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Charlie Kirk, Trump’s Pied Piper

The president has started to sound more like the young founder of Turning Point USA.
July 7, 2020
Charlie Kirk, Trump’s Pied Piper
US President Donald Trump shakes hands with Charlie Kirk, head of Turning Point USA, before addressing the Turning Point USAs Teen Student Action Summit in Washington, DC, on July 23, 2019. (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP) (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

If you thought President Trump’s Mount Rushmore and Fourth of July addresses were, as former President George W. Bush memorably described another Trump speech, “some weird shit,” then you missed the even weirder preview he gave to a bunch of kids last month.

The scene in Phoenix, Arizona, at the “Students for Trump Convention” in June was like a mashup of the beginning sequences of an outbreak movie and a sketch from Saturday Night Live. If it were all made up, it would have been hilarious; because it was real, it was horrifying.

To see President Trump, an estimated 3,000 people, nearly all maskless, stood in line and then gathered together inside the Dream City Church, a place of worship that claimed to have an air-purification system capable of killing “99.9 percent of COVID within 10 minutes.” They listened to hours of speechifying from Trump supporters, including GOP South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, who addressed the crowd virtually and bragged about her state’s resistance to shutting down during the pandemic. (When she hosted Trump at Mount Rushmore on Friday, it was sans social distancing, natch.)

Before President Trump spoke, the event organizers showed what can only be described as a slavish propaganda reel playing up his popularity, athleticism (really), and bullying takedowns.The audience screamed and cheered when the president took the stage. After his rambling, hour-long talk, Trump invited Turning Point USA “ambassador” Reagan Escudé to the podium to talk about her experience with “cancel culture.” She gave her testimony about how she lost her first job out of college because she made an Instagram video about “how disappointed I am in the church’s reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement.” Voice shaking with emotion, she said that evangelical pastors needed to learn “that racism is a problem in the heart, it is a sin problem that cannot be resolved by any law, protest, or march.”

Escudé then expressed shock that “Aunt Jemima was canceled.” She explained, “And if you didn’t know, Nancy Green, the original first Aunt Jemima, she was the picture of the American Dream. She was a freed slave who went on to be the face of the pancake syrup that we love and have in our pantries today. She fought for equality, and now, the leftist mob is trying to erase her legacy. And might I mention how privileged we are as a nation if our biggest concern is a bottle of pancake syrup?”

The revival-style meeting was so warped that Trump’s remarks were the most normal part of the event.

Who was responsible for this abundant display of idiocy? Charlie Kirk, the telegenic GOP wunderkind possessed of the supernatural ability to convince old Republican men to hand him fat checks and make him CPAC famous. He’s a true believer in Trump’s current messaging. Mainly because it’s the same propaganda he’s been using to lead the youth to Trumpism.

Think of Kirk as the president’s Pied Piper. And now Trump is testing Kirk’s tune on the rest of the country.

When Trump said in South Dakota that “our children are taught in school to hate their own country and to believe that the men and women who built it were not heroes but were villains,” Kirk must have been rejoicing. What Kirk had previously described as a “campus battlefield” has become the culture war Trump is waging across the nation.

Kirk, who is only 26 years old, gained a foothold in conservative media as a high school student by writing for Breitbart News about the “indoctrination children are receiving in today’s public schools, as unionized teachers push a liberal-leaning agenda.” Kirk had planned on college—Baylor had accepted him; West Point hadn’t—but a wealthy Chicagoan named Bill Montgomery, who was impressed by Kirk’s public speaking in 2012, convinced him to instead start a nonprofit organization to reach out to other young people. So he skipped the learning and went straight to indoctrinating students with his own agenda by way of TPUSA.

To get it going, he memorized the names and faces of prominent GOP donors and stalked them at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Multimillionaire investor Foster Friess, who bankrolled Rick Santorum’s losing campaign, was his first target. Kirk correctly surmised that Friess was willing to light more money on fire. “He impressed me with his capacity to lead, intelligence, and love for America,” Friess told Bloomberg News. “I instantly knew I wanted to support him.” Friess cut him a check for $10,000.

“He’s phenomenal. The most incredible young man I know,” another donor, Peter Huizenga, told the Atlantic in 2015. “At his age, he is one of the most accomplished, one of the most mature, and one of the most organized and intelligent guys that I have ever met. You just don’t meet guys like this.”

That all goes to say, the donor dudes really, really love him. And Kirk knows they are primed for his pitch. He told Politico in 2018:

You can’t watch Fox News without seeing five or six segments a day about the nuttiness on college campuses. . . . You pair that nuttiness up with people in their 60s and 70s who are beginning to map out where they want a significant portion of their wealth to go, and they’re saying, “I don’t want my money to go to my university. It’s not representing my values.” Then we come along.

This approach seems to be working out: Last year, Kirk raised $24 million in contributions.

Charlie Kirk is like a Trumpy Ken doll: tall, dark, and irksome. The weird part is that when he reads this—and he will because he always reads his own press—he’ll take that as a compliment.

To put it another way, Kirk is what you would get if you spliced together Tucker Carlson, Jared Kushner, and Donald Trump Jr. into a young MAGAtron. He has Tucker’s pretentiousness and Jared’s plasticity cloaked in Don Jr.’s faux-Bubba attitude.

Don Jr. is the one Kirk is really tight with, though. The two met at the 2016 convention—yes conventions seem to be kismet places for Kirk—and found mutually beneficial reasons to bond. Through his organization, Kirk had lots of contacts with students around the country and knew how to turn kids out. And, the bumbling Trump campaign needed young voters to turn out for them. The match was natural, as Kirk told Rush Limbaugh:

We really hit it off, we connected and I asked Don what the Trump campaign was doing for the youth vote. And he said, “Well, not much, but would you like to help?” I said of course I would. Rush, I was just blown away by the lack of infrastructure, I guess you could say, towards youth and student outreach. So I essentially built it through the months of August, September, and October of 2016. I traveled the country for about 70 days straight carrying Donald Trump, Jr.’s bags and getting his Diet Cokes, and helping book flights, and taking pictures and coordinating media, essentially being the youth director of the campaign and also being Don, Jr.’s body man.

The servitude paid off.

To say Kirk is busy today would be an understatement. He’s running Turning Point USA, which has a political action arm called Turning Point Action. Turning Point Action acquired the fledgling Students for Trump in 2019. Kirk is chairman of that, too. Turning Point USA has a thriving Youtube channel that produces several original forms of programming. Additionally, Kirk has his own YouTube show and podcast. Since Trump was elected, Kirk has written two books, Campus Battlefield: How Conservatives Can Win the Battle on Campus and Why it Matters (amply padded with reprints of his tweets and retweets) and, from earlier this year, The MAGA Doctrine: The Only Ideas That Will Win the Future.

Yes, Kirk is living his dream of the chief operator of a “multidimensional culture war machine.” If you are looking for the reason why President Trump is talking as if he were a Zoomer on Parler, Kirk is it.

So, what is Kirk’s grand message to the young and impressionable? Summed up in three words: “They hate you.” (What were you expecting—Socrates?) Kirk’s so-called MAGA Doctrine amounts to nothing more than Washington and Democrats are bad, therefore, Trump is good. Everything is explained by that fact. It isn’t hard to see how a college graduate ended up thinking Aunt Jemima was the picture of the American Dream now, is it?

Over the years, Kirk has assembled quite a cast of characters to help him spread his message. He has put Milo Yiannopoulos and Sebastian Gorka in front of young audiences. Candace Owens was TPUSA’s communications director until she told a London audience last year that the only real problem with Hitler was that “he had dreams outside of Germany.” The New Yorker reported in 2017 that the organization’s former national field director Crystal Clanton sent a text message to another employee that said, “I hate black people. Like fuck them all . . . I hate blacks. End of story.” Benny Johnson, who has been TPUSA’s “chief creative officer” since last year, is best known as a repeat plagiarist and fabulist.

And then, Kirk has had his own problems.

He blew his lid at Politicon in 2018 when Young Turks Founder Cenk Uygur interrogated him about his salary. The vice president and general counsel of another prominent young-conservatives organization, Young Americans for Freedom, wrote a memo noting they had heard about “many alarming incidents” involving TPUSA and warning YAF members about TPUSA’s “lack of integrity, honesty, experience, and judgment.” Earlier this year, the Koch Network took Kirk to task for “inciting harassment against scholars.” In March, Twitter temporarily locked his account after he falsely tweeted a post that stated:

Hydroxychloroquine has been shown to have a 100% effective rate treating COVID-19. Yet Democrat Gretchen Whitmer is threatening doctors who prescribe it. If Trump is for something – Democrats are against it. They’re okay with people dying if it means opposing Trump.

None of this really matters, though, because Kirk is only accountable to his donors. And the moneybags, from all appearances, don’t seem to mind Kirk’s methods or what effects he might be having on the youth. Not when there are tax cuts to be had, regulations to be cut, and conservative judges to be confirmed, anyway.

Kirk’s most important mission now is to get the president re-elected, a daunting task given the backlash against Trump in the midterms and polling deficit he faces against Biden in battleground states. In various interviews of late, Kirk can be found rattling off a memorized list of Trump’s so-called accomplishments like a pledge brother during hell week. You get the feeling you’d both like to shotgun a beer when he’s done. (He would do it out of self-congratulations; you would to forget the awkward spectacle.)

The only way for Trump to win, Kirk apparently believes, is to dig deep on the culture war, campus-battlefield style. The president and his team seem to agree. In Phoenix last month, President Trump told the students, “You’re fighting against an oppressive left-wing ideology that is driven by hate and seeks to purge all dissent. And you understand that. . . . The radical left demands absolute conformity from every professor, researcher, reporter, journalist, corporation, entertainer, politician, campus speaker, and private citizen. But we have Charlie, and we have our people, and our people are stronger.”

Trump went on laud the audience—“Our people are stronger, and our people are smarter, and we are the elite”—before telling them:

The radical left, they hate our history, they hate our values, and they hate everything we prize as Americans. And we’re right, because our country didn’t grow great with them; it grew great with you and your thought process and your ideology. The left-wing mob is trying to demolish our heritage so they can replace it with a new repressive regime that they alone control. They’re tearing down statues, desecrating monuments, and purging dissenters. It’s not the behavior of a peaceful political movement; it’s the behavior of totalitarians and tyrants and people that don’t love our country. They don’t love our country. The left is not trying to promote justice or equality or lift up the downtrodden. They have one goal: The pursuit of their own political power, for whatever reason. But that’s their goal. That really seems to be their goal—their goal or their sickness. And if you give power to people that demolish monuments and attack churches and seize city streets and set fire to buildings, then nothing is sacred and no one is safe.

In his online recap of the event, Kirk stopped the tape where Trump praised him. “It’s almost like he’s been listening to the Charlie Kirk Show, because he was saying word-for-word what we’ve been saying.”

Indeed: Trump was delivering exactly the message Kirk indoctrinates the youth with. And he went on to hit many of the same beats at Mount Rushmore last Friday and again on Saturday in a Fourth of July address. Trump seems to have decided, four months before the election, that the essence of his campaign will be culture war—and specifically, a nationalized version of campus culture clashes. The circle is now complete: Charlie Kirk became a Trumpist. And now Trump has become a Kirkist.

It would be silly to think that Kirk is going to spend the rest of his life talking to students. In the video Kirk currently has featured atop his YouTube channel, “The Best Argument For President Trump’s Re-Election,” he declares, “This guy [Trump] is a vessel for us. A vessel for those of us that have nothing but resentment for the kingdom of Washington, D.C.”

What did he mean by that? Well, “vessel” has two meanings: an empty container or a ship. Maybe Kirk means both. Because other people have filled Trump’s empty head with their ideas and Kirk is using Trump to propel himself forward.

Where might Kirk cast his fortunes next? If there is ever a battle for Trump’s political inheritance, Kirk will reap the spoils. It is much more likely to be the likes of Donald Trump Jr. and Kirk than Ivanka and Jared Kushner who will inherit whatever is left of Trump’s movement.

Thinking of a post-45 country, it’s easy to see how Kirk, along with Don Jr. and their speaking-tour faves—Governor Noem, Matt Gaetz, Richard Grenell, and the rest—are creating a cadre of, in their own minds at least, youngish, coolish leaders. Thousands of students are already supporting them on some level, too, which means something. And Kirk, with many years ahead of him, has the money, the connections, the media skills, and the data files to do pretty much anything he’d like to do in conservative media or politics.

Although he has said he would not like to run for office himself, Kirk sure does seem to like helping President Trump run for re-election. Kirk is well situated, perhaps better than anyone on the planet, to spearhead a major campaign for someone else—like oh, well, let’s say, his best buddy old friend DJTJ.

As Kirk said, Donald J. Trump Sr. is only a vessel. Another will be on the way soon enough.

Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter is an author, a former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz, and a former speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint. She was formerly a Bulwark political columnist.