THE BUZZ 2: The Youth Factor

By on January 3, 2017

Trump’s millennial advisor wants to engage Jackson Hole students.

Charlie Kirk, a member of the Trump transition team, visited the valley last week to raise money and gauge young people’s interest in a local chapter of his youth-centered organization Turning Point USA, which launched the controversial ProfessorWatchlist.org. (Photo left: Youtube)

Charlie Kirk, a member of the Trump transition team, visited the valley last week to raise money and gauge young people’s interest in a local chapter of his youth-centered organization Turning Point USA, which launched the controversial ProfessorWatchlist.org. (Photo left: Youtube)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – A member of President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team who wants to groom America’s next conservatives has his eyes on Jackson Hole. Charlie Kirk, 23, Trump’s millennial advisor, said during a valley fundraiser last week that he wants to launch a local chapter of Turning Point USA. The organization is responsible for the controversial ProfessorWatchlist.org, a database of professors “that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.” Turning Point USA describes its goals as furthering the values of free markets, limited government, and the Constitution, though critics say it demonizes professors on its “watchlist” for their use of free speech and makes them targets for harassment.

Hans-Joerg Tiede is the associate secretary for the department of academic freedom, tenure and governance at the American Association of University Professors. In an interview with The New York Times he noted of the site, “There is a continuing cycle of these sorts of things. They serve the same purpose: to intimidate individuals from speaking plainly in their classrooms or in their publications.”

Turning to Jackson Hole

Kirk told PJH he expected to see many millennials in attendance at last Thursday’s fundraiser at Pizza Artisan. Hosted by several local families, Mike and Carol Marshall, Peter and Christy Lawton, and Rich and Sue Sugden, the event required that all attendees RSVP. Members of the press were not permitted to attend.

One millennial in attendance was Henry Sollitt, a graduate of Jackson Hole Community School studying political science and environmental studies at University of Vermont.

He estimated 30 people attended the event, but said he was the only millennial in the room.

A major theme of Kirk’s talk, he said, was protecting students from the leftist influence of college and “safe spaces” on college campuses, something he said Kirk called the “biggest threat to Western civilization.”

Sollitt says he would oppose a local chapter of Turning Point USA. “I don’t think they promote the truth or create programs that cater to parts of the most vulnerable student population.”

TPUSA has some hefty valley ties. Local multimillionaire Foster Friess was one of TPUSA’s first backers. Bloomberg News reported, Kirk, having memorized his elevator pitch and the names and faces of the most powerful conservative donors, saw Friess at the Republican National Convention and pitched him on TPUSA, an organization to rival liberal orgs like MoveOn.org. Weeks later, Friess sent him a five figure check.

“He impressed me with his capacity to lead, intelligence, and love for America,” Friess told Bloomberg. “I instantly knew I wanted to support him.”

The message and messenger are clearly resonating with donors. In 2014, the nonprofit received more than $2 million dollars in charitable donations, according to its tax-exempt filings for that year.

Speaking with conviction and infusing his orations with facts and figures, Kirk seems to have a mesmerizing effect on adults. One woman in attendance for the Jackson fundraiser was in town visiting her parents for the holidays. Before the fundraiser started she discussed how impressed she was with the 23-year-old. She was intrigued by what she called his “anti-college message” and wanted to know more about why she should be discouraging her children from going to college. The evening before the event, the woman recounted how Kirk dined with her family while delivering his anti-academia message to her kids.

However, Kirk, who was once a part-time student at New York’s Kings College, says this was one person’s interpretation of his message. Though he said he “really hopes [academia is] under attack,” he says he is not anti-college. Instead he challenges the notion that everyone needs to go to college to succeed.

Author (and liberal) Thomas Frank would agree. In his book Listen Liberal, he argues the exclusivity of academic departments by their very nature do not allow for dissent or criticism from outsiders. He said everyone in academia agrees with each other and that it fosters a very homogenous thought process.

Breitbart News, Jr.?

Kirk’s critique of academia is decidedly not what worries some. TPUSA exalts far right ideologies that shun diversity. The group is admittedly anti-secularist, pro-Christian, and espouses American Exceptionalism.

Others worry the organization is encouraging a new kind of McCarthyism among young people, where exercising free speech gets you denigrated on the internet.

The group’s presence is supposedly growing on campuses across the country. According to a glossy program-recruiting booklet, TPUSA has a presence on more than 1,000 college campuses in all 50 states, and puts on more than 5,000 campus activism events per year. But it’s hard to confirm all of this because only the organization itself is tracking its numbers.

Since TPUSA’s inception, it has launched various off shoot “projects,” such as ProfessorWatchlist.org and Hypeline.org, a millennial-run conservative news site dedicated to campus news and untold narratives of current events.

ProfessorWatchlist.org reads like a one-strike-and-you’re-out vilification of professors who either wrote an objectionable blog post or tweet, are pro-Palestinian or pro-Iran, admitted socialists, or the more extreme, Holocaust deniers. Some have made disparaging remarks about conservatives or organizations like the National Rifle Association. The site claims to only use previously reported news stories by credible sources. However, the single “source” is often Campus Reform, the news branch of conservative activist training group, the Leadership Institute. The watchlist hangs professors out to dry, often without empirical evidence and with zero room for nuance.

Hypeline.org appears to be TPUSA’s version of Campus Reform. The site features some stories that are reminiscent of Breitbart News, an “alt-right” white nationalist news site. A few headlines read, “NYPD will now allow officers to wear turbans” and “Fox News host destroys liberal University of Chicago student.”

Teton County School District officials said they have not received an application from Turning Point USA. However, creating a student organization is not an easy process.

TCSD superintendent Gillian Chapman provided the application rules via email and said she believes it is valuable for students to have a variety of options and activities in school. She said she would support this organization the same as she would any other for that reason.

“Our goal is to prepare students for their futures, and having opportunities to learn from each other and apply content knowledge through a variety of organizations is very advantageous.”

Chapman learned of TPUSA from a recent newspaper article. Admittedly, she had not looked into it extensively, but she said it sounded like a Young Republicans or Democrats Club. Regardless, “should there be an interest in starting an organization at JHHS, the attached policy will need to be followed.”

Teton County School Board trustee Keith Gingery also pointed to the application process that all prospective student organizations must follow. Though he says he doesn’t believe the organization would qualify based on numerous requirements, he “has no feelings on it one way or another.”

The district’s “Student Organizations Regulations” were adopted in 2004 and require applicants to get approval from school administrators, student council, and the board of education. Applicants must provide information on their target audience, a high school staffer who will sponsor the club, its functions and rules, meeting/practice times, criteria for lettering (if applicable), and membership criteria. Student clubs are strictly limited to practicing according to their specifics as approved by the board and must be open to all students regardless of identity.

Incoming TCSD trustee Annie Band said she had also read some news about TPUSA. While she doesn’t agree with the organization’s ideas, she says she believes in protecting free speech. “What I think is appropriate for my child of course won’t fly with some right wing folks here.” Students have the right to their own political leanings, she said. PJH

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