Trumpism on campus marks a sinister change for political discourse

Erica Lee/Staff

It’s hard to think of many topics that are as boring to write about nowadays as Donald Trump’s temperament. Since January, the U.S. public has been inundated with a torrent of news stories about a bewildered television addict roaming the halls of the White House in his bathrobe. When he’s not ordering murderous Special Forces raids and tearing up families by executive order, he and Sean Spicer are both blabbering on about rogue judges, imagined wiretaps, chocolate cake or “the blood of our youth.”

That our president remains a self-aggrandizing, paranoid lout is no surprise to anyone who paid attention to him during the 2016 presidential campaign. By now, there is nothing more to say about the commander-in-chief’s personality. But a related question about our new era remains unanswered. How has the television star’s rise to power changed the temperament of our country?

Last year, when the American Right finally ruptured, I assumed that conservative organizations would be remade in Trump’s image. Naturally, the youngest and most ideologically malleable of these groups would be the first to go. A recent report about Yale’s College Republicans confirmed my early suspicions. Members of a graduate student union at the Ivy decided to go on hunger strike at the end of April. These demonstrators sought equal pay and adequate healthcare from a parsimonious administration. In response, the campus’s college Republicans barbecued a meal in the vicinity of the famished graduate students.

One could describe the barbecue as a backlash or a counter-demonstration. But these terms ascribe political content to a gesture that ultimately stood for nothing. Whereas a conception of distributive justice spurred the union into action, mere sadism motivated the young conservatives to torment their peers. Such shallowness is a hallmark of Trumpian conservatism. It brings to mind the candidate who cruelly ridiculed a disabled journalist. No high-minded ideal drove our president to mock that man. Trump was simply being nasty.

In contrast, here at UC Berkeley, members of the Berkeley College Republicans portray themselves as defenders of democratic values on an illiberal campus. They explain decisions to host widely loathed demagogues at our school through civic-minded press statements. According to their script, Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter would have enriched a desolate marketplace of ideas on campus — if only their speaking engagements had not been canceled.

This is theater. The exaggerated tone of the college Republicans’ bromides gives the game away. One spokesperson for the group remarked that Ann Coulter “is the perfect person to engage in” a debate on immigration. Perfect? Coulter is better known for her occasional anti-Semitic outbursts (“How many fucking Jews do these people think there are in the United States?”) than her grasp of immigration policy. Another campus Republican described the attempt by some to deny Coulter a platform as an “atrocity.” Oh my.

Look past the histrionics, and you will find nothing there. You will see that our discussions about bigots, such as Coulter and Yiannopoulos, tend to devolve into interminable debates about free speech and little else. You will begin to understand that some speech can only be defended as speech, because some speech lacks content. It is just contemptuous noise directed at students. Like their counterparts at Yale, our Berkeley College Republicans have internalized the president’s apolitical nastiness.

What’s more, the organization’s commitment to free speech (an essential right for everyone) is shallower than many realize. I think back to last September, when an undergraduate at our school tried to make a substantive contribution to a political debate on campus. The student designed a DeCal called “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis.” He drew on a wealth of scholarly material and took the time to put together a rich syllabus. Nevertheless, a creepy, anti-Palestine nonprofit called the AMCHA Initiative lead an effort to pressure the UC administration into shutting down his lectures. As far as I am aware, the Berkeley College Republicans made no show of solidarity with the imperiled student who designed the DeCal.

At times, it can seem like the facsimile liberalism of campus conservatives is little more than a convenient shield against moral censure. But there is more going on here. The congruity with Trump runs deep. Again, the Coulter debacle is instructive.

BridgeUSA is a centrist organization that cosponsored the canceled event. The founder of that group has since written that his erstwhile conservative allies “used the label of free speech as a tool for publicity.” His charge seems plausible. Watch a recent Berkeley College Republican press conference about the Coulter incident. Shameless self-promotion is an essential element of the spectacle.

But then, so is genuine indignation. How does one explain sincere outrage in the absence of a deep commitment to any political principle? Moral vanity is the culprit. It intoxicates the college Republicans and many others in their movement. Matt Christman describes the Trumpian conservative’s frame of mind as such: “If everyone hates me that means that I’m right. … (That) is proof that (my) ideas are too much for the mob.”

The Berkeley College Republicans certainly encountered its fair share of hatred over the past year. Protesters and vandals denounced and harangued the campus conservatives during a semester of tumult. With each successive riot, the college Republicans became more certain that their “cause” was just. And every step of the way, television cameras rolled to capture the drama unfolding on campus.

Faced with jeers, the crass entertainer gets lost in his character. Lines are blurred. And politics becomes reality TV.

Michael Youhana is a UC Berkeley law student.

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  • Man with Axe

    You wrote: “How does one explain sincere outrage in the absence of a deep commitment to any political principle? Moral vanity is the culprit.”

    Not only do you presume to have the moral authority to determine whom the College Republicans should invite to speak, you also stand in judgment of their commitment to political principles, which, if you don’t share them, you find to be unworthy.

    You truly are a man among men.

    • my constitutional issues

      thanks, i know

  • ESPM360

    Michel Youhana. Can you please provide a list of acceptable conservative speakers that you will allow to speak on campus?

  • roccolore

    The College Democrats hate free speech. Anti-fa = ISIS

  • AlanSutton6

    What a boring, pointless op-ed, devoid of any interesting insights, wit, or anything else. “There is some grand standing on the part of a college political organization.” zzzzzzzz. The guy is a law student, but it seems he has nothing to say about the interesting legal and constitutional issues involved in these cases. Basically the guy wants us to know that like 99% of the people he knows, he doesn’t like Trump much. Where did you find such a boring person? And his writing is even poor.

    • my constitutional issues

      u seem mad

      • SecludedCompoundTTYS

        You seem clueless? He seems more confused but if calling someone mad makes you feel like his point is any less valid, you do you!

        • my constitutional issues

          u seem more mad

          • lspanker

            U seem to be a silly troll.

          • my constitutional issues

            u seem mad too

          • SecludedCompoundTTYS

            more sad than mad

  • antifa is throwing firebombs and beating old men over the head with sticks and you worry about the berkeley college republicans organizing talks and speeches? call us when the college republicans are marching around with the same kinds of weapons as antifa and then I’ll consider listening to you.

    • SolvingProb

      Antifa are not college students (nor are the alt-rights, proud boys, etc.) I don’t see why/how you are comparing BCR’s action to Antifa’s. I’m against both.

      • what has bcr done wrong? Since when should one be held accountable for others being offended at what one says? besides what have bcr and their guests said that is so inflammatory besides advocating the proper enforcement of federal immigration law?

        • SolvingProb

          BCR has done a lot of “wrong” things – some of which were outlined in this article. But I thought we were discussing your comments about Antifa. Antifa is not a group on-campus. In my opinion, you cannot compare BCR’s action (as this article is doing) with Antifa’s – Apples and Orange. That’s all I was implying.

          • lspanker

            In other words, no specifics. You simply don’t like Trump, end of story.

          • SolvingProb

            I definitely do not like Trump for a variety of reasons. But again, the discussion was around BCR and Antifa.

          • SecludedCompoundTTYS

            wow, so you obviously don’t know anything, keep on keeping on young naive gun!

          • SolvingProb

            Haha – I’m probably older than you. Anything specific you think I don’t know?

          • SecludedCompoundTTYS

            Oh how old are you? 32? you probably think that’s so old! Go read some Wikipedia articles followed up with some biased news articles are you be woke!

          • SolvingProb

            Add about a decade to it. But why are you attacking me directly? We were discussing Antifa.

          • SecludedCompoundTTYS

            Because you sound naive and out of touch with reality.

          • SolvingProb

            So anyone who is naive or out of touch, you just attack them? That’s your strategy? How about instead, we discuss with facts? That’s what responsible adults do. Again, we were discussing antifa. Let’s not make this about personal attacks.

          • SecludedCompoundTTYS

            because you cant argue with someone who is out of touch with reality and super naive. They shift the goal post and think they know better than you. This article is a biased and downright stupid. Not sure what facts you want to talk about?!

          • SolvingProb

            Let’s start with the ground rule of not attacking one another (which frankly is all you’ve done.) It’s immature. You have no idea who I am. But you kept calling me: “Naive”, “Out of touch.” I have no idea who you are. And I still have no idea why you have to make it personal.

            With regards to this article – yes, it’s the view-point of the author against BCR. You can disagree with it.

      • barnesto

        not sure if you read the same site you’re publishing on, but here is an op-ed from May 1st, two weeks prior.

        “With that out of the way: Hello, UC Berkeley! We are those anti-fascists you’ve heard so much about recently. Let us introduce ourselves. Some of us are your fellow UC Berkeley students, while others are Berkeley City College students, UC Berkeley alumni or members of the Berkeley community.”

        • SolvingProb

          I’ve read that. I’m not sure what your point is.

          • barnesto

            you read what you write, yes?

            “Antifa are not college students (nor are the alt-rights, proud boys, etc.)”

          • SolvingProb

            I thought you were referring to my comment later in the discussion. My mistake. I cannot argue against it. I do believe it has to be extremely limited.