A review of Campus Battlefield: How Conservatives Can WIN the Battle of Ideas on Campus and Why It Matters by Charlie Kirk. Post Hill Press (October 2018), 160 pages.
Charlie Kirk, founder and CEO of Turning Point USA, campus court jester, and pro-Trump parvenu, has written a new book, Campus Battlefield: How Conservatives Can WIN the Battle on Campus and Why It Matters. As evinced by the title, Kirk purports to expose how colleges have become “leftist echo chambers” and explain what conservatives can do about it. It is a bad book, both in style and substance, failing as much on its own terms as any others. It’s not a book I expect too many to read, either, being a less-than-average offering in the already oversaturated, worse-than-average genre of nonfiction punditry.
Nevertheless, I do consider it a relatively useful book, at least insofar as what it augurs for conservatism, at present and going forward. Like it or not (and, I’ll disclose upfront, I do not), Charlie Kirk is a rising star within the GOP and American conservatism writ large. And he’s got the numbers to prove it: though only 25 years old last month, Kirk is a staple of right-wing nightly news and morning shows (“I’ve appeared on cable news shows more than five hundred times,” he brags in the book); boasts over 814,000 Twitter followers as of this writing (“I’m the second most powerful tweeter in conservative politics”); and, more importantly, he enjoys impressive access to the White House (“I have met with President Donald Trump more than fifteen times”) and first family—particularly Don Jr., who wrote the foreword to Campus Battlefield. Turning Point USA, the on-campus activism network Kirk founded in 2012, claims to reach over 130,000 students on more than 1,100 high school and college campuses and has raked in more than $30 million since its inception. Those curious about the next cohorts of conservatives—right-leaning students currently being reared in the age of Trump—should begin with Kirk and his organization.
What they find should concern them. Fundamentally unserious, unburdened with self-awareness, and gleefully engaged in stoking the fire of tribalism, Kirk is, above all things, a performer, peddling his own personal brand in the guise of training young conservatives and resisting liberal indoctrination on campus. It’s an act that’s had unsettling success in conference halls, on cable news, and on social media. But like most performances, it doesn’t work quite so well on paper. Campus Battlefield’s flaws are as apparent as they are numerous, and the book lays bare just how few clothes adorn Turning Point and its emperor.
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It should not come as a shock to those who follow him on Twitter when I say Kirk’s is a poorly written book. There are so many grammatical errors and incoherencies—never mind the logical or factual ones—that it would be kinder to assume the editing process was skipped entirely than that someone at Post Hill Press actually reviewed the manuscript. These errors begin immediately, with Kirk misusing “alliteration” in place of “rhyme” on the very first page of the introduction, and carry through to the end. Particularly notable, for instance, is the inconsistent formatting of “ex cathedra”: a Latin phrase meaning “from the chair,” which is italicized the second time it appears but not the first. One error among many, the scholastic Latin nevertheless stands out among Kirk’s otherwise prosaic diction.
Counting its brief introduction, the book runs only about 150 pages. No fewer than 19 of these prominently feature block-quotes pulled from Kirk’s Twitter account (all of which are helpfully sourced: “—@charliekirk11”), further reducing the already risible amount of effort evidently put into the work. That Kirk, proud as he is of his presumed online influence, included his tweets is largely unremarkable. More surprising, however, is that from the nearly 42,000 tweets he had to choose from, he selected for his book one widely mocked tweet wherein he quotes himself quoting a hoary proverb misattributed to George Orwell. Even so, it’s a revealing moment—combining intellectual laziness, unoriginality, and Kirk’s characteristic tendency to spout erroneous banalities as if they were philosophical profundities. It’s a tremendous, meta-textual “self-own,” something Kirk does with more frequency than perhaps any other public person, with the possible exception of Chris Cillizza.
Though short, Campus Battlefield is far from concise. Of persistent annoyance are the gratuitous interjections and rhetorical questions Kirk peppers throughout—sometimes both at once: “…a conservative faculty member (how rare is that?)…” Even some of his interruptions have interruptions: “Here I’ll break in to say that apparently, these college professors are so ignorant of history—not surprising these days—that they don’t know…” The incessant repetition is worse. Irony is an ever-present motif, for example, appearing nearly a dozen times in the slim volume. And like a poor comedian needing to explain his punchline, Kirk constantly reiterates lest the reader miss his insights: “How ironic that all those lectures about the desperate need for campus safe spaces and trigger warnings…come from the Left. It’s ironic because liberals are most often the aggressors.”
Habits like these would be easier to forgive, of course, if Kirk had anything to say. As he writes in his introduction, the nominal purpose of Campus Battlefield is twofold: to “examine how the Left has pulled…off” their institutional dominance of colleges and universities, and to explain “how we can resurrect the heart and soul of our universities as—yes—safe places for the teaching and expression of all ideas” (Kirk’s emphasis). Neither one of these goals is accomplished; in fact, the former is hardly even attempted. In place of causal analysis, Kirk offers perfunctory sentences like, “How this leftist escapism took root is lost in the fog of time.” Kirk prefers simply to list instances of “leftist intolerance” documented by others and to promote Turning Point and its websites. There is a whole chapter dedicated to extoling the virtues of TPUSA’s neo-Orwellian “Professor Watchlist,” for example, in addition to the book’s final chapter—dramatically titled “Join Us in Our Fight for America’s Soul”—which is the literary equivalent of exiting through the gift shop.
Indeed, contrary to aiding his argument, the continual asides, pleonasms, and nakedly self-referential marketing attempts all serve to illustrate Kirk’s lack of substance. To say this book even has arguments is itself being generous. What it has instead are statements—piled up, one on top of another, variously adorned with clichés, and presented as if the heap constituted something with persuasive force. Perhaps my favorite example of Kirkian tautology occurs early in Chapter 5, where a single thought is repeated in five successive sentences:
Notably absent from [colleges’] idea of inclusion, however, are conservatives. Inclusion for so many college does not mean tolerating or welcoming anything that does not pass the muster of the liberal inclusion patrols. Inclusion only admits to the sacred circle the products of liberal, progressive, or socialist thinking. Colleges claim the high ground of inclusion, but it’s only lip service. Only liberal views are worthy of being fostered and nurtured. It is high-level hypocrisy.
Assuming this point has been proven, he asks in the next sentence, “How has this happened?” In another book, written by another author, this would be a question worth raising; for Kirk, it’s throat clearing. His answer is not an explanation but a syllogism: “Because higher education administrators have allowed it to happen.” Well then, case closed.
This is Kirk in a nutshell: say a lot while saying nothing, turn the subject with a rhetorical question or non sequitur, and cap it off with a quip or platitude. Kirk fancies himself a debater; but while he’s cribbed Ben Shapiro’s style, he’s lifted none of the underlying intelligence. His Twitter account is filled with slick, branded clips of him “DESTROYING” an opponent—most often, a liberal college student or professor ignorant enough to think they could ask a question and get a straight response. Typically, what happens is that Kirk—perched on stage, armed with a microphone, headlining the event in question (not dissimilar to the “power relationship” between liberal professors and conservative students he decries in the book)—faces down some audience member and interrupts, pivots, or mocks until he’s able to deliver a line that plays well to his friendly crowd or on social media. A perfect example of this occurred last month in a “must watch!” video posted to his Twitter account, wherein a Reconstructionist rabbi attempts to ask Kirk a question during a Turning Point event. I say attempts, because the rabbi never makes it to his query. Instead, Kirk tries first to feint with an obvious set-up question, and when the rabbi sidesteps the bait, Kirk proceeds to interrupt him with shouts, profanity, and mocking statements about his interlocutor’s religion—all to laughter and scattered applause. (“[A]t Turning Point USA,” Kirk writes in Campus Battlefield, “civility and respect are as much a part of our approach as is a command of facts.” Indeed.)
What the book makes clear, by virtue of its medium if nothing else, is just how few rhetorical tools Kirk has at his disposal—and how evidently they’re employed to distract from how little he knows. In a speech or question-and-answer exchange, the deflections, ripostes, and barrage of empty logic can be easy to miss if you’re not looking for them; written down, the patterns are obvious to the point of condescension. Even if you broadly agree with Kirk’s points (many of which I do, generally speaking), as a reader you can’t help but feel disrespected: Just how stupid does he think I am?
Quite, I’d wager. Or, at least, Kirk understands that his audience is not really paying attention. He’s probably right—or those who are don’t seem to care. Like the president whose wave he has ridden to national prominence, Kirk has a rather tenuous relationship with the truth. A quick scan through Kirk’s Twitter feed will manifest nearly as many factual errors as there are tweets, and Campus Battlefield is hardly an improvement on this front. Many of these are minor—Kirk anachronistically writes in Chapter 1 that the American founders “struggled to find a better way to govern than…the anarchy of [France’s] bloody Reign of Terror,” for instance. This error, like the apocryphal Orwell quote, could have been avoided with a simple Google search. Others—such as his unsourced claim in Chapter 3 that “professors have no problem with the standard practice of students grading their teachers on their colleges’ websites”—are perhaps less obviously wrong, but remain untrue nonetheless. What’s worse is how Kirk marshals these errors. For example, he ludicrously presents that last assertion as if it somehow invalidates academics’ criticism of TPUSA’s “Professor Watchlist” or justifies the list’s creation by an organization purporting to uphold “free speech” and the sanctity of the academic classroom, “the very heart of intellectual inquiry.”
Indeed, Kirk is repeatedly disingenuous to the point of mendacity. The most obvious example of this is his repeated obfuscation of TPUSA’s campus reach. He boasts in Chapter 2, for instance, that he hears often “from our more than one thousand Turning Point USA campus chapters”—only to clarify in Chapter 16 that, “We have launched more than 350 TPUSA chapters and provided 750 like-minded students groups with resources.” In reality, these “like-minded student groups” are not actually TPUSA groups at all, but rather independent campus organizations like the College Republicans and other student free-speech groups who simply accept TPUSA-provided products. Which is why Kirk is elsewhere careful to use dissembling phrases such as “having representation on over 1,100 high schools and college campuses” when describing TPUSA’s reach.
While he otherwise avoids telling outright lies, Kirk is as unreliable a narrator you’ll find. At one point, he chides the president of Marquette University for referring to a graduate student who taught classes as simply a “student,” calling it “disingenuous.” Fair enough. Yet, not four pages later, Kirk does the same thing in reverse—referring to a then-University of Nebraska-Lincoln graduate student who taught classes as a “faculty member” and “professor.” In the introduction, Kirk valiantly writes that cancelling an event in the face of protests “and letting down the students who came to hear me with open or supportive minds was not an option.” Naturally, he doesn’t tell you of the time in May when he and Candace Owens, TPUSA’s communications director, bailed out of an event hosted by the TPUSA student chapter at Virginia Tech at the last minute so the pair could hang out with Kanye West instead.
Examples abound. “How often do conservatives harass liberals as they try to recruit students to their causes?” Kirk asks in another passage. “Not often, if ever.” Except that on April 16, 2016, Kirk himself joyously announced on Twitter, “Next semester Turning Point USA will be doing a nationwide ‘violate a safe space’ day. Bring it campus liberals!” Similarly, Kirk writes of the “nastiness, dishonesty, and silliness that infects the campus left-wing establishment.” He’s right that those things exist within the campus Left, of course (something I have written about extensively). Nevertheless, it takes an impressive level of hypocrisy for Kirk to accuse someone else of “silliness” when one of his TPUSA chapters hosted a rally last October, at which members wore diapers to protest safe spaces—to say nothing of the “nastiness” and “dishonesty” that flows near-daily from Kirk’s and, particularly, Owens’s Twitter accounts.
An illustrative episode of Kirk’s self-serving facade occurred recently with DePaul University. Kirk and Owens were set to speak to the DePaul TPUSA chapter on October 16 as part of their “Campus Clash Tour” (a title just dripping with civility), but were prohibited by the university from holding the event on campus. On October 9, the pair criticized DePaul for the move, accusing the university on Twitter of cancelling the event over concerns of “potentially violent” language. “The Left hates the idea there are other ideas,” Kirk wrote. “Hey DePaul, your fascism is showing.” Owens went further, tweeting that “DePaul is enslaving black minds.”
According to DePaul’s student-run newspaper, The DePaulia, however, what actually happened is far less suitable to their narrative. While the official decision letter sent to DePaul’s TPUSA chapter did mention concerns over the potential use of “hate speech,” the event was primarily cancelled due to ticketing and marketing concerns. “There was nothing unfair in the [DePaul administration’s] processing or the deadlines or the timelines. I just want to make that clear,” DePaul TPUSA’s vice president Ema Gavrilovic told The DePaulia. “The primary concern was Turning Point’s headquarters started issuing tickets and advertising for an event that was never originally even confirmed.” In fact, Gavrilovic explained, her campus chapter “really had no control or no say for what headquarters at the national level was doing,” stating, “We understand the DePaul administration’s reasoning for this exclusion because this was a primary concern that was voiced in the rejection letter.” Further, The DePaulia’s reporting makes clear, “DePaul TPUSA was made aware of the event’s cancellation in mid-September,” despite the fact that Kirk and Owens’s statements about it were not until October 9. Campus Battlefield was released October 10.
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A favorite recent conceit among the more self-satisfied portions of the Left is that campus free speech, academic free inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and the like are simply McGuffins, and those trading in such issues nothing more than grifters. By and large, this notion is obtuse and scurrilous, often cynically employed by those wishing to avoid discussing the issues themselves. But those that do care about these issues—about free speech, the pursuit of truth, and the vitality of academe—would be wrong to ignore the evidence that grifters walk among us. For conservatives concerned about the decline of American education, doubly so.
Well-meaning or not—and I genuinely think he may be—Charlie Kirk is one such grifter. Leveraging his youth, talent for public speaking, and access to the White House, he’s fooled conservative donors into thinking he’s helping the cause of freedom on campus. Likewise, he’s fooled restless high school students and undergraduates into thinking performative victimhood and petty partisanship are epistemologically satisfying. Neither is true. Whether due to ignorance or indifference, Kirk and, by extension, his organization are hypocrites, and childish ones at that. And this petulant hypocrisy undermines not just legitimate indictments of higher education, but the intellectual development of young conservatives. The great irony of Campus Battlefield is how thoroughly Kirk paints this picture in his own words.
It’s evident that Kirk envisions himself as some grand general, leading his troops into the culture war. In reality, Kirk is a band director: his thoughts unoriginal and motions rehearsed, he trains his ensemble to play along to the tune of the day—currently, that of “owning the libs.” After all, the band’s job is to help cheer the team on to victory—a role Kirk performs with relish. And so he goes from campus to campus, conservatism’s fresh-faced Harold Hill, peddling his siren’s song to the kids in town until something better comes along.
In his brief, day-after review, the Weekly Standard’s Adam Rubenstein wrote sardonically, “the book may not be Kirk’s best work.” With respect to my friend Adam on this point, he could not be more wrong. On the contrary, I would contend that Campus Battlefield is Charlie Kirk’s best work, because it makes abundantly clear that this is the best he can do. More than that, however, it exemplifies just what it is that he is doing. Whether written by Kirk himself or an idiosyncratically talented ghostwriter, the monograph is a true expression of Kirk’s shtick—the shallow, facile affectation that lies at the heart of TPUSA’s most puerile ministrations. It’s an act to which conservatives—and their allies in the fight against academe’s decline—should no longer give any credence.
Grant Addison is the program manager for education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and a former chairman of the University of Arkansas chapter of the College Republicans. (The views reflected herein personal and do not reflect positions of AEI.) His work has appeared in both scholarly and popular outlets, including National Affairs, the Wall Street Journal, National Review, RealClearEducation, and The Hill, among others. You can follow him on Twitter @jgrantaddison