WEST PALM BEACH, Florida — Charlie Kirk thinks of himself as the “luckiest 25-year-old in America.”
Kirk, the president and founder of the conservative advocacy group Turning Point USA, is rapidly becoming one of the most prominent figures on the right today.
He’s met with and been retweeted by President Donald Trump, gained notoriety by trying to bring Kanye West over to the right, has a close friendship with Donald Trump Jr., makes regular appearances on Fox News, and has a Twitter following of over 825,o00 that seems to be growing by the minute.
Thousands of young Trump supporters flocked to Kirk’s annual Student Action Summit in West Palm Beach, Florida, last month to hear a slew of conservative thinkers, politicians, and media personalities offer their views on the state of the country and the future of conservatism.
The four-day event included speakers most Americans would recognize, such as Trump administration figures Donald Trump Jr. and Wilbur Ross — but also prominent conservative media personalities Dennis Prager,Candace Owens, and Tucker Carlson, as well as “Intellectual Dark Web” rock stars Jordan Peterson and Dave Rubin.
Kirk’s nonprofit is popular among young conservatives, but has been tied to several highly public controversies andfaced accusations of racial bias.
Kirk sat down with INSIDER on the third day of the conference to discuss some of criticism directed at Turning Point USA and also why he thinks Trumpism is winning over young people.
‘Obviously we reject any foreign adversary using any content’
A recentreport from researchers atNew Knowledge, which was requested by the Senate Intelligence Committee, found Russians agents seeking to influence the 2016 US presidential election via social mediaroutinely shared content created by Turning Point USA.
Kirk said he was not supportive of the Russians using Turning Point USA’s content to further a propaganda war, but he said the organization “can’t control who uses our stuff.”
“Obviously we reject any foreign adversary using any content. Russia is an enemy of the state,” Kirk said. “And we can’t control who uses our stuff, obviously. Our content is seen by hundreds of millions of people a week. These foreign actors should be totally denounced and we denounce them.”
When asked whether there’s something about the nature of Turning Point USA’s content that might have led the Russians to share it, Kirk said, “I don’t know, probably not.”
“I mean, we publish hundreds of pieces of content every week. I don’t know what’s going through their head. They’re enemies of America, so how should I try to impose my perspective upon them?” he said.
Here are some examples of memes shared onTurning Point USA’s Facebookpage amid the 2016 presidential campaign season:
The ‘Professor Watchlist’ and free speech
A self-declared free speech absolutist, one of the more incendiary projects Kirk’s organization has launched is the“Professor Watchlist.”
“The mission of Professor Watchlist is to expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom,”the project states on its website.
When asked whether keeping a list of professors whose views he doesn’t agree with might undermine or contradict his push for free speech on campuses, Kirk became visibly annoyed.
“How did I know you were going to ask that? Every journalist. It’s literally the same question,” he said.
At that point, Kirk asked his staff to start filming the interview. He vehemently rejected the notion he’s working to stifle free speech among leftists on college campuses.
“Where did I ever say I want to prevent anything? Show me one time … I’ve ever said they shouldn’t be allowed to talk,” Kirk said.
Kirk added: “Is it watchlist or is it blacklist? Is it watchlist or is it hit list?”
The Professor Watchlist’s website states Turning Point USA will “continue to fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish” but adds that students, parents, and alumni “deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.”
Kirk said the purpose of the watchlist is “exposure” and “more speech.”
“I’m doing journalist’s work. I’m doing what you’re supposed to be doing,” he added. “How is that anything but speech?”
‘Have you ever seen a conservative shout down a liberal speaker on campus?’
Kirk also contended that it is primarily left-wing groups or people who are working against free speech on college campuses.
“Have you ever seen a conservative shout down a liberal speaker on campus? Isn’t that kind of strange though that the left does that every day and conservatives don’t?” he said.
Though it’s true left-leaning groups have protested and shouted down conservative speakers on college campuses and in many cases have successfully demanded they be disinvited or otherwise deplatformed, there are also examples of conservative hecklers shutting down speakers.
In October 2017, for example, pro-Trump activists interrupted a Q&A withCalifornia’s Democratic Attorney General Xavier Becerra and Assembly Leader Ian Calderon. In a more extreme case, an Orange Coast College professor who expressed disdain for the president received so many death threats she was forced to flee the state.
Jeffrey Sachs, a political scientist at Canada’s Acadia University, documented all the cases in whicha professor was dismissed for political speechin the US between 2015 and 2017. Sachs’ analysis found liberal professors were fired more often for political speech than their conservative counterparts.
Despite the general concern about the policing of speech on college campuses among those on the right, some conservatives have vehemently criticized Turning Point USA’s approach.
John Hardin, the director of university relations for the Charles Koch Foundation,in August said, “Instead of supporting groups that put professors that they disagree with on watch lists, we support folks who take those professors to lunch, who co-teach with those professors and who collaborate with those professors.”
Sarah Ruger, the director of Free Speech Initiatives for the Charles Koch Institute, described the Professor Watchlist as “truly McCarthyism 2.0” — a reference to Republican Sen. Joe McCarthy’s infamous efforts to expose alleged communists in the 1950s.
“It’s a platform that exists to put the names and the profiles of self-identified progressive professors out there and encourages conservative students to intimidate them,”Ruger told The Washington Post of the watchlist.“If there’s anything political tribes can agree on today, it’s that they all want to censor someone. They just disagree on who should be silenced. That’s entirely antithetical to who we are.”
‘I support … Islamic groups to be wrong about Israel’
Much of Kirk’s concern regarding free speech on campuses seems to be centered around the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
He said Turning Point USA supports the right of pro-Palestine campus groups who condone BDS to speak, but that it still seeks to “shut down” resolutions supporting BDS in student governments at colleges and universities across the US.
“We’re trying to prevent a boycott, divestment, sanction, which is anti-free speech. So we’re fighting the anti-free speech measures,” Kirk said. “You understand, they’re trying to say, ‘We’re trying boycott Israel, we’re trying to divest from Israel and put sanctions on Israel,’ which in essence is a targeted attempt to go after the singular Jewish state. So we say, ‘No, that is anti-free speech.’ We’re trying to kill the resolution.”
Thoughfederal courts have heldthat state laws in Arizona and Kansas prohibiting boycotts against Israel are in violation of the First Amendment, fourteen other states still have such laws on the books. Kirk fervently denied allegations his organization’s efforts to thwart BDS are in any way anti-free speech.
“I support Students for Justice for Palestine to speak. I support the Muslim Student Association to speak. I support … Islamic groups to be wrong about Israel. 100%,” Kirk added.
‘We live in a broken culture’
Turning Point USA claims to have a presence onover 1,000 college campuses across the US,and Kirk is confident young people are becoming more attracted to conservatism and Trumpism.
“We live in a broken culture,” Kirk said. “Where the conservative movement is making gains really quick and where the left is really struggling right now is that we are offering remedies for a broken culture.”
Kirk pointed to young men having an “identity crisis,” as well as the opioid epidemic, suicide rates, and divorce rates as some of the signs that Americans face a “broken culture.”
“Where conservatives win, it’s being able to have remedies to that broken culture,” Kirk said. “It’s not even about politics, it’s just about making these cultural observations and saying this is what we stand for and this is who we are and I think the left is getting away from that. Because I think they’re actually endorsing things that are very, very dangerous.”
‘The idea of Trumpism is rooted in a philosophy that’s been ignored over the last 20 or 30 years’
Kirk seems to believe that even if Trump is not reelected in 2020, Trumpism will live on.
“The idea of Trumpism is rooted in a philosophy that’s been ignored over the last 20 or 30 years, which is that Washington, DC, has grown far too powerful, that the wealthiest counties in America are all clustered around Washington, DC, that we’ve become way too coastal-focused, and that middle America has been suffering,” Kirk said.
He added: “What Trump is bringing back is the sense that we can again be and we are becoming again the world superpower in every single capacity.”
Kirk said he is not happy with all aspects of the Trump presidency, and was somewhat critical of the president’s cabinet choices.
“I think less Goldman Sachs the better,” Kirk said, but contended Trump has “changed the mechanics of politics.”
In some ways, Kirk seems to believe Trumpism has supplanted Republicanism.
“What does ‘a Republican’ mean anymore?” Kirk asked. “Is it Paul Ryan? Is it Mitt Romney?”
‘I think we should be the Kentucky basketball of immigrants’
Kirk routinely expresses solidarity with the president and his positions on Twitter, especially on the topic of immigration.
In his more recent tweets, Kirk hasdenounced Democratsfor not giving Trump the funding he wants for a border wall, praised Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria, and expressed approval for the president “holding the line” in relation to the government shutdown.
Kirk’s tweets often touch on undocumented immigration, which he’s described as a“serious threat”to the US.
He told INSIDER that his perspectives on immigration are “originally informed” by the “Judeo-Christian construct.”
Kirk said he’s not against immigration or accepting refugees, but that he doesn’t like people who “are border jumpers that cut in line.”
“I don’t think you’ll find a lot of conservatives that don’t want to be generous and benevolent, but you have to balance that with wisdom and self-restraint,” Kirk said as he explained his position on immigration. “There has to be limitations. We live in a world of finite resources.”
He said the US should focus on bringing in the “best, brightest, most operational” immigrants.
“I think we should be the Kentucky basketball of immigrants,” Kirk added.
He also defended the president’s characterization of a caravan of Central American migrants as an “invasion,” noting the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said the caravan contained violent criminals.
Kirk said, “Is that really what we want?”
In a November 1news release, DHS said, “There are over 270 individuals along the caravan route that have criminal histories, including known gang membership.”
But fact-checkers haveexpressed skepticismover the vague nature of the DHS statement, and experts have contended migrants heading to the US from Central America are more often than notrunning away from violent crime rather than contributing to it.
If Don Jr. ‘wants to be president, he could be president’
Kirk’s loyalty to Trump extends to the president’s children.
He has a particularly close relationship with Trump Jr., describing him as a “good friend.” Kirk said their relationship began in August 2016, not long after the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio.
“He’s a good friend. He’s a patriot. One of the best Americans that I could possibly imagine. He’s been helpful, he’s dedicated, he’s loyal, he’s terrific,” Kirk said of Trump Jr.
Kirk believes Trump Jr. could one day become president if he “wants to.”
“I’ve seen the man do things that you just don’t see people in politics do,” Kirk said of the president’s son, including feeling bad about not taking enough selfies with people after big events.
“If [Trump Jr.] wants to be president, he could be president,” Kirk said, adding, “I would help him in every possible way I could.”