Back in March of this year, President Donald Trump signed an Executive Order to protect “free speech” on college campuses which receive federal funds. At the signing ceremony, surrounded by conservative students, his words revealed that the order was motivated by something far less lofty than abstract constitutional principles: “Today we’re delivering a strong message to the professors and power structures trying to suppress dissent and keep young Americans–and all Americans, not just young Americans–from challenging far-left ideology.” The Order was the brainchild of Charlie Kirk, head of the right-wing student group Turning Point USA, who celebrated its signature in an equally partisan vein. “Today’s executive order,” he proclaimed, “is the culmination of Turning Point USA’s tireless work to break the left’s stranglehold on campus…”
Trump’s recent Executive Order on anti-semitism–also aimed at college campuses–should be viewed in the same partisan context as his March directive. That is, it is less a high-minded stand against discrimination and more the latest salvo in his culture war against the left and its perceived institutional homes. It also marks a doubling-down on the Administration’s deployment of anti-semitism to nurture and coddle Trump’s right-wing base at universities.
The practical impact of these culture war orders remains unclear. As even some of his critics on the right pointed out, the March Executive Order had few teeth in terms of enforcement, and most of its language is focused on giving students “transparency” in the form of a cost-benefit analysis of degree programs. Similarly, in regard to the more recent order, Sam Bagenstos of the University of Michigan Law School has called its language a “nothingburger” in the sense that it did not meaningfully change the law while cautioning that it could have a real impact in terms of its application.
Be that as it may, one has to wonder what’s going on when a President who couldn’t find it in himself to properly condemn the neofascists who marched across the University of Virginia campus shouting “Jews will not replace us!” now signs an order seeking to penalize colleges for not clamping down on anti-semitism. One could also marvel that the same person who founded the fraudulent Trump University and who has repeatedly blocked oversight on federal student loan called upon colleges to increase transparency about their degree programs, and for the benefit of federally-financed students no less.
There’s more than mere hypocrisy at work here since the charge of hypocrisy would assume a level of good faith around issues of free speech, transparency, and even anti-semitism. Instead, the administration’s apparent contradictions reveal a fixation on the ‘higher principle’ of sticking it to the left, perceived by Trump and his acolytes to run and manage universities. This control, so the argument goes, has turned colleges into nurseries that coddle oversensitive students with trigger warnings and safe spaces. As Trump stated at the signing ceremony for his Executive Order in March, “Under the guise of speech codes, and safe spaces, and trigger warnings, these universities have tried to restrict free thought, impose total conformity and shut down the voices of great young Americans.”
At many colleges and universities, the majority of students can hold liberal leanings on most issues, as do faculty in the humanities and social sciences. In such environments, conservative students may get pushback and face social pressure for expressing their views, and this should be acknowledged. But social pressure is not a First Amendment issue. The First Amendment protects individuals from government censorship, thus social pressure only rises to the level of a First Amendment issue when students–left or right–are actually punished, denied platforms, or sanctioned by university officials for expressing their political views. Though the right has made much of a few isolated incidents, such overt censorship is extremely rare. As Montana Governor Steve Bullock stated when he vetoed a proposed free speech law for colleges in his state, “a solution in search of a problem." The challenge that many conservative students face is that of being in a political minority, not a protected class. This certainly does not merit its own safe space.
At the risk of sounding alarmist, it is important for students, faculty, and university staff to realize how they are discussed in the comment sections of right-wing forums like Breitbart, where words like “cleansing” and “purging” are not uncommon in reference to those of us who work and study in higher education. For certain portions of Trump’s white nationalist base, it’s enough that the President is seen trying to punish their enemies, regardless of whether or not any real punishment gets meted out. Trump’s telling aside from his March directive–that it was designed to protect “all Americans, not just young Americans” suggests that his off-campus base might, in fact, be the real audience for his college-targeting signing ceremonies.
With the new Executive Order on anti-semitism, the Trump administration is trying to appeal beyond the Trump base for its culture war. With some success, it has now exploited a bi-partisan rejection within Washington D.C. (with a few exceptions like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib) of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), and a fear that colleges will also become safe spaces for far-ranging critiques of Israeli policy.
Among University students, Trump seeks to win votes and build momentum among four groups, some of whom overlap: College Republicans, already enthusiastic about the President and increasingly radicalized; Christian Zionists, who Trump has already courted by moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem; white nationalists, increasingly active on U.S. campuses; and Jewish students.
Indeed, the endeavor to define Jewish people as a “race” afforded protections under Title VI under the Civil Rights Act does two kinds of work for candidate Trump: it offers symbolic support to Jewish students while smuggling in ethnonationalist longings by white nationalists who seek Israel as a model for a state that can proclaim a singular national and ethnoreligious identity. Indeed, by peddling George Soros conspiracies and the trope of “cultural Marxism,” white nationalist movements across the globe have used the classic anti-Semitic trope of the Judeo-Bolshevik myth. At the same time, they put forth Israel as an icon of determined, ethno-religious nationalism in the war against Islam, thereby enacting a “Good Jews/Bad Jews” dynamic that shields them from charges of anti-semitism (in the United States, this strategy is at least as old as the anti-Semitic radio priest Charles Coughlin).
These aspirations coalesce in the Executive Order’s stigmatization or punishment of those who would criticize Israel–or by extension American support for it. For example, the order promises to use the IHRA classification of “Contemporary Examples of Anti-Semitism” in evaluating anti-semitism on campus. These include such broad formulations as “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” and “Applying double standards by requiring of it (Israel) a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” Such vague wording could make virtually any criticism of Israel–for example for its Knesset Law, making those who support BDS subject to civil lawsuits–liable to charges of anti-semitism.
Similarly, the Order attempts to undercut arguments by groups like Students for Justice in Palestine who specifically charge that the state of Israel discriminates against Palestinians by de facto defining Israel as a Jewish state and Jews globally as its racial citizenry, thereby making all criticism of Israel anti-semitic. Indeed, even Kenneth Stern, who authored the definition of anti-semitism upon which the Trump Administration has now based its Executive Order, has argued that it is being distorted not to protect Jews, but to suppress free speech. As Stern noted in a recent Guardian article, “If you think this isn’t about suppressing political speech, contemplate a parallel. There’s no definition of anti-black racism that has the force of law when evaluating a title VI case. If you were to craft one, would you include opposition to affirmative action? Opposing removal of Confederate statues?"
The Executive Order thus “theorizes” upward what has been the Trump administration’s informal approach to campus political issues like the growth of the BDS. Prior to the passage of the Executive Order, Trump’s Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos had declared without evidentiary argument that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement constituted a “pernicious threat” and that BDS “stands for anti-semitism." This Executive Order seeks to wipe BDS out entirely.
Just this September, the Administration foreshadowed its most recent Executive Order strategy by threatening to withhold funds from the Middle East Studies programs at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and Duke University if it did not present a more “positive” view of Christianity and Judaism in its curricula.
As the New York Times reported on the matter, the administration’s complaint argued that too few of Duke and UNC programs emphasized, “the historic discrimination faced by, and current circumstances of, religious minorities in the Middle East, including Christians, Jews, Baha’is, Yazidis, Kurds, Druze and others.” Notably absent from this roster of religious minorities are Muslims–in the United States or from Palestine–who happen to comprise a significant portion of groups like Students for Justice in Palestine, and the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Movement.
Yet beyond the stifling of criticism and critics of Israel, there are broader implications to the recent Trump Executive Orders for college campuses. On December 11th, Inside Higher Education reported that Georgia Southern University had recently defended as “free speech” a classroom presentation by a student advocating a theory of white supremacy. The University also defended as “free speech” a group of students who burned a copy of Make Your Home Among Strangers, a novel by a Latinx author, Jennine Capo Crucet, that had been made required reading for Georgia Southern freshman. The burning occurred after Crucet challenged white students at the University to “think about their whiteness” as a form of privilege. This incident not only highlights behavior that passes itself off as free speech. It also points to how Trump supporters are the ones who create this speech. Further, it points to the fact that Trump feels no need to give the force of law to a definition of racism or white supremacy that could be used to sanction universities for such displays precisely in the way that his order on anti-semitism threatens to do for those advocating for Palestinians.
It is clear that ideas about what constitutes both free speech, and racism, are being selectively applied and interpreted by both the Trump Administration, and University officials. Universities are being asked and pressured to police criticism of Israel, but not other forms of racism. White supremacy is being given a pass, while Students for Justice in Palestine and critics of Israel are being subject to close surveillance.
Students and scholars across the country who are truly committed to fighting both must see through the subtext of Trump’s Executive Orders. We cannot let “free speech” be hijacked to justify either repression of political dissent against the state of Israel’s policies towards Palestinians, or the promulgation of new varieties of fascism.