What It Was Like at TPUSA’s Post-Election AmericaFest
MAGA’s response to the midterm shellacking is Maybe Let Go (of Ronna) and Let God (take the wheel).
Hey fam: It’s Tim Miller, sitting in for Charlie Sykes this morning. I traveled to the TPUSA conference in Phoenix last weekend to document how MAGA-world is coping with their losses and It. Was. Wild. I saw things a man can’t un-see. To be honest, I expected to experience schadenfreude, but ended up feeling kind of melancholy about it all.
And now I’m going to share why that is with you.
This kind of longform reporting is only possible because of the support of Bulwark+ members. The people at these conferences are important because they own the Republican Party. Those of us who are expats from that world understand their power intimately and that’s why it’s especially important that we are the ones keeping an eye on ‘em so you don’t have to.
If you’re part of the Bulwark+ gang, thank you. And if you’re not, I hope you’ll consider joining. We can have the kind of media we deserve, if we’re willing to build it together.
Phoenix, Arizona—It was meant to be lit. Maybe even based. A celebratory jubilee replete with ground-shaking bass and enough lasers to achieve net-energy positive nuclear fusion.
Such was the plan when MAGA-wing of the MAGA Party scheduled the second edition of Turning Point USA’s AMERICAFEST six weeks after the general election in Maricopa County—home to the most-MAGA slate of candidates in the entire nation. The plan was for the hottest influencers and most populist pols to take a victory lap following their expected midterm triumph to the cheers of 11,000 faithful. It was there in the gleaming Phoenix Convention Center that a hometown hero would bask in the spotlight(s) and ascend to the throne as the movement’s new queen.
You know what they say about best laid plans.
The midterm elections put a kink in AMERICAFEST’s party planning. A coronation was not on offer. There was nary a liberal tear to be sipped. So as I arrived in the valley of the sun on Saturday afternoon, what I was most curious to find out was how these right-wing political stars would grapple with that failure.
The answer? They didn’t.
AmFest navigated their electoral shellacking with neither weeping nor gnashing of teeth, but by undertaking a metamorphosis from political conference to tent revival for a GenZ God Squad that needed to be lifted up after a Fall of fails.
Instead of reflecting upon what they might have done to bring about such an unexpected, ahistorical midterm face-plant—and strategizing on how they might change course next cycle—the MAGA movement’s leaders cloaked the audience in a warm blanket of their existential rightness amidst a world gone mad.
As the conference’s chief memelord, Benny Johnson, told me Monday morning: A stage with “pyrotechnics” is not the place for boring lamentations or lessons from the types of candidates who performed better. “A guy like Mike DeWine would have a heart attack up there with all that firepower” he said, before imploring me to include that line in my dispatch (Note: Mike Dewine won by 25.6 points. Blake Masters lost by 5.)
Most of the speeches reflected Benny’s proposed rhetorical posture: ignoring the midterms beyond vague acknowledgments that some attendees might be dispirited while focusing instead on three main categories of material:
(1) Megachurch-style Ted Talks about how woke ideology has turned America into a fallen Sodom and Gomorrah that requires missionaries in an existential battle against evil itself.
(2) Celebrating the areas in society where they believe conservatives are ascendant, such as comedy.
(3) Harangues against the election thieves, particularly the host county’s municipal officials.
In practice, that meant being treated to:
A 20-minute speech entirely concerning the evils of preferred pronouns (by Matt Walsh, natch).
A competition for who could offer the most ostentatious praise to the gathering’s South African golden calf and his epic victory over Taylor Lorenz (on Twitter.)
Repeated ridicule of Sam Brinton, a non-binary deputy assistant secretary in the Energy Department who was fired recently after they were charged with felony theft.
A panel about how the American left are the spiritual successors to the Gnostic and Hermetic pagans and how they are on the cusp of either bringing Nazism to America or installing the devil in the kingdom of heaven.
Assorted treatises on how woke-ism is an assault on truth, followed by brazen lies about election theft and vaccine efficacy.
And speaker after speaker came back to one unifying message: The fight for MAGA values must continue, but believers should fear not—because the heathen Democrats are not really in charge, the man upstairs is. As such these foot soldiers were called to not concern themselves with worldly matters such as elections, but by engaging in a demographic competition of sorts by siring lots of children, getting a plot of land, and putting their faith in the Christian God.
“The way we win is to do away with the World Economic Fund, Great Reset garbage. We buy land. We have lots of kids,” Johnson said.
If you wanted to be generous, you could see this as the natural response of reactionary, but earnest, believers who see faith as their saving grace in the face of a culture that has gotten away from them.
That would be a fundamentally American response, actually, one with a tradition that dates back to before America was even a country so much as an unexplored land where settlers came so they might exercise their faith freely. And I’ll admit, there were a few moments where I saw somewhat heartening signs of this purity, such the break-out section on the “Blueprint for Masculinity” where a TPUSA leader beseeched attendees to be men of virtue who read to their kids and treat their wives with respect (Unmentioned: Herschel. But I’ll take what I can get.)
And yet this generous assessment was often undermined on the main stage, as the lineup of Righteous Gemstones’ calls to give oneself over to God were often followed by ridiculing women as fat, or celebrating a scheme that used refugees as props in a big troll, or by flipping the bird at the “bastards” in the media. Most of what was on offer looked like a brand of Christian nationalism that’s thick with Christian iconography and thin on Jesus’s teaching.
But regardless of whether this preaching was a real calling or a sacraligious scam, as a political matter, it was a bit beside the point. Because ostensibly the purpose of politicians and political advocates at a political gathering in a democratic nation is to gather support for an agenda that might appeal to their fellow man.
On that count the answers were shockingly spare.
This conundrum was on display most clearly in the remarks of the weekend's keynote speakers, Tucker Carlson and Kari Lake.
For Lake the question of how to deal with the midterm losses was made somewhat easier by the fact that in the gauzy, vaseline-coated fantasy world she inhabits her defeats didn’t happen.
She began her remarks with this subtle declaration: “We won. We did win. Big.” After this she marveled over how there was not an empty seat in the house (my row had 11 unfilled chairs).
Lake proceeded to engage in a feud with “fake news” media members which was fake—in the literal sense— the mainstream press was not in attendance except for three or four reporters scattered throughout the hall. At multiple points Lake instructed the crowd to turn around and taunt a riser that she pretended was filled with media members—but actually was populated by unsuspecting regular attendees who wanted a higher vantage point to watch Lake from. Her speech also had a running schtick about how the media’s TV cameras' red lights were turning off anytime she uttered a provocative election falsehood. But the only cameras on the stage were for the event's house feed; and they never turned off.
After her most bawdy heckle of this non-existent foe—flipping the bird at the imaginary “bastards”—a middle school-aged girl looked at me typing on my computer, worried I might be one of the evildoers, and offered a sheepish grimace. She mouthed “you are not a reporter are you” before putting her hands over her face. Her expression gave me a sharp pang of sadness.
Lake went on to dub herself a “proud election denying deplorable” cringily declaring that her pronouns are “I/Won” before getting into the same old song and dance that the Stop the Steal movement’s Fat Elvis has thrusted in our face for years now. “They have to outright steal elections . . . at 3am everything changed . . . highway robbery . . . free and fair elections is the issue of our time . . . sham . . . rigged . . . fraudsters . . . etc. etc. etc.”
Her big reveal was to tell the audience that she is taking the Arizona election challenge all the way to the Supreme Court if necessary. This was received with whooping and thundering applause. (Meanwhile here on earth, a lower court judge sanctioned Lake’s legal team for “furthering false narratives” and the morning after her speech 8 out of the campaign’s 10 legal claims were dismissed outright).
At a hotel bar after the speech, Lake’s team assured me that her hallucinatory claims about the “steal” are in fact genuine, which I find preposterous. But whether or not Kari Lake really believes her own nonsense is neither here nor there. What matters is that the performance she put on was convincing enough to win over many of the assembled. Many of those I spoke to told me that they believed she was robbed. The cheers for her attacks on Maricopa County election officials were raucous and she was mobbed by admirers in the VIP section of the Project Veritas after-party. I did encounter one glimmer of sanity in the form of a student who told me he thought she lost and this was all part of a PR strategy to ingratiate herself with Trump. (I am concerned that this astute young man has a one-way ticket to Cucktown!)
Like many other speakers, Lake infused her delusions with Christian Nationalist bromides. The former kabbalah practitioner declared that “We are Americans and we bow to one king. That is our creator, God.” She went on, “We gotta bring back God, guys. I wanna bring someone else back too. I think you know who I’m talking about. Donald J. Trump.”
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On the matter of god-king-Trump’s return, Tucker Carlson made sure the crowd knew that he was a neutral party. (Though he did concede that talking with Trump was one of life’s great “animal pleasures.” Rawr.) Yet Carlson’s Friday-night keynote did include one telling observation on the matter: He said that that having leaders who “think they are God” will “lead to disaster.”
You don’t say.
But it wasn’t just this insight that set Carlson apart. His remarks had more depth than much of the main-stage fare because he seemed to be genuinely coping with his disappointment in real-time.
He began with an admission that he was emotionally impacted by the midterms in a way that he had not been in past elections, because he had “never gotten anything so wrong in my life.” (Wronger than he’d been when he used to do “hit pieces” on his new idol Patrick Buchanan? Wronger than when he used to champion immigration? Wronger than he was when he was an Iraq War cheerleader? Hard to say, I guess. It’s a competitive category.) Carlson said that he was certain that any “normal” person would reject the Democrats, because of all the horrors of American life that he embellishes on his television show five nights a week.
Tucker shared that after the results came in he needed some time to “marinate in my shame” so he took a few days off from the Fox to go on a pheasant hunting pilgrimage in an effort to find the beginnings of clarity. “And here is what I concluded,” he declared.
Naturally, this verbal queue made me get the typing fingers ready, prepared to take down what the leading MAGA infotainment purveyor thought the lessons were from the American people’s third straight rejection of his worldview.
But what came next was less a conclusion about the election and more a metaphysical stream of ruminations babbling down a mountain, around a few bends, and over the heads of those who came for a political rally. If I had to stitch it on a pillow, his theme was accepting humility and even helplessness when it comes to elections and instead turning to God and summoning the strength to grow in the face of suffering.
Carlson said he even surprised himself with this suggestion, being that he was, up until two years ago an Episcopalian, a religious sect that he repeatedly ridiculed as pagan over the course of the speech. But he had come to believe that giving oneself over to the omnipotent eternal was the only answer given the ruling Democrats’ being rewarded at the ballot box despite their (supposed) rejection of god, truth, and beauty.
It’s possible I’m making this speech sound more linear and philosophical than it was. In the course of his remarks Carlson lamented modern art and architecture, calling Frank Gehry “disgusting and destructive to the human spirit.” He declared that Montana voters’ rejection of the “Born-Alive Infant Protection Act” was a sign that there is an underlying evil in our land. He offered life hacks for the TPUSA students including a suggestions that they “run away” from big cities in favor of “a log cabin in a pine forest with a wood stove.” He also suggested they spend a half-hour a day in silence. “I sit alone in a hot wood room and just try and listen. . .It’s almost like a religious exercise.” (Note to self: Silent sauna time is butch, religious, and MAGA. Silent yoga meditation is demonic and liberal).
Carlson closed his prepared (-ish) remarks with a ray of hope
It is from the remote, silent, godly, Bendictine perch in the woods that the students can “wait for the dawn, which is coming.”
Uplifting! Not quite “We just owned the libz so hard, bitches!” But you work with what you got.
During the Q&A portion, a student asked Carlson about “what the establishment class has done to We The People.”
First Carlson acknowledged the young man’s pain, giving voice to how “horrifying” it must be to realize that it’s not just the left that is after you but that “your side hates you too.” He then suggested unsubtly that the Republican National Committee replace Ronna Romney McDaniel, referencing the use of committee funds on “LuluLemon” and other frivolous items.
“You’re flying on private planes with the money that, like, sweet, terrified Republican voters have sent to you from the middle of the country,” Carlson said. “And you’re losing elections. No. If you win elections, well, we can talk about it. If you’re losing, get out. We cannot reward incompetence.”
Carlson’s suggestion was echoed by others I spoke to, including Rep. Matt Gaetz, who provided the most substantive proposals for improved performance that I heard all weekend. At the Project Veritas party, decked out in a tailored black-on-black-on-black suit—the kind of outfit a guy might wear to Liberace’s funeral—Gaetz recommended that the RNC needed to compete better with Democrats on turnout modeling, data targeting, and early voting. He sensibly suggested that it was a mistake to only vote on “one day” when Democrats are voting on “lots of days.”
Gaetz also felt like the party was behind when it came to finding low propensity voters who share their values, saying if Democrats had an event like this they’d be using it to figure out how to get to the 8 people in the apartment building in the key district that needed to be turned out.
Following this soliloquy Gaetz and several onlookers, including a bleach-blonde cougar, an advisor to RNC chair candidate Harmeet Dhillon, and several youths dressed for a sorority semi-formal, jeered Ronna Romney in unison and informed me they were unanimous in their desire to see her removed. (Note: this entire exchange is paraphrased, as I was a few bourbons deep and chose not to prominently display a recording device given that I was a member of the reviled fake news media and was already was drawing suspicious interest thanks to my peach-colored beanie. The good news is I did retain this video documentation of the events host James O’Keefe performing a rousing theatre-kid rhythm tap routine to the 2011 club hit “Party Rock Anthem” by LMFAO feat: Lauren Bennet & Goonrock.)
Gaetz and Carlson’s instincts were shared by others I met, including the founder and executive director of event sponsor TPUSA, Charlie Kirk, TPUSA COO Tyler Bowyer (who has a vote on this matter as Arizona’s National Committeeman), and the aforementioned Benny Johnson, who told me that he had “nothing against Ronna but it was a performance-based job and time to move on.”
A TPUSA Action poll of attendees showed that Romney McDaniel had only 1.7 percent support at the gathering, putting her 30 points behind delusional pillow-magnate Mike Lindell. (Who has a shocking level of support for someone that other crackheads look at and think “that guy is a little crazy.”) The other Republican elected officials featured at the event weren’t keen to come to the chairwoman’s defense—all declined to engage on the RNC’s performance, including Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) and Rep. Byron Donalds (R-FL) in the hall and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-MO) via a spokesperson.
Unlike the Republicans in Washington, who have engaged in some light finger-pointing, alternatively determining that it was Trump or McConnell or Rick Scott who was to blame for the elections and suggesting that the party undertake a Don’t-Call-It-An-Autopsy to see what the they could do better, the core MAGA performers and voters don’t feel like such actions are really necessary.
They might not have won in the midterms, but it doesn’t seem to matter. They are all having the time of their lives and have no interest in making a change that might cause the show to end.
Their id was best encapsulated by the final minutes of Johnson’s meme-ified performance on the main stage Saturday afternoon. He ridiculed the movement’s foes, raised the gathered up in righteousness, and refused to worry what impact such a performance might have on a broader audience that doesn’t share their grievances or passions.
“Don’t be caught up in the trials and tribulations of the politics of the day to day . . . Family is the answer to everything they have planned for you. Get married. Have tons of kids. Raise them as good, godly, faithful, patriotic. . . That is how we win.”
He then closed with a video meant to trigger the left during which the former president emerged victorious from a Thanksgiving turkey and asked the crowd to stand up and join him in a rousing rendition of Y.M.C.A as the signature pyrotechnics filled the hall.
The Democrats might have won the election, but for the young men at AmericaFest there was no need to feel down. With God, and Trump, all things are possible.
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ty Tim. This stuff would never make it into my bubble if you weren't bravely wading in and reporting it out. We are all that embarrassed middle-school girl.
I need a few bourbons myself.
For some reason I read this piece in Walton Goggins' voice: "Be not afeared, children! We're movin' to the promised land! Yellowstone Ranch is real! A man can breathe the clean air, shoot him a bear, and have a passel of little 'uns with nary a librul in sight! *breaks out in clog dancing*....fade.....