Photos by Santiago Ochoa
Turning Point USA, a controversial student-led political organization, has taken root at the UM-Flint campus.
Led by its president, UM-Flint biology major Gabrielle Stephens, the group is looking to bring political dialogue to the school. “Our goal is to basically bring conversation and be a place to invite everyone to come and be safe and talk about issues,” said Stephens.
However, this message of openness and acceptance can easily be obscured by the club’s signage across campus. Often times at public events hosted by TPUSA’s UM-Flint chapter, banners with “socialism sucks” written on them can be found.
“Their national message … my view is that it’s repulsive. It’s a lot of fear-mongering, a lot of us versus them,” said Sara Alouh, a student at UM-Flint who is in the process of forming a Young Democratic Socialists of America club on campus. “I just feel like there needs to be balance.”
Since its founding on campus last September, TPUSA has been the only major political organization at UM-Flint. It can be easy to see how the balance has been shifted to only one side of the political spectrum.
Donald Weismiller, a political science major, Student Government senator and founder of the recently resurrected American Socialist Union on campus, viewed TPUSA’s presence at UM-Flint as a detriment to students. Weismiller founded ASU as a direct response to the organization.
According to Weismiller, TPUSA is more about espousing certain political beliefs rather than creating a space for discussion and debate. “They’re [TPUSA] kind of more of a joke at this point … it’s a sideshow … it’s kinda just like you know ‘socialism sucks’ it’s not an argument. Like what is that about, what do you stand for? … So I don’t really see them as like, a big thing,” said Weismiller.
However, Stephens stressed the club’s mission is to open the door for political discussions between conservatives and liberals. She acknowledges TPUSA has gained a bad reputation among liberal college students. Despite this, she wants people to understand that as a campus club, TPUSA is here to incite conversation, not conflict.
“They have a perceived notion about us, and then we have a lot of people that come up and want to talk to us and they realize that we’re just students like them … We like to listen to what they have to say,” said Stephens.
Brandon Hahn, vice-president of the UM-Flint chapter, echoes Stephens’ views. “We have some students that even consider themselves moderate Democrats, we have some students who consider themselves conservative, some that are libertarian,” said Hahn.
In his opinion, UM-Flint, like many other campuses, resides in what he called a “bubble.” Inside it, everyone is liberal and progressive. He sees TPUSA as a haven for those students on the outside, saying “The nice thing about turning point is it’s sort of like … having a safe space for conservative and libertarian students,” said Hahn.
He believes the group of conservatives that have revealed themselves is not in a small minority at UM-Flint. “… It’s important to point out that the conservative and libertarian movement on campus is bigger than people think it is,” said Hahn.
Turning Point USA at both the national and local levels is officially non-partisan, a requirement to maintain it’s non-profit status. This non-partisan stance is what attracted Stephens and Hahn to the organization in the first place.
“For a short while, we had considered doing a College Republicans on campus, but we decided to go away from that because they have a very fine, specific expectation of what you can do, what you can say. In Turning Point, it’s more about ‘we believe in diversity of opinion,’” said Hahn.
Jacob Faxlanger, a transfer student from Aquinas College and biology major, said TPUSA’s non-partisan stance is one of the primary reasons why he is interested in joining the club.
“I still like participating in political organizations,” said Faxlanger. “I’m conservative myself and there’s not a lot of conservative voice on campus, so this is a way to get our voice heard.”
While on a local level having a politically diverse group of members can be easy, at the national level, TPUSA draws in overwhelmingly right-leaning support. To see this, one has to look no further than its founder, Charlie Kirk.
Kirk, a conservative, made a name for himself by founding TPUSA when he was 18 years old. Since then, he has established himself as a right-wing conservative pundit, making over 600 media appearances in the last seven years. Kirk has previously called Trump “the greatest president of our lifetime.”
Hahn is unmoved by this, insisting Kirk’s views don’t reflect those of TPUSA. “Even though he’s our executive officer, his views specifically don’t always reflect Turning Point’s platform. It’s just his views … there’s no secret he is very allied with President Trump. But when he does that, it’s not like he’s going there as Turning Point,” said Hahn.
While it can be debated whether or not Kirk’s views affect TPUSA’s political leaning, literature on the official TPUSA website states “Turning Point USA has embarked on a mission to build the most organized, active, and powerful conservative grassroots activist network on high school and college campuses across the country.”
TPUSA also maintains a “Professor’s Watchlist” intended “to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom,” according to the website.
In addition to this, TPUSA produces web series like “180”, aiming to change the viewer’s mind on a political issue. Episodes include “Why Radical Leftism is the New Fascism; Guns Don’t Create School Shootings, Leftist Policies Do; and Why God Belongs in Government.”
As one of the only political advocacy groups on campus, TPUSA has helped spark political conversation on campus once again. Its members, along with anyone willing to debate them, can often be found waxing philosophical about varying political ideologies.
If you are interested in joining Turning Point USA, you can email Gabrielle Stephens or Brandon Hahn.