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No Re-Turning Point, U.S.A.

From the “Professor Watchlist” to Tariq Khan, TPUSA’s campaign to silence opposition

You’ve never spoken to him, but you recognize his face. You recognize his crew. You’re well aware of their organization and what they do.

You’ve seen him before. You recall being among the many horrified onlookers when he got his turn to speak at a student government meeting earlier in the semester. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss steps to finally select a new mascot after the NCAA had deemed the University’s “Chief Illiniwek” mascot to be “hostile and abusive.” You remember him—turns out he’s a student—taking the microphone and verbally accosting a friend of yours in the audience, an immigrant-rights activist and leader of the Chicano student group M.E.Ch.A. He singled her out, called her names. It got so bad that the chair of the meeting cut him off, told him he was “out of order,” and demanded that his comments be stricken from the meeting record.

You realize he and the same group of guys were the ones you saw harassing students and graduate students who had been peacefully protesting an event on campus where the young conservative founder of their national organization was speaking. They were yelling at protesters and shoving phones in their faces. They love doing this. They record people without permission and upload the footage to their organization’s “news” website, encouraging their followers to identify and harass them. They’re actually doing it right now, you notice.

You remember this guy and his group used the same tactic against another one of your friends, a Native American woman, mother, and an outspoken critic of the “Chief” mascot. They took video of her interrupting a meeting of College Republicans and ripping up some of their flyers, which featured content she found to be racist and anti-Native. They uploaded the footage and personal information about her to their website, encouraging a smear campaign against her that involved relentless online harassment and repeated attempts to get her fired, which were unsuccessful.

You’ve never spoken to him or the others. You’ve never interacted with them. But you recognize their faces. It’s definitely them.

They’re standing about twenty yards away. They’ve been laughing at, taunting, and heckling you and the others who have gathered on campus to speak out against President Trump, which is their right. “It’s a free country,” as they’re so fond of saying.

As you finish speaking into the megaphone their heckling continues. He’s taking the lead now.

“No one’s scared of you!” he shouts.

You ignore him.

He continues, “Don’t you have kids to look after?”

Your blood flash freezes and cracks in your veins.

You’ve never spoken to him. You’ve never interacted with him.

How does he know about your kids?

You wouldn’t have known it by looking at any mainstream or left-leaning media sources before this week, but the right-wing outrage machine has been, once again, frothing and grinding its way toward securing another ritual human sacrifice. Over the past few months, right-wing media sources have been plastered with headlines like: “Instructor Arrested for Attacking Conservative Students,” “Turning Point USA Members Attacked by PhD Student at University of Illinois,” “Liberal Academic Arrested for Attacking Conservative Students,” “University of Illinois Instructor Assaults Conservative Students,” “Prof Takes Swing at Conservative Students,” “Antifa College Instructor Attacks Conservative Students.” At issue is an incident that took place on November 16, 2017 at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign (UIUC). But the stakes involved go well beyond the standard campus fracas over the alleged outer limits of free speech.

Khan perceived Valdez’s question about his kids to be a veiled threat.

Tariq Khan, a Ph.D. student in the History department at UIUC and a military veteran, had just finished speaking at an anti-Trump rally on campus. It was after relinquishing the megaphone that Khan heard one of the counter-protesters, Joel Valdez, an undergraduate, shout the question about his children. Incensed, fearful, he stormed over to Valdez and his crew to confront them.

Though they had never spoken before, Khan was very familiar with Valdez’s activities on campus, and he knew that Valdez served as one of the primary organizers of the UIUC chapter of Turning Point USA (TPUSA). A self-described “political strategist” and “activist,” Valdez had repeatedly demonstrated that he and his TPUSA crew were giddily eager to clash with leftists and activists on campus whenever the chance arose. A number of these clashes had involved close friends of Khan’s; he had seen, close up, what it meant when they wanted to take someone down. They followed the now-familiar TPUSA playbook to the letter: (1) antagonize people whose political views you disagree with, (2) antagonize them some more, (3) keep antagonizing them, (4) play the victim when they respond, (5) upload video footage and personal information of them online, (6) try to get them fired, (7) repeat.

Sadly, knowing about these tactics wasn’t enough for Khan to avoid falling prey to them. But tactical sophistication, understandably, goes out the window for a father when his children are suddenly thrown into the situation. The information about Khan’s friends these guys and their associates had previously uploaded to conservative watchdog websites like Campus Reform clearly demonstrated that cyberstalking and “keeping tabs” on people of interest was an essential part of their operation. Knowing this, and being taken aback by how completely unrelated Valdez’s outburst was to the protest they were there for, Khan perceived Valdez’s question about his kids to be a veiled threat.

None of this, of course, is mentioned in any of the existing “coverage” of the incident. Instead, in classic James O’Keefe fashion, this phony outrage campaign centers around a video of the altercation framed by the TPUSA narrative of patriotic, conservative innocents who were viciously “assaulted” out of the blue (they weren’t) by a violent lefty grad student who was then “arrested” by police (he wasn’t). No assault charges have been filed against Khan. As of right now, the only legal charge he faces is one misdemeanor count of “Criminal Damage to Property” for taking Valdez’s phone from him and dropping it on the ground after Valdez had held it up to Khan’s face to record him. Along with the litany of misleading reports from right-wing news, Valdez himself has directly lied on camera about the charges against Khan, because—and this is important—that’s what totally innocent people do.

Once again, though, the TPUSA strategy is very clear: if one can’t effectively rely on the police to silence their opponents, then university administrations provide means for doing so that are much easier to exploit. At the same time that Valdez is openly encouraging violent action against Khan, at the same time that Khan, his wife, their children, and Khan’s home department are being harassed and intimidated, and receiving violent threats by Valdez’s sympathizers online and in person (see examples here, here, here, and here), UIUC’s Office for Student Conflict Resolution is placing Khan on “Conduct Probation” in response to Valdez’s complaints. Such a move may jeopardize his ability to secure university funds to complete his doctoral studies—but more than that, it represents an incredibly effective way to muzzle Khan and his political activities for the rest of his time at UIUC. As the term “probation” suggests, any further statement or action by Khan that’s made to appear like an infraction, no matter how minor it may be, could result in his immediate dismissal. Khan is currently appealing the university’s decision and his supporters are encouraging others to contact Associate Dean of Students Justin Brown and Assistant Dean Rony Die and urge them to drop all charges against him.

Tariq Khan’s case is not unique. Across the country, TPUSA’s brand is becoming increasingly synonymous with this familiar script—one that typically involves outrage over, or some kind of dust-up with, a left-leaning faculty member, graduate student, administrator, etc. Then the script typically takes an aggressive turn, prompting a campaign to get the target fired or to force them into silence. And all of this, mind you, is already underlined by TPUSA’s creation of the infamous “Professor Watchlist”—a McCarthy-esque catalogue of lefty professors that is clearly intended to intimidate and trigger (as it were) prejudicial views of faculty based on questionable stories pulled from the same shady “news” sites, like Campus Reform, that TPUSA and its far-flung allies report to and rely on. Like everything else TPUSA does, it’s built on the model of a never-ending echo chamber of self-referential affirmation and outrage. And if the group’s strategists are lucky, the self-referencing crusade will generate enough noise to titillate editors and producers at the giant trolling factories of InfoWars or Fox News.

TPUSA’s leaders, of course, claim that the sole purpose of the Professor Watchlist is to warn and inform “students, parents, and alumni” about “professors that advance a radical agenda in lecture halls.” They’re not trying to intimidate anyone; they just want to give conservatives a heads up so they can plan accordingly. One’s opinions about TPUSA can more or less be gauged by how much they buy into this justification for the Watchlist, because it is actually a perfect distillation of the controversial nature of the organization itself and its mission.

Like Joel Valdez and his crew at UIUC, TPUSA claims total and righteous innocence whenever it shows up on campuses, feigning aw-shucks ignorance about why anyone would be up in arms about an organization that created a political blacklist to monitor the actions and statements of their teachers or colleagues. But if you confront any TPUSA members about this and let your emotions show, chances are they’ll record video of you on their phones, upload the footage to Campus Reform, and use it to justify the same old claims of wanton persecution at the hands of fascistic left-wingers, just for holding conservative beliefs.

Once this self-pitying narrative is in place, the rest is pretty much an arms race to control public perception.

Once this self-pitying narrative is in place, the rest is pretty much an arms race to control public perception. Are student members of TPUSA, whose only “crime” is being open about their love of free markets and limited government, being attacked by a militant wave of SJW thought police? Or are they part of what amounts to a cleverly manicured McCarthyist sting operation that involves using faculty’s political beliefs to threaten their livelihoods, then trolling them by setting up shop right outside their offices, and playing the victim when they protest? In a political climate where the notion that conservatives are being persecuted has greater currency than ever—even though conservatives hold almost absolute power—it’s not hard to see why and how one of these narratives tends to win out over the other.    

Amanda Gailey knows this better than most. Last September, Professor Gailey became embroiled in just this kind of depressingly familiar row with TPUSA at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln (UNL). When Kaitlyn Mullen, an undergraduate member of the UNL chapter of TPUSA, was tabling for recruitment on campus, Gailey joined Courtney Lawton, a graduate student, to protest nearby. Mullen recorded Lawton holding a sign with the words “Just Say NO to Neo-Fascism!” chanting things like “No K.K.K., No Neo-Fascist U.S.A.!” and at one point, flipping off the camera. Mullen also took photos of Gailey smiling and holding a sign with the words, “Turning Point: Please add me to your watchlist. Prof. Amanda Gailey.” After a while, the student showed signs of being upset by the protest and began to pack up her recruitment table, at which point Professor Gailey approached her and offered to talk more, explaining that she was “protesting the organization,” not Mullen specifically.

Then the shit hit the fan. Mullen claimed that the protests made her feel “unsafe,” and that she also felt“outnumbered and intimidated” when she met with administrators to discuss the incident. You already know how TPUSA and Campus Reform spun the story. Then Breitbart and Fox got involved. University of Nebraska President Hank Bounds jumped in and ritually denounced Gailey and Lawton for the free expression of their supposed intolerance of free expression. Then Republican senators from Nebraska, along with Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts, took over the situation, sparking outrage from the Nebraska chapter of the American Association of University Professors who claimed, quite reasonably, that they were exploiting the controversy to launch a sustained political attack on the university and to impose consequential changes “without transparency or proper governance.”

State senators have continued to publicly flog Gailey, attacking her personally in the media, eventually inspiring at least one constituent to contact her with violent threats. “They went on to attack the entire English Department at the University,” Gailey wrote to me in an email, “calling our commitment to social justice ‘evil’ and demanding that our curriculum be brought in line with their vision of English Studies.” The Nebraska Republican Party, which is exempt from open records laws, seized on the opportunity to file an official request for any and all of Gailey’s emails that mentioned Republican politicians, including Trump and Ben Sasse. Other Republican officials have lofted similarly broad open records requests for the emails of other employees in the department, including Lawton. “Now the governor is campaigning on the incident,” Gailey continued,

mailing out material about the “bullying” of conservative students by University employees, and right-wing senators with ties to the governor have proposed bills that would curtail and criminalize dissent in the state. Meanwhile, the governor is dramatically slashing the budget of the University, which is the state’s largest employer and most valuable asset. What would we think if we heard of some other country in which the single party that controls the government, led by an oligarch, was demanding the emails of political dissenters and proposing legislation to criminally investigate and imprison faculty who wear political buttons or hold office in political clubs? It would strike us as a shocking fascist state, and that is what Nebraska is on its way to becoming under Pete Ricketts.

The aftershocks of Gailey and Lawton’s fateful confrontation with TPUSA aren’t going to abate any time soon. As of now, Gailey is still teaching, but Lawton’s future at UNL is much hazier. University administrators had waffled on the question of whether Lawton would be allowed to teach at UNL again—and then announced that Lawton’s contract would not be renewed after they faced pressure from Republican state senators to fire her. Yes, that’s right: in the overhyped phony defense of academic freedom, government officials in Nebraska appear to have used their office to prosecute a graduate student and university employee for apparently political reasons without any due process. Lawton’s dismissal has triggered an investigation by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) into possible violations of Lawton’s Fourteenth Amendment rights of due process.

Here is the basic question: What is TPUSA’s mission?

As a registered nonprofit, TPUSA states quite clearly that its mission “is to educate students about the importance of fiscal responsibility, free markets, and limited government. Through non-partisan debate, dialogue, and discussion, Turning Point USA believes that every young person can be enlightened to true free market values.” That’s straightforward enough. But to coin a phrase that I just made up: actions speak louder than words. And TPUSA’s actions speak clearly of an organization that is far less interested in “non-partisan debate, dialogue, and discussion” than in subversion, intimidation, manipulation, and invasion.

When I look at TPUSA, I don’t see an organization looking for dialogue—I see an occupying force.

TPUSA and its boy-wonder founder, Charlie Kirk, have gone to great lengths to curate an appealing image of themselves. On the surface, TPUSA appears to be an excitable but humble and honest-looking group of young conservatives whose goal is to support like-minded students who are often at odds with, even “persecuted” by the politically correct power elite. Hence the group’s frequent denunciations of the liberal monsters and “crybullies” who spend their privileged expanses of parent-funded campus leisure trying to brainwash students and exert total control over a monotholically leftist university that’s little more than an Orwellian prison camp.

But in reality, the situation is the complete reverse. TPUSA is an extraordinarily well-funded and well-connected force that doesn’t want you to know that it wields significantly more power than any Marxist professor or grad student could ever hope to in the contemporary neoliberal university. In fact, the group’s cookie-cutter denunciations of a mythic and vast cabal of leftist instructors controlling universities across the country is enough to make any overworked instructor in today’s administration-dominated higher education system keel over with laughter. But the more that TPUSA strategists can stoke fears about such decrepit fantasies, the fewer questions people seem to ask about the people and institutions partnering with and bankrolling them—Republican mega-donors like Richard Uihlein, politicians like Bruce Rauner, and jaw-droppingly racist foundations like the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

Put another way, TPUSA is incredibly good at accusing liberals and the left of doing precisely what they are, in fact, doing themselves—from expelling others whose views they disagree with to implementing shady power networks to invade and dominate campuses. Moreover, some exceptional reporting has been done in the New Yorker and the Chronicle of Higher Education to detail some of TPUSA’s most egregious (even illegal) practices, including creating a remarkably racist work environment, violating its nonprofit status by openly supporting political candidates like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump, and operating as a dark money super-PAC that funnels money into student government campaigns.

There was also a by-now famous piece of investigative reporting for Ohio State University’s student paper, The Lantern, which revealed TPUSA’s hushed attempts to cheat its way to winning a student government election by funneling resources well exceeding the sanctioned spending limit into the campaigns of the group’s slate of chosen candidates. (The candidates dropped out the same day the report was published.) In several other instances, TPUSA has been suspected or reported to have sought to rig campus elections with dark money or influence student candidates to push student government policies that benefited corporations with ties to TPUSA, like Uber.

There are many, many other peculiar and worrying details about this organization that space forbids enumerating in detail here. But the larger contours of the group’s cynical and self-dealing M.O. is plain and well established. If you study TPUSA’s methods closely, you learn how the group works. You pick up on its approved go-to arguments and preferred escape routes. When and if the present article gets sucked into TPUSA’s orbit, the paid propagandists at the helm of the group will inevitably look for any opportunity to suggest that I am arguing that they should not exist on college campuses simply because I disagree with them and, fragile snowflake that I am, I dissolve into a pile of tear-soaked pussy hats whenever I’m around different points of view. They will search for any evidence online that I’m some lefty SJW whose one joking tweet from three years ago proves that I’m brainwashing my students with Marxist propaganda and I should be fired. Because—and this, too, is important—that’s just what you do when you love “free speech” so much.

But for the sake of argument, I’m trying to meet them on their proposed turf. Like our friend and perpetual victim, Joel Valdez of UIUC, I was once, many years ago, an insufferable, Mexican-American, conservative student (and I, too, stupidly took that to mean that my views somehow couldn’t be racist). Now, obviously, I’m quite happily the lefty nutjob university instructor TPUSA wants me to be. But I’m a lefty nutjob who values “debate, dialogue, and discussion,” as they claim to, and who has never had a single student complaint (anonymous or not) about creating a classroom environment that was hostile to points of view that differed from my own. Here’s the thing, though: when I look at TPUSA, I don’t see an organization looking for dialogue—I see an occupying force.

It’s high time that we start being honest with ourselves about what TPUSA really is. Far from being a samizdat preserve of heroic dissent in the face of “political correctness,” the group is the organizational equivalent of a bait and switch. While some colleges and universities are wising up to the group’s game, most have largely continued to treat TPUSA in accordance with the warped story it tells about itself: that it is, at base, a nonprofit organization celebrating the sturdy American civic verities of small-government conservatism and laissez-faire economics.

Within the bounds of this narrative, there’s really just one way to rationalize the regular stream of confrontations between TPUSA and its many opponents that, wherever possible, result in tireless campaigns to silence, expel, or fire the latter. TPUSA would have a credulous media believe—and an opportunistic conservative political class reiterate—that such campaigns are, at worst, an unfortunate byproduct of the group’s righteous efforts to carry out its stated mission; that they are a defense of last resort spearheaded by an organization that only wants to ensure that colleges and universities remain open to “ideological diversity.” But the evidence gives a much clearer picture: silencing, expelling, or firing opponents is the mission—and has always been.  

Silencing, expelling, or firing opponents is the mission—and has always been.

Try for a minute to completely bracket all the obvious reasons one could have for opposing TPUSA’s presence on campus, including the Professor Watchlist. Could we safely assume that, without any liberals and leftists protesting them, TPUSA would follow the same path as the tens of thousands of other student groups on campuses, enjoying and making use of their community’s space and coexisting within the larger society of the university as such? Probably not. Because in such a scenario, TPUSA’s entire reason for being would evaporate. Quite simply, their mission does not exist without an evil leftist bogeyman to seek out and eradicate, which is precisely what their organization is designed to do.

In name, TPUSA is a nonprofit spreading “free market values” and promoting “diversity of thought” on college campuses; in just about every other sense, TPUSA has all the attributes of an inquisition intended to infiltrate academia, occupy it, and “cleanse” it, from the inside, of any leftist elements. As always, they will play innocent, assuring that they just want to ensure a space for their beliefs in American higher education. What they want, though, is to create a nationwide army of students who have already made their minds up about a vast leftwing conspiracy in academia that it’s their mission to expose—an army of devotees who will troll their peers, who will covertly record classroom discussions and mine their professors’ social media feeds to find proof of “what’s really going on,” even if they have to conjure it out of thin air.

And make no mistake: the group represents just one front in a much larger offensive on the right to weaponize the image of ideologically skewed, “politically correct” campuses as justification to excise or silence radicals and remake higher education completely. Universities, then, must evaluate the facts of TPUSA’s operation if they are to soberly assess the risks involved in welcoming a well-funded network of mercenaries to disrupt and browbeat actually existing dissent out of the American campus scene. This involves, among other things, reckoning with the due-process violations entailed in a concerted campaign of stalking, filming, trolling, harassing, and lying about liberals and leftists in order to, as TPUSA Leadership Director Kennedy Copeland ably summed up, “secretly take them out without them knowing what’s coming.”

If TPUSA’s leaders want to prove me wrong—if they genuinely want to prove that their organization has any substance beyond the intimidating and purging of leftists—they could start by not doing what we have come to expect them to do if and when they see an article like this one. They could start by not taking the opportunity to encourage another paradoxical “free speech” crusade to silence me—or any faculty or graduate students they don’t like—by stalking and threatening me online, harassing my departments, calling for my university to fire me, etc. But I won’t hold my breath.