On the stage of an influential activist group’s two-day conference, far-right conspiracy theorists, Republican presidential candidates and members of Congress veered into Christian nationalist evangelising, QAnon-adjacent conspiracy mongering and a bleak picture of an America in rapid decline under Democratic leadership.
The guest speakers at Turning Point USA’s inaugural Turning Point Action Conference in Florida repeatedly denied the existence of transgender people, claimed that support for Ukraine is built on a lie, and characterised President Joe Biden as both a frail and incapable stooge and the most corrupt politician of all time.
And they professed their loyalty to both Donald Trump, who delivered rambling remarks in primetime on 15 July, and to Tucker Carlson, the former Fox News pundit celebrated by Turning Point guests as the key figure who can articulate their long list of grievances.
In his own keynote address, a giddy Carlson turned his attention to what he perceives is a campaign of censorship and free speech targeting right-wing Americans, as he downplayed the January 6 attack, boosted false and misleading claims about Russia and Covid-19, and assured his audience that they “have a right to decide who you hate” on whatever basis they want.
Carlson was fired from Fox News shortly after the network settled with Dominion Voting Systems for $787m to avert a blockbuster defamation trial in which his segments and statements would be crucial evidence. He also is the subject of another defamation lawsuit against Fox from a man accused of being a federal agent who incited the riots.
Carlson claimed there was never a national “conversation” about what happened in the election and its aftermath, despite the mountain of litigation, evidence, audits, bipartisan reports and jury verdicts that confirmed the results and brought convictions against hundreds of people who joined the assault.
But he said that Americans who have questioned the outcome and the attack were “basically hounded out of public life,” including being fired from their jobs, which the crowd appeared to think was a reference to himself.
“Pretty funny,” Carlson said, laughing. “Sorry, I was so into it I lost self-awareness for a minute.”
Vivek Ramaswamy, a Trump booster among Republican candidates vying for the 2024 Republican nomination, invented a baseless narrative about the January 6 attack, which he did not blame on bogus conspiracy theories or the actions of people who refused to accept a democratic election but on a “pervasive culture of censorship”.
“When you tell people they can’t scream, that’s when they start tearing things down,” he said.
In his remarks, the former president – the subject of separate criminal investigations into efforts to subvert the election’s outcome – repeated his baseless claim that the 2020 election was “rigged” against him and that the current probes are another attempt to “rig” the next.
“Every time the radical left Democrats indict me, I consider it to be a great badge of honour and courage,” he said. “I am doing it for you. I am being indicted for you.”
Former Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, who is seeking the Republican nomination, was met with boos and “Trump” chants when he got to the stage on Sunday afternoon.
The former president’s eldest son Donald Trump Jr later said on the stage that at least Mr Hutchsinson “had the b****” to show up to the conference, unlike the “absentee” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who did not appear at the event.
Mr Trump, however, did not attend a separate Carlson-led evangelical summit on 14 July. He seized on his rival’s absence at Turning Point’s conference, where GOP members of Congress pledged their unending support to the former president.
“Of course, we ride or die with President Donald John Trump,” Florida US Rep Matt Gaetz said in his remarks on Saturday.
Former Vice President Mike Pence, who one day earlier was forced on the defensive after Carlson grilled him for supporting American military aid to Ukraine, did not appear at the Turning Point event.
At Turning Point, Carlson continued his attacks on the former vice president and a narrative of Ukraine that has shaped an element of the Republican Party and its base while earning accolades from Russian state media.
“If you’re a Christian leader and Christians are going to jail for their views, you are required to say something,” said Carlson, reviving a misleading narrative that accuses Ukraine’s Jewish leader Volodymyr Zelensky of persecuting Christian priests. “And if you don’t, you’re not much of a Christian leader.”
“How thankful are we for Tucker Carlson revealing true snakes … who do not have our best interests in mind,” said right-wing commentator Benny Johnson, between cackling over viral clips of President Biden and “boos” directed at Mr Pence.
But in speaker after speaker, in echoes of the Conservative Political Action Conference and Republican events and statehouses across the country, Turning Point’s agenda repeatedly turned to transgender people as a scapegoat for what pundits and candidates believe is America’s collapse.
US Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene launched into a transphobic speech using Jeff Foxworthy-style setups to accuse Democratic officials and voters of being paedophiles for supporting transition healthcare.
Turning Point Action CEO Charlie Kirk spelt out explicitly that anti-trans attacks are a “winner politically for Republicans.”
“There should be a healthy measure of ridicule,” former Fox News personality Megyn Kelly Kirk during a lengthy discussion about trans people and the erasure of trans rights.
“These people are freaks. They’re perverts, by the way, if they go into a women’s locker room,” Kirk said.
Asked how she feels about being labelled transphobic, Kelly said: “OK, whatever, honestly I’ve been called worse … Let them call you whatever you want. Who gives a damn.”
Attorney Harmeet Dhillon, who unsuccessfully ran for chair of the Republican National Committee, opened the speaking lineup with a series of inflammatory claims about trans people and their families.
She claimed that schools are “inflicting powerful psychological indoctrination on vulnerable children” and compared doctors who provide gender-affirming healthcare to Nazis in falsely labelling gender-affirming care a “Mengele-like experimentation on America’s children”.
Throughout the conference, those remarks were often wrapped in evangelical-style preaching, with Pizzagate proponent and far-right activist Jack Posobiec screaming “Deliver us from evil” after reciting the Lord’s Prayer to the crowd.
“There’s a book you can read called the Bible,” he said. “Everything that is happening today has been foretold.”
Mr Gaetz announced that he plans to introduce legislation “so that in every classroom in America, there will be time for students to pray if they want to,” a measure that could appear to violate the establishment clause of the US Constitution and mandate Christian prayer in schools, which is already permitted.
“God’s love does not halt for the limitations of man and God’s reach does not stop at the schoolhouse gates,” he said.
The congressman said that the “beautiful” US Supreme Court “that Trump gave us” might end up upholding it, should it ever become law.
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