Turning Point USA on Saturday kicked off its annual Student Action Summit in Tampa where a series of speakers and breakout sessions will try to activate and train attendees to play “offense with a sense of urgency to win America’s culture war.” Hundreds of high school and college students will hobnob among Fox News and Trump administration celebrities and take back home the misinformation and mission of the organization.
The most recent exigency for the group has been the debate over critical race theory that has consumed local school board meetings. And Turning Point plans more for that issue. Recently on its career website, TPUSA posted an ad looking for someone to run its “School Board Liberty Project” which will be “dedicated to researching and exposing school boards nationwide that are adopting radical Leftist policies and curriculum.” That project will run parallel to its other new educational venture, Turning Point Academy, which “will develop and distribute K-12 curricula focused on American history, our founding principles, the Constitution, and economics.”
These two expansions will remake the nine-year-old political non-profit nominally dedicated to free markets and limited government into a Christian Nationalism educational arm befitting its newly converted Christian nationalist leader. In short, Turning Point’s new aim is to reclaim from the left all levels of education and define education as a Christian nationalist dominion. Kirk sells this expansion and redefinition by saying what happens on campuses eventually reaches the halls of Congress. Kirk made the remaking of Turning Point clear in a July 6th tweet that said among other “pro-America curriculum” goals, the Bible should be taught more in schools.
The Christian Nationalism influences on Kirk have also impacted Turning Point. In May I wrote about some of the religious influences on Kirk and Turning Point. In this article, I want to dive into the educational influences.
From defense to offense
Turning Point USA has been “playing defense” on education broadly since Kirk’s first Breitbart piece attacking an Advanced Placement textbook used in his high school. In 2016 it began to target professors who disagreed with its ideology while also claiming to oppose censorship. [Full disclosure: I am on TPUSA’s Professor Watchlist for the professorial crime of writing an op-ed arguing for a ban on concealed guns on campus.]
Kirk and Turning Point also have tried to defund colleges by persuading alumni donors not to give. Kirk has decried what he called the waste of an “Enlightenment Year” in college or being forced to take classes not in one’s major. He specifically called out the pointlessness of engineering majors taking humanities classes. He said that if anyone was curious about such things, they would read on their own. Turning Point also has organized annual college tours, bringing Donald Trump Jr. and others to rally the faithful on or near campuses across the nation.
All these headline grabbing moves have been generally ineffective incursions against the “leftist indoctrination centers” that Kirk and his organization claim them to be. Now in switching to offense in the culture war, Turning Point is trying to create its own educational system from kindergarten to college.
Before these changes, the educational foundations of Kirk and Turning Point were unformed, simplistic at best.
According to one review of Kirk’s March 2020 book, The MAGA Doctrine, he doesn’t spend a lot of time with even the intellectuals he likes: “The MAGA Doctrine is peppered with handwavy appeals to luminaries like Ludwig von Mises, Frederic Bastiat and Thomas Aquinas and half-assed jabs at Karl Marx, ‘liberals,’ Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Woodrow Wilson. It’s not always clear that Kirk really understands these authors.”
The accuracy of this criticism is obvious when one looks at the only Turning Point USA ebook dedicated to US government and history called If The Founders Had Twitter, published in 2016. The title is self-explanatory. The book is a tweet summary of the Federalist Papers, the Constitution, and its amendments. The book justifies this fast-paced social media approach in its first sentence: “Let’s be brutally honest, the U.S. Constitution is boring and long for most people. It’s a tough read.” That is an interesting statement from an organization that prides itself on the belief that “the US Constitution is the most exceptional political document ever written.”
Teaming up with a college of Christian nationalism
When thinking of a Christian nationalist higher educational institution that Turning Point and Kirk might copy, a reader might automatically come to the evangelical bastion Liberty University. While Kirk was given an honorary doctorate from there in 2019 and later started the now-renamed Falkirk Center, the school ended Kirk’s contract quietly this spring. Liberty for Kirk was really about his connection to its now former president, Jerry Falwell, Jr. While the new Standing for Freedom Center has ideological similarities to Kirk and Turning Point, it and Liberty are for now content to do their own thing.
The answer to who and what has been changing Kirk and Turning Point into a Christian nationalist educational movement is Hillsdale College, a school that has deep roots and a long reputation in conservative politics and education, though perhaps not as known to the general public like Liberty. Hillsdale’s aim though is similar: to teach “character, faith, and freedom.”
In recent months Kirk has listened to online lectures by Larry Arnn, Hillsdale’s president and the former head of the Claremont Institute, a California-based think-tank that had been the West Coast hub of right-wing Christian nationalism for decades. Since the emergence of Donald Trump in American politics, it has become known for its slavish admiration of the former game show host. During his presidential term, Trump returned the favor by naming Arnn as the chairman for Trump’s 1776 Commission announced late in his administration (and ended by Biden soon after inauguration). Kirk was also named to the group.
Arnn took over Hillsdale in 2000 after running Claremont for 15 years, beginning in 1985. Hillsdale is most famous for refusing federal student aid after the federal government had asked the school in the 1980s to identify the race of its students. (By contrast, The Washington Post reports that Liberty “relies heavily on” federal student aid programs. For the most recent school year federal data shows “the government disbursed more than $750 million in grants and loans to help students pay to attend Liberty, putting the school ahead of most others in total government loan volume.”)
In many ways, Hillsdale is the college Turning Point would create if it ever did.
‘Liberal arts for conservative minds’
On the surface, Hillsdale’s core liberal arts curriculum is no different than the one at the public liberal arts university I teach at in Georgia. But the rhetoric is different. The Wall Street Journal in 2015 called Hillsdale “Liberal Arts for Conservative Minds.” That’s an accurate statement.
According to its promotional materials, Hillsdale seeks to educate its students about “timeless” themes and “universal” truths. While my school is interested in knowledge and truth, its basic goal for students taking humanities is less broad: “Students will analyze forms of expression that reflect individual, social, and cultural values.”
Hillsdale’s core courses include “Great Books in the Western Tradition” and “The Western Theological Tradition.” It clearly is an educational institution that teaches “Western Civ,” aka the Western Civilization curriculum.
Kirk famously called Trump the “bodyguard of Western civilization.” He has also said that Western Civ is what public universities and its history professors are attacking. He told Fox’s Mark Levin in 2020: “The university system in particular, and the thousands of professors that occupy most of the History Department and the Humanities Department, have been teaching the next generation to hate our country and they have not been teaching them American history properly, if not at all, they’ve not been teaching them, the founding of our country.”
And what is the proper way to teach US history according to Kirk? One must start with gratitude: “And when you’re not thankful for something, Mark, why would you want to conserve that something? If you’re not thankful for our country, of course, you would want to support a revolution to overtake it.” This echoes a summary of an online Hillsdale course meant for the general public about the proper way to teach K-12 students about history where Hillsdale argues that “teaching history through meaningful and inspiring stories reminds students and parents alike of the vital importance of such virtues for a free society.”
A history too sacred to revise
Hillsdale’s educational philosophy also argues for a specific way to understand history. We can see this in the uproar over the 1619 Project. Kirk claimed in a July 4th essay that the 1619 Project was “revisionist curricula that focus on the ‘whiteness’ and oppressive nature of colonial America…”
This is not a new label in the culture wars. And conservatives who decry it have often practiced it. Used as a pejorative by conservatives, revisionist history is not merely the reframing or re-contextualizing of history, but in the literal sense rewriting it. For conservatives then, history should be regarded as static and unchangeable. Many, if not most, conservative intellectuals and activists also attach divine imprimatur to American history, believing the country’s founding to be an act of the Christian God—or at least inspired by him. The introduction from the 1776 Commission’s report gets at this claim: “The facts of our founding are not partisan. They are a matter of history.”
In reference to the 1619 Project, conservatives understand that document to be redefining America’s birthdate. They would not deny the facts of the year 1619. But once history has happened — once July 4th became history — it can’t be changed. This contrasts with the general academic manner of discovering new knowledge in any given field.
Historical dogmatism like that of Hillsdale and Turning Point USA can only underplay unfortunate facts and defy how history as an academic discipline is made. Revisionist history is known by historians as historical revisionism. According to the 2003 president of the American Historical Association “the unending quest of historians for understanding the past—that is, ‘revisionism’—is what makes history vital and meaningful.” In other words, “all historical scholarship relies on revision.”
But what makes the 1776 Commission report a version of history and the 1619 Project a revisionist history in its best connotation is that historical revisionism often undercuts, criticizes, and challenges the accepted, predominant, majority opinion version of history. One can see why then, that Kirk and Arnn do not like the 1619 Project.
Historical instruction as religious propaganda
This is not to suggest Hillsdale teaches history as merely memorizing a set of dates, people, and places. It instead teaches “first principles,” a phrase Kirk and conservatives often use. The Heritage Foundation argues America’s first principles are generally the idea that “Christian ideas underlie some key tenets of America’s constitutional order.”
One principle of history as Hillsdale teaches it is that we should have a shared history. A common set of facts, a common meaning and sensibility about those facts, and a common value set based on that history that has and will lead to a common national identity. The 1776 Commission calls it our “shared inheritance.” Hillsdale’s Western Heritage: A Reader argues “our identity, our sense of purpose and meaning, all depend in some measure on a remembered past — a heritage.” The goal or effect of studying this shared history is to understand “something of the universe of meanings we inherited…” the reader notes.
This may not sound bad until one understands why one studies history in this manner. Such a pedagogy for Hillsdale creates a narrative where one is forced to recognize not merely the impact of Western culture, but also come to understand that “humans are religious beings subject to an order of Divine origin.” Not studying history in this manner creates “disorientation” and “disorder.”
You can see the slippery slope here that can be applied to people who don’t agree with this shared inheritance or who question the facts of history. Such people could be labeled not only merely ideological or opinionated, but also because they are critical of American historical facts, as anti-American. And so on and so forth until all non-Hillsdale history professors are liberals who are atheistic Communists set out to destroy America. Compare that to the goals of studying history at my public university in Georgia: “The Bachelor of Arts with a major in history offers students a significant body of knowledge, develops their ability to understand how the past has shaped the present, how to research information, and how to think critically. It equips them for a wide range of careers…”
While my school studies a wide range of “people and cultures,” the Hillsdale history curriculum moves through the “timeless truths” of the Western and American heritage in the hopes of making students adopt the school’s conservative Christian outlook. In The History of the American Identity for example students will get a “chronological evaluation of America’s “political theology including its sense of divine calling, national mission, and redemptive world role…”
Hillsdale’s online courses offer more detail on its Christian nationalism version of history. In the online version of American Heritage course, the word “principle” or its plural appears eight times in its summaries of 10 lectures. The Civil War is framed as a “fundamental disagreement over the meaning of the Declaration of Independence” and Progressivism is described as believing “the principles of the American founding” were “archaic and obstructive.” Progressivists wanted “new principles” that would move the nation away from “the republicanism of the founding to a state ruled by administrative experts.” This echoes rhetoric from the 1776 Commission report where Progressivism was framed as rejecting “the self-evident truth of the Declaration that all men are created equal and are endowed equally, either by nature or by God, with unchanging rights.”
While Hillsdale’s online course The Great American Story calls slavery “antithetical to the principles of the Declaration of Independence,” the 1776 Commission report argues no “durable union could have been formed without a compromise among the states on the issue of slavery.” It also claimed that the founders didn’t abolish slavery immediately because they wanted to “establish the principle of consent as the ground of all political legitimacy…”
The New York Times in a July 2021 magazine essay compared the 1776 Commission report to the ways that Russia has flipped so-called “memory laws” on their heads. Such laws like one in Germany that banned Holocaust denial have been used by Russia to downplay or deny its own atrocities. The Times essay argues that the 1776 report “reproduced the structure of Russian memory policy, acknowledging a historical evil and then relativitizing it in a shocking manner.” The evil in the report exemplified by the Times essay was slavery.
In contrast, while my state government requires study on the state and US Constitution and its connected history, that requirement can be met by taking its basic US history courses. Those courses are described as a “survey” of the time period where “emphasis is placed on the social, cultural, political, and economic evolution of the United States.” The “evolution” of this nation would likely get short shrift in a Hillsdale history course. That is because Hillsdale’s Christian nationalist teaching of timeless principles pushes a narrative of divine blessing. While most colleges aim to teach a pluralistic attitude that moral/religious viewpoints differ and are matters of opinion, Hillsdale forces students into the idea that its institutional opinions are “timeless truths.”
Hillsdale’s narrative of Christian nationalism is also a narrative of its fight to deny revisions to that history. This echoes in white evangelical Christian education. As rhetoric professor Andre Johnson recently pointed out, white evangelicals had a jump on the larger conservative culture’s attack on critical race theory because its leaders already saw scholarly pursuit as a “worldly” ideology that was infiltrating churches. In short, the “just preach the gospel” crowd are making the same pedagogical claim as Kirk and Arnn do about history: it is static and unchanging due to its timeless principles.
Aristotle as American as Apple Pie and Jesus
Those timeless principles are on display in Kirk’s prolific quoting of Aristotle in the spring 2021. The lectures by Arnn that Kirk had watched were about Aristotle, as Kirk notes in a March Human Events editorial. Kirk also quoted Aristotle multiple times in a April 26 speech to a San Diego church as part of his GenFree tour for TPUSA and on a March 5 radio/podcast episode where Kirk argued Aristotle provided a playbook for today.
For enrollees, Arnn’s lectures come with study guides. The study guide dedicated to the lecture on Aristotle’s Politics defines “political community” as existing for the sake of living well or “the highest good.” It also is the “highest and most authoritative human community.” In his April speech to the church Kirk echoes this when he notes that according to Aristotle “politics is the ultimate form of community because it combines morality and sociability.” For Kirk, this is not to insult the church as the community’s center. In fact, Kirk makes this definition his central link between politics and religion. Kirk argues that politics and the church bring people together as communities forged around the same good. Hence American politics and the church should be wedded. One can see how different politics and theology than Kirk’s will be not only criticized but called anti-American and anti-Christian.
Kirk offers explicit links through Aristotle for his claim. He says “much of the Christian faith can be discovered by reading Aristotle.” The parts of the faith for Kirk that Aristotle grounds seems to be virtue (or morality) and happiness. Kirk also grounded American politics in Aristotle in a 2019 Newsweek editorial where he wrote that the “United States was founded and built on the ideas of Aristotle and John Locke while directly repudiating the ideas of Plato and Rousseau.” Kirk explicitly links Aristotle to the American principle of private property ownership through his chosen hyperlink above. He also said a similar thing to Fox’s Mark Levin in the show referenced above. (For those interested, Kirk’s simplistic history lesson was thoroughly debunked by DePaul political science professor David Lay Williams in a long Twitter thread.)
Spreading false history and false election claims
Turning Point’s Student Action Summit, with its bright lights, fireworks and smoke as stagecraft, and Florida nightlife, can be framed as a less sedate version of Hillsdale. But both Christian nationalist educations offer similar talking points, authoritative and trusted teachers, and the urgency of a culture war in which the stakes get more important with each election.
Both also offer an important lesson on the most recent election. Kirk has long been an election conspiracy theorist. He has long supported another Trump conspiracy theorist, Mike Lindell, who sits on the Turning Point USA honorary board. Kirk’s radio show also has hosted others who peddle evidence-free claims. Turning Point USA has pushed misleading information about federal voting rights legislation, calling it a way to end democracy.
Hillsdale’s Arnn is no stranger to baseless claims about the 2020 election, although he is not as definitive in publicly claiming fraud as Kirk. He did wade into the sea of conservative false claims when he spoke to students attending the Hillsdale College National Leadership Seminar in February in Phoenix, Arizona, also home to Turning Point USA. That seminar also hosted Trump’s favorite Covid-19 misinformer, Scott Atlas, and climate change denier William Happer.
In his speech, Arnn highlighted language in the Constitution that noted state legislatures are solely given the power to choose electors to represent their state in the Electoral College. He claimed without evidence that Michigan — where Hillsdale is located — like other battleground states had their “procedures” changed by state election officials. Arnn criticized state legislators for doing nothing about it. He said they should have reaffirmed their “sole control” over the selection process before ballots were sent out.
In short, Arnn suggested the state legislature should have overridden state and local election officials who went on to certify Biden’s win. State leaders called that a coup in refuting it during the certification process. Trump supporters have long claimed massive fraud in Michigan. In June Michigan Republicans debunked those claims in the state.
Such a dramatic move by the Michigan state legislators “would have been a firestorm,” and so it wasn’t done, Arnn notes.
And he knows why. The state legislators didn’t respect their “responsibilities and authorities.” “They didn’t live their lives” in such a way to understand those claims.
“It’s something you learn if you go to the right college,” he said.