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At Conservative Women’s Conference, a Safe Space for Trumpism

DALLAS — The young women had come from 48 states across the country, yearning for moments of belonging they rarely found at home.

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Astead W. Herndon
, New York Times

DALLAS — The young women had come from 48 states across the country, yearning for moments of belonging they rarely found at home.

Cheyenne Martin, a 19-year-old student at Georgetown University, described being ridiculed by classmates for her desire to lead the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency one day. But this weekend, she was met with a standing ovation.

Kyeasia Benjamin used stealth social media accounts to hide her love of President Donald Trump from her family, she said, but the 22-year-old was now proudly sporting a bright red skirt patterned with Republican Party elephants.

Laci Williams, 20, said she felt so isolated as a conservative in Denver that she started a young women’s conservative magazine to connect with like-minded women across the country. But now, for four days at a Dallas airport hotel, Williams felt like she wasn’t the exception but the rule.

“We are left out of the national conversation,” Williams said of young conservative women. “And we’re sick and tired of being ignored.”

Welcome to Turning Point USA’s Young Women’s Leadership Summit, an annual conference sponsored by the National Rifle Association that began in 2015 and has evolved into an ultra-Trumpian event complete with “lock her up” chants and vulgar T-shirts disparaging Hillary Clinton. The conference, which styles itself as an alternative to a liberal culture of feminism that many Republicans characterize as oppressive, attracted an estimated 1,000 young conservative women ages 17 to 24 for sessions like “How Political Correctness is Making Everyone Stupid” and “In the Age of Resist: Be Revolutionary.”

For many of the women here, the conference was a rejoinder of sorts to the many female Democrats running for office and organizing in the midterm elections. While liberals are hopeful about a blue wave this November, the women here had a different message: Republicans are energized this year, too — by a growing economy, a president they believe in and a belief that a “silent majority” of Trump supporters will again shock the political world this fall.

At lunch, over Caesar salads and protein bars, young women swapped stories about how they “came out” to their family and friends as female supporters of Trump, and traded strategies on how to best cope with a sense of political ostracization that several described feeling on college campuses. They geeked out over the newest clothing from Ivanka Trump and quoted “takedowns” from conservative provocateurs and conference speakers including Tomi Lahren, Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson that they saw as perfect for “triggering liberals.” “This is my reset for the year,” said Maggie Andrews, a 19-year-old student at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who described herself as a former “radical leftist” who had a “leftist haircut” of bangs and shoulder-length hair.

Andrews said that amid what she saw as unwarranted anti-Trump activism sweeping the United States, people like Peterson, the controversial psychologist and YouTube star, had helped change her political opinions.

“Just one crack in the liberal facade is so important,” Andrews said. “That’s all you need.”

Several women described sharing a politics of aggrievement that grew out of their experiences as young conservatives in the United States today. More than any political ideology, the women at the summit appeared united by their criticism of recent social movements — such as the March for Our Lives against gun control, the #MeToo campaign to raise awareness for sexual assault and harassment, or the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality. In their view, there was nothing worse than being labeled racist, sexist or homophobic by “the left,” because liberal name-calling was worse than any sin that could precede it.

At the conference, Natalia Mittelstadt, 20, said #MeToo may be turning in to “McCarthyism,” though she also said it was great that women were speaking out about their negative experiences. Nafisa Kabir, a 20-year-old Bangladeshi immigrant set to receive her U.S. citizenship in two weeks, spoke of her desire to see immigration curbed “because a bunch of added people doesn’t make things better.” One 17-year-old wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat said she doubted the widely accepted statistic that one in four college women experience rape or attempted rape — but if it was true, the reason was because “we’re importing rape culture” through illegal immigration and homosexuality.

“The most important thing we need to do is build the wall,” said Morgan Tapley, a teenager.

Though there was none of the guttural cheering and angry taunts that often emanate from Trump’s campaign-style rallies, the president’s hallmark rhetoric and propensity to stretch the truth was also ever-present.

Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, at one point suggested falsely that Stanford University had stopped teaching classes that include William Shakespeare because he was a white man. Any mention of CNN was booed as “fake news.”

Clinton, the first woman ever nominated for president by a major party, was also a preferred target of speakers.

“Can we just take a moment to celebrate that Hillary Clinton is not the first female president of the United States?” Kirk said in his opening remarks to wild applause. He stood smiling on the bright pink stage as the day’s first “lock her up” chant cut through the auditorium.

Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s counselor and the main speaking attraction at the conference, invoked Clinton as she praised the assembled audience.

“We kept open the job of first female president of the United States, so maybe she’s in this room,” Conway said. “This country’s more than ready for a female president — just not that one.”

Other speakers at the conference included conservative figures like Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, the NRA spokeswoman Dana Loesch and Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel.

Kirk, 24, began Turning Point USA in 2012 to motivate and organize college conservatives around free market ideals. However, since Trump’s ascension, the organization has gone to lengths to tie its brand — and Kirk’s — in lock step with Trump. Liberal organizations such as Swing Left and March for Our Lives have focused considerable energy during 2018 on the electoral work of registering young people to vote, but Turning Point USA is continuing its focus on arming conservatives for arguments, with an eye more toward training the next generation of conservative news pundits than the electioneers.

Over the course of the summit’s four-day agenda, there were no training sessions focused on political organizing or campaigning. There was, however, a session for “10 Best Ways to Grow Your Instagram in 2018,” “Suing Your University 101” and a pajama party on Saturday night.

Kirk said in an interview that while liberal organizations are currently outpacing conservatives in organizing young people, conservatives are focused on a broader “culture war.”

“We’re always going to be behind because the left controls higher education,” he said. “They control 2,100 platforms of learning.”

Still, even within the conservative movement, Kirk and his organization are becoming increasingly divisive. For some weeks, Turning Point USA has been the target of intense criticism on social media from conservatives and liberals alike, and a memo from another conservative organization accused the group of inflating its attendance numbers at conferences and boosting its membership with “racists & Nazi sympathizers.”

A recent tweet from Candace Owens, Turning Point’s outspoken communications director, also was the subject of criticism.

Owens, who skyrocketed to national fame after helping shepherd rap artist Kanye West through his transition from liberal social activist to a vocal supporter of Trump, received significant blowback recently after she tweeted that “the entire premise of #metoo is that women are stupid, weak, & inconsequential.”

Owens has yet to apologize publicly, and she did not do so explicitly at the young women’s conference. Nevertheless, she was greeted with a standing ovation before her speech Saturday afternoon, smiling as a song from West’s new album played quietly in the background.

“We’re all with you, Candace!” a young woman screamed from the crowd.

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