine. The problem is that he wanted, he had dreams outside of Germany. He wanted to globalise.”
“He wanted everybody to be German, everybody to be speaking German. Everybody to look a different way. To me, that’s not nationalism. In thinking about how we could go bad down the line, I don’t really have an issue with nationalism. I really don’t.”
Owens later released a clarificatory video, which she concluded by saying: “I stand by my statements”.
Understandably, many British conservative students are profoundly reticent about the prospect of being associated with such a ham-fisted campaign which is comprehensively demonstrating how not to win young people’s support online.
TPUK is already scaring away its own supporters. Tom Harwood, a reporter for Guido Fawkes and former candidate for NUS President, played a big part in the first few days of TPUK, before quickly distancing himself from the group.
Harwood has not publicly commented on TPUK since quietly pulling out of the campaign, except to confirm that has no “formal role” within the organisation.
Others, even from within TPUK, are willing to be remarkably open about their grave reservations. Maxwell Marlow, an undergraduate Politics and History student, is the nominal leader of the LSE chapter of TPUK, but he tells The Beaver that he believes the group as a whole is “dead in the water”.
“TPUK is dead. Thank God,” he says. “It will discredit all good, genuine right-wing groups on campus who just want to have a thoughtful, open and engaged discussion without hatred or discrimination.”
Maxwell, who describes himself as “the right-wing BNOC of LSE”, says that he joined TPUK in search of “an interesting experience” and because he thought he might be able to “moderate them”. He now admits that hope was in vain, “because they’ve now got a wannabe fascist for a leader.”
For a person so intimately involved with the launch of TPUK — with responsibility for its LSE branch — Maxwell has astoundingly sharp criticisms of how the operation has been handled.
“Basically, the organisation is done for,” he says. “The moment it was created, it was done for. They can’t understand how to do social media and how to be normal people.”
To illustrate his point, Maxwell highlights the fundamental differences between TPUK and another organisation he represents at LSE, called Students for Liberty (SfL).
“SfL is a really good organisation. It’s multi-national, classical liberal and libertarian. It’s basically the same thing as Turning Point, except it’s not a personality cult. It’s not Charlie Kirk with his tiny face and diapers wandering around.”
According to Maxwell, TPUK’s mission to unite conservatives on campus is totally unnecessary. He believes that all right-leaning students can find a home in either the Conservative Society or more liberal-oriented groups like Students for Liberty and the Hayek Society, of which he is Vice President.
“TPUK are trying to be the whole thing,” he says. “But they can’t be because they’re populists. They’re not a mainstream right-wing organisation. They don’t understand basic politics or ideology.”
Controversy surrounding Turning Point’s key faces has arguably been the source of its biggest setbacks to date. “The thing is, the controversy among Tories will only come from the students, like the Plymouth thing.”
He refers to an incident at Plymouth University, in which a group of Conservative students were heavily criticised for branding their clothes with offensive messages relating to Nazism, Enoch Powell, Soviet Russia and other sensitive topics.
“But that’s only from the bottom, you can easily differentiate yourself from it. The problem with Turning Point is that all the controversy comes from the top, so they can’t understand that people want to disassociate themselves from them on campus, and that’s their own fault.”
“When I’ve had conversations with Priti Patel, I’ve said to her that I’m worried about right-wing voices on campus being suppressed. I think from that, and other people who have spoken to her, essentially it’s like this is a terrible thing. So it’s not surprising that Tories are supporting more right-wing speech on campus.”
“But like the guys who run it, they’re completely out of touch.”
TPUK is run by George Farmer, an Oxford-educated son of a multi-millionaire Tory donor and peer, who Maxwell describes as “the main problem with TPUK”.
“They’re just out of touch,” he says. “I’d have so much more success with it, but they just don’t understand that at all. I’m not tremendously wealthy, I’m not here with loads of privilege. It needs normal people. George Farmer is an Oxford grad and he just doesn’t understand it. You’re supposed to be smart, you’re just stupid.”
As well as the personalities involved, Maxwell also takes issue with the ideology espoused by TPUK. He describes himself as “anti-racist, colour-blind, sex-blind, just an individual who wants good debate on campus.” He says that TPUK would do well do stick to the basics.
“Cultural Marxism is a big no-no. I have personally taken an issue with it. I have personally said to the CEO and the President, do not use cultural Marxism because a) it is incredibly offensive and anti-Semitic and b) it will get you nowhere because cultural Marxism does not exist. It’s supposedly some weird Jewish conspiracy, which is just complete tosh.”
“TPUK as a whole has got this line of referring to anti-Semitic and downright nasty ideas and then just saying ‘these are mainstream right-wing ideas’ when they’re not.”
“The LSE has got fantastic debate on campus,” he continues. “LSE isn’t working to impinge on right-wing views or anything, it’s just there to facilitate such views and have a lively and well-informed debate on campus. So, TPUK is just misguided when they say ‘LSE is really left-wing’. The LSE embodies many right-wing values.”
“It values free speech, it values plurality, it values all these great liberal ideas and enables the campus community to engage with them. So, I’m a supporter of the SU’s free speech policy, of its plurality, of the general behaviour of students on campus who want to have a debate and engage.”
“Take, for example, the Venezuela thing that was going on. The Marxists had that stall saying ‘Venezuela solidarity’, and an hour later there were anti-Maduro posters up. There’s a debate to be had on campus because there are so many views.”
Maxwell claims that young people today are swinging to the right of the political spectrum, in direct contrast to the Turning Point narrative about the left’s ‘monopoly on the young’.
“The vast majority of undergraduates are probably centre-right or just shy Tories. Not even shy Tories, just shy politicos. We only get the idea that everyone’s political because a few people within the Marxist society or the Labour society go on big protests.”
“That’s the idea we’ve got, but a lot of research has gone into Generation Z, this year’s undergraduates, and they’re just right-wing. They’re more conservative.”
“They don’t want to go out drinking as much. They want to study, not smoke, not do drugs, and just be right-wing. That’s the majority of people on campus, and I feel it on campus.”
“Like I say, they’re out of touch. No wonder they’re supporting the ideas because it’s a right-wing populist organisation who say they’re in favour of free markets and free speech and then say ‘this is a safe space for conservatives’, whatever that means. And they think we’re all Donald Trump-loving, Corbyn-hating partisans. And that’s not how that works.”
Maxwell echoes a common criticism of TPUK surrounding its attempts to import its campaigns from the US and replicate them in Britain, despite marked differences in campus culture.
“The issue with Turning Point is that it takes this view, this American view, that those same campaigning tactics must also work in the UK. It’s incorrect.”
“They don’t realise that UK campuses are not so political. We are not a political campus. We are just a load of international undergrads here to get a degree and then leave. We’re not here to have the SU condemn Israel or for them to have solidarity with the vegan movement.”
“People just come here to study. Turning Point don’t understand the fact that the student base is just a base of hardworking and academic-led students. That’s it.”
“In the UK they only have events in London, Brighton and Nottingham. It doesn’t target Newcastle, Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Durham, St. Andrew’s, Glasgow, Edinburgh.”
“They spend their time arguing about the metropolitan liberal elite and never leave the metropolitan liberal elite areas. They’re really not very well coordinated.”
“The way Turning Point views politics is it’s either you or me, and that’s it. You disagree with me, so you’re not my friend. It’s too personal. For me, politics is not your personality. It’s an extraction of your worldview.”
As for the future of campus conservatism in the Britain, Maxwell is confident TPUK will soon be forgotten. “It’ll just fade out of existence,” he says.
“What I’d like people to understand is that Turning Point isn’t intrinsically a bad organisation. It’s actually full of well-meaning people — but not the leaders. It has no space on campus because people want to have whole-hearted and good conversations about politics and society in general.”
“The Hayek and Tory societies are in no way impinged by the fact that I’m a nominal member of TPUK. It’s probably not going to be on campus at all.”
“Turning Point LSE has not launched, it probably won’t launch because the person who’s running it is too sceptical of the organisation, but it’s there in case something bad happens on campus.”
“It’s not going to grow. It’s there if Turning Point can correct itself — which it can’t, because they’d have to launch another organisation, and there’s just not space for it.”
“The Hayek Society is really good, and so are the Tories. So, where is Turning Point going to go?”
“My communication is always open for people who are interested in Students for Liberty or just having a conversation about politics, that’s what I want to do. The reason I’m anti-Turning Point is because they are anti that. They’re idiots.”
Despite his fury at TPUK, Maxwell is ultimately optimistic about the direction of campus debate.
“Student politics at LSE is, and should be, a pleasant but vigorous debate about policy, domestic, foreign and economic, followed by all parties together down at the George or Tuns.”
“If we can’t share a pint after a debate, it was all in vain.”
Edit: Since this article was written, Maxwell has been ejected from TPUK and no longer has any formal role within the organisation.