‘I have loyalty to ideas,’ said Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, a network of young conservatives that has seen liftoff in the Trump era. ‘Of course I love the Grand Canyon. I love the Rocky Mountains. And I love Boston. And I love Chicago. But if all that disappeared, if all I had was ideas, and we were on an island, that’s America. That’s Israel.’
‘And that’s what people have to realize,’ Kirk continued. ‘America’s just a placeholder for timeless ideas. And if you fall too in love with, oh, the specific place, and all this…that’s not what it is.’
For good measure, Kirk added: ‘Israel would be the exception. There is a holy connection to this land.’ You heard the man. Any bond that is not strictly speaking Biblical – historic revolution, mastery of the frontier, surviving a civil war, a depression, two world wars and a cold one – is not serious. America First? Hell no! Ideas and the Holy Land First.
I don’t wish to trifle with Charlie Kirk’s idea of exceptionalism (or his exceptionalism of ideas) but it does make me wonder: is Charlie Kirk, the voice of campus Trumpism, really a Trumpist at all?
Trump seized the Right’s commanding heights with language borderline dismissive of American exceptionalism itself. His whole campaign credo, Make America Great Again, was a nod to the idea that the country had seen better days. Maybe the vigorous application of those ‘ideas’ wasn’t working.
Does Trump believe in American primacy? He certainly believes in American power, which is a reality, but even the events of this week stand testament to the gulf between his instincts and his still-conventional advisers. Does Trump believe that anyone can be an American – that Americanism is a perspective, come here if ye may? No he does not. ‘If you don’t have Borders, you don’t have a Country!’ Trump tweeted a year ago yesterday. Does that fit with Kirk’s idea of America as a mere ‘placeholder’ for thoughts?
Perhaps poor Charlie just doesn’t know what he is saying. Trump’s approach to nationalism has caused a brouhaha in conservatism the results of which have been clarifying. ‘Look, to be totally honest, if things are so bad as you say with the white working class, don’t you want to get new Americans in?’ William Kristol, founder of the Weekly Standard, said in the early days of Trump’s presidency. ‘You can make a case that America has been great because every – I think John Adams said this – basically if you are in a free society, a capitalist society, after two or three generations of hard work everyone becomes kind of decadent, lazy, spoiled.’
The Kristol worldview doesn’t seem too successful at the ballot these days.
Bill Kauffman, the prolific Gore Vidal pen pal and occasional Spectator USA contributor put it best: America should be seen as ‘not as an idea, or an abstraction, or a cynical marketing slogan, but as our home, and the land we love above all others.’ It is telling that the new generation of conservatives increasingly choose Vidal over Buckley. Times have changed.
This all makes the perspective of Kirk, who is younger than me, so curious. Kirk, like polemicist Ben Shapiro, is a star of the Trump era. They’re odd fits. Kirk may be more vociferously in favor of the White House, but his roots are of the old guard. His wacky focus on seeing ‘Marxists’ literally on every college campus block is a bore. Kirk and Turning Point’s ties to Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio during the 2016 Republican primary are well-documented. Rock and roll happened, and Kirk’s still singing the blues. I have a feeling the music’s about to stop.