Six men and women, dressed in black robes and holding candles on an elaborate stage, danced around a man kneeling in prayer while a crowd of thousands in Phoenix roared in support and snapped cellphone pictures.
“Gangsta’s Paradise,” the 1995 rap staple by Coolio, blared during this portion of the dramatic retelling of the life of James O’Keefe. Stage lights beamed into the air, and massive video screens promoted O’Keefe’s forthcoming book.
The 20-minute drama-and-dance show celebrated O’Keefe, the founder of the conservative group Project Veritas. O’Keefe is a self-described “citizen journalist” whose controversial undercover tactics targeting the media, Democrats and their causes have most recently embroiled him in an FBI investigation related to the alleged theft of a diary belonging to President Joe Biden’s daughter.
But in Phoenix on Monday, O’Keefe’s story was cheered by thousands of conservatives who came together for a four-day conference dubbed “AmericaFest.”
The four-day gathering that ended Tuesday fused faith, fear and politics and showed the growing magnetism and unorthodox approach of its host organization, Turning Point USA.
WHAT DID I JUST WATCH 🤯 #AMFEST2021 pic.twitter.com/AhVv0FkuNB
Turning Point hopes to christen and energize a generation of conservative activists through a distinctly non-establishment vibe. This was no country club gathering, it was flames shooting up from the stage and seat-rumbling bass beats more typical of a professional wrestling spectacle. The conference opened with “The Star-Spangled Banner” played on electric guitar.
And the method is drawing the approval of some of the most controversial figures in Republican politics, who urged young people to continue their movement in defense of conservative values.
Speakers included politicians and loyalists to President Donald Trump who deny the outcome of the 2020 election, and they served up hours of validation for beliefs that were anti-COVID-19 mandate, anti-elitist, anti-abortion and anti-transgender.
The messages were at times alarmist and patriotic, under the guise of a dire need to save America from the Biden administration and more broadly, what they viewed as a liberal agenda set on wrecking the U.S. Constitution.
“We as Americans must understand it is a gift we get to live in the United States of America, a gift from God that we get to be Americans, the freest, most prosperous, greatest nation ever to exist,” Charlie Kirk, the 28-year-old firebrand founder of Turning Point USA, said on the opening night.
“America has always been focused on eternal principles rooted in the natural law. We as conservatives, we are people that want to conserve the good, the true and the beautiful, against those that want to try and destroy it.”
The conference transformed two cavernous meeting halls at the Phoenix Convention Center into a platform for politicians by day, and country music artists by night.
Lee Greenwood, whose song “God Bless the U.S.A.” is a staple at conservative events and a favorite of former President Trump’s, and country musicians Brantley Gilbert and Dustin Lynch headlined.
Turning Point rented roughly 300,000 square feet of space in the city-owned building for $97,000, according to convention center spokesperson Jacqueline Davis. The main conference area had seating for just shy of 6,700 — and for many speakers, who rotated through in roughly 30-minute intervals, it was packed. Kirk told the crowd about 10,000 people had registered to attend.
Attendees weaved through crowded hallways around pillars emblazoned with “#biggovsucks.” They wore “Let’s go Brandon” cowboy hats and T-shirts. The three-word slogan is a stand-in for an insult to Biden that has become a rallying cry for some conservatives, despite the wishes of the racecar driver who is the namesake for the chant.
Almost no one wore a mask despite a national surge in COVID-19 cases tied to the omicron variant, which has caused some nations to reinstitute lockdowns, schools to close and families to question travel plans during the holidays.
Iva Hogue and Rosemary Spaulding, both of Phoenix, said they attended in search of camaraderie among those with similar beliefs. Both support Josh Barnett, a congressional candidate who has supported Qanon conspiracy theories, and believe Trump won the 2020 election.
It’s “very important to know that we’re not alone, that there are other people that are like-minded,” Hogue said.
Turning Point and its related political advocacy organization, Turning Point Action, are probably most well known for the political arm’s work to mobilize students to vote for the former president through Students for Trump. The organization hosted Trump in Phoenix during the summer of 2020, drawing students from out of state despite concerns about the growing number of coronavirus cases.
Despite not attending college himself, Kirk created a conservative movement focused on young adults at the nation’s high schools and institutions of higher education. He created a platform to report professors who “advance leftist propaganda,” and has shifted focus to K-12 school boards as a new battleground in the culture war.
Nearly a decade after its founding, Turning Point USA says it has a “presence” on 2,500 high school and college campuses, and Kirk has become a popular conservative commentator.
But Turning Point’s free market and limited government ideas drew people of all ages to Phoenix just before Christmas.
“I find out there in my travels a lot of people my age or younger, you know 60s or 50s, they don’t know about this going on here, and I tell them about it,” said Therese Lamb, 72, of Spring Valley. “It feels good,” she said, to see energy spreading among young conservatives.
Lamb voted for Trump, but said she wouldn’t do so again if he runs in 2024. She didn’t want “another four years of fighting,” she said, preferring someone new to step in to represent conservative values.
Locally, Turning Point — which is headquartered in Phoenix — has helped shift Arizona’s state Republican party to the right, leaving behind some establishment Republicans. Kirk has received criticism for furthering false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from Trump and misinformation about coronavirus.
Turning Point’s Chief Operating Officer Tyler Bowyer served as the Republican national committeeman from Arizona for the 2020 cycle. Justin Olson worked as Turning Point’s chief finance officer while serving on the Arizona Corporation Commission, though he resigned from Turning Point this year to run for U.S. Senate.
It’s hard to measure whether the group’s efforts to spread conservativism have worked, but its star power certainly has grown.
Turning Point USA’s revenue jumped from $4.3 million in 2016 to $39 million in 2020, according to tax filings. Turning Point Action spent over $1.5 million in the 2020 election cycle supporting Republican candidates, predominantly Trump, according to campaign filings.
And when it decides to have an annual gathering, some of the biggest figures in conservative politics show up.
Speakers included U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, U.S. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. Political hopefuls came to raise their profile, too, including Kari Lake, for the former television news anchor running as a Republican for governor of Arizona. Lake hosted meet and greets with the public and snapped a selfie with Greene.
Arizona congressmen Andy Biggs and Paul Gosar, who both have faced scrutiny over connections to the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, headlined one panel. Arizona’s 2020 ballot review, which proved Biden won the election here, was highlighted during its own panel by state Senate President Karen Fann, Sen. Sonny Borrelli and Rep. Jake Hoffman, all Republicans.
Meanwhile, establishment Republicans like Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey didn’t attend.
Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson decried what he described as arresting people for “walking down the hall in the Capitol building,” referencing the insurrection of Jan. 6 and adding he was “not OK with broken windows.” Fox Nation, the Fox News streaming service, was the leading sponsor of the conference.
Turning Point USA spokesman Andrew Kolvet said guests whose views were extremist and controversial were hosted by Turning Point because it values the right to free speech.
But in doing so, the organization gave a literal microphone to people who veered the message from anti-mandate to anti-vaccine, and from support of self-defense to violence, as two examples.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin told the crowd that she would get the COVID-19 vaccine “over my dead body.”
The next day, Greene publicly affirmed she was not vaccinated.
“They’re gonna have a hell of a time if they want to hold me down and give me a vaccine,” she said.
And there was Donald Trump Jr., who stood onstage, theatrically winking at the crowd, giving the thousands who gathered a moment to laugh. He was talking about Kyle Rittenhouse and the men Rittenhouse shot in Kenosha, Wisconsin, including one who was a convicted sex offender.
“It doesn’t mean they, maybe, deserve to get shot,” Trump said just before the over-the-top winks. “But if someone’s going to get shot it might as well be a pedophile.”
“I would never condone …,” he started, but stopped himself. “I’m not going to disclaim that one, it is what it is. Run with it you jerks.”
Trump’s trivial treatment of violence came a day before Rittenhouse himself would step onto the same stage, receiving a standing ovation.
Greene decried what she called the “communist revolution in America,” and furthered a conspiracy theory that rioters at the U.S. Capitol were aided by federal agents. Though Carlson and others have repeated such claims, none has provided evidence of a coordinated government effort allowing the insurrection.
Men in the mirror: Cardinals’ reflection after blowout loss to Lions shows which way is upDevelopments coming to Gilbert: a downtown Phoenix boutique, trendy restaurants, a DIY craft studio and a water parkEthics investigation of Brnovich could alter election laws in ArizonaCentro de Esperanza to provide aid to migrants waiting in border city of Sonoyta, Sonora
The Georgia congresswoman claimed defendants charged in the Capitol riots were treated differently than others because they supported Trump, a “two-tiered” justice system created because “people in charge do not believe in the Constitution, they do not believe in freedom, they do not care about protecting it. As a matter of fact, they’re destroying it as we speak,” she said.
“Now, this leads us all to ask the question, what do we do?”
“Firing squad,” someone shouted from the back.
Some attendees cheered the say-anything spirit — one young attendee proclaimed Rittenhouse had “killed a pedophile, that’s good,” with a laugh — but others saw it as damaging to conservatives overall.
Greg Fanning, 19, of Ohio, came to Phoenix for networking opportunities. Fanning is the chairman of the Young Republicans of Lorain County, Ohio, and a student at Hillsdale College in Michigan. Fanning said rhetoric used by lawmakers like Greene was “unhealthy for the movement.”
“I’m a conservative because I believe in the movement, but nothing’s ever gonna be perfect,” he said. “I think it’s gonna be mostly good, but there’s always gonna be that little bit of bad.”
Reach reporter Stacey Barchenger at [email protected] or 480-416-5669. Follow her on Twitter @sbarchenger.
Thank you for subscribing. This premium content is made possible because of your continued support of local journalism.