Charlie Kirk audience member asking ‘when do we get to use the guns’ shows where GOP rhetoric leads

Decades of Republican rhetoric about ‘tyranny’ and ‘revolution’ have taught GOP voters that violence is not just tolerable, it is necessary
An audience member at a Turning Point USA event in Boise, Idaho asks TPUSA founder Charlie Kirk "How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?" Photo: Screenshot

The recent viral video of Turning Point USA leader Charlie Kirk responding to a question about gun violence as the answer to “stolen elections” is an important moment to recognize how far Kirk has traveled from his anti-culture war roots to be the face of conservatives’ new brand of culture war.

If you haven’t seen the clip, it shows Kirk taking questions at the end of his October 25 event for a Boise State University audience held in nearby Nampa, as he usually does at all his campus events. These moments offer Kirk and Turning Point USA ample video clips of “liberal” students and professors getting “schooled” by Kirk. On this night, though, the question came from the “right.” How far right is debatable. The man’s question was this: “Where’s the line? How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?”

Kirk’s response was framed by his own word choice: he would denounce the implication and say why. He certainly denied the urgent need for violence. But he also nodded toward giving credibility to the sentiment of the question by granting the premise of the question: the “line” at which point physical violence is necessary or called for. Kirk’s answer when pressed on that line shows how much he wanted to both denounce the question and give the sentiment behind it some breathing room: “The line is when we exhaust every single one of our state ability to push back against what’s happening.”

Maybe the guy was asking for permission as some have suggested. Or better, he was trying to pin down a notorious waffler on when to cross that line. Why Kirk got this question is more important than perhaps his answer.

While Kirk’s road to culture war began in 2012 with the founding of Turning Point USA, it is only in the last two years we have seen him morph into one of the far-right’s leading culture warriors as an explicit proponent of Christian nationalism. Combining God, guns, and invocations of the glory of America’s past tends to ignite followers to ask about taking the next step. 

Kirk’s answer was a way to play footsie with the question and its goal while still playing the role of messenger of “non-violence” that Human Events labeled Kirk. And if you didn’t know, Kirk writes for Human Events. 

Many people in the aftermath pointed out Kirk should be blamed for igniting such questions and such sentiments. Media Matters writer John Whitehouse wrote: “We ought not bend over backward to give these moral cowards the benefit of the doubt. In fact, the opposite is true: Kirk is obligated to show to the American public that he and TPUSA are more than a bunch of thugs willing to topple American democracy when given the chance.”

How did Kirk and his organization get to this point of having to answer a question about when violence would be permissible? How much you want to blame Kirk will depend on how much you know about how over the previous years he has both pushed non-violence and also used civil war rhetoric.

Kirk’s turn to Christian Nationalism is in lock step with his more aggressive rhetoric. Not surprisingly putting a strong religious component on or in his political views only made the stakes higher and higher.

There is no way back from saying this is how God wants America to be. There is no way back from calling your opponents the servants or dupes of Satan. And there is no way back from political violence commanded by a divine-backed ideology.

And this is why at least in part Kirk continues to speak about a “cold” civil war or pushing back on the man at the event. Kirk’s “culture war” is a war over ideas and ideals and once people start using physical violence to enforce those ideas, there is no need for Kirk and his $40 million org. And he also knows his elite donors will run from him if he endorses physical violence.


A Recipe for Violence

To answer the question of how Kirk got here is to understand that Kirk has a long history with gun rhetoric. His first book in 2013 was about hunting rights and he added a second in 2018. Kirk himself said at one point he owned many guns.

Turning Point USA has always been a supporter of the Second Amendment. It has sold merchandise to that effect. It sells a sticker that spells out “coexist” using guns. That mirrors a bumper sticker noticed in the aftermath of the Idaho event that spells out the cursing of Biden and his “ho,” VP Kamala Harris.

All of that is part of the longer history of the GOP and NRA and gun rights, a narrative older than Kirk has been alive. And other groups have pushed gun rhetoric to the ends of “defending” against the “woke” elites. Things have exponentially changed since 2016 and even more after 2020. Think of all the gun-based news stories since 2020. Kyle Rittenhouse, a far-right gun activist now on trial for killing and injuring multiple people, among others.*

But Kirk is a unique personality in the conservative arena. Because he started his organization on the mantra of “free speech” and baked in a kind of college debate (though certainly with a bit of mocking), his credibility and that of TPUSA rests on hearing the other side. He also has made a continuing point about “leftist” violence such as tying “riots” to Antifa. His reply then to the man in Idaho that the “right” broadly was being baited by the “left” into violence so the government could crack down makes some sense.

Yet even as Kirk has continued to roam the nation’s college campuses with a call for dialogue, he has amped up the gun rhetoric. He has said many times that the Second Amendment protects all the other amendments. Kirk has said explicitly that guns protect from government overreach and that an armed citizenry like militias in the colonial era are a check on that government.

And remember Kirk agreed with the man who questioned him at his event: we are living under tyranny. There is a reason Kirk has compared this moment to 1776. As MSNBC’s Chris Hayes said: “The core problem is that millions of people are being told every day that they are living under an illegitimate government… and that the gun is the tool to resist that. At a certain point, some people will listen.”

Kirk has squarely situated himself and his organization within this culture war context. Now add in the ways Kirk and TPUSA have led the attacks on school boards. And that itself is part of a longer Covid-related push about defending freedom through disobeying Covid laws or mandates. This has been huge to Kirk and his followers.

Add to that the anti-government mantra long held by Kirk and TPUSA, and you get the new episodes about Ruby Ridge and Waco posted online near the end of October by a TPUSA show called Poplitics. The show tied the episodes to Halloween: “if these stories teach you anything it’s that big gov is SPOOPY!” [sic] The episode on Ruby Ridge calls the Weavers “your average American family” living on a mountain top who just wanted to raise their children in remote Idaho and “away from the government they believed would be instrumental in ushering in the end of the world.” That is definitely average, yep.

This normalizing of the extremes of gun culture makes such questions at the Idaho event happen. But Kirk also has encouraged the question.

Kirk has been normalizing other extremes as well. Kirk has moved to the far right on issues such as immigration. He was hounded at a few of his rallies in 2019 by a group led by far right provocateur Nick Fuentes on the issue of immigration. Kirk ignored it for a while but then publicly apologized for his loose words about visas. Since then Kirk has been as anti-immigrant as Tucker Carlson. Both use rhetoric of “invasion” concerning recent mass border groups and immigrants possibly having Covid.] 


Denying and Using the Insurrection

The best example of Kirk’s rhetoric toward violence and his denial of that next step of violence is his own words about January 6th. These words reveal how he continues to play both ‘sides’ in the political violence debate.

One of the specific warrants for violence the man in Idaho mentioned was the “stolen election.” Kirk is a massive defender of the big lie. His organization famously paid for buses to haul supporters from around the nation to Trump’s rally before the Electoral College vote. He also famously deleted a tweet announcing the rally and those busloads of people. He has promoted conspiracy theorists about the election on his radio show, among other support for that new lost cause.

At the same time, he criticized on his radio show his own supporters who called for a “second Civil War” after the Jan. 6th insurrection: “Just stop it. Violence is never the answer. Because of the violence on the Capitol by a few, our credibility as conservatives is gone…. The only other option is for President Trump to declare martial law and he is not going to do that. He has promised a peaceful transfer of power.”

As a Trump sycophant, you expect a highly misleading analysis from Kirk about Jan. 6th. We all know the ways in which political violence became mainstream and was endorsed by then-candidate and President Trump. And while Kirk said this above on Jan. 8th, much reporting and reports from Congress show the clear planning for chaos that day that would have allowed Trump to call for martial law.

Kirk initially said the violence at the Capitol was done by “chaos actors” who were not Trump supporters, there for reasons he doesn’t know, along with some Trump supporters, or perhaps Trump “supporters” only wearing the gear. He has also argued to Fox News that any Trump supporters at the rally wanted a “constitutional discussion around some of the complaints and concerns that nearly half the country shared…” But other people who “do not share” the “values of Trump supporters” ruined it by storming the Capitol.

And that leads to Kirk’s other main claim about that day: the insurrection was planned and therefore not a reaction to Trump’s speech that day. The truth is the insurrection was planned and the speech was a key moment for that plan. In Kirk’s words, the siege was not “a spontaneous outrage” about “political results.” This quote comes from Kirk’s Jan. 15 radio show/podcast episode where he repeats this claim and others all the while showing video from the insurrection.

On another episode of his show, Kirk said that, indeed, “election results” were the reason for the events of Jan. 6th: “Voting has always been a pressure valve. People have always been frustrated and angry about the way things are going in this country, but there has always been the outlet that if you don’t like it, go vote and change it. Well, conservatives voted and that vote was taken away. The pressure valve is gone and the pipe burst.”

Kirk has explicitly condemned the violence on the 6th. But he has also used its sentiments to further his own cause. Kirk implied in a recent editorial for Human Events about the Jan. 6 insurrection that the “left” was trying to stop a conservative “insurrection” based in liberty. He added that our “government is beginning to resemble a soft military junta.”

This kind of language certainly could inspire physical violence because it offers the justification of rebelling against tyranny. Kirk answers his own question of “what now?” in that editorial: “What are we as Americans supposed to do about this? The answer is easy, and the implementation is risky and complex. We need to get noisier.”

Kirk knows exactly where the line about physical violence is — he personally can’t call for it and has condemned storming the Capitol for example. But through his words he is trying to rhetorically harness that response. As he wrote in the Human Events editorial: “Despite the risk, we cannot refuse the call to action. If we don’t find a way to stop this now, history tells us that from this point forward, things get really, really bad.” What other options are being left for his followers from this rhetoric?

And of course whatever that “action” is in the future, it has also already happened. Kirk knows this and so this is why he has spread the martyrdom of Ashli Babbitt. Babbitt herself RTed Kirk many times.

A Radicalized GOP Base

Kirk is expanding his empire through K-12 curriculum and churches. He is raising more millions. His college tour continues with a roll through the South with stops at the University of Alabama and Clemson University. While he was married over the summer, his family life has only inspired more attacks on school boards. He has appeared at two Arizona school board meetings to vilify the elected leaders. And Kirk’s response to the man in Idaho notes a coming war: “What I’m saying is that we have a very fragile balance right now at our current time where we must exhaust every single peaceful means possible.”

Yet at the same time, on his radio show recently Kirk gave a platform to Thomas Klingenstein, chairman of the Board of Directors at the Claremont Institute, the conservative California think thank which has become pro-Trump in all aspects recently. (Kirk was named a Lincoln Fellow by the institute this year.) Klingenstein is the origin of the phrase “a cold Civil War.”

“We can have no peace” with the Left or “woke communism,” Klingenstein told Kirk.

Kirk said later in the episode that his message to Republicans, conservatives and their supporters is that “we are at war and should act accordingly.” Sometimes he qualifies that powerful word with “culture” or “cold” but sometimes he does not. And it really doesn’t matter when he does use an adjective.

Clearly, Kirk has and is prepping for war. Both in the literal and figurative sense. Kirk said on his Oct. 25 podcast in an ad for “emergency food kits” that he and his wife were “preppers.” He said people were suffering due to the Biden “regime” and food shortages. He added “calamity and chaos” is “already here” but when “things fall apart” he and his wife would be well fed.

Kirk is prepping his family and his supporters for when that line will be crossed. This is why he was asked when that should be.

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* A fascinating side angle to the Idaho event: like all Kirk campus events, TPUSA banned guns. The event in Idaho banned “weapons, ammunition, knives, projectiles, pepper spray, expandable batons, firearms (NO CCW in Event Zone) or other hazardous items.” But the day after the event Kirk spoke at a FreedomStand USA event in Meridian Idaho. Ammon Bundy, the anti-government militant who led the takeover of the federally owned Oregon wildlife refuge in 2019 and now a candidate for Idaho governor, praised an apology from the group who invited Kirk about an apparent ban on concealed weapons from that event. Bundy wrote on Twitter: “We are grateful that FreedomStand USA has identified the breakdown in security and apologized.” It is unclear what the “breakdown” was and no apology was made public.