On October 18, 2017, members of right-wing student group Turning Point USA (TPUSA) staged a protest against safe spaces by dressing up in diapers and soothers on the campus of Kent State University during “Free Speech Week.” The idea was to make fun of the political left by dressing up as literal babies. But in the process, TPUSA itself became the butt of a joke, mocked as “Toilet Paper USA” and turned into a viral meme by the Twitter left.
The so-called diaper incident may end up being TPUSA’s undoing, or at least the beginning of the end. The group has since come under intense scrutiny and criticism for its controversial and plodding "activism," and in turn, has lost funding and had members resign.
Since its inception, TPUSA has been a right-wing success story, reaping millions in donation revenue annually, being backed by major Republican party donors and becoming one of the most prominent conservative student groups in the United States, in part due to its online organizing prowess and savviness using memes and image macros to appeal to millennials. TPUSA was founded in 2012 by then 18-year-old Charlie Kirk, a right-wing activist from a wealthy Chicago suburb. At the time, Kirk had been rejected from West Point Military Academy, which he blamed on affirmative action. A non-student, Kirk decided to create the student advocacy group.
Charlie Kirk met Foster Friess, a businessman and prominent Republican donor, at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Kirk successfully pitched TPUSA to Friess, landing him a six-figure donation to finance his burgeoning organization; Friess now serves on the advisory council. Since becoming the astroturf group of choice for wealthy right-wing types, TPUSA has grown to more than 1,000 university and high school chapters across the United States. In 2014, TPUSA had $2 million in contribution revenue, which ballooned to more than $4.3 million by the end of the 2015 fiscal year, as ProPublica noted. Leaked documents have shown that this money was secretly used to fund conservative student government campaigns.
While TPUSA has a “mission of identifying, organizing, and empowering free market activists” in the predominantly liberal ecosystem of academia, its methods of outreach and activism to conservative students have proven controversial. For instance, in 2016, TPUSA launched “Professor Watchlist,” a directory of liberal, so-called “un-American” professors for conservative students to keep an eye on. The website says its purpose is “to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”
Professor Watchlist has come under a storm of criticism. In an unrelated 2016 event, a Donald Trump supporter named Carl Higbie suggested that Japanese internment camps set a historical precedent for Trump’s proposed Muslim Registry. With the launch of the liberal surveillance site, TPUSA’s watchlist has been scrutinized in these comments. Cataloging a liberal professor’s name, location, photo and alleged offenses into a database sets a terrifying premise for the implications of conservative activism.
Throughout its existence, TPUSA has been a meme-making machine, blasting out content reminiscent of the internet’s earlier days. Its main Twitter account and university chapter accounts spew an unending stream of stock photos overlain with quotes in Impact font such as “Big Government Sucks,” “Crying Doesn't Solve Problems,” “Not Everyone Is A Winner” and “There Are No Safe Spaces.” The right-wing group sells T-shirts with similar messaging in its online store, including “Guns Save Lives," “Socialism Sucks," “I Love Capitalism" and "Taxation Is Theft.”
What may have been a conservative force to reckon with due to its seven-figure financial backing has instead almost undone itself altogether through its laughable, meme-worthy attempts to rile up campus leftists. At a Chicago Socialist Conference, TPUSA members attempted to out-argue leftists by using one-liners like "You have some nice Nikes on!" and "You like those good capitalist french fries?" Elsewhere, the TPUSA chapter of University of California, San Diego, hosted a free speech event at which it had a massive inflatable beach ball on which attendees were to write messages, often intentionally offensive ones. However, a pocket knife–wielding leftist student who called himself “Karl Marx” popped said balloon, prompting TPUSA to call in campus security over the perceived violation of its safe space.
While Professor Watchlist is undoubtedly terrifying and dystopian, TPUSA has demonstrated that the thought process behind a good portion of its activism and outreach is half-baked. Now that the activist group can't tweet or post without some lefty troll calling up the “Toilet Paper USA” insult, TPUSA’s latest attempts to stir the political pot have backfired. Charlie Kirk himself has become a meme after tweeting a photo of himself scowling in a white button-up shirt and hands on hips on a white background. The image reads “God is real. Taxes are theft. There are only 2 genders. USA is the best country ever. Socialism kills. Hillary should be in prison." The photo of Charlie Kirk was parodied by other Twitter users, captioning their renditions with “When that last episode of The Handmaid's Tale hits a bit too close to the mark" and "When your mom forgot to wash your other white button downs.”
With much of TPUSA’s efforts inadvertently becoming fodder for lefty enthusiasm, it’s uncertain where the conservative student group is headed next. What’s certain is that in spite of its bank account, the group has done little to upset its opponents and, in fact, has lost many of its own. In the comedic aftermath of the diaper incident, Kaitlin Bennett, the former Kent State University TPUSA president, wrote an angry resignation letter.
“As of right now, I am in disbelief at how I went from being so upbeat, enthusiastic, and passionate about this organisation to being disgusted, frustrated, and embarrassed to have invested my entire senior year into an organisation founded by a college dropout who hires some of the most incompetent, lazy, and downright dishonest people I have ever encountered,” she wrote.
As the now-suspended Twitter account of Kent State University TPUSA (@TPUSAatKent) put it in a tweet from February 12, 2018: "Charlie Kirk[,] you should’ve been the one in the diaper."