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Astroturf Underdogs? Turning Point USA and the Rhetoric of Parrhesia

Turning Point USA, according to its own publications and website, is a “grassroots” organization. TPUSA, their own narrative would have us believe, stands up to “Big Government” and the liberal boogeyman TPUSA founder Charlie Kirk makes higher education out to be.

Strategies of TPUSA are clear: “Liberal” values of equality are disavowed and TPUSA makes a point to undermine sensitivities surrounding ethnic and cultural oppression through activities like “Affirmative Action Bake Sales.” They demean those who are actually disenfranchised while spinning a tale of their own victimization.

As part of opposing powerful elites, their “Professor Watchlist” serves as some kind of device to “monitor” academia. This clearly partisan, McCarthy-esque tactic targets instructors whose own views don’t match TPUSA’s ultra-conservative ideology, adding their name, institution, and perceived transgressions to their database.

Apparently, simply being critical of President Trump’s rhetoric and asking students to critically engage his rhetoric lands you on their watchlist, as is the case with Dr. Katherine Mack of University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Never mind that it’s the job of rhetoricians to critique rhetoric, TPUSA’s watchlist would have you believe Dr. Mack is some kind of radical corrupting the minds of American youth, but their heroic watchlist just might warn students in time (gentle reader, I’m finding it hard not be sarcastic).

Through just this tiny snapshot of the organization, we can begin to peak into the ways in which their own narrative tries to establish them as the underdog–the alienated conservative standing up to their liberal bullies. In concert, these claims work to frame TPUSA and conservative students as maligned and marginalized, repeating the claim that diversity efforts oppress white, conservative viewpoints.

This strategy relies on parrhesia. Parrhesia is the rhetorical concept of the underdog, that a scrappy and disenfranchised speaker will find some kind of footing from which to address those in power. Think, here, how the other inmates cheered on and fondly remembered Andy Dufresne in the film The Shawshank Redemption, because of his repeated standing up to authority. In another kind of institutional drama, Mean Girls outcast Janis Ian stands up to school bully Regina George and is cheered on by her peers.

This rhetorical strategy is a sort of credibility and ethos building move that bolsters faith and appreciation for the underdog speaker. With parrhesia, the disempowered position of the speaker related to the power they are speaking against becomes a rhetorical strength.

Even though their assertion of “truth” is questionable and their assertion of speaking “to power” rather than from it is false, TPUSA manages to convince a great many college students that they are, in fact, underdogs. This seems part of a larger campaign to use “freedom of speech” debates to effectively silence liberal critique of conservative talking points.

But Kirk seems to understand the value of parrhesia. He tries to distance himself from the billionaire donors of his “astroturf” organization, saying about their donors “It started with me hustling. I was the one seeking out the billionaires to fund a student movement, not the other way around.” Kirk knows that his-and TPUSA’s-credibility is reliant on parrhesia. If we consider TPUSA as reliant on elite billionaire donors funneling cash into college elections to elect conservative students to student body governments rather than as TPUSA as a rag-tag team of conservative idealists, attitudes toward the organization’s proceedings can change drastically. If it’s the outside influence of monied far-right conservative groups trying to change speech on college campuses rather than a group of concerned students, discourse around that issue also takes a different shape.

And that’s what parrhesia can do; there is a danger that, if we accept a speaker’s claims because they are (or claim to be) the underdog (by a group that filed expenditures of $8.3 million last year), we might be blind to how TPUSA flirts with Alt-Right, anti-immigrant, and anti-Muslim sentiments. Claims of oppression and marginalization can make us blind to how a person, group, or organization promotes oppression.

But this strategy, this twisting of parrhesia, seems to be an overused page in the playbook of those in power. I can’t help but be reminded of Brett Kavanaugh’s reframing of himself as a victim last week, or Donald Trump’s repeated insistence that the media has somehow treated him unfairly. When these empty claims of parrhesia are cast aside, we see how shallow and lacking their arguments actually are.

For those interested in learning more about this concept, I highly recommend Ryan Skinnell’s quite accessible chapter about Parrhesia in his edited collection Faking the News: What Rhetoric can Teach Us about Donald J. Trump.

6 thoughts on “Astroturf Underdogs? Turning Point USA and the Rhetoric of Parrhesia”

  1. Foucault was a notable champion of parrhesia. I highly recommend his book on the subject: Fearless Speech (Semiotext(e) 2001)

  2. An interesting evolution of the rightwing attack on higher ed from its Horowitz days of the early/mid-2000s. Horowitz couldn’t play the underdog card because he was such an insider. Charlie Kirk got turned down from the USMA (and, according to his Wikipedia bio, followed in Horowitz’s footsteps by claiming that he lost “his place” to a less deserving candidate and then quietly retracting the claim when it was obvious he had no idea what he was talking about) and went on the warpath against college.

    So we’ve got a different character using similar argument tactics (to assert that there’s an obvious pattern of leftwing oppression, such that any individual example that gets debunked–and they all do–just disappears back into the pattern). The difference is, the person leading (ostensibly) the attacks isn’t a middle-aged crank with a lot of money.

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