Donald Trump hijacked the Republican Party. At least, this is the argument forwarded by The Lincoln Project, an anti-Trump PAC run by GOP operatives. I can buy this narrative; the president’s actions are hard to tie to conservatism. He is too aberrant, too individual for comparison with a stereotypical Republican. Put him next to Pence, even, and you’ll see more differences than similarities.
Contrast this with the first speaker of this year’s Republican National Convention. His name is Charlie Kirk. Writing for Politico, Joseph Guinto aptly described him as “the kind of young conservative a sitcom writer would dream up.” He looks and thinks how you’d expect an RNC speaker to. In short, he is the perfect vehicle for comparison–opposite of Trump.
Despite his boilerplate takes and his unremarkable aesthetic, Charlie is unique. I can even pinpoint the first time I noticed him. He’d posted a video of himself debating a student on Instagram. Attached was a caption like “leftist gets schooled.” I guess he saw himself as a Shapiro type. Unfortunately, that caption wasn’t appropriate; he was blustering and shouting over his opponent, not demolishing them with facts and logic. The irony was of a literary quality.
He isn’t special for being bad at debate, though. Ben Shapiro is equally as unimpressive when he debates his equals. Rather, his uniqueness comes from a lack of subtlety. Whereas others generally hide their faults, Kirk highlights them through the absurdity of his actions. In doing so, he blows everyone else’s cover. He’s like a soldier who’ll reveal their platoon’s position by tripping over their own feet. Thus, Charlie’s life is the perfect allegory to explain conservatism. As I already mentioned, it’s easy to relate the two, but it’s also a story full of extremes, as though it was designed to be didactic.
Kirk’s road to the podium began in 2012, from his economics classroom. His textbook had (rightly) claimed that many economists disregard supply-side economics. According to him, this was an attempt to “push a liberal leaning agenda,” and make American students stupid enough to depend on the government. The architects of this plot were “unionized teachers” and liberals. When this take got published on Breitbart, his journey began.
This represents a motif within the Republican party: self-victimization. Despite taking a class whose conclusion is, invariably, “market capitalism rocks,” Kirk felt that his ideology was being targeted. In the real world, conservatives will worry about being “canceled,” though many have explained how this threat isn’t real. While people often accept that Republicans could be under attack from liberals, the bizarreness of Kirk’s theory allows us to question that narrative. Liberals obviously aren’t able to stupefy the youth, which prompts us to ask if they can end someone’s career, either.
Around the same time, Kirk received a reply to his West Point application. He got rejected. Since then, he has claimed that his spot was stolen by a woman of color. The way he describes it–specifically, his inability to consider that the spot wasn’t “his” to begin with–offers insight into his movement’s mindset. Whereas many will insist that their opposition to affirmative action is based on meritocracy, this is the quiet part said out loud. Implicitly, these people argue on their own behalf–they imagine themselves as the most deserving candidate by default.
In the fall of that year, Charlie had begun studying at Harper College, a local community college. Almost immediately, he dropped out. Instead, he wanted to manage Turning Point USA–an organization he’d founded that June–full time. TPUSA primarily concerns itself with college students, a title its founder only held for a few weeks. Despite this fact, the project got off the ground. This can be attributed to massive donations from wealthy, old men.
It’s a great story to illustrate “white mediocrity.” This is the idea that rich white people can become successful without clearing the bars they themselves set. Most people would scoff at the phrase “community college dropout starts an NGO.” If I told them this group wanted to “fix” universities, they’d suggest that this hypothetical dropout attend one first. Charlie’s success is therefore improbable. In some way, it shattered a glass ceiling. Would I rather that he failed? No, but it’s important to point out how he got a shortcut in life by knowing people. You could call this a more relatable “small loan of a million dollars” story.
I want to be fair here and say that “white mediocrity” doesn’t just apply to conservatives. What makes it their territory, however, is an insistence on the continuation of prerequisites which they failed. TPUSA accusing liberal students of lacking intellectual tenacity (and therefore being unworthy of arguing about policy) is hilariously hypocritical. After all, the content they produce is so uninformed that it achieved meme status. That’s not even mentioning how their own founder dropped out within a few weeks. Similarly, it’s funny to see conservative pundits tell people to work harder. Many, like Tucker Carlson, got their jobs off nepotism.
In the years that followed, TPUSA has been embroiled in many bizarre incidents. Some, like the time a chapter of the organization wore diapers in public, are too devoid of logic for any analysis. Moments like TPUSA (allegedly) stealing another group’s mailing list then trying to recruit its members are slimy but unremarkable.
However, the most revealing story is what happened when Turning Point affiliates got power. Part of their program is to help campus conservatives get elected to student government. Politico, in telling the story of one such candidate who succeeded, notes that their first action was trying to defund the school’s Muslim Students Association.
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Ostensibly, this is a part of TPUSA’s idea of defending conservatism: excluding minorities. At the very least, it’s a popular idea amongst its members.
Given that, it’s no surprise that Kirk and his organization have gotten racist on several occasions. A few years ago, they were accused of padding their ranks with racists; this came after one of their members had declared that “the only thing the Nazis didn’t get right is they didn’t keep f-----g going.” Later on, Kirk’s right-hand woman was let go after she declared her hatred of black people in a leaked text. Then, there’s Charlie. While describing Candice Owens, a black woman working with TPUSA, he lied about both her parents being alcoholics. No matter how you spin any of these stories, it looks grim.
I’ll be charitable and say this isn’t proof of any inherent racism in conservatism; however, it does show that they’re far too comfortable with it. The long career of former representative Steve King, who infamously asked why white supremacy was frowned upon, proves that. Given that anti-racism is the only acceptable position, this is a concerning trend.
It’s now that we reach the conclusion of this saga: Kirk’s RNC speech. In it, he declares that President Trump is “the bodyguard of Western Civilization.” Note that Western Civilization was a common talking point of Steve King, and we have reason to be worried. Throughout this story, we saw feats of mental gymnastics. Believing that socialists are subverting economics, for example, shows a true flexibility of thought. Using a known dog-whistle for white supremacy, a belief which any reasonable conservative should denounce, shows the extent to which Kirk’s core principles can be shifted.
This is, in my opinion, the original sin of Kirk brand conservatism: beyond furiously opposing liberals, it is very flexible. While many conservatives are amazing, caring and kind people, their ideology seems to lack rigidity. Look at Trump’s campaign. What vision or goals did he have beyond “Make America Great Again”? In 2020, their slogan is to “Keep America Great.” This is an obvious call to keep Democrats out of office, and little else. That’s how they can support police brutality while arguing for small government in the same breath. There is no clear goal besides defeating the liberal agenda, whatever that may be.
I’m reminded of a piece from the Dartmouth Review which complained that Kirk had traded his beliefs for success. Looking at the way Charlie and his organization act, I don’t think they had foundational beliefs to trade. That’s why the party was so easily hijacked.
Dan Reznichenko is a Trinity first-year. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.