GOP Darling Charlie Kirk is Worried About Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders, but He's Got a Plan

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Charlie Kirk speaks onstage during Politicon 2018 at Los Angeles Convention Center. Phillip Faraone/Getty Images for Politicon

Charlie Kirk is President Donald Trump's not so secret weapon.

The 25-year-old Republican darling has spent the last seven years permeating more than 1,300 college campuses with Turning Point USA, his 501(c)(3) nonprofit which aims to win what he calls America's "culture war" against his liberal counterparts. He's been pretty successful, Turning Point brought in more than $8 million in 2017.

Now, with just 19 months until the 2020 presidential election, Kirk has dedicated himself wholly to the Trump campaign. He's on the road 340 days a year, mostly working next to Donald Trump Jr. in an attempt to rally the youth vote.

He's also cementing his role as a major player in the future of the Republican party. Kirk hosted the most popular party at last month's Conservative Political Action Conference, where the Daily Beast dubbed him the "king of the GOP ball." At the party, Trump Jr. gave a toast to Kirk, thanking him for "kicking some ass for the youth of America," and for "making me party."

Kirk says he's been a supporter of Trump's presidential ambitions since at least 2011. He grew up hearing about him, his father was the project architect manager for Trump Tower in New York. "My dad always said very positive things about Trump," Kirk tells me. "That he always worked hard, he had an attention to detail and was relentless."

I met with Kirk one February morning in a mid-range Los Angeles hotel lobby, where he sat decked out in athleisure wear, sipping tea. Kirk told me he visits L.A. often because that's where his publicist lives, but that he's in the process of renting a place in Texas so that he can avoid paying income tax.

We talked about books, he tries to read or listen to an audiobook each week and loves William F. Buckley, Milton Freedman and Russell Kirk. He's currently re-reading Jordan Peterson's 12 Rules for Life, because "I read it last year and I didn't comprehend it as much as I'd like so I'm really slowing down and reading it."

He's well-read and well-rehearsed but once in a while, his age shows through. Over the course of our 90-minute conversation, Kirk struggled to find a balance between being overly modest and verging on cocky. At one point, his PR person predicted where one of my lines of questioning was going to go. "Oh you're talking about Charlottesville," he said. Kirk responded, "Oh, of course, I can see the chess coming. I'm two steps ahead of the whole thing, I get it."

Kirk has been through his fair share of controversy. There are constant accusations of Turning Point USA promoting the ideals of white nationalism. His director of communications, Candace Owens said last December that Adolph Hitler was "OK" until he tried to take his vision "global." Chief Creative Officer Benny Johnson opened Turning Point USA's annual conference in late March by exclaiming, "Oh my god I've never seen so many white people in one room, this is incredible!" Kirk's organization has created a "professor watch list," which lists teachers they claim discriminate against Republicans and they've invited people who have a history of racist remarks like Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter and former congressman Joe Walsh to speak on college campuses.

The thing is, he does seem to get it. He understands that to remain in Trump's orbit he only needs to do one thing: Stay loyal. And he does that well.

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Charlie Kirk, founder and executive director of Turning Point USA, looks on at the NRA-ILA Leadership Forum during the NRA Annual Meeting & Exhibits at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

As someone who subscribes to traditional conservative values, what do you think about the way the Trump administration has grown the deficit?

That troubles me that that's the case. I'm still a deficit hawk. I think one of the greatest threats to our country are our deficits and national debts. Now, at least we have more economic growth to off-balance it, but it doesn't matter, it's a short-term alleviation. Look, this is where I think I have a lot of commonality with people on the left, I'm so sick and tired of funding these wars, like what are we doing in Afghanistan?

But let's stick to the deficit, do you think we're going to have to make changes to Social Security and Medicaid?

No doubt, yes. And this is where the left gives me trouble. I would love to see Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid significantly reformed. The retirement age for Social Security should be raised. Life expectancy is much higher than it was when it was first passed, and it's never been raised. By the way, if your net worth is over $1 million you shouldn't get Social Security, so I can agree with the leftists on that. You just shouldn't get Social Security, sorry! Like, that's a bargain I would make in a second. I would take that bargain.

Are people on the left really arguing for means testing Social Security, though? That's historically been a conservative argument.

Maybe, maybe. I'm just saying that's more what the liberals come out for. Medicare is on an unsustainable path and our entitlement programs are completely out of control. But those are the cliche ones. It's also just the monolith bureaucracy of government that we never challenge.

And so what I'd like to see is, and we're in such an age of technology that we can do this, is to put every federal dime of spending online in real time. We should have total transparency of where our tax dollars are going in real time. Like, I want to know if the Department of Commerce is expensing Starbucks croissants. I want every receipt available online.

You're close to the Trump administration, do you suggest these things?

I mean I tell them what I believe. I agree with them on 99.9 percent of the really big things. I think they appreciate that I don't agree with everything. But I'm extremely loyal to the president and to the first family because of what they're doing for our country.

I don't agree with the president on the death penalty, I don't agree with him on marijuana, I don't agree with him on Saudi Arabia, there are things I don't agree with, but that doesn't mean I should be less enthused about what he's doing to revitalize the country.

So do you consider it your job to rally the youth vote behind Trump?

I don't know if that's my job, I mean, like, no. I think my job first and foremost is to educate students around ideas and around values. The first of which being: America is the greatest country ever to exist, free enterprise capitalism is the most moral economic system ever discovered and the Constitution is the greatest political document every written.

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U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with conservative activist Charlie Kirk at a forum dubbed the Generation Next Summit at the White House on March 22, 2018 in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

So what is your ultimate goal with Turning Point USA?

Our big picture is to win America's culture war, and I know that sounds super cliche.

What is America's culture war?

Who are we as a country? Are we a country of victims or a country of victors? Are we a welfare state country or are we a country that embraces free enterprise entrepreneurship and self-responsibility?

What does it mean to be a welfare state?


OK, but what does that mean?

Well, it's a reality. Or Cuba, that's a welfare state country. Or France or Spain or Italy or Greece.

The direction of America is heading towards a welfare state. Even though food stamp enrollment is down five million since Donald Trump took the presidency, food stamps are still up higher than they were pre financial crisis in 2008. That's a horrible indicator for the country, that's the direction we're going towards.

Do you think that says anything about people struggling to stay afloat in this country?

No. We have more job openings than people who can fill them. People are willingly not taking work.

Are these job openings that require skills people don't have? Do they pay enough?

Some are low-wage entry jobs, but people are willingly not wanting to work. We have an entire part of the Democrat[ic] Party that has just released a plan that says we want to help people unwilling to work. That's a welfare state, there's something wrong with that.

You're referencing a draft of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal plan. It said that the plan would help those "unwilling to work," it wasn't in the final resolution.

It was on her website. She took it down after she got criticism for it. This was an official government House of Representative website. I think 2020 is going to be about introspectively asking ourselves: Who do we want to be as a country? And I think the president is correct in trying to single out the warning signs of creeping socialism. It's not so creeping anymore. We have outward socialists in the Democrat[ic] Party that are advocating for things that even mainstream Democrats would find to be a little bit disconcerting.

Are you worried that this is appealing to young people?

Without a doubt it's appealing to a certain faction of young people, sure. Look, it's very easy to be generous with other people's money. I'm horrified when I see the rise of socialism in America. I'm going to be honest, I'm still trying to figure out the best way to combat this. Is it through comedy or humor or is it through being very serious about this, because this is no longer a fringe element. These are elected representatives who are getting a lot of airtime.

Are you worried about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

I'm worried about her ideas. She's nothing more than the symptom of a broken culture. To use Andrew Breitbart's timeless quote, "politics goes downstream from culture."

There can be really bad cultural change, such as the widespread embrace of socialism. If we are serious about fighting for our ideas it must happen in the cultural landscape.

Now where does culture form? What I'm saying is that we as an organization understand the significance of a cultural battle and believe that universities and colleges are critical towards making a difference.

So you're fighting the rise of socialism?

Yes, without a doubt.

How will you know when you've won your battle against socialism?

When we live in a country where 80 percent of my generation thinks America is the greatest country to ever exist. That's our goal, to have a country where our generation is proud to live here, where they're thankful we live here and not angry that we live here. That would be a success, I could retire.

But what they're thankful to live in America but also want a 70 percent tax on income over a million dollars? Could that still be a success?

I find that people that are advocating for those ideas, they have contempt for America.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is kind of a gift to us, because she's exactly what I've been trying to warn people against. She says that this is not our country, that we're living on indigenous lands. She said that! I mean that's a stunning thing to say. So, she believes that America is just a figment of our imagination, it's just created, this is not our land. There is no such thing as illegal immigration because people coming across are descendents of Native Americans. It's quite a statement, pretty bold.

So do you think America is God-given land then? What do you mean when you say it wasn't just created?

I believe the idea of America was divinely inspired through an absolute and improbable chain of events. The idea that we stole the land from indigenous people, well the western United States was purchased from France in the Louisiana Purchase. I reject this idea that we are living on indigenous peoples' land. If you want to take that argument all the way back to 5,000 years ago, then no one's land is anyone's. I believe in property rights, I believe in the nation-state, I believe in national sovereignty.

How are you preparing to capture the youth vote in 2020?

For me personally, I'm going to keep trying to win over as many people as possible. Trump did a lot better with the youth vote in 2016 than people thought he would, he did a lot better. And this is going to be one of the key coalitions that the Democrats are going to try to win over. Look at the three groups that led to Obama winning in 2012: Single women, minority voters and young voters. Those are three groups right now that are trending heavily in the Democrat[ic] world. That's something I'm going to try to focus my personal efforts on, I'm going to try to do everything that I can to win as many young people as I can.

Who worries you most on the Democratic side?

Joe Biden and Michelle Obama.

Michelle Obama has made it pretty clear she doesn't intend to run.

Look, if you're asking me who I'm worried about, I don't think we've seen the entire field declared. Those two worry me the most.

What about Bernie Sanders?

He worries me more than most. I see the energy young people have for him, and it's palpable. It's real and it's unmistakable. I'm a conservative saying this, I'm not going to pretend it isn't real, he worried me a lot more than Kirsten Gillibrand did.

Some would say you're the future of the Republican party, so what's that going to look like?

I think the direction of the Republican Party needs to be based on solutions, not just decades-old dogma that we can't question these endless wars that are totally costly, that are ruining the fabric of our country. I know nothing but war in my life. I mean I've never been to war, I've never served but my earliest memories have been America at war.

America went to war in the Middle East under the direction of the Republican Bush administration, so you're saying this is a sea change.

We should not be fighting these endless wars, we should send the last tank out of Afghanistan and say 'it's been fun.' That's something I completely and wholeheartedly support even though some people on the right don't agree with that.

So yeah, what's the direction of the Republican Party? It's one that is very open-minded to different policy prescriptions to different problems that we have. Like a bargain on the Social Security thing. I'm not afraid to talk about reforming Social Security, my constituency is students that are getting screwed over by the national debt. I mean, I have sympathy for people that need Social Security, I understand that but if your net worth is over a certain amount, sorry.

Are you worried about the growing alt-right movement on college campuses?

I believe in e pluribus unum, that we're all human beings and I believe in the American dream. I also believe that all men are created under the eyes of God, and that no one race is better than the other and that certain ideas are better but there's no hereditary difference. That's a horrible place that people are coming from and it's rooted in hatred and it's rooted in division and should be rejected wholeheartedly.

However, I will say this. It is the fringe of the fringe of the fringe of whatever might exist out there. And whenever I encounter it, I denounce it, I get in front of it. I want nothing to do with those people.

Do you think the president has made some missteps in not immediately condemning some of these hateful figures?

I think the narrative that's trying to be created about the president is something that is not true.

These are things he's actually said and done, like refusing to immediately condemn David Duke of the Ku Klux Klan or saying there are good people "on both sides" in Charlottesville.

I would have said some things differently. But the real main point I want to make is that it disgusts me because I know who he is at the core, and he is not a person that comes from prejudice or hatred or division whatsoever. And what people are trying to paint him as, he is not those things.

How do you know who is he is at his core?

Because I've gotten to know his children very well. I know Don Jr. very well, I've spent hundreds of days with him since August of 2016. Those were hard days on the campaign trail and you get to know someone very well. When you spend time with somebody's kids you get to know who somebody is, that's a reflection of your own values. He is someone who believes in all people and wants to see the betterment of every single person in this culture and in this country. It pains me to see how he is continuously wrongfully attacked.

So why does he say these things that you don't think he means?

Here's a fun example, David Duke endorsed a Democrat running for president, Tulsi Gabbard. She denounced it, she should, he's a horrible person. Where was the media uproar about all of this? When David Duke endorsed Donald Trump it was headline news.

But to be fair, the situation was different.

Fair enough, but to my point, a KKK member went back to supporting a Democrat. What's the volume of which the media reports on things? When that happens on the Republican side it's a 10 and when it happens on the Democratic side it's maybe half of one.

Again, these are very different situations.

OK, I think there's some fairness to that.

But what I'm asking you is do you think Trump made a misstep there about saying he didn't know David Duke?

I don't remember any of that to be perfectly honest with you. All I remember is that he condemned him at some point. Is that correct?

Yes, it is. And that's enough for you?

Of course.

I've been to hundreds of Trump rallies and I've gotten to see and know these people. And I see why they're there and I see what they believe in and these are patriotic people who do believe in equality for all. When Donald Trump goes up there and says we have the lowest ever black unemployment rate, the place abrupts in applause. That says something.

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, Candace Owens's name was misspelled.