2020-05-11

“Why I Became a MAGA Conservative”

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by Neil Godfrey

This is my second post on Charlie Kirk’s “manifesto” of the “Trump movement”, The MAGA Doctrine. My first post was a broad overview of the prism through which Kirk sees the world. Towards the end of his book Kirk reflects on how it all started, on what set him on “the road toward conservatism”:

Who is Charlie Kirk?

From “About the Author” in The MAGA Doctrine:

CHARLIE KIRK is the founder and president of Turning Point USA, the largest and fastest-growing conservative youth activist organization in the country with over 250,000 student members, over 150 full-time staff, and a presence on over 1,500 high school and college campuses nationwide. Charlie is also the chairman of Students for Trump, which aims to activate one million new college voters on campuses in battleground states in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election. His social media reaches over 100 million people per month, and according to Axios, his is one of the top 10 most engaged Twitter handles in the world. He is also the host of The Charlie Kirk Show, which regularly ranks among the top news shows on Apple podcast charts.

As I look forward to a MAGA future, I also remember how I first started on the road toward conservatism.

I have a sixth-grade social studies teacher to thank—though not in the way one usually thanks teachers and other mentors. Deviating from the usual civics lessons around the time of the Iraq War’s start, this teacher railed against then-president George W. Bush. I would come eventually to see the war in Iraq as a mistake myself and to see the Trump-era Republican Party as an improvement over the Republican Party of the Bushes.

But of course the teacher couldn’t stop there. He went on to denounce the United States in general. He made the whole country’s history sound like a litany of evil, from genocide to slavery to oppression of women, capped by imperialism and mistreatment of immigrants. That’s a lot to foist on sixth-graders, though that’s normal in schools these days.

You may have had similar experiences in childhood yourself. It was one of those moments in which you know the authority figure probably has most of his basic facts right, but you still have a nagging feeling that he’s missing something, something you can’t immediately identify. You also know that even though you’ve only been alive and part of this country for a few years, you feel attacked. This place that you love and trust is being trashed.

It’s not that you believe the United States can do no wrong. You don’t dismiss the evils of slavery or think other terrible things from the history books are make-believe. You have a strong suspicion, though, that for all our mistakes, things worked out pretty well—not just for a few but for the population as a whole—eventually. There’s something fundamentally good about the United States, at least as compared to so many troubled and brutal places throughout the world, throughout history.

Not just good about the United States—great.

The teacher wasn’t suggesting everything about the United States was hopeless, either, but he made clear he thought that conservatives were leading the country down the wrong road. They were fools, he seemed to suggest, who thought in their arrogance that the country could do no wrong. The best hope for us all, then, was liberalism, and not just classical liberalism but the left. A good dose of self-doubt and shame might rein in this country gone awry, and voting for the Democrats was probably step one, at least if we took seriously the implied civics lesson underlying everything else we were hearing in social studies class.

That’s an interesting and revealing “confession” or “testimonial”. It reminds me of the conversion experiences of the religious and moments that led others down the path towards extremist radicalization (see side box for some discussions about this process). Here are my thoughts as I read the above:

Commentary

I have a sixth-grade social studies teacher to thank

There’s a warning there. One would hope there would be time and opportunity to learn far more about the many parts that make this world work before letting one’s views solidify.

Deviating from the usual civics lessons around the time of the Iraq War’s start, this teacher railed against then-president George W. Bush. I would come eventually to see the war in Iraq as a mistake myself and to see the Trump-era Republican Party as an improvement over the Republican Party of the Bushes.

Kirk “eventually” came to see the Iraq War was “as a mistake”. A “mistake”? A war of aggression at the Nuremberg trials was judged to be “the supreme international crime differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” Invading and destroying another nation is not “a mistake” unless we can only judge its morality on the grounds of whether the aggressor achieved what he wanted or not. The USA achieved far less than it originally hoped for and at a greater cost than anticipated so it was “a mistake”.

The ethical judgement here is grounded in the conviction that “we”, “our nation”, “our intentions”, are fundamentally good. Sometimes we make “mistakes”. But rarely anything morally worse. It’s a form of fundamentalist thinking. I have never forgotten a Ghassan Hage’s discussion of nationalism and fundamentalism: I wrote a post about it in 2006 and said:

This was the first book I read by an Australian Lebanese academic and I found its discussion of fundamentalism and suicide terrorism most informative. It opened my eyes to seeing how our own Australian nationalism can be seen by non-westerners as just as fundamentalist as any other kind: it enables one to say in response to our collective abuses and crimes, “Well even if we make a few mistakes we are ‘fundamentally’ good at heart, by our nature or character” and thus gloss over our outrages as out of character, unfortunate ‘human’ aberrations. This is true of all fundamentalist mindsets, whether religious or other nationalisms.

Coming to see the Iraq War as a “mistake” is a symptom of tribalism, of an ethical standard that cannot see beyond faith in the rightness of one’s own national identity.

But of course the teacher couldn’t stop there. He went on to denounce the United States in general. He made the whole country’s history sound like a litany of evil, from genocide to slavery to oppression of women, capped by imperialism and mistreatment of immigrants. That’s a lot to foist on sixth-graders, though that’s normal in schools these days.

Again, the fundamentalist mindset. We, the nation I am part of, is fundamentally good. We do not do evil things; at worst we make mistakes but we are fundamentally well-intentioned. I refuse to accept that we are like other nations who really do do those evil things. We are not like them. What you say is evil is nothing more than a sad mistake.

I have no way of knowing if Kirk’s teacher ever said anything positive about the United States but if he did Kirk appears not to have been able to hear it, being deafened by words that confronted his childhood beliefs, beliefs he would never outgrow even as an adult.

It was one of those moments in which you know the authority figure probably has most of his basic facts right, but you still have a nagging feeling that he’s missing something, something you can’t immediately identify. You also know that even though you’ve only been alive and part of this country for a few years, you feel attacked. This place that you love and trust is being trashed.

Yes, the facts are right. Yes, genocide and slavery were evil, but we were well-intentioned so they were mistakes. To confront their evil full-on is to be attacked as a person, to have one’s identity and self-worth as an American attacked. Kirk did not kill the native peoples or enslave the black Africans. But sometimes we discover that an institution or club or other people we identify with have had a black history. Sometimes it is healthy to acknowledge that black history so as to try to make amends somehow, however slight they may be. Sometimes it is healthy just for the sake of being honest and demolishing lies and myths. The place we love almost certainly has lots of other fine achievements that are still worth loving and trusting. Or if we find those too hard to find then there are other larger identities we can find to give us a sense of wholeness.

There’s something fundamentally good about the United States, at least as compared to so many troubled and brutal places throughout the world, throughout history.

Rudyard Kipling had the same perspective comparing the “greater” British with “inferior” rival powers, especially the Germans, when we wrote the line

Or lesser breeds without the Law—

It’s not that you believe the United States can do no wrong. You don’t dismiss the evils of slavery or think other terrible things from the history books are make-believe. You have a strong suspicion, though, that for all our mistakes, things worked out pretty well—not just for a few but for the population as a whole—eventually. There’s something fundamentally good about the United States, at least as compared to so many troubled and brutal places throughout the world, throughout history.

Well golly gee. Just as I was thinking above, and here Kirk says it all himself. All those “evils” were really only “mistakes” and we are “fundamentally good”, at least compared to other people. Other nations have had slaves but they were really evil; we were just “mistaken” because we are not like them. We are fundamentally good. And not just good, either . . .

Not just good about the United States—great.

We might say, then, that United States that Kirk identifies with is “fundamentally good and great”. We don’t dismiss the evils, but we recognize our “mistakes”. That makes us “humble”, I suppose, because we can acknowledge we are “not perfect”. But true evil diminishes our “greatness” and “goodness” so true evil cannot be part of our history or identity at any level.

The teacher wasn’t suggesting everything about the United States was hopeless, either, but he made clear he thought that conservatives were leading the country down the wrong road. They were fools, he seemed to suggest, who thought in their arrogance that the country could do no wrong. The best hope for us all, then, was liberalism, and not just classical liberalism but the left. A good dose of self-doubt and shame might rein in this country gone awry, and voting for the Democrats was probably step one, at least if we took seriously the implied civics lesson underlying everything else we were hearing in social studies class.

A “good dose of self-doubt and shame” is clearly forbidden. Acknowledgement of evil in our past is forbidden. We are “fundamentally good and great” and any thought that robs us of that belief is to be opposed as an enemy of the United States. Self-doubt can be a very healthy thing. To be completely lacking that ability makes one insufferably “right all the time” and a menace to self and others. A sense of shame over past hurts and wrongs is also a very healthy emotion to have. It is a poor “nationalism” or “self-identity” that cannot recover at all from self-doubts and shame over past wrongs and hurts to others. That is a very fragile identity indeed. From the self-doubt and shame one learns to make amends and identify with the real good in one’s self without living a lie.

And so one “starts down the road toward conservatism” of the MAGA kind. Everything is seen through the prism of the “fundamental goodness and greatness” of the nation we identify with; every thought and word that “exalts itself against” our fundamentalist faith is to be “cast down” (2 Cor.10:5). There is no room for compromise; there is no room for dialogue. There is only room for war, hopefully only wars of words. But protect the second amendment at all costs, just in case.


Hage, Ghassan. 2003. Against Paranoid Nationalism: Searching for Hope in a Shrinking Society. Annandale, NSW: Gardners Books.

Kirk, Charlie. 2020. The MAGA Doctrine: The Only Ideas That Will Win the Future. New York: Broadside Books.


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Neil Godfrey

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12 thoughts on ““Why I Became a MAGA Conservative””

    1. What “-ism” of perceived value has not been hijacked for propaganda purpose?

      “Strikingly, most contemporary arguments for moral vegetarianism start with premises about the wrongness of producing meat and move to conclusions about the wrongness of consuming it.” [Moral Vegetarianism, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

      1. Hi db I’m sorry if I’ve asked this of you before. You gave me the link below

        https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Ante-Nicene_Fathers/Volume_I/IRENAEUS/Against_Heresies:_Book_II

        (thanks again) and I’m wondering how Christian scholars and Christians get around this fact of IRENAEUS damning Luke as a heresy and claiming Jesus survived the cross, lived to a very old age and died in bed. Do they claim these are forgeries or purposely mistranslated by Roberts, Donaldson, etc.? For example the IRENAEUS entry at Wikipedia at last reading doesn’t mention the attack on Luke at all.

        Maybe of interest, the Wikipedia entry on Papias at last reading does mention the letter claiming that Papias said Judas survived the hanging and was ultimately run down by an ox-cart. Just wondering if you know how Christians treated these IRENAEUS writings now and in the past. I supplied the link to a Christian antagonist on a chat board to prove what I was saying about IRENAEUS. He never responded to the link, but previous to my supplying had never even heard about any of this.

        thanks!

        1. By Book VIII if I remember rightly he has come round to there being four gospels; and only four gospels: the canonical four we have now. He has some stupid reasons based on four corners of the earth, four winds and the like. Christians get around it the same way they get around the Tanakh and Paul; supercession backed up with fraudulent documents. If you want to put best light on it, he is in Lyon in the middle of Gaul and the writings of small cults took a while to diffuse Way out West. Even at the other end of the Med there is the Apostle Apollos who in the fantasy Acts of the Apostles has to be taken aside and have his teachings updated, though he was preaching Christ powerfully, because he only new the baptism of John.

  1. If the Supreme Court finds for McGahn in the immunity case, that’s the end of democracy in the US of A. The GOP Senators already don’t even pretend to have ethics anymore (see the refusal to hold an actual trial of Trump at the impeachment with witnesses etc). If the Supreme Court finds for McGahn, not only will it be the first step towards dictatorship, they will be ripping up the Constitution themselves, leaving Trump untouchable, and inviting any number of states to declare the Constitution null and void, secede, and take up to 80 percent of federal income with them. If you think this is impossible, an appeals court already ruled for McGahn two Republicans judges to one Democrat judge. Even though the Constitution clearly states the legislative branch can investigate and depose the president. If Trump is granted this much executive privilege, he becomes beyond the reach of rule of law, he can ignore any congressional investigation and order everyone in the executive branch to ignore them.

    The Democrats appealed the appeals court ruling to the full appeals court which has granted a pretty much unprecedented en banc hearing to reconsider the UNPRECEDENTED original 3-judge ruling (which despite the Nixon precedents basically threw the case out claiming they did not really have jurisdiction, another thing to ultimately be settled by the US Supreme Court which has invited arguments both pro and con regarding the tactic employed by the two Republican judges. The en banc ruling will involve all 11 judges on the court, and they very likely will reverse the 2-1 opinion. Then it’s up to the five conservatives on the Supreme Court and really up to Chief Justice Roberts to determine if the United States is going to remain a constitutional democracy, or continue down the path toward third world dictatorship already being steered by the likes of McConnell and Graham commandeering the Senate, and Barr turning the DOJ into a rubber stamp for Trump

  2. Trump’s MAGA, if it can be called a doctrine, goes way beyond American exceptionalism and, in practice, sometimes works against it. Liberal Democrats, especially when running for office, will always espouse the same type of rhetoric about American being great and good, despite its past “mistakes.” Trump’s neglect of NATO and his support for Putin go against the exceptionalist desideratum of the USA as leader of the free world, and instead move in the direction of partial isolationism. MAGA , IMO, is more of a hyper-nationalistic endorsement of xenophobia and magical thinking. Really simple answers are offered for every ill. Don’t like immigrants? Build a wall. Worried about climate change? Forget it, it’s fake. Don’t like crime? It’s the immigrants, etc. At the top, as you’ve pointed out in previous posts, is the charismatic, demagogic leader who can do no wrong and whose faults are the inventions of an insidiously dishonest left-wing media.

    1. not to mention the GOP is racist like never before (or they have merely slithered out from under their rocks) and Donald (“there are good people on both sides”) Trump lets them be themselves as it were. How is it possible with the ascension of Trump that so many Republicans suddenly have no problem with Trump aligning with Russia/Putin? They’re merely listening to their white supremacist leaders. Neo-Nazis see Russia as the heart of white nationalism, with former KKK leader David Duke describing it as “the key to white survival.” Richard Spencer, a prominent white supremacist figurehead, and spouse of pro-Russia blogger Nina Kouprianova, described the nation as “the most powerful white power in the world,” while many others in these circles now see Putin as the de facto “leader of the free world….”

      The vast majority of Trump’s approval rating, well over 90 percent comes from whites. How awful is it that no matter the atrocity Trump’s average approval rating has rarely fallen below 40 percent. That’s either because enough independents liked his good economy before the virus, or it’s because enough independents are outright white racists

  3. I seriously doubt Kirk’s sixth-grade social studies teacher exists, except in his mind. If such a person did exist, however, it is equally doubtful that their class was taught the way Kirk says it was. He has instead created a caricature/straw-man and is responding to the straw-man, not the actual teacher. A common polemical trope.

    What is nationalism other than a belief that “we” are “fundamentally good and great”?

  4. “[B]ut you still have a nagging feeling that he’s missing something, something you can’t immediately identify.”

    It sounds like what he was missing was confirmation bias.

    When I hear a rant like this, I always remember Al Franken writing about the difference between liberal love of country and conservative love of country. I just found the quote:

    ““We love America just as much as they do. But in a different way. You see, they love America like a 4-year-old loves his mommy. Liberals love America like grown-ups. To a 4-year-old, everything Mommy does is wonderful and anyone who criticizes Mommy is bad. Grown-up love means actually understanding what you love, taking the good with the bad and helping your loved one grow.”

    While casual and over-generalized, I’ve always found it to be a great first-pass explanation of the tone of the ranter. Now here’s Charlie Kirk explaining that Al Franken was literally correct. As a child, he got angry that someone was insulting mommy and he’s held that resentment close to his bosom the rest of his life.

  5. On Insidious MAGAtude:

    Trump: “They are rapists” [headline on Youtube].. four years ago

    Instead he could have been saying … “…there are rapists”
    or he could have said “…their rapists” [!]
    In many cases he pronounces “…they are…” as “there”

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jaz1J0s-cL4 [hear for thine own self]

    Being dedicated to voting for Hillary even if monster space alien burst out of her upper body…
    I could not help but become suspicious of “spin”.

    I did see the report where people across the river were celebrating the attack on the towers…
    The “nonexistence” of that report made me suspicious, too.

    I will never vote for Trump because Jesus wants us to give everything away and I don’t want to.
    The best I can do is vote for someone who will give everything away for me.

    I don’t want to go to Hell, especially now that I am in a very lethal Corvid 19 demographic.

  6. You lot ought to go and have a lie down. Millenarian apocalyptical craziness; aren’t we supposed to have left that behind for reason and critical thinking?

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