In the past few years, Turning Point USA (TPUSA) has grown from being a startup nonprofit to becoming a household name. Through this transition, the youth organization has changed in many ways, often for the worse.
For example, newly minted communications director Candace Owens has been garnering disdain for the group by being unapologetic in the airing of her extremely controversial opinions, such as a recent comment discounting the trauma all survivors of sexual assault go through. Hiring Candace isn’t the only place where the right-wing organization went wrong. I would know – I worked for their media arm for over a year and was an outspoken advocate.
I have been hesitant to communicate my thoughts on TPUSA’s failures simply because of prior personal involvement. However, as I quietly watched the organization spiral downward and make poorer and poorer decisions, I came to realize that there are vital lessons to be learned from this group I once wholeheartedly supported.
In reflection, I would posit that there are three key places where TPUSA fumbled: messaging, staying accountable to their organizational status, and handling increasing popularity.
TPUSA began as an organization dedicated to reaching the younger generation (Millennials, Generation Z, college students) with a free market, limited government, and free people philosophy. Therefore, to achieve their objective, they had a tight and attractive digital messaging campaign.
Short and catchy phrases like, “Big government sucks!” helped attract support, and person after person had a ‘turning point’ in their philosophy after becoming involved. This messaging campaign is what drew me to the organization in the first place; the attention-grabbing phrasing complemented with philosophical education woke me up to many of the issues I am passionate about now.
However, TPUSA left their smart digital media messaging tactics in the dust and instead transformed into a cliche right-wing ‘meme’ page (which are a dime a dozen). Ignoring their target audience, the group started spewing poorly designed, cliche, oversimplified digital content that is not focused on target issues and is unappealing to youth voters.
This has been especially problematic as the organization has started turning from a strategic messaging campaign to one that all but endorses President Trump. TPUSA is registered as a 501(C)3 nonprofit organization. Under this organization, political activity is strictly limited and regulated. These restrictions include activities such as endorsing specific politicians, campaigning, and funding campaign efforts.
TPUSA has abused its organizational status time and time again, and the unhinged support of President Trump is just the latest example of such abuse. I first became connected to the organization when working on a campaign, and it seemed odd to me even then that a ‘nonpartisan and non-political’ organization would be so generous and kind toward specific campaigns and candidates.
The New Yorker recently ran a piece outlining other allegations of illegal campaign activity TPUSA is facing. While it would be entirely possible to turn this short commentary into a similar article detailing such violations, we will stay out of the weeds, and recognize that blurring the line of your organizational limitations is dishonest, not transparent, and at times, illegal.
Finally, one of the biggest mistakes TPUSA ever made was letting growing popularity and increasing recognition derail the vision, mission, and environment of the organization. As Charlie Kirk (founder and executive director) became more popular and gained favor with the White House, and as they hired antagonistic and popular personalities like Candace Owens, the organizational direction seemed to shift drastically.
Suddenly, TPUSA became a lot less focused on educating students about the importance of free markets and limited government. Instead, they became obsessed with having celebrity favor (hello Kanye!) and relentlessly defending President Trump. Campus chapters have been left in the dust, and people are leaving the organization in droves as they realize that the mission no longer matters to the people who are supposed to be leading the charge.
I was a part of TPUSA through the highs and lows – the hit pieces, the scandals, and the successes.— Calli Norton (@CalliNorton) June 11, 2018
I was TPUSA’s #1 and loyal supporter.
But I knew the second Candace was hired this year and spoke at SAS – My time with the organization needed to come to an end.
It speaks volumes when the people who are most critical of the direction TPUSA has taken are former employees, advocates, and chapter leaders-the people who used to be the biggest supporters.
What has TPUSA taught me personally? To stick to your guns, follow your convictions, and be bold in renouncing support of people, positions, and organizations if they no longer reflect who you are.
What can conservatives learn from the cautionary tale that is TPUSA? Stay on message and communicate clearly, be honest and above board in all that you do, and don’t let success get to your head, alter your mission, or derail your vision.