Donald Trump is 73. Mitch McConnell is 77. Rush Limbaugh is 68. The median Fox News viewer is 65. For good reason, observers of the American right often focus on folks who already qualify for Medicare and Social Security. But anyone wanting to understand the right’s future would do well to study the public-speaking appearance that Donald Trump Jr. made Sunday at UCLA.
Don Jr. expected leftist protesters.
As it turned out, he and his girlfriend, the former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle, were drowned out and forced off stage by chanting alt-right activists.
Understanding the unexpected turn requires a bit of background. But the effort is worth it. Few events better illustrate the complex interplay of ideologies, tactics, and hypocrisies that are influencing the right’s youngest activists, who’ll ultimately decide what to do with the Birchers of their generation.
Many of today’s college students didn’t start paying attention to presidential politics until Donald Trump was vying for the White House. They weren’t even teenagers yet in 2012, when Mitt Romney was the GOP standard-bearer and the populist right organized under the banner of the Tea Party.
That same year, Charlie Kirk, then 18, founded Turning Point USA, a nonprofit that aimed to “identify, educate, train, and organize” the campus right. He pitched the organization to wealthy donors, touting his ability to spread free-market ideology, limited-government policies, and movement conservatism. By 2015, no one was a more successful community organizer on the right.
Kirk commanded a seven-figure budget, counted a presence at 800 high schools and colleges, sponsored a huge delegation at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and appeared regularly on cable news. Then Donald Trump upended the GOP.
Suddenly, the Republican Party’s standard-bearer was promising big deficit spending and protectionist tariffs rather than small government and free markets. Like Mike Pence, Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Ted Cruz, Hugh Hewitt, Rand Paul, and many other older Republican partisans, Kirk sought to maintain his influence on the Trumpist right––the only right young people now entering college have really known––by setting qualms aside, obscuring divisive contradictions, offering absurd praise (Turning Point once posted to social media that Trump is “on track to be America’s greatest president!”), and emphasizing common enemies, especially “social justice warrior” activists and leftist college professors.
As surely as the most illiberal leftists divided the Democratic coalition, they helped unite Republicans, as did propagandistic coverage that fabricated some leftist excesses.
“You can’t watch Fox News without seeing five or six segments a day about the nuttiness on college campuses,” Kirk told Politico. “You pair that nuttiness up with people in their 60s and 70s who are beginning to map out where they want a significant portion of their wealth to go, and they’re saying, ‘I don’t want my money to go to my university. It’s not representing my values.’ Then we come along.”
Kirk cultivates an image of himself as a clean-cut, respectable man of reason––a man who can laugh it off when leftists try to discredit him with provocative labels, knowing “white supremacist” or “bigot” or “anti-Semite” won’t stick to him.
“When we do these events together,” Dave Rubin, the right-wing YouTube personality, once told Kirk, “you always make a point of saying to the audience, if you’ve got questions and you disagree with us, come up first. So we always take questions from people who disagree with us first. And we treat them as respectfully as humanly possible, or at least as respectfully as they treat us. But also me and you have some disagreements and we go up there and talk them out. So how is it that so many people on Twitter see you as a fascist?”
Kirk replied: “What a strange concept, to hear the other side, to give people a platform that you totally might fundamentally disagree with, then have a conversation about it, see where you might be able to build consensus, find the disagreements, then find why you disagree, which is super important! Do you disagree because you have different data inputs or because you have different philosophical inputs?”
That is the image he wants to project: calm and cool. Never mind that he is often less charitable in practice and seldom engages the strongest views on the other side.
Every time Turning Point USA hosts a speaker on campus, Kirk has a double opportunity. At worst, the speaker will get out a right-leaning message. At least one leftist questioner will likely say something facile, affording the opportunity to capture a response on video that ostensibly “owns the libs.” At best, a leftist will try to shut down the event or shout down the speaker, or engage in an unseemly protest, generating video clips that make right-wingers who would’ve been widely ignored into free-speech martyrs or seeming victims.
Then: more fundraising!
As the sociologists Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning observed in their 2015 paper and later book, The Rise of Victimhood Culture, whereas people were once loath to be seen as victims, domination is now “the main form of deviance,” while victimization attracts sympathy, “so rather than emphasize either their strength or inner worth, the aggrieved emphasize their oppression and social marginalization.” Sympathetic dollars can follow––as can political support. From the start, Trump has touted his supposed victimhood as no president has before, confident that his supporters won’t hold self-pitying whines against him.
Now his son Don Jr. is out with a new book, released a year ahead of the 2020 election: Triggered: How the Left Thrives on Hate and Wants to Silence Us. There was a time when Republicans campaigned on a positive vision for the country. Don Jr.’s book rests on claims of victimhood and partisan conflict.
Promoting the book at a Turning Point USA event was a no-brainer, especially given a venue at UCLA, where a “Kanye West theme party” was enough to trigger administrative scolds. Don Jr. must have figured he’d face at least some aggrieved leftists—great fodder for a prime-time segment on Fox News, if he was lucky.
Yet Don Jr. should have anticipated that he would hear from some aggrieved rightists, as well.
When Turning Point USA began its multi-college, cross-country Culture War Tour this autumn, Kirk concluded the events with the usual question-and-answer sessions, in which he reiterated his call to hear dissenting views first. Suddenly, however, the dissenters stepping up to the mic weren’t centrists or leftists.
They were the sort of Trump supporters who post Pepe the Frog memes in web forums, spread anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about Jews, and believe that mainstream conservatives are excessively fond of immigrants and gay people. Most conservatives don’t like to acknowledge those Trump supporters. In turn, those Trump supporters complain that more mainstream conservatives benefited from their memes and votes in 2016, only to undermine Trump’s true agenda.
This alt-right faction saw an opportunity in Turning Point USA events, and in Kirk’s supposed openness to dissent. The 22-year-old YouTube personality Nick Fuentes, described by Vox’s Jane Coaston, who delved into his past, as a “white nationalist and an avowed anti-Semite,” urged supporters to show up to Turning Point USA events early, sit respectfully through the live-streamed presentation, line up as early as possible when it comes time for the question-and-answer session at the end, and then use the spotlight to advance suppressed views.
“We want them to fear the Q&A,” he said.
At recent Turning Point USA events, some hostile questioners have tried to retain a degree of respectability by remaining a quarter step removed from anti-Semitism (if not implied white supremacy). “Why would white Americans send their taxpayer dollars to fund Israel’s health care while our mothers fight cancer, our brothers die of opioid overdoses, and the news of a coming baby brings not joy and happiness, but grave concern over thousands in future medical bills?” one questioner asked at an event held October 29. “How is that ‘America first’?”
At that same event, another questioner tried to troll Kirk. “You have multiple times advocated on behalf of accepting homosexuality, accepting homosexual acts, as normative in the conservative movement,” an anti-gay questioner declared. “How does anal sex help us win the culture wars?”
A more complicated troll also unfolded at the October 29 event.
Questioner: I have a quick and fun, lighthearted question for you, Charlie. So, you gave a speech in Jerusalem earlier this year? Were there any awesome fun dancing parties that you guys hit afterwards? I heard that Israelis are some of the best dancers in the world. I mean, if you don’t believe me, Google ‘dancing Israelis.’ It is insane how good their dancing is. Would you agree or disagree with that?
Kirk: Israel is a beautiful country, a great country too.
Questioner: It is our greatest ally.
Ico Maly, a professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands, provided a nuanced analysis of the odd exchange:
This Q&A-troll’s offline intervention was set up, stylized, and formatted as a digital practice … he intervened as a troll using irony to mock the adversary and to make him look like an idiot. Even without taking into account the digital culture of trolling, the offline intervention cannot fully be understood from an offline perspective. The troll’s performance was clearly produced for digital uptake and addresses not only Charlie Kirk and the audience in the room but all the viewers of the live stream and the multiple re-mediations of that stream.
His suggestion to ‘Google dancing Israelis’ directs the online audience towards a data void filled with extreme right anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. This 18-year-old anti-Semitic conspiracy theory is built around the idea that ‘4,000 Israelis’ were absent on 9/11 and 5 were spotted dancing. The Groyper troll here reintroduces this conspiracy theory in the context of a culture war to highlight that Charlie Kirk’s pro-Israel stance is against the American interests.
This type of message-politics can only be understood and work in the online/offline nexus.
Maly calculated that 11 of the 14 people in the audience who asked questions on October 29 were trolls intending to undermine Turning Point USA and its founder.
The tactic puts Kirk in a difficult position: He can indulge trolls interested in discrediting him––or he can short-circuit debate in a manner reminiscent of the leftists he criticizes by declaring some views too deplorable to air. It puts Turning Point USA guests in a similarly tough position, especially when they are as closely associated with a political campaign as Don Jr. Team Trump cannot win reelection if its members are associated too closely with alt-right bigots; neither can they win without many voters dubbed “deplorables” by rivals.
That’s the context for Don Jr.’s Sunday appearance at UCLA, context that explains what a reporter from The Guardian witnessed while attending the event:
Turning Point USA, the organizing group, announced that Trump and his girlfriend, former Fox News Channel host Kimberly Guilfoyle, would not take questions after delivering their remarks. Audience members erupted in rage and began shouting “Q and A” even before the duo began speaking. Their chants began to drown out the speakers as Trump moved to conclude, visibly flustering him.
They’d put the event on their calendar, arrived early, and prepared questions to troll Kirk and his guests in a Q&A that was suddenly being denied to them. It isn’t clear if Don Jr. understood what was happening:
“We’re willing to listen,” he repeated as jeers and chants filled the room.
“You’re not making your parents proud by being rude and disruptive and discourteous!” Guilfoyle shouted over the din. Eventually the couple, accompanied by Turning Point founder Charlie Kirk, exited the stage to boos.
Rude. Discourteous. A disappointment to respectable people. Guilfoyle cast those young people in the same light many in the establishment cast all Trump voters. The irony would barely have been thicker if she’d called them Russian stooges. More attempts to troll conservative events from the right lie ahead.
“Youth-oriented conservative groups are likely to face continued heckling in the weeks and months to come,” The Bulwark noted Monday. “Fuentes fans have been compiling a list of upcoming conservative college speeches and have vowed to attend all of them.”
With what consequence? “We’re going to see a lot more restrictions where only students can ask a question,” Fuentes, the alt-right YouTuber, predicts. “You have to have a student ID. Only leftists can ask questions. Only Turning Point can ask questions … I’m sure that if you’re a white male, they’ll profile you. If you’re wearing a MAGA hat they’ll profile you.” In his telling, “They’re literally campaigning for Trump, and they have to discriminate against his voters.”
Fuentes is trying to provoke and exploit a dynamic Kirk has used to great effect. Either his supporters will be heard or attempts will be made to shut them up, which is even better, because they can cast themselves as victims of a sanctimonious establishment––victims who’d prevail if only they could speak freely.
Kirk and Don Jr. are hardly alone in facing a troll problem. All of us face a troll problem. Trolls seize on that which people rightly value and turn those very values against them in a way that is hard to combat without losing the greater good. Civil libertarians understand that favoring free speech, the presumption of innocence, the right against self-incrimination, the provision of an attorney, universal suffrage, or anything else worth fighting for means that the most deplorable bigots invariably benefit along with everyone else.
Yet Kirk and Don Jr. are more vulnerable than most to trolls––because their coalitions rely more than most on the continuing support of trolls and on trolling; because theirs is a trolly culture-war coalition masquerading as small-government conservatism; because they denounce the left not only for initiating censorious excesses, but also for overreacting to Trumpist trolls who bait them; because Trump deploys rhetoric as conspiratorial as any alt-right troll; and because one cannot be a Trumpist and (with a straight face) discredit others as too rude.
Despite their many faults, neither Kirk nor Don Jr. is an alt-right troll––and Ben Shapiro may be right that drawing that false equivalence is dangerous––but Trumpist politics have done a lot to empower alt-right trolls, a fact that should haunt Kirk and Don Jr. each time they are trolled. The forces of hatred that Trump stoked to benefit himself politically may be spiraling out of anyone’s control.