How a right-wing provocateur is reaching Gen Z

Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk speaks to the audience at the “Exposing Critical Racism Theory” tour held at the Mayo Clinic Health System Event on Oct. 5, 2021, in Mankato, Minn. It was the second stop of an eight-stop tour, visiting universities across America. (AP Photo/Jackson Forderer)

MANKATO, Minnesota — For years, Charlie Kirk and his group, Turning Point USA, have built a following on college campuses. Kirk thrived during President Donald Trump’s tenure — landing speaking spots at the Republican National Convention in 2016 and 2020 and occasionally counseling Trump on campaign messaging and tactics.

Now the 28-year-old is expanding his reach, trying to rally a next generation. On a recent tour of college towns, he blasts schools and local governments for teaching Critical Race Theory, with a confrontational style some left-wing activists call dangerous. Yet Kirk is drawing large crowds of millennials and Gen Zers, millions of online followers and donor cash, often with little media attention.

Like many leading Republicans, including Virginia Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin and Trump, Kirk seizes on opposition to Critical Race Theory. Kirk’s answer is a free K-12 alternative curriculum described as the key to a “reliable, honest and quality America-first education,” and is aimed primarily at homeschooling parents.

It’s just one offering in Kirk’s buzzing conservative content portal designed to meet young people where they live online. There’s also an array of podcasts hosted by Kirk and other conservative figures, and a “Professor Watchlist” to label instructors “who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda.”

“Turning Point Live” is a three-hour streaming talk show aimed at Gen Z and featuring 20-something host John Root. Recent guests include Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan, both Republicans.

And there’s plenty of swag: “Buy merch. Save America,” the site suggests.

Turning Point USA’s online audience is large and growing. It averaged 83,000 monthly unique visitors over the past three years, but it grew to a monthly average of 111,000 in the past year, according to the digital intelligence firm Similarweb. That’s more than three times the traffic for conservative radio host Laura Ingraham’s website over the past year.

That traffic is driven in part by at least a dozen social media accounts across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram that, combined, have more than 10 million followers online.

Money into Kirk’s nonprofit network has followed the traffic.

Turning Point USA is a 501c3 nonprofit, meaning contributions are tax-deductible and its donors are not disclosed. But in 2019, the most recent year for which tax records are public, Turning Point USA raised more than $28 million, according to Internal Revenue Service filings. That’s almost twice what it raised in 2014, its first-year as a tax-exempt charity.

Kirk also leads a fundraising group aimed specifically at political advocacy. That group, Turning Point Action, has endorsed several congressional candidates for 2022. The list includes Washington’s Joe Kent, Illinois’ Catalina Lauf, Florida’s Anna Paulina Luna and Ohio’s Max Miller, all candidates who ran to oppose GOP House members who voted for Trump’s second impeachment.

Raised in the upper-income Chicago suburb of Arlington Heights, Kirk became politically involved young, volunteering in middle school and high school on political campaigns. His quick rise began shortly after high school when he quit attending Harper College, a Chicago-area community college, to pursue political activism and co-founded Turning Point USA with Chicago-area tea party activist and mentor Bill Montgomery.

Kirk’s “Exposing Critical Racism Theory” tour has promoted recent stops in Alabama, Idaho, Michigan, Oregon, South Carolina, Texas and Vermont. Last month, he packed a convention-center ballroom in Mankato, Minnesota, with roughly 600 people — mostly teenagers and college students — on a Tuesday evening.

Once a prairie farming hub south of Minneapolis, Mankato has swelled into a diversifying mini-metro. Minnesota State University, food production plants and the Mayo Clinic’s satellite campus all have drawn African and Latin American immigrants, while the black population has grown steadily.

For 90 minutes, Kirk spoke forcefully and told them radical leftists want them to feel ashamed.

“Just because you’re a white person does not mean you have to begin apologizing simply for how God made you,” he said.

Rep. Jim Hagedorn, the local Republican congressman, was in the audience and later said in a Facebook post that he “enjoyed attending” and hearing Kirk “discuss the need to stand up and defend America and our founding principles.”

Riley Carlson, the campus coordinator for Turning Point USA at Minnesota State, said she didn’t know much about Critical Race Theory before the event.

“We’re just excited Charlie is here to explain it,” said the senior from St. Michael, a Minneapolis suburb. “There’s so many different ways you can look at it. And I’m looking for where I stand on it.”