‘Sometimes the most vicious opposition to me,’ writes Charlie Kirk in his new book The MAGA Doctrine, ‘has come from the right, not the left.’ Kirk thinks this is because ‘older, established “conservative” publications’ think his ‘Turning Point’ organization is ‘a nuisance, an upstart’. Another explanation is that he is a hack.
To be fair, The MAGA Doctrine contains some cheering passages. Kirk is right, in his introduction, that Trump has shattered the complacent Republican paradigm of Wall Street and foreign wars. He is right to bash the reckless adventurism of neoconservatives (he rightly details American military and financial losses, though he does not spare a mention for dead Afghans and Iraqis). He mounts a valid defense of Trump’s approach to China, which, if the president were astute enough to know it, could be expressed more energetically now coronavirus has illuminated the West’s appalling dependence on the Chinese state. He sensibly notes that dealing with crime is not just about being ‘tough’ or ‘soft’ but about being smart. None of these is an original observation — as Kirk would admit. He is trying to explain Trump’s ideas more than his own.
Unfortunately, Kirk is a hack. Above all, he is a dreadful writer. Take a bite out of his prose:
‘This is a liberation of America long overdue — and it may be the last chance to institute it, with the socialists and the stale corporatists still looming to the left and right. I hope we will not reverse course in the 2020 election. America really is, if I may borrow a phrase, at a turning point.’
Is ‘institute’ a good word to go with ‘liberation’? Should a paragraph contain two such gigantic clichés in ‘long overdue’ and ‘reverse course’? Does Kirk have to ask us if he can ‘borrow’ the phrase ‘turning point’ when it is the name of his organization? These questions did not occur to Kirk because they would have impeded the rapid completion of this book.
Kirk is a hack because he is dishonest. There is nothing wrong with changing your mind. I used to be a leftist, a shrill and obnoxious one. If Kirk went from saying in 2016 that Trump was ‘laughable’ and ‘self-destructive’ to saying months later that he was God’s gift to America, that would be fine as long as he acknowledged the sudden shift. Yet he claims that he has ‘been a supporter of Donald Trump since well before his 2016 presidential campaign’ and ‘MAGA before it was cool’. That is not fine. It is dishonest and opportunistic.
Third, Kirk is sycophantic. There is only one person who compliments Donald Trump more than Charlie Kirk and that is Donald Trump. In The MAGA Doctrine, Trump is ‘a bold, experimenting giant’; ‘someone who builds’; ‘a man who never surrenders’; ‘resilient’; ‘exceptional’; ‘the greatest living exemplar of free speech in the 21st century’; ‘inspiring and optimistic…freedom-fostering and deeply humane’; ‘courageous’; ‘a man who…knows that every penny matters’; ‘heartfelt and honest’; ‘a stable genius’ (yes, I know this was at least partly tongue in cheek”); akin to Cicero (this was not); ‘larger-than-life’; ‘entertaining’; ‘fun’; ‘one of the regular people’; ‘a visionary’; a man who ‘has a sense of duty to something larger than himself’. Even Trump’s Twitter account gets a mention, as ‘a source of daily joy and frequent hilarity’. In the acknowledgements, Kirk thanks Trump for ‘saving our country’. Waxing lyrical, Kirk asks:
‘Might Donald Trump be remembered as the president who brought about world peace?’
Probably not. I am not saying that none of the praise is merited. Why, even Trump’s most ardent critics would struggle to claim that he is not ‘bold’ and ‘larger-than-life’. I am saying that all this praise set against only a single vague reference to ‘missteps’ makes this a comical work of propaganda. There is no indication in this very silly book that Trump has any need to change his policies at all. He is perfection. The finished article.
Lastly, Kirk is a hack because of his ideological shallowness. A superficial stab at climate change skepticism is depressing but predictable. (Kirk claims that sea levels have risen by ‘about three inches’ since 1920, which is how much NASA claims that they have risen since 1992. If he has a different reference then I do not know it because the book does not contain references.) More baffling is how little Kirk appears to comprehend MAGA ideology itself. At one point he writes:
‘To the extent that trade is voluntary — you want something, and I am willing to sell it to you — it’s always a plus…’
Then why is the president — rightly, in my opinion, and, indeed, in Kirk’s — attempting to obstruct the supply of dangerous opioids? Because voluntary trade is not always a plus.
In a strange passage on immigration, Kirk writes:
‘Perhaps one day when the entire apparatus of the modern welfare state has been turned into private and voluntary services, the United States can afford to let in everyone — everyone who abides by the rules of the marketplace and pays their own way. Until then, it’s good to have a wall.’
How many of Donald Trump’s supporters would agree that the only arguments against open borders are economic, not social or cultural? Very few, I suspect. But Kirk is very much a self-appointed representative.
Why bother criticizing Kirk? It is not as if the guy is any kind of sacred cow. I think lazy writing — my own included — always deserves criticism as a matter of principle. If anything good is going to come out of the Trump phenomenon in the long-term, though, on a more serious note — rather than it being a short-lived and riotously entertaining personality cult — young conservatives will have to start thinking more critically and more creatively about how to defend the good life and the national interest in an intimidating future. They are facing, if I may borrow a phrase, a turning point.