When I first met Charlie Kirk, the 29-year-old right-wing activist who founded Turning Point USA, while reporting on my book Raising Them Right: The Untold Story of America’s Ultraconservative Youth Movement and Its Plot for Power, he had just finished a 10-mile jog around the National Mall. He told me that getting a run in no matter the circumstances was one of his key goals every day.

It was the fall of 2018. I was in Washington covering his organization’s first Black Conservative summit and had been subsisting on junk food and no exercise for days. Kirk’s discipline impressed me. So did his easygoing gait, his conversational tone, and his passion for politics. If you wanted to debate the pros and cons of postmodernism, how P.C. culture was hurting the Democrats, or what Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey had to do with a politician’s rise to power, Kirk had the interest and the time.

Following that afternoon, I would spend countless hours with Kirk and his Trump-supporting allies, as together they built what is today the largest, wealthiest conservative youth group this country has ever seen. Turning Point USA recorded raking in $55 million during the 2020 fiscal year and now has multiple sister organizations, including Turning Point Action, a political arm that seeks to get radical, election-denying Republicans into office, and a religious arm called TPUSA Faith, which promotes the mixing of Christianity and politics, under the guise of religious freedom.

As I watched Kirk build this ever expanding empire, I would eventually come to distrust him and even fear him. His hyperbolic rhetoric about the abundance of “progressive Marxists” on American campuses, his deluded assumption that ailing Venezuela is a place many young Americans glorify, and the sputtering rage he shared with viewers on Election Night in 2020, before getting behind the Stop the Steal movement, alarmed me.

So did the calm emanating from his podcast, The Charlie Kirk Show, on January 6, 2021. I will never forget the way he said, “Yes, it looks like people are getting very, very hurt,” as violent protesters stormed the U.S. Capitol and the body of Ashli Babbitt was being removed from the building on a stretcher. During my reporting on his frequent campus and political action appearances and during my chats with him, I witnessed his rage up close and heard stories about how it expressed itself behind the scenes.

Kirk speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando earlier this year.

But for me, more important than that mounting right-wing rage, which can sometimes make Kirk sound as unhinged as Alex Jones or as nonsensically blustery as his idol Rush Limbaugh, was how I saw him, and what I learned about him, in the beginning.

In the 2000s, Kirk was no stud. In fact, he was an unpopular white kid with a loping gait and an awkward facial tick in a suburban Chicago high school that was doing what a lot of suburban high schools were doing at the time: diversifying. He was not a great student, not a great athlete. And he had views that his peers dismissed as geeky and conservative.

It was also true that his high school didn’t have a huge amount of space for a kid who didn’t have glowing things to say about Barack Obama, then the president, and preferred Ronald Reagan and his infamous trickle-down economics. Kirk was an outlier, and the mostly progressive world he was circulating in wasn’t offering much in the way of respect.

Kirk left high school looking for a political home. He and his young allies—other young Americans who saw themselves as counterculture rebels in a world of young progressives—found one in the American right, which embraced them with open arms. Kirk, in particular, was seen as energetic, ambitious, solicitous to the adults around him, and always eager to learn. One early ally said Kirk was like a “puppy dog” to the men and women who saw in him a future for their ideas and a messenger who could take those ideas and sell them to other young people.

It might seem odd that a guy with few friends in high school could take a set of radically harmful ideas and make them “cool.” Conservatism is the new punk rock, Kirk is fond of saying.

But it shouldn’t be. The unvarnished Charlie Kirk is a guy looking for a place to belong. And so are the young men and women whom he recruits into his far-right fold. But when Kirk didn’t quite despise journalists yet and wasn’t yet calling them members of the “woke, activist media” in bullying tones, he could be chatty, even warm. When I first met him, Kirk wasn’t just looking for enemies; he was still looking for friends.

Kyle Spencer’s Raising Them Right: The Untold Story of America’s Ultraconservative Youth Movement and Its Plot for Power will be published on October 18 by Ecco