Debunking Charlie Kirk on demagoguery
Charlie Kirk, founder and director of Turning Point USA, is a stalwart supporter of President Trump, who has been rightly labeled a demagogue. So it was surprising to me when Kirk recently called someone else a demagogue. Not only because of Kirk’s support for a demagogue, but because Kirk is a demagogue himself.
I want to look at Kirk’s recent claim that Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton is a demagogue then also look at ways in which the president is one and apply those to Kirk.
Kirk: Cotton as Demagogue
In a Nov. 19 “interview” with Breitbart on its radio show, Kirk said Cotton’s op-ed in USA Today against the First Step Act, a prison reform bill now before the US Senate, was filled with “pure demagoguery.”
Kirk offered no definition of demagoguery, only two examples.
Example 1 from Kirk: “Tom Cotton said it’s going to be harder to deport illegal aliens which is something I care a lot about … and there’s been no evidence to show that. I can’t figure out where he came up with that.”
From this example, Kirk claims a demagogue makes up facts.
Example 2 from Kirk: “Tom Cotton and his allies say, ‘Anyone who is supporting this[bill], you’re also aligning yourself with Van Jones.’ I’m not fan of Van Jones, but that’s a horrible argument; not to support something just because Van Jones supports it.”
From this example, we learn Kirk thinks “guilt-by-association” arguments [what the Breitbart host called it] is a form of demagoguery.
One of the top experts on Trump’s demagoguery is Texas A&M University professor Jennifer Mercieca, a scholar of political rhetoric and editor of a website I have written for, Citizen Critics. Mercieca gives us a succinct definition of demagoguery:
The Greek word “demagogue” (demos = people + agōgos = leader) literally means “a leader of the people.” Today, however, it’s used to describe a leader who capitalizes on popular prejudices, makes false claims and promises, and uses arguments based on emotion rather than reason.
On Trump, Mercieca notes that he “appeals to voters’ fears by depicting a nation in crisis, while positioning himself as the nation’s hero” and his “self-congratulating rhetoric makes him appear to be the epitome of hubris, which, according to research, is often the least attractive quality of a potential leader. However, Trump is so consistent in his hubris that it appears authentic: his greatness is America’s greatness.”
Specifically, Trump ties “himself to American exceptionalism — while classifying his detractors as ‘weak’ or ‘dummies’” and so is “able to position his critics as people who don’t believe in, or won’t contribute to, the ‘greatness’ of the nation.” In other words, he attacks the person, “rather than the argument…”
Furthermore, he often defines people in “essential terms,” one defining characteristic that not only ignores the nuances of a person or people group, but is usually so broad in its swiping “guilt by association” rhetoric that it becomes false on its face.
Mercieca offers as an example that Trump defines Muslims “as people who believe only in jihad, are filled with hatred and have no respect for human life.” Trump also uses “Reification — the treatment of objects as people and people as objects — to link his axioms together and support his case…”
Mercieca told The New York Times that Trump’s “entire campaign is run like a demagogue’s — his language of division, his cult of personality, his manner of categorizing and maligning people with a broad brush. If you’re an illegal immigrant, you’re a loser. If you’re captured in war, like John McCain, you’re a loser. If you have a disability, you’re a loser. It’s rhetoric like Wallace’s — it’s not a kind or generous rhetoric.”
The Times adds this about the ethos of Trump the demagogue: “It is the sort of trust-me-and-only-me rhetoric that, according to historians, demagogues have used to insist that they have unique qualities that can lead the country through turmoil. Mr. Trump often makes that point when he criticizes his Republican rivals, though he also pretends that he is not criticizing them.”
Kirk as Demagogue
In the past, I have made the claim that Kirk is a sycophant. Like demagogue, that term comes from ancient Greece. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a servile self-seeking flatterer.” Kirk has consistently flattered Trump: here and here for two recent examples. Psychology Today points out several more elements of a sycophant: opinion conformity, self-promotion, and disagreement on small points. These also apply to Kirk.
But how is Kirk a demagogue in his own right?
Demagoguery Act 1: Claiming Facts not in Evidence
From the Cotton criticism, we see Kirk do the very things he says are works of a demagogue.
First, Kirk made a direct reference to Cotton’s op-ed before his use of “pure demagoguery,” so it is clear he meant Cotton was doing that on the topic of “illegal aliens” in his op-ed. Yet “illegal aliens” nor any synonym appears in the senator’s op-ed.
Then Kirk claims he doesn’t know where Cotton got his claim about “illegal aliens.” But that is hard to believe. It is also hard to believe Cotton made the claim.
According to the conservative libertarian group FreedomWorks, there was some early drafts of the House bill that had language in it about illegal immigrants. FreedomWorks points out that while “some opponents of the First Step Act have, perhaps unwittingly, confused the good time credits and earned time credits,” the current bill “specifically excludes illegal immigrants from being able to use earned time credits for placement in pre-release custody. This provision is found in Section 101 of the text, beginning on page 23, line 4.”
It is clear Kirk was not referring to early versions of the bill. And Cotton seemed in favor of the “narrower House-passed version of the bill, which tackled only prisons but not federal sentencing. He told Politico that it “had problems” but set a more achievable mark.
On where Kirk thinks he might have heard or seen Cotton talk about deporting “illegal aliens” and the bill, I cannot be sure. As far as I can tell, Cotton hasn’t made a statement that links the bill to illegal immigrants. [Cotton has been talking about how the bill would give “early release” to certain violent felons. His fellow senator, Mike Lee, a Republican from Utah, has called Cotton’s claims “100 % fake news.” Sen. Lee tackles more of Sen. Cotton’s claims here.]
But a Nov. 15 (four days before Kirk’s Breitbart interview) letter (posted on Cotton’s Senate website) by the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association argued that “criminal illegal aliens…” would gain “access to early release programs” under the bill. The letter offered no evidence for this claim.
An article on Breitbart News published also on Nov. 15 noted a study done by the far-right anti-immigration Center for Immigration Studies that concluded the Senate prison reform bill will make it “more difficult to deport criminal foreigners in United States prisons.”
In his earlier writings about prison reform, Kirk assailed Democrats as a whole for “hypocrisy” on this issue. Kirk offered no evidence for that claim. I wrote about that here in another fact-check.
Demagoguery Act 2: Maligning People in Essential Terms — Guilt by Association
Kirk has disparaged more than once “liberals” by insisting they have feelings and emotion, but conservatives have facts. Kirk has used the phrase “the sinister left” several times: here, here, here. While maintaining the “left” as intolerant and unreasonable, Kirk himself claims the label of tolerance and reason, but he is a hypocrite on those, as I show here. The best example of Kirk’s use of “guilt-by-association” rhetoric is his use of the word “mob” to describe all Democrats.
And of course, there is Kirk and Turning Point’s “professor watchlist” dedicated to identifying professors who “advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” I am on that list for opposing concealed carry of guns on college campuses. That is hardly a “leftist” position and nor do I “advance” any “propaganda” in my class. Yet I am defined in such “essential” terms.
Demagoguery Act 3: Framing A Crisis
If Trump depicts a nation in crisis, Kirk pushes that to a culture or civilization. And Kirk usually refers to “the West” as that culture under attack.
But that also applies to America, under attack by Democrats.
And of course, “conservatives” are under attack on college campuses.
Kirk could be seen as the “hero” that “saves” college campuses and Trump the savior of the West. The whole purpose of Turning Point is to “fight back” against these attacks by offering training to students who will then stand up to professors.
Demagoguery Act 4: American Exceptionalism and Anti-American Critics
Kirk is a major proponent of American exceptionalism.
And like Trump, Kirk is “able to position his critics as people who don’t believe in, or won’t contribute to, the ‘greatness’ of the nation.”
Those critics are Democrats:
Demagoguery Act 5: Trust Me Only
Kirk has a habit of never posting links to his claims in tweets. There are too many examples to cite.
He often makes claims without evidence in op-eds, as I show here.
As I show here, Kirk claims the mantle of objectivity but only as a rhetorical “straw man” to suggest he is not deceived like “misinformed and clueless” students. He claims a “special” knowledge not shared by the mass public.
Finally, Kirk also has deleted tweets that made false claims, but he has not admitted the claim was false.
In the end, I think these five acts show Kirk is well on his way to mirroring the demagoguery of Trump.