Charlie Kirk and Turning Point USA are building a reactionary cult for young people, does anyone on the center-left care?

Rhetoric professor Matthew Boedy describes how a far-right group is radicalizing young Christians, and how little center-left groups are doing in response
Turning Point USA president Charlie Kirk gives a speech at the University of Oregon tour stop of the 2021 Turning Point USA college tour at the Emerald Valley Golf Club in Creswell, Oregon. October 27, 2021. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Episode Summary

Polling over the decades has shown that most Republican voters are heavily motivated by white Christian identity politics. But Republican elites— politicians, writers, and many donors— were more interested in cutting spending and giving tax cuts to job creators, or rich people in other words.

Over the past 60 years or so, GOP politics has been an imbalance where the base of voters wanted an agenda that promoted Christian nationalist ideas like mandatory school prayer, open discrimination against lesbians and gays, and legal obstacles to non-Christians. But Republican leaders focused more on deregulation and tax policy.

Donald Trump changed all that, however. In addition to giving out tax subsidies to his rich friends, Trump also began implementing Christian nationalism by banning trying to ban Muslim immigration and undermining LGBT rights in America and around the world. He also talked frequently about how his goal was to help Christians have political supremacy and power.

Trump’s reorientation of Republican organizing was resistant at first by traditional Republican elites. But one person who jumped on board almost immediately was Charlie Kirk, the co-founder of Turning Point USA. The group was originally created in 2012 to spread the market fundamentalism of Republican fat cats to America’s youth. But after Trump took over the Republican party, Kirk completely changed TPUSA toward being a Christian nationalist organization.

Joining me today to talk about what specifically that means for Kirk and TPUSA, and the GOP embrace of open Christian nationalism is Matthew Boedy. He is a professor of rhetoric at the University of North Georgia, and he’s also written several fantastic articles about Kirk for us at Flux. He’s also the president of the Georgia conference of the American Association of university professors. The unedited video of our live conversation is below, a transcript of the edited audio follows.


MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here today.

MATTHEW BOEDY: So happy to be here.

SHEFFIELD: All right. So I’ve found that when I talk to people about Charlie Kirk and Turning Point, who are not familiar with that organization, they kind of see Charlie Kirk has just some Twitter troll who is constantly getting humiliated on social media by making dumb statements.

GraphicBut the reality is that, whatever you may think of his personality he has all kinds of money. And I’m just going to put up on the screen here for those who are watching and we’ll read it off as well for people who are listening, just some facts about Turning Point USA. So it was founded in 2012, and it has several different organizations, but between the organizations in 2020, they had revenues of $56.6 million.

They have over 2000 nationwide chapters and those chapters are organized in high schools, colleges and churches across the country. And every year, they host six national conferences where they gather people from all across the country and then also eight separate regional conferences.

So this is a very large organization that we’re talking about.

And they do a lot of activities. And in terms of your personal interest in Turning Point, in Charlie, Kirk, I guess it kind of began when you were targeted by one of their projects which they launched very early on which is basically an attempt to intimidate and censor professors. What are they calling it? The Professor Watch List, right?

BOEDY: They still call it the Professor Watch List and it is an ongoing effort by them. Professor watchlist.org, I think is there a website, but they have dedicated staff to adding people to that. In 2017, I wrote an op-ed for my local Atlanta paper about a bill that was going through our legislature about putting guns on campus. And I thought I’ll just get a couple of readers. And then months later, it was on a Campus Reform writeup. And that’s how Turning Point USA found it. I was one of the original members, if that’s some sort of honorific, the first hundred of that list. And again, I’m a professor in the middle of Georgia, from nowhere school and was thrust into the conversation.

So everybody asks me, why do you have such an obsession with Charlie Kirk and Turning Point USA? And I say, well, they started with me first.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. So tell us what exactly is this Professor Watch List project? What is it?

BOEDY: They describe it as a list of professors who they’re trying to expose to the general public about— anti-conservative bias, left leaning thoughts— whether in the classroom or some sort of public opinion. Again, I wrote a an op-ed about a bill that would limit gun rights that would stop concealed carry from our campuses. And obviously Charlie Kirk and Turning Point they’re big gun advocates. And so that’s one thing that people are on the list for.

SHEFFIELD: But what’s the intent behind the program?

BOEDY: Really, to expose and harass and to name individuals. And if you wanna think about for their audience, it might be not to take their class or to take their class and record them. It’s something to target individual people, as opposed to the indoctrination centers as they call it, the university.

But these are the people who are leading that mythical indoctrination. Yeah. It’s targeted harassment to give a name and a face to the enemy, if you will.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. I think you could argue that this list is really an attempt to cancel professors, basically, because there are real financial repercussions that some people

BOEDY: Oh, no. Yeah. And I didn’t use that phrase to begin with, but that’s certainly the effect now. I mean, there are certainly ways in which they try to: ‘Hey, write your college and get this person fired. That happens a lot to different people. It hasn’t happened to me, per se, but other colleagues. And so, yeah, it has become a weapon of cancel culture indeed. And they have many, many weapons in that war.

SHEFFIELD: That culture is just so utterly suffused in hypocrisy because Charlie Kirk also is constantly claiming that conservatives are being canceled and their speech is being suppressed and that they are the victims. When in fact, this organization from its beginning, was dedicated to trying to silence and cancel people.

BOEDY: Right. I mean, it is hypocritical, but also an interesting rhetorical move. You say: ‘We are the victims of your thing, and that’s why we’re doing the thing to you that you, say we’re doing.’

And I mean, the, the original origin story of, of Charlie Kirk was that he had a friend who was taking this AP class and this book was totally against his form of economic theories with downplayed Reagan’s greatness. And then he wrote a Breitbart article about it. And basically tried to expose, ‘here’s what’s happening in our schools. Here’s what you should know. And that type of rhetorical move is Charlie’s Kirk’s bread and butter. ‘Here’s the secret knowledge. Here’s the thing you don’t know that’s happening. Here’s the thing that should upset you.’

And this is what the professor watchlist is. Here are the individuals on random campuses across the United States who are part of this conspiracy of indoctrination. With the cancel culture, you’re putting a face and a name to what you want people to attack.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And that rhetorical trope, when you look at American reactionary organizations, that has been a constant thing to get other people censored, while claiming that you actually are the ones being censored.

For instance, William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review, his first book was called “God and Man at Yale.” And it was basically just this big, long litany about how his various professors didn’t believe some fundamentalist biblical belief. ‘So-and-so didn’t believe in the resurrection, or so-and-so said the global flood wasn’t real, or so-and-so said that Abraham didn’t exist. So you need to stop giving them money, alumni of Yale University, because look at what they’re doing with it.’

BOEDY: I mean, Charlie Kirk has done that exact thing, has tried to divest alumni giving from certain colleges. But also the idea that somehow there’s things that you can’t say coming from an organization, Turning Point USA who started on having “free speech balls” on campus. You could pick a beach ball and you could write whatever you want. That was one of their events.

And now to really 180 degree turn from that, which is what he’s done in the last few years, as you mentioned in your intro is breathtaking because it is taking a Titanic of an organization and turning it from defense to offense. And so that is a massive change, both for the organization itself, but also for the network in which it works in. It’s turning its millions to building something instead of just merely attacking the left. And that will have long-term impact beyond whether Trump is the president again.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. So let’s maybe talk a little bit more about the origins of the group. So it started in 2012 and Charlie Kirk is seen as the public face of the organization, but in reality, it wasn’t really his baby, I don’t think you could really say. It was the creation of this other guy named Bill Montgomery.

Can you talk a little bit about Bill Montgomery, who he was? And actually he died of COVID last year.

BOEDY: Yeah. The origin story in the two minute video is on the Turning Point website of Charlie Kirk doing a speech at a youth government day in April of 2012. That’s when he was a senior in high school there in Chicago. And so he has a certain effective speaking style and was into politics and had started a previous organization, which I’ll get into, but really didn’t have a following.

So this retired businessman, also from that area, Bill Montgomery, who was in the Tea Party politics at the time, happened to be at that youth government day and heard Charlie speak and was so impressed that he went up to him and said: ‘You can’t waste your time doing something else or thinking about college.’

Bill Montgomery was unaware that Charlie had tried to start one. The original group was called SOS Liberty. He and a friend from a local high school started this Facebook group and it grew and he had the Breitbart article right there in April as well, and at the bottom of that Breitbart article, it says, Charlie Kirk’s the founder of SOS Liberty.

So what Bill Montgomery did, being a retired businessman, being a Tea Party activist, was really give Charlie Kirk a message and a direction and a network of people.

As you mentioned, Bill Montgomery died of cOVID. And at the eulogy, obviously Charlie Kirk was a big part of that funeral service of the eulogy. Charlie Kirk gives a long narrative, a history of the two together and it is a fascinating about Charlie Kirk as it is about Bill Montgomery.

Basically, the summary of that eulogy is the many times that Charlie Kirk wanted to quit. And Bill Montgomery said: ‘No, let’s do this other thing.’

So early on, Bill Montgomery would take Charlie Kirk to Tea Party events without any prior notice, not being on the announcements, not being a pro plan speaker. And he would walk over, Montgomery would walk over to the organizers: ‘Hey, I got this, this youth leader here, he’s really energetic. Can you have a few minutes?’ And that went on throughout the summer of 2012. And again that got some notice, again, Tea Party events in Illinois and the Midwest, and they didn’t have any money at that point.

It was Charlie apparently driving his car around. Bill Montgomery wasn’t a big donor. He wasn’t a multimillionaire. They had a rented garage, I think one, a garage that he happened to own. They were running the organization out of that. And so they kept calling, trying to get to these events, trying to get them on Twitter, trying to get video of them. And of course the big story is that throughout the summer of 2012, it wasn’t going well. It wasn’t building and Charlie wanted to quit.

And Bill Montgomery trying to encourage him said: ‘Hey, let’s go to the Republican National Convention in, down in Tampa.’ So they drive down there, they have a hotel. Charlie says it was an hour away from Tampa because they didn’t have any money. They wanted to be cheap.

So they had to drive the hour into Tampa each day. And Charlie didn’t have tickets. Bill Montgomery did his thing. They went into a hotel lobby, talked to somebody who had a badge: ‘Hey, can we have your badge, so we can go in the building?’ And they did. And he meets his first big donor in a stairwell.

And Charlie said he had memorized all the faces from this website of all the big donors there. And he happened to run into the guy in a stairwell and he pulls out his business card. And the guy was impressed with his pitch, whatever it was for those few seconds. And weeks later gives him $10,000.

And that was Foster Friess, one of the big donors. From that moment still though, Charlie Kirk gets on Fox News a couple of times. He was on “Fox News Live” from the convention floor with Neil Cavuto. But into the fall of 2012, that $10,000 does help them. But Charlie says in that eulogy by the winter, by December, they were broke again; and they didn’t have any direction, they didn’t have any events, they didn’t have any more ways to get on it.

So they decided: ‘Hey, let’s go to New York and corner Neil Cavuto again and get on TV again.’ So it was really a series of luck— but also Bill Montgomery constantly encouraging and pushing Charlie Kirk. But also, yes, when you don’t have a platform and you get platformed by Breitbart, Breitbart and Fox News, you’re constantly going to be invited back if you do well on them.

And he was invited back, I think he appeared on Fox news three or four times that year. It was really, can you make the most of the opportunities that you were given? And, and indeed that is, I guess the origin story of Charlie Kirk. He said it took off after that winter, December 2012. And it did. By 2015, which is obviously three years later, they’re a million dollar organization, which is a fast-moving train, if you know anything about nonprofits.

Photo
Far-right Rep. Laurent Boebert (R-Colo.) walks on-stage to fireworks and beatific images at a Turning Point USA event. December 20, 2021. Photo: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

And so the origin story is based upon Charlie Kirk doing a couple of things: starting a Facebook group, having some prior experience, but yeah, it was really Bill Montgomery giving some structure, or some message, and some direction to a guy who was a senior in high school at the time.

SHEFFIELD: And needless to say, Bill Montgomery was not exactly a young person at the time. He was in his sixties or seventies—

BOEDY: Seventies. Yeah, I think it was.

SHEFFIELD: —and was the creator of a youth group. The other thing about Montgomery though, and Charlie Kirk at that time also in these early years, was that the thing that made them different was— so Republican and far-right groups have a long history of trying to create youth engagement on college campuses. So there were other organizations out there that were lavishly funded and still get all kinds of money. But they operated much more slowly and kind of incompetently basically, I think you could say.

BOEDY: Methodically is the word you’re going for there. Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. Well, yeah, you can say that. Yeah. And so, but the thing that was also different was that they were trying to, these other organizations were pushing more kind of a traditional conservative message, which was more focused on trying to get people excited about the size of government and trying to get people to think about tax cuts and economic growth.

And needless to say, those are not really persuasive messages to young people.

BOEDY: Right. And Charlie’s joke. In the beginning it was like he also was into those issues. So how does he convince big donors to go with him as opposed to the other organizations that were there? Charlie says he was unaware of those organizations as a suburban Chicago kid. So he was into anti-big government, “big government sucks” is one of the original slogans. Again, the SOS Liberty, their key issue was the debt, the national debt. So here you have a teenage kid wanting money from a mega donor to talk to teenage kids about the national debt, which Charlie admits was a strange sell.

So the question is, what made Charlie different and what made Turning Point USA different? It certainly was Bill Montgomery and in the end, he gave, but it was also the platforms that I mentioned before, Breitbart and Fox News. But I think it was specifically, as we mentioned before, the thing about Charlie Kirk was not about the issues that he was into. It was himself and where he was at.

His origin story is I’m a conservative Republican in the heart of Democratic country. I’m a secret person who knows the secret knowledge of what’s really happening in high schools around the nation. I’m the person who can tell you what you don’t know.

And I think that that is what sold the original donors. And all the way up to today is that he gives you something that the other organizations don’t. And I think that that’s why they’ve been successful. They all do Facebook. They all do Twitter. Turning Point does it well. But he offers something that is different. He being the high school kid that he was, but also the origin story of the group and also his origin story, which we haven’t mentioned. He was rejected from West Point and then made up a story about being rejected by West Point because someone took his spot who happened to be, I think he said a different race and a different persuasion, which may or may allude to sexual orientation.

So, his origin story, the origin story of—

SHEFFIELD: Of course, there was no way that he would have ever possibly been to know that. You can’t know that.

BOEDY: Right.

I mean, it would be just his congressman tell him: ‘Oh, someone else got your slot because of this.’ There’s no evidence at all of that story. But he told it many, many a time. And that line got him many invitations to similar groups. He told that same story again and again.

But the other part of his story that he constantly tells was that his high school was an indoctrination center. So it is his insider knowledge, his chance to be a Republican in a Democratic stronghold to tell that story to groups who were also on the outside. He went to Silicon Valley in 2015 to talk to a conservative group there.

So he goes to places where there are a few conservatives who also may gravitate toward the idea of victimhood or I’m a small fish in a very large pond.

SHEFFIELD: Well, and I think the other unique factor that he had compared to these other groups was that, they were run by 70 year olds and 80 year olds.

BOEDY: He had one, but he stood in the background. Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: So he still had that but Bill Montgomery was smart enough to realize you can more effectively build a youth organization when you actually have young people at the highest echelon.

BOEDY: And you have someone who can speak with complete sentences and do paragraphs and who was articulate? I mean, there’s many things you could say about Charlie Kirk, but inarticulate is not one of them. He does know how to speak on camera and other places, yeah.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Another differentiating factor was that he understood that American young people were, if you were to speak of the majority of them, they were less interested in traditional religious fundamentalism or just going to church in general.

BOEDY: Right.

SHEFFIELD: They’re dramatically less interested in organized religion and especially just every younger successive year becomes more and more disinterested.

BOEDY: Right,

So the question is, you have somebody who wants to go into that crowd and make that crowd bigger. So why do you give him money? So the question is, has Charlie Kirk changed the needle of conservatives on college campuses, or we’ll say religious fundamentalists.

Has he has grown the movement, or has he merely given courage or platforms to people who were already in that camp? I think there’s more Option B than A, but at the same time, both get him more money to do many other things.

SHEFFIELD: So his value proposition was slightly different in that in the beginning, he was offering a more libertarian, even secular message compared to these other groups such as Young America’s Foundation or Leadership Institute that for decades had funded college right-wing newspapers and things like that.

Actually, I’ll give a little bit of my own personal history is that I actually had the idea for Campus Reform [a website owned by the Leadership Institute] and I gave it to them in 2005. And they did not understand it because they were all 80 years old. And then fast forward a couple of years and they stole my idea and then created it and raised millions of dollars off of it.

BOEDY: So do you feel bad that they didn’t get it or do you feel good that they didn’t get it? I mean, I guess how much penance are you doing is my question.

SHEFFIELD: Now, I guess I’m glad I didn’t create (laughs). That I didn’t create another brainwashing site. But you know, at the time I was miffed that I had missed out on all that money they were raising off of it. And so yeah, I knew that they were ripe for disruption for a long time. And then when I saw Charlie Kirk and Bill Montgomery come along, I was like: ‘Oh, these guys are going to be big.’ And I was right.

So the message that Kirk was originally preaching, it was different. These other groups were much more, well, basically Christian oriented. And tried to talk about that a lot more. And Charlie Kirk explicitly did not do that. And that’s something you talked about in one of your pieces for us at Flux. Can you talk a little bit about his more secular beginnings?

BOEDY: Yeah. I mean he tweeted Bible verses for awhile. And was obviously anti-abortion the entire time and talked about God and abortion at that. But other than that, didn’t really do a whole lot. His main issues were the national debt, free speech on campus, guns, which obviously had some religious connotation to it. But specifically, did not, did not want to get into the culture war issues. Did not want to debate abortion, did not want to debate gay marriage, or did not want to provide content about those issues.

And even when he started going to church as a teenager, he was involved in James MacDonald’s mega church up in Chicago, specifically said: ‘I don’t mix my religion and politics.’ For whatever reason, he didn’t do that. And so, really up until 2019, he didn’t do that. For the first seven years of the organization, didn’t do that. He always threw out the Bible verses or threw out other things, but his books don’t mention a whole lot of religion. He’d never told his conversion story until 20 19. Didn’t talk about how he grew up or what churches he went to as a kid until 2019. I mean, we heard in 2019 that he went to a private Christian school, started by Wayne Grudem, it was a conservative theologian and that’s the first time we’d ever heard that.

If that is your background and you don’t say it until then, there’s a reason you’re saying at the moment that you do.

We don’t know much about his parents, but we do know he said he went to church as a elementary school kid. He is described that church both as a Bible believing church, but also Rachel Maddow with an organ. So he both criticized it and said it helped start his journey.

And so he was secular in the sense that he was involved in a lot of secular issues. He said that was the issue that he wanted to go on, because most people in the nation were secular and they didn’t really follow or believe in, as you mentioned, all the youth didn’t really follow or believe in trying to make Christianity the moral compass of the nation or the moral legislation of the nation.

But that did change, partly because of Trump, certainly. And of course, Charlie Kirk would fully admit that he wasn’t on the Trump train in the beginning, but he got on it pretty quickly. But around 2019, he started to do this. And he says it’s because of his relationship with this pastor, mega church pastor from California.

And having written about that in the last few months, trying to track that relationship, and if you just type in Charlie Kirk in the YouTube, you—

SHEFFIELD: You are talking about Rob, Rob McCoy.

BOEDY: Yeah, Rob McCoy, the pastor out of California who ran for California state Senate and lost, but then ran for [Thousand Oaks] city council there and won. And to try to track that relationship.

And you can over the course of April into the summer of 2019, because they show up at the same events. And early on, Charlie Kirk says different things from Rob McCoy. But once they meet, and we don’t know exactly when that was, once they started to talk, Charlie Kirk starts to repeat things that Rob McCoy says. Both in his speech at that same event and subsequent things.

So there’s a very interesting relationship there. So the question is, is it a 180 that Charlie has done, or was he merely there to begin with and Rob McCoy just pushed him along?

You could go both ways on that. But I do think that there was a fundamentally secular nature to what Turning Point USA did before, and now it’s completely erased. I mean, it’s a full on Christian nationalist, fundamentalist culture war. He is talking about issues and terminology and rhetoric that people were using in the eighties. He was talking about traditional family and the family is the center of the nation. And he talks about having a lot of kids at a Turning Point USA conference, a couple of weeks ago.

So it is a, a fundamental shift in him due to Rob McCoy. But it is also perhaps already there, had to overcome the obstacle of don’t do politics and church. And obviously somebody convinced him whether it was Rob McCoy or not, that this was new direction to go, because this is where your base already is.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah.

BOEDY: You’re going to get new parents, but this is where your group is already at. You might as well up the volume on it.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and I think it’s, it’s related to this sort of transformation of American libertarianism that has happened in conjunction with the emergence of Donald Trump. So libertarianism in the United States had always had two factions. There were people who were Christian nationalist libertarians like Ron Paul, or this guy named Gary North, or some of these other people who want— they call it “minarchist” minimal or anarchist type of government. And that only religious institutions should have power in society from their standpoint. So that’s always been a pretty significant faction in libertarianism, but they had had an uneasy truce with the more secular libertarians, people at Reason magazine, for instance, most of them were never very religious at all.

Their differences were papered over because they both wanted to slash the government big time. But then Trump, once he came along and started really hitting all the notes of Christian identity politics to a much greater degree than any other Republican had before, that sort of began getting people who had a more Christian identity politics but maybe not fully realized it.

It also did drive away a lot of secular, moderate libertarians who were just horrified. I’ve heard this from people that they had told me that they had really not paid attention to these more Christian nationalist libertarians. There were just like, well, they’re kind of nutty, but, you know, whatever.

BOEDY: Right. Yeah. They’re on the margins. Don’t ever get power.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And so, but then, then they suddenly became aware: ‘These are the people I’ve been enabling and working with, yikes! I’m out of here!’ There has been kind of this exodus of more secular, moderate libertarians and it’s left now the Republican youth group. So like when you look at the percentage of people who identify as Republicans, younger Americans, it’s just declined significantly, such that the only people who really are willing to be a Republican on campus and identify as such are Christian fundamentalists. Charlie Kirk’s hunting where the ducks are.

BOEDY: Well, he is recognizing that and I think that’s what the theme of the Turning Point conference a week or two ago was courage, right? Stand up for what you believe in. And that goes along with Trump taking back the country as well. But it is about moving the needle. Sure, the number of adherents, but it is also giving your base more strength and more activation or courage, as they want to say to, to do things or to say things. And that is one way in which you win the culture war. You’re not going to win the war as in persuading the other side, it isn’t about that right?

It is about gaining more fight in your own group. And this is why the civil war rhetoric out of Charlie Kirk and other people is tremendously dangerous. And they’re, they’re—

SHEFFIELD: Well, actually, and—

BOEDY: Yeah.

SHEFFIELD: —let’s talk about that, if we could. So Charlie Kirk specifically had somebody say that to him

BOEDY: Oh, certainly. Yeah. ‘When can we use the guns?’ I wrote about that for Flux. And why he got that question is also important. And then on his podcast/radio show, Charlie Kirk was talking to a guy, I forget where he’s a professor at, but a conservative guy who uses the phrase. I think it’s a Claremont guy, but anyway, he used the phrase “cold civil war,” and that’s what we’re in now.

And any phrase that includes the word civil war is bad, but you have a constant drumbeat toward what Marjorie Taylor Greene said the other day on Twitter, a “national divorce.” And so Charlie Kirk is dividing people. And he does it on purpose. He wants people to take a stand. He wants people to be courageous. He wants people to shout what they believe. He isn’t quite going toward ‘where the guns are’ yet, and he said, I don’t like that idea when he answered the guy. But at the same time, where else does he think this is going to go? If he’s trying to give some sort of intellectual grounding to his movement, going there is going toward an emotion of fear and division that obviously led to January 6th.

SHEFFIELD: Actually, if you don’t mind, I’m going to actually going to play this little exchange that you wrote about. So this was a person in the audience. Kirk was speaking in the Boise area of Idaho. And he likes to take questions afterward at his events.

(Begin clip)

Questioner: You ready? You’re brave. You’re brave for what you say, and the fact that you’re saying up there and say, and I appreciate it. I think we all appreciate it actually. Cause there’s not a lot of people (applause) that have the balls to do it. But I want to ask you something a little bit out of the ordinary. So prepare yourself.

At this point, we’re living under a corporate and medical fascism. This is tyranny. When do we get to use the guns? No. And I’m not, that’s not a joke. I’m not saying it like that. I mean, literally where’s the line? How many elections are they going to steal before we kill these people?

Charlie Kirk: So no, stop. Hold on. Now. I’m going to denounce that, and I’m going to tell you why. Because you’re playing into all their plans and they’re trying to make you do this. That’s okay, just hear me out.

It started with the compliments, but at least give me a little bit. They are trying to provoke you and everyone here. They are trying to make you do something that will be violent, that will justify a takeover of your freedoms and liberties. The likes of which we have never seen. We are close to have. Hold on.

(End clip)

SHEFFIELD: And he goes on a little bit from there, but it’s an yet another instance there where you have Kirk engaging in this tactic, which basically seems to be his go-to rhetorical strategy, which is ‘accuse other people of the things that you yourself are doing.’ So in his case, he’s talked, and other right-wing elites, have talked for decades about tyranny and Second Amendment solutions and things like that.

And they’re the ones that are radicalizing people and getting them primed to commit acts of violence. And we unfortunately saw this just a couple of days ago. It looks like in Colorado, that there is an individual who is allegedly had been perusing a lot of these far right figures on the internet and was a big fan of them and decided to go on a shooting spree.

BOEDY: Yeah, this is where it’s going. I don’t think he doesn’t know that. Charlie Kirk’s a smart guy. I think he knows that. So that’s why he had to say “no” to this person. But at the same time, as you can see, just in that clip, he’s like: ‘We’re close. They’re provoking you, but we keep getting closer to this line.’

And so the justification of their actions is what they’re looking for. So that is what Charlie Kirk’s been doing in the last several months. It’s finding intellectual justifications for his positions that have switched, or that changed because he’s become a Christian nationalist or again, Marjorie Taylor Greene’s comment about “national divorce” and finding the anti-constitutional disgrace in the left. It is about finding a justification.

And so the guy in the Q and A asking: ‘We have justification we need, why aren’t we doing it?’ And I say that to bring to a video I was just watching today. And it was an interview that Charlie Kirk did before Christmas with (the far-right publication) Human Events. But Charlie Kirk’s into Machiavelli, reading Machiavelli, like what good can we get from Machiavelli? And the quote he keeps bringing up in that interview, it’s about a 45 minute interview, ‘We’re not going to wait around for a philosophical, ideal state. We know what we want. Let’s take it.’

Those are the words that come out of his mouth, not Machiavelli’s, but also Charlie Kirk. So if you take that with what you just heard in this video, you know why Charlie Kirk is getting that question. ‘You’ve been saying this all along. We know what we want, why don’t we take it?’

And so I don’t think that Charlie is not aware of that. He’s aware of that, he might have been aware he gets a question like that. And obviously he’s well prepared. But at the same time, how does he stop that from happening, if he wants it to stop happening? The end of Christian nationalism is a Christian nation. Whether by force or by law, or a combination of the two. So if that is what he wants, and he’s saying, he knows what he wants, why isn’t he taking it?

SHEFFIELD: And that’s what the guest is saying. Yeah. And it’s a reasonable, it’s a reasonable question to ask at that point—

BOEDY: Indeed.

Photo
Kyle Rittenhouse, the Wisconsin-based former teen who shot and killed two people at a Black Lives Matter protest is welcomed as a hero at the TPUSA “AmericaFest” event at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona. December 20, 2021. Photo: Gage Skidmore

SHEFFIELD: —given what he said. Yeah, and actually you, you shared a, another piece with me before our conversation. This was an interview that Kirk did with this far website far right website. And he talked about how the growth of his organization, and he talked about it as that ‘people are joining our organization because they’re looking for a purpose in life.’

Let me get his exact phrase here, he’s referring to people who go to his conferences: “There’s something deeper happening here…. and it’s really exciting.” And then referring to his attendees: “They are looking for purpose and meaning. And when they start to see an organization articulate eternal truths, combined with the laws of nature and present day realities, they get really attracted to that.”

As a rhetorical device, it’s a concerning thing to say, because basically he’s conflating his own personal opinions about religion with eternal truths. And therefore, if you disagree with him, then you disagree with God and you’re God’s enemy, that’s basically what this organization is turning into, right?

BOEDY: Certainly. And it’s not a cold civil war anymore, if you’re going to say something like that. I mean, that summary, if you took it out and took away the label of Turning Point USA, is description of a church. ‘Come here, find purpose and meaning. And “Purpose Driven Life,” famous book written by a pastor. And is also, ironically, also a fairly good description of a university, of a college.

And so there are many groups out there obviously trying to give purpose and meaning to young people or to college students or to teenagers. And what Turning Point USA is doing now is not merely, let’s say, responding or trying to gain followers. They’re trying to sustain their following with purpose and meaning. I mean, obviously that the phrase “eternal truths” both has a religious connotation and political connotation, but to make what you’re doing in Turning Point USA to be a divine purpose or to be like the meaning of life, is to not just nationalize politics or to make identity politics. That is a religious phrasing.

SHEFFIELD: It’s a sacralizing statement.

BOEDY: Right. Yeah, exactly. They’re spiritualizing yes. Even so. You’re taking the eternal truths of the Bible and taking these eternal truths of the constitution and saying they’re the same and

SHEFFIELD: And then I am the prophet of them.

BOEDY: Yeah. And so I think it’s, it’s just, crazy-making. I saw, I tweeted out today that Charlie Kirk’s going to join Michael Flynn at whatever his group is event in Arizona in January. Oh yeah, why not? I mean, that’s exactly where it’s going. And you have these prophets who prophesized things that happened in QAnon. Well, Charlie Kirk is not predicting things that will happen, but he is pointing at things in a direction. And that’s why he got that question: ‘You were pointing at this. Why can’t you just say you’re pointing at this?’ And so it is sacrilegious, it is anti-Christianity obviously.

But it takes what people hold dear. And many people hold politics dear, but they can separate it. And that’s what he did for quite a while. But what he’s hold dear and making it into politics, which is obviously reflecting or affecting back upon his religion. And this is the fundamental issue we hear in churches, and especially evangelical churches: Don’t let the world affect the church. And it always does. And I don’t know why people don’t see it at these church events that he has. What are they not seeing that there’s a politician doing a platform stump speech in your pulpit? And you’re just blinded to it or you want it. I mean, I think that’s the easiest answer and the most accurate, that’s what they want. They know what they want. Why don’t they take it?

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. As concerning as all this is, and as much money as he’s swimming in, it seems like the reaction among a lot of people on the center-left to the rise of Charlie Kirk and institutionalized, outright Christian supremacism, a lot of people on the political left don’t seem to be particularly concerned about it. I would think.

BOEDY: Yeah, I mean, we’ve had many people criticize the press for not recognizing the threat to democracy and people criticizing the left for not being as good as the right in type of this organizing. They, they, they see it as a political partisan threat, but not a anti-democratic or even anti-truth. What, what level are we now putting this at? Turning Point USA is an “anti-what” group, anti-freedom, anti-America. I mean, if you’re going to do a civil war, then obviously you’re suggesting there should be more than two Americas.

So if you’re not taking that seriously, and you’re not taking the $56 million that will only get bigger, and if you’re not taking the 10,000 people that showed up in Arizona for their conference seriously, you really need to, I don’t know, either come from outside and turn on the TV or something. It is not just a fascinating thing. It is a thing.

And the question always for me is, since I’m a college professor and I’m on this list: ‘Do my students in my classroom know who this group is and do they care?’ I think if you, again, you flash a picture of Charlie Kirk, they would say, yes, we know who that guy is. They’re probably not as aware of the group, but they understand what the group is going after. I think we’re all aware of that. And so to put a face to it, they would get that pretty easily. But I think the more that he goes into these churches, the more he’s going to spread and beyond the demographic that he was originally targeting, I mean, this is a— I wouldn’t even call it a political party. It’s a national organization with so many platforms for so many different demographics that I used to think that he would have, he had to give it up because he was getting older and it was a youth group.

No. He can be in charge of this for a long time.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. I think in a lot of ways, you could see what Turning Point is turning into as kind of the fantasy scenario of the John Birch Society in their heyday in the 1960s and 70s. And he’s doing it. He is doing it. So the Birch Society in the seventies, they organized a lot of these conferences, very similar type of events that brought together politicians and religious leaders.

And they were making all kinds of money. But eventually after Ronald Reagan got elected, he wasn’t particularly fond of them. So he didn’t really have his people show up at these events. But now that thin dividing line that existed between the institutional Republicans and these reactionary groups is basically gone.

BOEDY: Yeah. and you don’t

SHEFFIELD: Certainly we see that with Donald Trump Jr. and some of these other people who are just in thick with Charlie Kirk.

BOEDY: Yeah. And you don’t have the, if I remember my history correctly, it was Buckley who told everybody to ignore the Birchers, put them in their place and to eliminate them from the conservative movement. But you don’t have that now. You don’t have anybody that can do that.

SHEFFIELD: And he was only targeting their leader. He didn’t do anything with the group itself.

BOEDY: Yeah. So, I mean, you don’t have anybody that could do that. I mean, just think about Trump and the vaccine coming in to say: ‘Go get vaccinated. And we built the vaccine.’ And his own group, booing him. I don’t know how you would have anybody that could say: ‘Don’t do Christian nationalism.’ I mean, yeah, there are Christians who say that and they’re Republicans who say that, but they’re, they don’t have much of an audience or an effect.

SHEFFIELD: On the political left, are there any groups even remotely— so we’ve already talked about, there’s three lavishly funded groups on the right targeting college students. And are there any groups on the political left that do more than just go get people to go vote. Are they doing anything remotely similar to this?

BOEDY: I mean, Charlie Kirk’s original selling point was he wanted to match the grassroots organization of MoveOn.org. I haven’t heard, I mean, I just watch news everyday. I haven’t heard from MoveOn.org in a while. So if there’s a youth group out there, I’m unaware of it. I mean, I’m not into Democratic politics, so I won’t know the ins and outs, but no, I can’t think of a group that’s out there doing that, what he’s doing.

SHEFFIELD: Which is weird because there’s so many students who would absolutely love to do something like that.

BOEDY: They’re assuming college students are 85% Democrats, so we don’t have to organize it. Well, that’s exactly why Charlie Kirk exists, that he could go for the 15%, but because you’re not organizing the 85, I can do way more with my 15 than you can do with your 85.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. If he can get, 90% of that 15 to vote and more than half of the 85% don’t vote, then those groups kind of cancel each other out.

BOEDY: Yeah. And that’s, that’s the margin thinking that got Trump elected, right? He just needed to push the white voter percentage 5 or 6 points up, go find people who had not voted, who wanted to vote or who need to be energized to vote, and just move that percentage up a bit higher. And you win states after states. And Biden took away from that. So Kirk is taking that percentage back up. He may not be changing it and then moving the needle of the number of conservatives on a college campus, but he has 3,000 in a mega church voting. So he doesn’t need to move the needle that much on a campus or on general college kids, as you pointed out, the numbers are going down anyway. So he is activating the people he has. And that is the Christian nationalist movement, is to find people who already are Christian, who could go toward him.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And that message is also different and better from a marketing standpoint for reactionary economic viewpoints, because this Christian nationalist message actually can have some appeal to Hispanic or black young people who are very devout and politically independent or non-attached.

But if you tell them: ‘This is what the Christians are doing,’ then a certain percentage of them might go along with it, especially if they didn’t have any sort of connection with a black church and that history of explaining to them about how black people got their rights in the South was through churches working against right-wing forces.

And it actually is working, Trump increased his percentage, he had the highest percentage of black votes for Republican in decades and increased his Hispanic vote percentage significantly, so these are all trends.

BOEDY: I think that’s why he’s in Arizona. You asked the question before, why he’d made his headquarters in Arizona, obviously it’s the governor there, Doug Ducey, conservative guy, but it’s a purple state and there is a wide margin there to infiltrate.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and I guess let’s maybe before we wrap up here, let’s also talk about— so as Charlie Kirk is radicalizing his organization significantly and this hatred and anger against the rest of America, to some degree you could argue perhaps that he’s doing this, not just because he wants to but also because he’s facing a real pressure on the far right from this guy named Nic Fuentes who made significant inroads in Turning Point chapters across the country. And has his individuals show up at Charlie Kirk events. Let’s maybe talk about that a little bit.

BOEDY: It’s hard to tell how much impact Nick is having on Turning Point, because we’d love to keep membership roles or the numbers, but the one issue that Fuentes and the America First movement went after Charlie Kirk about, Charlie Kirk made some flippant comments about green cards and college graduates who are immigrants. And then two, three weeks later he had to apologize and walk that back and become even more far right on immigration. And that was what, 2019?

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And I actually wrote about it. I’ll post the link.

BOEDY: Is there more than one issue that they were pushing him on? They pushed him on gay marriage. He really promoted his gay staff there for a while, and now not so much. And he’s a firm believer in one woman- one man marriage. And so is he doing it as an effect upon him or is he doing it to expand his universe? It’s obviously both. But at the same time, he doesn’t use the phrase “America First” quite yet, I don’t think, but now he’s pushing those issues.

It is quite interesting to see that the people that he does interviews with. I mean, he does interviews with radical Catholic organizations now that would follow or agree with Nick Fuentes. He does interviews with James Dobson, obviously, an evangelical stalwart there, and does “Flashpoint,” which I saw recently, again a TBN to show. So he is constantly going into that crowd burnishing his credentials that were questioned by Nick Fuentes. And I think that’s the effect of it, is that he constantly had to now answer that. So how do you stop people that are interrupting your meetings with chats and tough questions?

You just answer their questions before they’re asked, right? You talk about their issues so they don’t have a problem with you. And I think that that’s still the case. And of course the COVID and the pandemic kind of stopped those campus visits and those interruptions. But I do think that they embarrassed Charlie Kirk, and that’s why he had the issue that apology. And he doesn’t want that to happen again.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. That immigration controversy that he had, that was sort of the last vestige of his conventional Republican elite political view, which, traditionally Republican fat cats, they wanted more immigration because they wanted more unskilled workers.

And that was his standpoint. So I guess it will be interesting to see how things evolve and I hope that at some point there are people on the center-left will be looking at this organization and realizing what they’re doing. They’re fomenting this— if there do end up large numbers of radical Christian terrorist acts, this is where they will be coming out of, one of the organizations I feel like. Or at least this is the climate that these people are trying to create as that guy who showed up at Kirk’s event showed.

The unfortunate reality is that you have millions of fundamentalist young Christians now, especially young Christian men, who have such retrograde views about women or gay rights that they have trouble getting dates. Women don’t want to date them and they complain about it all the time. And instead of saying: ‘Maybe I’m wrong about women, and I’m wrong about pluralism, and fundamentalism.’ They are becoming even more radical. It’s really scary.

BOEDY: Well, show up to a Turning Point event. I’m sure there are plenty of eligible bachelorettes there who agree with your political views.

SHEFFIELD: But that’s the thing, like they’re even more radical than, than the women.

BOEDY: All right. Yeah. Yeah. I think at the all these events now, Charlie Kirk knows there’s going to be these people that are going to try to interrupt that are going to try to get in, that are trying to make a scene. And there was one or two small ones at the most recent one.

And he’s done much better job of security, but at the same time, he knows those people over there, but yet at the same time, he can’t cancel them because he—

SHEFFIELD: Yeah, he can’t tell them not to come because a lot of his actual fans also agree with them. I really hope that more people on the center left become aware of what’s happening here with America’s youth. There’s just this pool of young people out there who want to be involved with something that the traditional left of center power structure is not interested in talking to them.

BOEDY: No. And Charlie Kirk has a army of doorknockers and people who will walk the streets for candidates now with Turning Point Action. I can’t name a group that’s similar to that on the other side. And they will go into these swing districts in swing states and they will do a lot of work.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. And in the case of Turning Point, January 6th, the Capitol attack, Charlie Kirk personally boasted about what did he say? He said sent 40 buses of people to January 6th?

BOEDY: Yeah. They narrowed it down to a single digit number of buses, but they, they brought a lot of people to that rally. They did say that all those people got back on the bus after the rally. So who knows? But yeah, he was a part of that. He wasn’t personally there, but yeah, he was a part of that.

SHEFFIELD: So, this has been a good conversation. We probably could talk a lot longer.

BOEDY: Yes, we could, yes.

SHEFFIELD: Because there’s just so much here. So you’re on Twitter at MatthewBoedy. That’s B-O-E-D-Y. And people can check you out there. And you’ve got another article about Charlie Kirk that’s going to be coming out.

BOEDY: It’s in the last stage of fact, checking for Political Research Associates, PRA. I don’t know when exactly it’ll come up, obviously, probably in the new year, but I’m pegging it as the history of Turning Point USA from founding until today.

SHEFFIELD: Okay. All right. Well, excellent. We’ll look forward to seeing that and I’ll try to get that into the show notes later when that does come out. So please do send that my way.

That’s our show for today and thank you for being here. I wanted to remind everybody that Theory of Change is part of the Flux.Community media network. We’ve got a bunch of different podcasts and in-depth articles about politics, religion, and technology and media and how they all intersect.

So please do check it out. That’s Flux.community. And Theory of Change also has a show archive on there as well. If you want to go directly to that, just to go to theoryofchange.show.

And if you liked what you saw here today, or listened to here today, we certainly could use your support. We’re not swimming in money the way that Charlie Kirk is, so we can definitely use your support to help get the word out. The Patreon address is patreon.com/discoverflux. So please show some support there and we do greatly appreciate the people who are supporting us on Patreon as well. So thank you very much to those of you who do that.

We’re going to be back in the new year to our regular production schedule which is Thursdays at 10:00 AM Pacific Time, 1:00 PM Eastern Time. So, look forward to seeing you then. Thanks.

About This Podcast

Lots of people want to change the world. But how does change happen? History is filled with stories of people and institutions that spent big and devoted many resources to effect change but have little to show for it. By contrast, many societal developments have happened without forethought from anyone. And of course, change can be negative as well as positive.

In each episode of this weekly program, Theory of Change host Matthew Sheffield delves deep with a solo guest to discuss larger trends in politics, religion, media, and technology.