The perfectly incoherent Trumpism of Charlie Kirk's Campus Battlefield
Does Charlie Kirk hate safe spaces or love them? Depends.
Blog ››› ››› SIMON MALOY
It's ridiculous that I even have to write this review. Campus Battlefield: How Conservatives Can Win the Battle on Campus and Why It Matters, by Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk: Why does anyone have to know anything about this book, or about Charlie Kirk? What hideously twisted nightmare reality are we inhabiting in which Kirk -- one of countless opportunistic grifters parasitically leeching money from the conservative movement’s diseased, distended pre-corpse -- is a figure of relevance?
The answer to these questions can be found in the foreword to Campus Battlefield, which was provided by Donald Trump Jr. “The more time I spent with Charlie Kirk and the more I learned about Turning Point USA, the more I realized there was something unique that we were missing,” Trump Jr. writes of his time on the 2016 campaign trail with the author before exhorting readers to “support Turning Point USA.” Kirk is a friend of the first family and an ally of the president, which gets him on TV and grants him access to dark-money billionaires.
And so here I am, stuck with the grim task of reading and reviewing Campus Battlefield, which isn’t so much a “book” as it is an advertisement for Kirk’s organization and an artless distillation of the aggressive grievance politics that define Trumpism.
Much like the president Kirk glorifies, Campus Battlefield is a sloppy and incoherent mess. It valorizes a gauzy ideal of academia -- “colleges are supposed to be a place (sic) of discourse, characterized by thoughtful debate, a search for knowledge, and civility” -- while also casting lazy, haphazard, and atrociously written allegations of academic perfidy. “The Classics, which have survived for centuries because of their enduring relevance, have been pushed aside by the proposition that they are little more than the narrow-minded, racist, misogynist, homophobic ramblings of old white men,” Kirk complains, citing nothing in evidence. “A smug liberal elite has trashed them, arrogantly presuming to know better and smart enough (sic) to create an entirely new explanation of everything.”
Campus Battlefield is also very difficult to read, given that the text is broken up in random places by quotes of Charlie Kirk’s tweets. Chapter 4 features a self-serving appropriation of counterculture activist Mario Savio’s legacy, which is inexplicably interrupted by an April 2018 Kirk tweet about how “Affirmative action is a racist program.” At one point Kirk quotes himself quoting George Orwell:
Charlie Kirk's new book is padded out with a bunch of his tweets, including ones where he's just quoting somebody else. pic.twitter.com/Nlo0r540Cl
— Will Sommer (@willsommer) October 9, 2018
Jamming these tweets into the text is one of several strategies Kirk uses to pad out the book without producing any original content; it also features extensive block quotes of sources and copy-and-pasted material from websites Kirk’s organization operates.
The general thrust of Campus Battlefield is that the university system is overrun by liberal professors and activists who persecute conservative students. This argument is based on the eager conflation of “professors are liberal” and “professors are indoctrinating students with liberalism.” For Kirk, it’s sufficient to point an accusatory finger at a select group of college professors and denounce them as radicals. The reader is then supposed to arrive on their own steam at the conclusion that professors who espouse leftist viewpoints are propagandizing in the service of Marxism, enforcing rigid conformity of thought, and punishing conservative students for thoughtcrimes. (A conservative academic whose research Kirk cites in the book wrote in 2012 that while “the Right faces special challenges in higher education, our research offers little evidence that conservative students or faculty are the victims of widespread ideological persecution.”)
Kirk argues that rampant leftism has perverted colleges and universities, which he says should be “safe places for the teaching and expression of all ideas, not just those endorsed by the liberal curia.”
That’s a lofty ideal, and Kirk’s aspiration to it is outright bullshit. On the one hand, Kirk demands completely open debate of all ideas. On the other, Kirk and his group maintain the Professor Watchlist -- a website that functions as a sort of blacklist for left-wing professors whose ideas Kirk (and his donors) have deemed too “radical.” The statement of purpose for the Professor Watchlist embodies these two warring ideas and makes no effort to reconcile them:
TPUSA will continue to fight for free speech and the right for professors to say whatever they wish; however students, parents, and alumni deserve to know the specific incidents and names of professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.
Much of Chapter 3 is devoted to naming and shaming these “radical” professors with copy-and-pasted entries from the Professor Watchlist website. The criteria for inclusion is comically low; one Michigan State professor qualified as radical because she “taught students how to argue with conservatives about issues such as illegal immigration, refugees, and the Dakota Access pipeline when they go home for Thanksgiving.” Professors on the list have reportedly faced harassment and death threats.
A similarly dissonant take on “safe spaces” drives much of Kirk’s griping. He spends considerable energy mocking liberal students for their “desperate need for campus safe spaces” and derides the idea that words can cause hurt. “Words have become sticks and stones,” he writes. “Colleges have morphed from places of higher learning into playgrounds where name-calling sends children home crying.”
However, for conservative students, the safeguarding of feelings and protection against name-calling are of paramount importance. Liberals can “call conservatives anything they want. Without criticism. Without penalty. Without rebuke, official or otherwise,” Kirk complains. “Fascist! Bigot! Homophobe! Racist! Birther! Misogynist! Wingnut! Oh, and let’s not forget: Deplorable!” In one paragraph he’ll chide overly sensitive liberals, and in the next he’ll solemnly relive the martyrdom of insulted conservative students.
“Conservatives don’t live in a liberal fantasy world where they are taken care of by cadres of compassionate folks who feel their hurt,” he writes. Feeling the “hurt” of conservatives students, however, is the reason for Turning Point USA’s existence, and Kirk wants readers to know that he feels that hurt. “Are you a closet conservative? When you walk into the first day of class, do you wonder if the teacher will ridicule you in front of the class if you express your conservative views?” he writes. “This is beyond unfair. It is dangerous.”
This is why the Trump family loves Kirk; he and his book are pure expressions of Trumpist politics. He leans intensely on white grievance while mocking the plights of minorities (one chapter is titled “Black Victimization Bunco”); he demands the in-group (conservative students) receive protection and status (“safe spaces,” unchallenged expression of any idea) while also demanding that protection and status be denied to out-groups (liberals, minorities); and he makes zero effort to reconcile these contradictions while substituting aggressive combativeness for substantive heft. It’s a simple trick: posture as an alpha tough guy, but when the slightest offense arises, performatively howl like a whipped dog.
In that spirit of bad-faith victimhood, I am obligated to close my review of this tome on the dangers of suffocating the free exchange of ideas by highlighting the plight of someone whose lust for lively debate has been cruelly quashed by Charlie Kirk: me.
Earlier this year, Kirk tweeted that a California school has a “graphic mural depicting the President being killed by an Aztec warrior” and warned: “The left no longer just hates Trump. They want him dead.” I was incredulous both at the suggestion that a school mural represented “the left” and at Kirk’s affected outrage, so in the spirit of debate I tweeted back that he’d “strap[ped] on a metaphorical diaper.”
For this, I was blocked by Kirk.
How ironic that Kirk, who loves idea-based discourse so much, was scared to debate whether his tweet cowering before the menace of some wall art in California was the figurative equivalent of shitting his own pants. My argument was rooted in fact: One of Turning Point USA’s more famous stunts involved its activists protesting “safe spaces” by wearing adult diapers. How can it be beyond the bounds of discourse to impute this diaper-centric mode of thinking to Kirk when he held up one school’s mural painting as representative of “the left?”
Maybe Kirk silenced me because the organization reportedly believes the diaper fiasco is “not funny” and is frustrated that “every time Charlie [Kirk] tweets they tweet back pictures of him in a diaper.”
They are wrong. It is very funny.
And guess what? Free discourse is supposed to be difficult. How can Charlie Kirk expect to function in the Hobbesian carnage of the marketplace of ideas if he can’t handle it when I confront him with the mainstream viewpoint that he is -- metaphorically, at least -- a diaper lad? Alas, Kirk was triggered by my ideas and swaddled himself in a safe space where he wouldn’t be exposed to new, uncomfortable truths.