How Emory's Student Activists Are Fueling Trumpism

The billionaire candidate couldn’t have created more perfect foils for a candidacy built on resentment.

Mpspqr / Wikimedia

Had Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign for the White House somehow infiltrated the ranks of Emory's student activists and blackmailed the university’s President James W. Wagner, it could scarcely have orchestrated a spectacle more helpful to Trump’s prospects, or damaging to the values that protect vulnerable groups, than what they accomplished on their own this week. After someone wrote “Trump 2016” in colored chalk around campus, several dozen student demonstrators objected that the banal campaign message scared, upset, or offended them, and administrators responded by going Orwellian.

The Emory Wheel reports that Wagner will review footage from campus security cameras to uncover who made the chalkings. “He added that if they’re students, they will go through the conduct violation process,” the newspaper stated, “while if they are from outside of the University, trespassing charges will be pressed.” Ponder the precedent. An academic authority figure will use surveillance to track down and punish someone for urging support for a political candidate. If possible, he will marshal criminal law to do so. As Jesse Singal wrote at New York, that is “extremely creepy, and a sign that something has gone seriously wrong.”

Can you imagine how campus progressives would have reacted if a university president threatened to have someone punished or charged with trespassing for chalking “Obama 2012” or “Bernie 2016” on campus sidewalks? But these students see no need for viewpoint-neutral standards about politicking in presidential elections.

The shortsightedness of all involved is staggering. Set aside the brazen illiberalism of their actions and briefly consider this from a consequentialist perspective.

For starters, leftist activists are far more likely than anyone else to use sidewalk chalk and should be pushing to dispense with existing, rarely enforced campus regulations. The medium is unusually suited to the powerless, too: It is cheap, easy to use, and very hard to suppress. Yet they’re signing on to surveillance and punishment for chalk-wielding activism, as if it hasn’t even occurred to them that their allies stand to lose the most from future crackdowns, whereas Donald Trump 2016 could foreswear sidewalk chalk forever without suffering from it at all. I don’t know whether these students have an incoherent theory of how power works, or haven’t thought the matter through, but future leftist activists may rue their behavior.

What’s more, if the sidewalk-chalker is unmasked and punished, the effect will be to fuel the popularity of Trump 2016, not to undermine it. This is so obvious to everyone outside the bubble of campus leftism that I begin to wonder if activists at Emory don’t understand that, or just don’t actually care about outcomes beyond their bubble.

At ages 18 to 22, many of us were less able to see the world through the eyes of others than in earlier or later years. I find it easy to forgive college students, whether activists or otherwise, when they display that quality. It doesn’t make them bad people. Still, good people can harm important causes. I wish the ideological cohort that makes privilege so central to their analysis would expend more effort reflecting on this fact: Those on track to earn degrees from prestigious universities are unusual in their ability to indulge rhetoric and actions without reflecting on how they will be perceived by fellow citizens or undermine the rights of the powerless.

Put more simply: Please stop undermining #NeverTrump and the culture of free speech that will be especially vital if the billionaire with authoritarian tendencies is elected president.

Off campus, these students have managed to generate lots of incredulous coverage—and some open mockery—from the Washington Post, ABC News, Gawker, People Magazine, the Associated Press, CBS, The Week, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, The Daily Beast, and beyond. Has there ever been a more self-evidently counterproductive course willingly taken by activists than the one presently unfolding? Outsiders can only hope Emory's president doesn’t succeed in finding whoever wrote the messages and making a martyr out of a Trump supporter in media outlets that would in almost no other circumstances regard his partisans as victims of unfair treatment.

Already, other damage has been done. Earlier this week, I noted that a black student at UC Davis suffered a hate crime near campus. Three men were later arrested for the assault. Previously, I’ve highlighted the horrifying affects of NYPD spying on innocent Muslim students and the UC Berkeley riot police that turned batons on students. There is sometimes good reason for college students to be concerned about their physical safety on campus, and there are incidents of racism that do not threaten physical safety but are nevertheless abhorrent and understandably upsetting. When students react like this to the mere appearance of the name of a leading candidate in the middle of a presidential-election year, treating the most commonplace political advocacy as if it makes them unsafe, they create perverse incentives for invoking victimhood and deflate the currency of claimed trauma and offense.

* * *

After much searching, the most thoughtful defense of Emory’s student activists I could find came from Osita Nwanevu, a recent graduate of the University of Chicago and editor of the South Side Weekly. By way of background, he recently published a provocative Harper’s essay that casts today’s leftist campus protesters as intellectual inheritors of William F. Buckley and concluded that isn’t actually a bad thing.

About Emory, he said this:

Those Tweets gesture at a perceived contradiction: Lots of public intellectuals and journalists at outlets from Gawker to National Review regard Trump as a genuinely dangerous figure. Yet they mock students who feel frightened by support for the candidate.

For like-minded observers who perceive an inconsistency, let me try to explain why, even apart from consequentialist concerns, I don’t think the widespread backlash to Emory activists is contradictory, even among those who fear a Trump administration.

It is grounded in these premises:

  1. All Emory University students have been aware for months that they live amid lots of Donald Trump supporters. He is the leading contender for the Republican nomination. He easily won the GOP primary in the state of Georgia. The fact that one or two Trump supporters with access to chalk live close enough to Emory to write “Trump 2016” on their sidewalks is not new information. For that reason, most observers find it difficult to believe that these students are fearful or traumatized because they’re newly aware of living near Trump supporters and have concluded they’re not physically safe anymore.
  2. While the students are not literally afraid of chalk, they have given most observers the impression that they are more upset by the fact that someone in their community is speaking out in favor of Trump than the underlying reality of his base. That’s because they—not their critics—have made the chalking the subject of their activism. Doing so has reinforced the notion that college students are irrationally focused on policing what people say at the expense of confronting and grappling with whatever it is that people believe. As the editor of the student newspaper at Emory aptly countered, “Institutionally prohibiting an ignorant, hurtful or violent idea does not destroy it; it allows the idea to grow and worsen in the shadows, far from the moderating effects of public scrutiny. The best way to destroy an idea is to confront it.”
  3. Indeed, if it really had taken these chalk messages to awaken some Emory students to the fact that Trump may win the presidency and enjoys substantial support among Georgia residents, their appearance would have been salutary, insofar as they would’ve helped these students to confront an ugly reality while there is still time to organize and prevent Trump from winning.
  4. Meanwhile, most observers—even those, like myself, who fully see the vile racism and xenophobia that have characterized Trump’s campaign— understand that supporting Trump 2016 does not automatically make someone a racist or a xenophobe, never mind a threat to the safety of those around them. The seeming inability of students to understand that what it would mean for them to support Trump is not what many others mean by supporting Trump—that Americans support politicians for all sorts of complicated, irrational, contradictory, quirky, unexpected, or sui generis reasons—is a major failing on the part of the students themselves and their educators.
  5. This failure dramatically weakens the ability of these students to understand, engage with, and persuade Trump supporters in the upcoming election, and to participate more broadly in a civic system that depends, at some level, on overcoming the typical-mind fallacy. There are surely actual Trump voters on Emory’s campus. If the campus climate were different, perhaps they could be persuaded, in the course of discussion, to see the error of their ways. Do you think they’ll out themselves to fellow students now?
  6. And look at this passage in Wagner’s response to this controversey: “After meeting with these students, I cannot dismiss their expression of feelings and concern as motivated only by political preference or over-sensitivity. Instead, the students with whom I spoke heard a message, not about political process or candidate choice, but instead about values regarding diversity and respect that clash with Emory’s own.” In his formulation, the fact that they “heard a message” about “values regarding diversity” is somehow offered as if it proves that they aren’t motivated by “over-sensitivity.” But if someone were acting out of “over-sensivity” wouldn’t it logically be because they heard a message that wasn’t, in fact, there?  Wagner hasn’t yet put together a coherent explanation of his own thought process.

In a subsequent Tweet, Nwanevu wrote this:

Actually, the more cynical critics of progressive campus activists believe precisely that they are motivated by the relative power they now hold, not by truly feeling unsafe—in this telling, they are using their ideological clout on college campuses to punish speech they don’t like from people with less power in that space, and if the same ideological cohort ever attains power outside campus, it will try to suppress speech there, too. Lots of Trump supporters are motivated precisely by the belief that, without a guy like Trump to represent their tribe, their own speech will be suppressed.

But there is an even more direct rejoinder to Nwanevu’s claim: Emory activists who believe that they are being effective within the bubble of their campus are wrong.  The student newspaper editor, Zak Hudak, expressed his own aversion to Trump while pointing out the obvious unacceptability of suppressing “Trump 2016” advocacy.

On Yik Yak, a social media app popular among college students in large part because it permits anonymous speech, the Emory student reaction to the chalk controversy wasn’t mixed, as often happens when one views that platform during a campus controversy. It was clearly, overwhelmingly antagonistic to the student activists. Keep in mind that the content that follows, which went on for scroll after scroll, dominating the platform, was all posted within 1.5 miles of Emory’s campus:

Knowing that is the reaction in an enclave wildly more progressive than America as a whole, you’d think that the activists at Emory might change their approach.

In activist circles, being “a bad ally” is a serious charge.

And right now, Emory’s chalk-focused activists and its president are the worst allies imaginable for anti-Trumpism. They’re not just ineffective, they’re doing all harm and no good. They’re focused on how Trump supporters make them feel rather than opposing his rise as effectively as possible. And their abandonment of liberal values bolsters the false belief of Trump supporters that such values are only ever invoked cynically.

That is fuel for more illiberalism. And insofar as America becomes a zero-sum game to see who can do the most to suppress the speech of whom, the campus left will not win. Why aren’t more tenured faculty members who understand that speaking up?

Everyone who wants to see Trump and the pernicious trends he represents defeated in American life, or who doesn’t want to see future activists identified by surveillance footage and punished, should look to Emory for a case study in what not to do.

The liberal coalition can’t afford any more such self-indulgence.

This is an election season. If you live in a state that Trump could possibly win in a primary or general election, you can buy some chalk yourself. You can learn how to canvas and go door to door; volunteer at a phone bank; or pick a civil-liberties organization that protects the sorts of people that you regard as most vulnerable and see if you can volunteer on their behalf. There are dozens of things that would help weaken Trumpism. Fighting to persuade a university president to denounce and punish Trump supporters is not one of them.