Will MAGA Infighting Destroy Donald Trump?

February 16, 2024 Topic: Politics Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: U.S. PoliticsCharlie KirkGOPDonald Trump

Will MAGA Infighting Destroy Donald Trump?

While some detractors try to dismiss Charlie Kirk as a young and inexperienced activist, the reach of the 29-year-old populist cannot be denied. 

 

Charlie Kirk is a MAGA juggernaut.

Kirk founded Turning Point USA in 2012 and quickly turned the nonprofit into a quasi-party apparatus, raising more than a reported quarter of a billion dollars, cultivating an army of young conservative influencers and delivering a jolt of youth and energy into the once-staid Republican Party. The main beneficiary of these efforts has been Kirk’s greatest ally: former President Donald Trump.

 

But success has not inoculated Kirk from criticism, even from Trump himself. Kirk has also become a target of Republicans who are jealous of his ascendance into the MAGA stratosphere, resentful of his scheming against them, or just alarmed by his fiery rhetoric. Outgoing RNC chairman Ronna McDaniel, some would say, fits all three of those categories.

She was a Republican so loyal to Trump that, at his behest, she dropped her maiden name. (A niece of Mitt Romney, she was previously known in GOP circles as Ronna Romney McDaniel). As recently as last October, in a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition, Trump said McDaniel was doing a “fantastic” job leading the RNC.

But four months is a long time in politics. Republicans came up short in November elections in Ohio, New Jersey, and Virginia. The party is lagging behind Democrats in fundraising. And under McDaniel, the RNC scheduled debates for the 2024 presidential election – debates that Trump, who views himself as the de facto incumbent, boycotted and disparaged.

By mid-November CNBC was reporting that Trump had “soured” on McDaniel. Former Trump aide Steve Bannon called for her to be replaced. In an early December podcast, Charlie Kirk went further – much further.

“You’re a loser,” Kirk said. “A professional, Romney-infiltrating loser.” Then he got personal. “Is Ronna McRomney there to make sure that we lose in 2024? I’m telling President Trump privately and publicly he’d better remove her. Does Ronna Romney want Donald Trump in prison? I really think she’s an infiltration at this point.”

McDaniel might not have believed Trump was listening to such chatter – right up until Feb. 4, when the former president was asked on Fox News’ Sunday morning program to assess McDaniel’s job performance.

“I think she did great when she ran Michigan for me. I think she did okay, initially in the RNC,” Trump replied. “I would say right now there’ll probably be some changes made.”

By the next day, McDaniel was in Mar-a-Lago meeting with the president and top Trump adviser Susie Wiles. Charlie Kirk’s name came up, according to sources familiar with the discussion. One topic of conversation was whether TPUSA was attracting dollars and donors that would otherwise flow to his campaign and whether Kirk’s criticism of Martin Luther King Jr. might undermine Trump’s growing strength among black voters. At issue was Kirk’s attack last month on what he called “the deification of MLK,” while blaming the civil rights icon for helping to usher in a “proto” version of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Later Kirk blamed corporate DEI programs for making him think twice about the qualifications of black pilots.

When reached for comment, Steven Cheung, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, said simply, “It is time for all Republicans to unite.” He added, “America First-aligned groups have an important role to play in the movement and they will be a big part of President Trump’s victory in 2024.”

According to the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., that includes Kirk and his organization. The younger Trump said Kirk remains very much on the inside while dismissing any possible rift. “This is nothing more than fiction coming from people jealous of the close relationship Charlie has built with our family,” Trump Jr. told RealClearPolitics. “He is in great standing with both my father and the entire Trump campaign.”

Trump Jr. also noted that Kirk spoke at a recent Las Vegas conference featuring the younger Trump, “which should show just how silly these false attacks on him really are.” Added the former president’s son, “It’s sad that there are some people attempting to increase their own relevancy by manufacturing lies that Charlie is on the outs. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

Another highly-placed Trump source told RCP, “What’s true is that Ronna attempted to knife Charlie, but no one of importance in Trump’s orbit bought the knifing.”

Sources familiar with the Mar-a-Lago conversation tell RealClearPolitics that McDaniel didn’t mention Kirk first – Trump did. Regardless of who put Kirk in the barrel, and leaving personal vendettas aside, Kirk’s recent remarks on race have alienated people besides Ronna McDaniel. Some prominent Trump loyalists question whether he is doing more harm than good.

“He’s giving them ammunition to use against President Trump,” Darrell Scott, a Cleveland pastor who co-founded Trump’s 2016 campaign diversity coalition, said in an interview of Kirk’s comments on MLK and race.

Tudor Dixon, who was once a guest on Kirk’s podcast and whom Trump endorsed for Michigan governor, questioned whether Turning Point USA could turn out the youth vote in 2024 and told RCP that Kirk’s “recent attacks against black people and women are despicable, do not reflect the Republican platform, and deserve condemnation.”

At issue are remarks Kirk made about the legacy of King and the Civil Rights Act of 1964. “MLK was awful,” Kirk said last December at America Fest, one of the many political conventions organized by Turning Point. “He’s not a good person. He said one good thing he actually didn’t believe.”

“The courts have been really weak on this,” Kirk continued at the convention. “Federal courts just yield to the Civil Rights Act as if it’s the actual American Constitution.” He added that the law subsequently ushered in a “permanent DEI-type bureaucracy.”

Debates about the Civil Rights Act are nothing new on the right. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, for instance, criticized the law for unduly expanding the role of government, arguing that his criticism was “not at all about race relations” but about “property ultimately.” The libertarian-minded Republican later recanted, saying he supported “the intent of the legislation.” More recently, conservative thinkers such as Christopher Caldwell have renewed the argument that measures like the Civil Rights Act have in effect created an alternative Constitution.

But Kirk seemed to have waded into a culture war, not an academic debate. “If I see a black pilot, I’m going to be like ‘Boy, I hope he is qualified,’” he said on his podcast, the “Charlie Kirk Show,” before adding that is “not who I am, that’s not what I believe.” It was instead, he explained, how the ham-handed diversity, equity, and inclusion policies being adopted by woke corporations made him question whether individuals were hired and promoted because of qualifications or quotas.

Scott suggests that such nuances are lost amidst Kirk’s incendiary rhetoric and accused Kirk of “casting aspersions on every black person that’s in any type of position of prominence” and “making people even suspicious to fly.” That kind of language, he predicted, would harm Trump’s chances at winning the black vote.

Several prominent voices on the right rallied to Kirk’s defense. “Live by DEI,” tweeted popular psychologist-turned-political commentator Jordan Peterson, in response to Kirk’s statement about black pilots, “Die by DEI.” Added Matt Walsh, “When you hire people based on DEI instead of skill and merit you create this kind of wariness and suspicion.” The Daily Wire pundit added, “DEI policies have done that. Not Charlie Kirk.”

A New York Times/Sienna College poll released last November found that 22% of black voters in swing states reported that they would support Trump over President Biden. While the Democrat still enjoys overwhelming support among black voters, those numbers represent a shift in support toward Trump that could put him over the top in close swing states. According to Pew Research Center, Trump earned just 8% of the black vote in 2020.

“I’m getting calls from black people saying, ‘Hey, man, what’s up with this guy,’” said Scott, who accused Kirk of “resurrecting that racist Republican tag that the left trots out every four years.” The pastor added that Kirk is “giving them ammunition to use against President Trump.”

Kirk served as CEO of Students for Trump in 2020 when the youth vote surged, albeit for the Democrats, not the Republican ticket. Though Kirk allies credited him with making a “Herculean effort,” voters aged 18-35 went significantly for Biden over Trump. Tudor Dixon pointed to that cautionary tale as more reason for her criticism.

“While Charlie Kirk has traded on his social media following to draw millions from the Republican donor base,” she told RCP, “the data shows since he founded Turning Point the Republican share of the youth vote has only declined, while Democrats’ has soared.”

While some detractors try to dismiss Kirk as a young and inexperienced activist, the reach of the 29-year-old populist cannot be denied. He has a larger social media following than many of his critics, and politicians regularly compete for speaking slots at TPUSA events, which draw crowds of young conservatives in the thousands. His latest ambition: an eye-popping $108 million get-out-the vote campaign via TPUSA’s political arm in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin to swing the election.