School board meetings across the country are growing increasingly volatile as debates over race, sex education and more reach a flashpoint. As many children are returning to schools, and with Covid rates surging, mask mandates designed to stop the spread of the virus have become the latest target of protestors. While these protests may appear organic, they are fed on a rich diet of disinformation from groups on the right and cable news shows.
Wading into this is Turning Point USA (TPUSA), a group known for its close ties to Donald Trump, as well as for its role spreading disinformation about both the November election result and COVID. Turning Point Action, the TPUSA 501c4 sister organization was one of the groups that promoted the March to Save America in Washington, DC on January 6th. The group’s board members include Mike Lindell (the My Pillow guy).
Now TPUSA, a right-wing student group run by Charlie Kirk has launched a new project called “School Board Watchlist,” mirroring another “watchlist” project it runs that targets university professors. In 2018, a senior staffer from the Charles Koch Institute described the earlier Professor Watchlist project as “McCarthyism 2.0.” When you are too right wing for even the Koch network...
The website for the new Watchlist project features a full screen video playing in the background of protestors being arrested, and in large font a declaration that this is “the battle to save America.” It’s not subtle, and is clearly designed to inspire action.
The site includes a database of what appears to be every school board member in the country, and includes information on policies, board meetings, and more. A large and prominent “donate” button is on every page. According to the website, the project will expose “the teaching of Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project, sexual/gender ideology, and more.
Broward County mask mandate
The site highlights a list of what it describes as “the most radical” school districts. According to the website, these include Broward County, FL, which (totally coincidentally) is in the news this week over its legal fight with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis over mask mandates. The school district is trying to protect the health of its students, staff and community during a surge in Covid infections.
According to Politico:
“Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ fight over school mask mandates took a dramatic turn on Tuesday after the state Board of Education ruled two defiant school districts broke state law and threatened to remove local elected officials for disobeying the GOP governor.
School leaders in Alachua County and Broward County, who are resisting DeSantis’ order banning mask mandates, now could face a range of possible punishments for defying the DeSantis administration, which has taken a hard line against enacting additional Covid-19 precautions despite a record-breaking surge in cases and hospitalizations brought on by the Delta variant.” Politico
Broward County is talking to your kids about sex education!
That’s right. The School Board Watchlist reports that Broward is giving teachers the “tools and resources necessary to address lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) topics in a school setting.” TPUSA Website
It’s not just Broward County. As you have probably seen, protests against school mask mandates have been breaking out across the country. Often this is happening in areas with high infection rates. Earlier this year, school boards were predominantly being targeted because of the teaching of racism and U.S. history in schools, misleadingly described as being about Critical Race Theory (which is not taught in K-12 education), as well as over the teaching of sex education, LGBTQ rights and other issues.
All of these topics are fertile ground for the “culture war”, and culture war is what TPUSA is all about.
One thing TPUSA isn’t talking about is the investigation of Matt Gaetz for allegedly having sex with a minor. As of this morning, the TPUSA YouTube channel still features his appearances at TPUSA events, and the Facebook page still has this kind of content:
According to an email sent to TPUSA donors, and provided to Documented, the new project will "take the front-line fight for freedom directly into the radical Leftist stronghold by exposing schools' dangerous anti-American policies, and board members, anti-freedom mandates, and shocking curricula!”
The school board project is the latest effort by TPUSA to bring the culture war to K-12 education. In March, Documented broke the story of another of these projects, called TPUSA Academy, which is developing an "America-first education" curriculum for K-12 children.
Kirk said in June that protests must be “harnessed”
Recently, fights have broken out at some school board meetings. Anti-mask protestors shut down a Louisiana meeting on Thursday chanting “freedom, freedom, freedom.” Doctors were threatened by protestors at a meeting in Tennessee, and a man was removed from a Birmingham school board earlier this week after he gave a Nazi salute.
In June, Kirk talked on his radio show about how much he admired these protests. While comparing them to the tea party movement, he spoke about how they needed to be “harnessed.”
On his daily radio show, cable news, and social media, Kirk has spent the past year repeatedly spreading disinformation about the risks of COVID, the safety of vaccines, and whether there should be mask mandates in schools. He has called for infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci to be imprisoned. Fauci has been receiving death threats, with at least one person being arrested and charged.
Kirk has been spewing hatred towards school board members for months with increasingly inflammatory language. On his radio show in June he called them “parasites.” Here is the clip:
“Similar to a virus that was in our country before we realized it, these school boards were infected by parasites who wish to teach your children a series of ideologies that are so harmful to who we are as Americans.”
“I can tell you that when these tyrants and these autocrats and these sociopathic, unimpressive, hyper aggressive administrators who sit on these boards actually have to look at the white in your eyes and not just read some angry email, things will change.”
“This real energy and enthusiasm that I have not seen since the Tea Party movement and parts of the Trump movement, but this is different. This is just so organic and so focused. It's focused on very specific action. It's something that I think must be harnessed for the better,” Kirk said.
Kirk: “I was MAGA before it was cool”
If this all sounds very “Trumpy”, that is almost certainly the point. Kirk appears to be modeling himself on the former President. Or he at least seems to recognize the value in aligning himself to Trump. “I was MAGA before it was cool,” Kirk wrote in his 2020 book called “The MAGA Doctrine.”
Kirk talks often about his relationship to the Trump family, and in particular his bromance with Donald Trump Jr. The two often refer to their friendship on social media, and there have been rumors of a joint book project.
The ties between the Trump family and TPUSA have been mutually beneficial. The TPUSA fundraising exploded during Trump’s four years in office, going from $4m revenue in 2016, to almost $40m by the time Trump left the White House.
Kirk has hosted regular TPUSA events at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort. The next of these will be the 4th annual TPUSA winter gala in December, a high-dollar fundraiser with sponsorship rates running as high as $100,000. Kirk also held rallies to boost the Trump campaign in 2020 through a project he runs called Students for Trump, based out of Turning Point Action.
Kirk has a large social media following, and unlike Trump he hasn’t been banned from Twitter (yet) and has amassed 1.7m followers.
According to an October 2021 analysis by the Election Integrity Partnership, Kirk’s was one of the most impactful Twitter accounts pushing lies about voter fraud (measured by retweets) in the run up to the election.
According to that report, Kirk was #2 on their list, only behind Donald Trump. That put him ahead of Sean Hannity, Eric Trump, and Breitbart News, all three of which were also listed in the top ten, along with Benny Johnson, Chief Creative Officer of Turning Point USA.
Twitter locked Kirk’s account temporarily in mid October following a tweet that spread disinformation about mail-in ballot fraud in Pennsylvania. But he is back now and continues to spread false conspiracy theories and disinformation. In June he propagated a baseless theory that the Surfside apartment building collapse was actually an act of terrorism. Climate change was likely at least a contributing factor to that disaster. Kirk and TPUSA have called climate change a “hoax.” It will probably not surprise you to hear that Jane Mayer reported TPUSA has received secret funding from the fossil fuel industry. Now Kirk is spreading this kind of message:
With tensions running as high as they already are at school board meetings, this kind of message seems highly irresponsible, but not out of character.