City

Inside Candace Owens’ Misinformation Campaign

With Blexit, Owens is pushing black people to leave the Democratic Party. But is anyone buying in?


candace owens

Candace Owens. Photograph by Ryan Donnell

To understand what Candace Owens has become, consider the scene at the University of Pennsylvania one evening in April. The school’s College Republicans and conservative news publication, the UPenn Statesman, invited the young black conservative commentator to speak at College Hall. But before she took the lectern, observers steadily gathered outside the building. When I showed up — a half-hour before the 7 p.m. talk — the scene was simply bizarre. An eclectic group of about 20 antifa protesters, some clad in dark hoodies and black bandannas, clustered together, chatting jovially while they blared music from a large portable speaker. Every few seconds, as if jolted by electric shock, a few of them used bullhorns or the naked might of their voices to shout phrases like, “The alt-right fucking kills!”

Others present were observers — Penn students hefting backpacks, recording the ruckus on their phones. Security guards lined the premises like chess pieces, having moments before escorted Owens indoors.

At the center of the commotion was a group of black high-school students on a campus visit. Moments before, Owens, whom they had never heard of, had invited them inside for her talk. Now they were caught in a crossfire that’s become so common, it was as if everyone was operating from a script.

Two young white men were vying for the students’ attention. One of them, a chemical engineering major at Penn, held a red MAGA hat that was still wet with the ink Owens had used to autograph it. He urged the students to watch Owens on YouTube: “She’s the only person who’s not afraid to talk about issues that might affect the black community in America!” He screamed loudly enough to drown out his opponent — the other white guy, a visitor to the campus who advocated against Candace Owens and in favor of community control politics.

A few steps away, two members of Penn’s Philomathean Society tried to sign the antifa protesters up for a “civil discourse” with campus Republicans. “We don’t think this is productive for anyone,” one of the pair said of the protest.

A young black antifa woman seized the moment: “You’d call supporting Hitler civil?”

“No,” the Penn student replied.

“So why is this bitch here?” the black woman pushed back.

“There’s no discourse when you’re supporting Hitler!” a voice from the back chimed in. “And fascism, my nigga!” the young black woman added.

By this time, the high-school students had backed away from the crowd and disappeared. The scene ended with the opening chords of “Old Town Road.” Protesters sang along and even swayed in unison under the evening’s overcast sky.

Two years ago, Candace Owens was virtually unknown to the greater public. Today, the commentator, who until recently lived in Philadelphia, appears regularly on right-wing media platforms like Fox News and boasts 1.6 million Twitter followers, more than a million Facebook followers, and 328,000 YouTube subscribers. The Candace Owens Show is broadcast on conservative Prager U’s YouTube channel, which has 2.2 million subscribers.

Owens started garnering mainstream attention when she began releasing videos on her own YouTube channel in July 2017, with content related to her supposed dramatic shift from liberalism to conservatism. Her first video, “Mom, Dad … I’m a Conservative,” has almost 500,000 views. In it, Owens, via a fictionalized skit, suggests that it’s more difficult to come out as a conservative than to come out as gay.

Other videos amplify her right-wing views. In one, she says that being transgender is “a disorder between your physical and mental.” In another, she says that African Americans suffer from a “hamster mentality … each and every time they invest in a Democratic candidate.” In a third, “I Don’t Care About Charlottesville, the KKK, or White Supremacy,” Owens says black people shouldn’t be concerned about white nationalism: “There are, what, 6,000 Klansmen left in our nation? And you want me to actually process that as a legitimate fear every day when I wake up?”

Until this spring, Owens was communications director of Turning Point USA, the national right-wing nonprofit focused on organizing young conservatives. The organization’s founder, 25-year-old Charlie Kirk, is apparently cozy with the First Family. While Turning Point supplies college and high-school chapters across the country with “activism kits” (stickers, posters and brochures) and funds for campus politicking, the organization also maintains national projects like its controversial Professor Watchlist, a roster of more than 250 professors who Turning Point says “advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.”

A trail of racism follows the organization like a stench. A 2017 investigation by the New Yorker reported how Turning Point is alleged to have fostered an internal environment hostile toward minorities. One of the organization’s former national field directors sent a text to a fellow Turning Point employee that read, “I HATE BLACK PEOPLE. Like fuck them all … I hate blacks. End of story.” The organization replaced this field director with a woman who had a record of racist and homophobic tweets, according to screenshots obtained by the HuffPost. In May, the president-elect of the organization’s University of Nevada Las Vegas chapter could be seen in an online cell-phone video shouting, “White power!” (He was asked to leave the organization.) In June, Harvard rescinded its acceptance of Parkland survivor and former Turning Point USA high-school outreach director Kyle Kashuv for a series of racial slurs in Google Docs and private chats.

Interestingly, it was Turning Point that would bankroll and elevate Owens in her rise to right-wing stardom. She officially joined the nonprofit in November 2017 as director of urban engagement. In the role, and subsequently as communications director, Owens traveled the country to speak at summits and rallies, proselytizing young minds to conservatism and Donald Trump, with a focus on the supposed ills plaguing the black community. (Chief among them, according to Owens, is the Democratic Party.) Her talks were often streamed live online and later compressed into video bites, adding to the growing genre of content that shows conservative commentators using rhetoric to “own,” “destroy” and “slam” liberals for sport.

One such video, in which Owens berates the aims of #BlackLivesMatter, caught the attention of rapper-producer Kanye West. (In the video’s Twitter caption, she called the activists “a bunch of whiny toddlers, pretending to be oppressed.”) “I love the way Candace Owens thinks,” West tweeted in April 2018. Though Owens once made a ­video — “Dear Celebrities: NOBODY CARES WHAT YOU THINK!!!” — telling stars to pipe down about politics, she gleefully welcomed West’s warm thoughts, seeing them as an endorsement of her message. The tweet remains one of Owens’s biggest “wins” to date — though six months later, West would say he wanted nothing to do with her movement and felt used.

In the following months, Owens continued to do what she does best — talk fast and loud at gigs across the country and the Western world. Praise from her conservative fan base swelled; controversy followed in lockstep. In May 2018, for example, Donald Trump tweeted:

Candace Owens of Turning Point USA is having a big impact on politics in our Country. She represents an ever expanding group of very smart ‘thinkers,’ and it is wonderful to watch and hear the dialogue going on … so good for our Country!

Owens and TPUSA would later gather a few hundred black conservatives for a Young Black Leadership Summit in D.C., with Trump addressing the group at the White House. And in February 2019, the internet erupted over a December 2018 video clip in which Owens, speaking before an audience in London, discussed nationalism and defended Adolf Hitler. After she was widely called a Nazi sympathizer for her statements, Turning Point and Owens claimed that her comments “are of course being misconstrued and taken out of context” by “leftist journalists who are crazy.”

The full segment, which I’ve watched many times now, doesn’t suggest that journalists took Owens’s statement out of context. Responding to an audience question about whether the momentum behind nationalism will last, Owens said, “I actually don’t have any problems at all with the word ‘nationalism.’ I think that the definition gets poisoned by elitists that actually want globalism. Globalism is what I don’t want. So when you think about whenever we say nationalism, the first thing people think about, at least in America, is Hitler.” She went on to explain: “He was a national socialist. But if Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, okay, fine. The problem is that he wanted, he had dreams outside of Germany. He wanted to globalize. He wanted everybody to be German, everybody to be speaking German. … To me, that’s not nationalism.”

Three Turning Point USA chapters even stepped forward to condemn Owens’s comments. Columnist and historian David M. Perry tweeted to her: “I’d like to assure you that the problem with Hitler wasn’t that he wanted to conquer other places, but that he wanted to kill Jews, disabled folks, Roma, Communists, and others.”

Controversy didn’t go away. This past March, the white supremacist who murdered 49 worshipers in two New Zealand mosques claimed Owens as his biggest influence “above all.” In a rambling Q&A-style manifesto, the shooter wrote, “Each time she spoke I was stunned by her insights and her own views helped push me further and further into the belief of violence over meekness.”

Many observers viewed the manifesto as trolling, arguing that the shooter “shitposted” to intentionally confuse, provoke and misguide the public. Owens’s first response in the moment was, in Trumpian tweet fashion, to laugh off the reports that she’d inspired the horrific events. It wasn’t until the next day that she released a statement calling the New Zealand massacre a tragedy.

Ironically, in April, the GOP selected Owens to testify before the House Judiciary Committee on the rise of hate crimes and white nationalism. On the party’s behalf, Owens said white nationalism wasn’t a threat and then claimed that the Southern Strategy, a well-documented racist tactic on the part of Republicans, never existed.

Owens resigned from Turning Point in May to focus on what she deems her calling: getting the black community to leave the Democratic Party, or to “Blexit,” as she has termed the movement — a nod to the U.K’s Brexit enterprise. Her stated goal is to “move the black vote 20 percent by 2020,” which would destabilize the Democratic Party.

I first met Owens on that unseasonably chilly Monday at Penn, three hours before her talk. Our meeting came at the tail end of her time as a Philadelphia resident.

“There’s a certain heartbeat to the city,” she told me when I asked why she chose to live on City Avenue for a year. Like lots of other transplants to the city, Owens — who said she travels six days a week for work — cited Philadelphia’s location, specifically its proximity to New York (where she lived before) and D.C. (where she lives now).

Her presence in Philly became more widely known in August 2018, when she was confronted by protesters at Green Eggs Café in Center City. Soon after she sat down for breakfast there with TPUSA’s Charlie Kirk, water was thrown; Twitter fodder was born. Owens called the event an attack on a black woman for eating breakfast. She preaches against self-victimization, but that ideology didn’t stop her from tweeting: “Is this the civil rights era all over again?”

“[That’s] not real life, obviously,” Owens told me, reflecting on the incident. Of antifa, she said, “I don’t think they’re the best representatives of Philadelphia.” Our conversation about the city didn’t last long, however. “I tend to move every year. It’s kind of bizarre. I hop around,” she told me.

Her relationship with Philadelphia was an example of true commensalism. In various interviews, I’ve watched Owens invoke the city’s name for street cred, to prove her proximity to black communities, and to verify her brand of bootstrapperism. But black communities in Philly didn’t seem to know or care that she was here.

“I think we’ll be in D.C. for a minimum of two years,” Owens said of her and her fiancé, former Turning Point UK chair George Farmer, who was seated next to her in the University City restaurant where we ate dinner. Farmer, who travels with Owens, is the son of multimillionaire British hedge funder Lord Michael Farmer, and a steadfast Brexiteer. Owens’s young Romanian executive manager joined us, too, for a meal of sliders, fries, hummus and Cobb salad.

When I set out to meet Owens, I wanted to gauge how wide the gulf between us — two young black women — might be. I also wanted to get a pulse on the state of facts and discourse. Owens, like many young right-wing-commentator peers, often laments the death of vigorous dialogue. “Liberals won’t debate me,” they argue, saying that if progressives would just talk to them, we’d see the levelheadedness of their ideas.

Owens spent her childhood in Stamford, Connecticut, one of four children. As she often explains during her appearances, she grew up in a low-income housing structure, in a “tiny little apartment” that was “infested with roaches.” She’d eventually go to live with her grandparents, and her Christian grandfather in particular would help her see a different way of life — one based on hard work and courage. Yet Owens said she “conflated freedom with liberalism” and felt pressure to go against her grandfather’s conservative values.

When I asked Owens, a college dropout, about her schooling, her biggest takeaway concerned political parties. “You come out believing that Republicans are racist and Democrats are your saviors. It’s wrong. It’s a lie,” she said. That thinking made her a Bernie Sanders supporter leading up to the 2016 election. She liked Bernie culturally, but, she said, she wasn’t considering his policy. “[That’s] the mistake that a lot of black Americans make,” Owens told me, in her signature tone of chastisement.

“In 2015, when Trump came down the escalator, I didn’t think he should be president,” she explained. But “watching how quickly the media went from hailing him as a hero […] They said we had to believe he was a racist. It just didn’t really stick for me. If you have common sense, something was up. It was a little weird. Why did no one call this out for the last 20 years that this man has been in media?”

Owens went on to repeat a frequent refrain about Trump and the hip-hop industry: “All the rappers were listing him in songs. They wanted to be like Trump. To them, the name represented status and partying, and Jay-Z and Beyoncé were sipping poolside at Mar-a-Lago in their songs.” Owens used a similar line in a CPAC speech she’d delivered a month earlier. I’ve scoured the internet and can’t find a single reference to Mar-a-Lago in Jay-Z’s or Beyoncé’s music. (Easy to find, of course, were reports of Trump being sued for racial discrimination as early as 1973.)

It didn’t take long to recognize that Owens and I were operating from vastly different pools of information.

Owens said she doesn’t believe Trump is racist. When I asked about his record on the Central Park Five rape case (Trump called for the death penalty in New York in response to the arrests of five black and Hispanic teenagers), she interrupted: “They were guilty. They were actually found guilty.”

“Weren’t they exonerated?” I asked her, as if I didn’t know the answer. The five were indeed cleared in 2002, after another man confessed — a claim supported by the DNA.

“No, no,” Candace responded firmly.

“Yes, I believe they were. There was evidence,” I retorted.

She then backed up. “Were they? Can someone fact-check that?” she said, turning to her fiancé and manager. “Was the Central Park Five exonerated?”

At the core of Owens’s platform is her argument that the Democratic Party has done nothing but brainwash the black community and exploit black people for their votes. Democrats encourage a victim mentality. Democrats think black people are stupid. She simply wants us to recognize that we don’t have to be Democrats.

While there are plenty of reasons for black people to be disillusioned with the Democratic Party, I wanted to know why Owens wasn’t advocating for some kind of third party through Blexit, and why she made the leap to being a Republican.

Owens told me she didn’t vote in 2016; in fact, she said, she was an independent and didn’t register as a Republican until last year. What turned her completely for the conservative party was the Brett Kavanaugh hearing.

“I had never seen more unity on the right,” she said of what she called the “social lynching” of the now-Supreme Court justice. The moment should have been a wake-up call for all black Americans, in her opinion. The cry to “believe women” is “how our ancestors got lynched,” she told me. “No evidence, but believe all women.”

I asked about the evidence that Kavanaugh’s accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, did, in fact, present during her testimony.

“Name one piece of evidence she presented,” Owens said.

I tried to convey to Owens that Ford talked about the incident to others back in 2012: “She spoke to her therapist about it. She spoke to her husband. She spoke to her friends.”

Owens responded, “She spoke to her therapist about it 34 years after. She didn’t speak to a single friend about it. Her friend actually supported Brett Kavanaugh.”

Owens’s facts were wrong, and I attempted to stand my ground. But Owens snapped back quickly.

“There is not a single solid piece of evidence, including she could not name a place where it happened,” she continued. She went on to say she was confident Ford was lying “because she was infantilizing her voice” during testimony.

Since we weren’t going to agree on the facts, I decided to move on to a case that I thought hit closer to home for both of us, since a black woman was at the center of it. “What do you think about Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas?” I asked.

“I didn’t really follow that case. I wasn’t really … ” Her voice trailed off.

“What do you think about people who have drawn similarities between the two cases?”

“I can’t speak on the Anita Hill case. I wouldn’t feel comfortable speaking on the Anita Hill case.”

And just like that, discourse on that topic was dead.

When I arrived at the South Side Ballroom in downtown Dallas, I was greeted by a black woman holding up neon yellow t-shirts marked with the letters B-L-E-X-I-T. She told me that if I wanted one, I had to don it on the spot. (I didn’t.)

I made my way into the third-ever Blexit rally, which, Owens had told me two weeks before, over our dinner, was sold out. The mood was cheery. There were young people and older people. There were families and people who had just made new friends. There were lone attendees. There were conservative “celebrities” who walked around with an air of joy. People were dressed in MAGA hats and pro-Trump t-shirts. One man stood out for wearing a kippah decorated with Trump’s face.

The crowd was definitely diverse, but for a rally aimed at black people, the number of non-black people was overwhelming. From what I could see, Hispanics and whites definitely outnumbered blacks. And once attendees officially settled into their seats, it was clear there weren’t the promised 800 people present — it was more like half that.

Fetty Wap and a soft-rock version of Kevin Lyttle’s soca hit “Turn Me On” blared in the background as people took photos and talked. As I mingled, I asked people why they were there.

KC Robinson, a sweet 50-year-old black woman who’d traveled from Oklahoma City to volunteer at the event, told me she had her own Blexit story: She left the Democratic Party at age 31, when she converted to Christianity. She told me she sees no evidence that Trump is racist or responsible for white supremacy. She plans to vote for him in 2020. Another 50-year-old black woman I spoke to came in from Houston because she believes that Trump is “a man of God.” “He’s still accomplishing what he said he would,” she told me while she smiled and gyrated with excitement. “I’m here because I love my president!”

Del Williams, a 59-year-old black man wearing a cowboy hat, told me he’d decided to stop by after he heard about the event last-minute. “Blacks have been brainwashed,” he told me. He was excited to see Candace Owens, though he admitted with a chuckle that he didn’t know much about her: “I have a lot of white friends who know more about Candace Owens than I do.”

Two middle-aged white women wearing Trump t-shirts were thrilled when I stopped them. “Thank you for talking to us!” they told me. “We’re here to support anyone who isn’t straight-up Caucasian,” one of them said. The other broke down in tears as she explained how everyone in her neighborhood supported Beto O’Rourke. The two were sad that they had to suppress their support for Trump lest they be labeled racists and bigots. They’d come because they follow Owens on social media. “She feels my pain,” one said.

Over time, I became fatigued. People, particularly white people, were overjoyed to speak with me. I felt like I was on the menu, there to offer forgiveness and redemption. Like in the party scene of Get Out, I was the star of the show.

Onstage during the four-hour event, Blexit’s ideals came to life, and right-wing pro-Trump talking points got their due. The speakers, all men, were finally free to say how they really felt, with Owens as the emcee. Topics for the evening addressed “how Democrats are the real racists” (from far-right author, filmmaker and conspiracy theorist Dinesh D’Souza) to why cultural appropriation is a hoax (according to young white conservative YouTuber Will Witt).

There were talks about the state of the black community as well. Black conservative speaker and former police officer Brandon Tatum delivered a message of personal responsibility and “no more excuses” geared toward black men. He spoke with a passion that resonated across the venue. As I began to bop my head to the cadence of Tatum’s forceful voice, I turned around to see if any brothers were feeling the spirit, too. But I couldn’t see past all the old white people whose eyes were glowing, and who sat entranced as Tatum made pronouncements like, “I don’t want to hear nothing about the crack cocaine epidemic” and “Pull your doggone pants up and become a man!” It was clear that in that moment he was talking about blacks but not exactly to us.

That night, I saw Candace Owens as a celebrity. People smiled and became giddy when she walked across the stage in her strappy nude heels. They were thoroughly entertained when she denigrated the leading Democratic presidential nominees. They felt safe when she explained that the night was all about coming together.

That day just happened to be the eve of Owens’s 30th birthday, and it ended with her being hailed as our generation’s Martin Luther King Jr. With the aid of prayer and a major come-to-God procession to cap the evening, attendees assured Owens her name would be written in the history books. I was ready to get back to Philadelphia.

Published as “Candace & Me” in the September 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.