By Logan Hullinger
INDIANA — There’s a new political group on campus, and it’s not your parents’ Democrats or Republicans.
Turning Point USA, a nonprofit founded in 2012 by conservative wunderkind Charlie Kirk, of Wheeling, Ill., claims chapters at more than 1,000 college campuses and high schools nationwide. Among its most recent beachheads is Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
Kirk, 24, son of Robert W. Kirk, a project manager for Trump Towers in New York City, is a frequent guest on Fox News, a supporter of candidate Donald Trump and a contributor to Breitbart.com.
Turning Point, known for such slogans such as “socialism sucks,” “taxation is theft” and “communism is evil,” has won support from such conservative figureheads as U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas; conservative mega-donor Foster Friess (who spent $2.1 million on a failed GOP presidential bid by former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.) and Donald Trump Jr. The political group focuses on conservative ideology and targets collegiate millennials.
At IUP, the Student Government Association officially recognized the Turning Point USA chapter in September. The recognition means Turning Point may hold fundraising events on campus and may request money from the Student Cooperative Association, which receives funding from student activity fees paid by every IUP student.
The Co-Op doesn’t offer funding to political, religious or academic group, Louis F. “Lou” Garzarelli, Co-Op executive director, said in a Nov. 27 phone interview.
The IUP chapter of Turning Point was recognized not for its beliefs but for its organization, said SGA senator Jesse J. Brown in a Nov. 19 email.
BRANDON T. Uhalik, an IUP communications media major and IUP Turning Point USA chapter president, said his group has values.
“Our values are economic freedom, free markets and limited government,” said Uhalik in a Nov. 14 interview in IUP’s Humanities and Social Sciences Building. “We steer clear of social issues. But I can’t speak for other chapters. This is what helps us cater to more people.”
When he arrived at IUP, Uhalik, now a junior, said he “didn’t even know there were college Republicans or college Democrats on campus, as they are very inactive.”
The IUP College Democrats and IUP College Republicans declined to respond to Nov. 14 email inquiries.
Uhalik said he intended to “start something fresh, something different.”
He attended last year’s Student Action Summit, Turning Point USA’s annual event, in West Palm Beach, Fla., where he was recruited.
“One of the representatives reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in starting it up,” he said. “I’m in Greek life, so that kind of helped. I already had guys that wanted to become involved with it. So that gave us a good startup base.”
AT IUP, THE STARTUP went quietly and smoothly. At other campuses, not so much.
Some schools have denied Turning Point USA official recognition out of concern that it would incite harmful rhetoric and chaos on campus. In February, a Turning Point USA chapter was denied recognition by the student senate at Santa Clara University in California.
The organization has been labeled neo-fascist and alt-right, a political movement widely criticized as radical, violent and intolerant.
Such descriptions are “furthest from the truth,” Uhalik said. TPUSA distances itself from “social issues” such as racism, gender identity and abortion, he added.
“Extremists on both sides are ridiculous,” he said. “For the most part, that’s everything that TP stands against. Social issues can be the most heated and divided, and those are what college students mostly focus on because that’s what is mostly in the media.”
Uhalik, a fiscal conservative, shares “some liberal-leaning beliefs on social issues,” he said.
Willard W. Radell, an IUP economics professor, expressed skepticism of the organization’s asserted bipartisanship.
“I wouldn’t take too seriously their claim of broad membership,” he wrote in a Nov. 27 email. “They are probably trying to claim non-partisanship to preserve a tax exemption.”
Radell added that he saw little economic legitimacy behind the organization.
“I’ve looked at TPUSA’s website, and I don’t see any real economics there,” he said. “It is mostly anti-government ideology without empirical basis. TPUSA seems to equate government and socialism, which is odd considering Uncle Sam’s long history of successfully promoting capitalism under both Democratic and Republican administrations.”
NATIONALLY, TPUSA SPOKESPEOPLE espouse strong conservative positions and align themselves with Donald Trump.
For example, TPUSA founder Kirk spoke at the 2016 GOP national convention in Cleveland. He is a contributor at Breitbart News Network, an organization that has been described as a platform for white nationalists.
Additionally, the national organization’s website promotes speakers such as Steve Bannon, executive chairman of Breitbart; conservative firebrand Tomi Lahren and Ben Shapiro, all of whom have been identified with fiscally conservative beliefs and for their controversial views on gender identity and race.
Uhalik, however, was quick to distance IUP’s chapter from the views espoused by the organization’s figureheads.
“Extremists on both sides are ridiculous,” he said.
STILL, the IUP chapter faced a cool reception from some, said Uhalik
“It was hard for us to even get a faculty adviser,” he said. “A lot of Republican professors said ‘no’ because they didn’t have tenure and were afraid it could affect it.”
Alexi S. Thompson, an IUP economics professor, agreed to become the organization’s faculty advisor. Thompson didn’t respond to Nov. 20 emails.
The IUP chapter lists nearly 60 members and more than 150 student emails.
“People say college students are predominantly liberal, but I think they’re predominantly independent,” Uhalik said. “They just haven’t found out what they truly want to identify as. I was raised liberal after all, and now I’m a registered Republican. We just want to educate people.”
Education comes from open political discussion, Uhalik said.
“You’re in college; you should expose yourself to different viewpoints,” he said. “We hold conservative beliefs, but we don’t label ourselves a conservative group. We just educate others on our beliefs, like free markets and capitalism. We’ve held events in support of free speech on campus, which luckily IUP doesn’t have a problem with.”
THE NATIONAL organization, however, doesn’t share the same embrace of free speech.
Turning Point USA’s sister website, Professor Watchlist, provides a database of professors nationwide who contradict the organization’s predominantly conservative beliefs.
According to the website, its mission is to “to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.”
The website provides the full names of professors and the schools where they teach. IUP does not appear on the list.
Uhalik acknowledged that TPUSA is a platform for support of President Trump. Uhalik’s social-media profiles display photos of him sporting head-to-toe Trump apparel.
But Uhalik claimed non-partisanship.
“We are a non-partisan organization, so we can’t identify as solely Republican,” he said. “People are afraid to branch out to different politics, although I wouldn’t say Trump’s a true Republican anyway. We register people to vote, but we’re not allowed to endorse a candidate. Less gossip, more activism.”
UHALIK SAID he is consulting booking agents to bring speakers to campus, such as Charlie Kirk, Ben Shapiro or Tomi Lahren. He plans to hold fundraising events and seek grants from the national organization to subsidize costs, he said.
The national organization, as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit entity, is not required to disclose the names of its donors. However, the organization’s revenue is available from its annual Form 990 Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax, which contains annual revenues and expenditures.
According to Citizen Audit, an online database of nonprofit organizations’ sources and expenses, Turning Point USA received more than $2 million in revenue in 2015 and spent $1.17 million.
Uhalik predicted prosperity for Turning Point.
“We’re only going to keep growing,” he said. “I can only hope Democrat and Republican organizations are going to grow as well. Political discussion is vital on college campuses.”
Logan R. Hullinger, a senior journalism major at Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a staff reporter for The HawkEye, is from Clarion. He may be contacted at L.R.Hullinger@iup.edu