What would happen if you put groups of hard-core Trump supporters and leftie campus activists together in a locked room with an open bar? Shouting matches and bulging neck veins, for sure. Perhaps a punch or two. A kumbaya circle of newfound kinship at the end? Possibly.
I have a theory — or at least a hunch. These antagonistic movements are steered by similar pathologies: feeling threatened, unsafe, resentful and in a mood to punish. These are not idealistic crusades. They are defensive.
I have spent a good deal of time trying to understand these radically different political currents, for different reasons.
Trump’s staying power and the appeal of his meanest, darkest pronouncements have burst any conceit that I had a decent feel for American politics. I have had to do extra homework.
Most grown-ups have no reason to pay attention to campus politics, though they’ve been in the news lately. I spend a lot of time with very observant college students and recent grads. I’m curious and confused about the big campus arguments.
Generally a fan of anything anti-authoritarian, I have a visceral distaste for the rhetoric of “post-politically correct” campus activism. The politics of trigger warnings, micro-aggressions, safe spaces, speaker bans and policing language is illiberal and censorious.
I have less empathy for Trump’s supporters. However legitimate their grievances, they are supporting a reckless parasite. He peddles lies, insults, slurs, accusations and racism, and then lies some more. He seems to get off on it.
This appeals to a chunk of mostly white, male Republicans at the lower end of the education scale (at least in early polls; we’ll see about real elections soon). Ronald Reagan converted many Democrats from this group 35 years ago. Their economic well-being has deteriorated relentlessly since.
Donald Trump is the first guy to give a defiant middle finger to the crowd that was supposedly looking out for the “forgotten middle class” — the Republican Party. Trump insults both the GOP “establishment” and the Tea Party “maniacs,” and he uses as much venom as he spits on Democrats, Mexicans, Muslims, reporters and other losers. The nastier the bluster, the bigger his bandwagon.
Are Trump’s true believers as racist, sexist, xenophobic and bellicose as Trump’s campaign? I hope not. But they aren’t turned off by it and that is bad enough.
Trumpism and Trumpistas fit a pattern of right-wing populism familiar in our history and Europe’s. They talk like they’re under siege, furious over their diminished security, prospects and status. They see themselves as the real underdogs, the real victims. They aren’t much interested in the sob stories of “less American” groups. They are disgusted by “the system” and in a mood to punish.
Similar fears and social anxieties, I suggest, are driving the current style of student activism.
It is preoccupied with safety and protection, physical but, even more, emotional. It seems more driven by insecurity than idealism. Colleges are asked to issue “trigger warnings” when presenting material that might be upsetting to students — for any imaginable reason. Commonplace words, phrases and behaviors are called out as offensive micro-aggressions even if there is no whiff of malice.
“The current movement is largely about emotional well-being,” Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt wrote in a controversial article in the Atlantic, “The Coddling of the American Mind.” Unlike prior student movements, “it presumes an extraordinary fragility of the collegiate psyche, and therefore elevates the goal of protecting students from psychological harm.” It wants to vanquish “words and ideas that make some uncomfortable.” And “this movement seeks to punish anyone who interferes with that aim, even accidentally.”
The authors have various theories about root causes of a movement they see as more pathological than philosophical.
Today’s students grew up with less independence and more hand-holding than their elders, but against an ominous backdrop of 9/11, a huge recession and ridiculous politics. Social media and online life can stir up the same kind of groupthink and herd bonding as real, live groups, but they are always available, always online. And the anonymity of virtual communication, unchecked by eye contact, can enable mean, rude and aggressive behavior worse than playground teasing.
As with Trump’s followers, I don’t think many students are as illiberal and intolerant as the extreme rhetoric of post-political correctness. Unlike Trump’s creed, campus movements do have elements of altruism and concern for underdogs, minorities and the vulnerable. Sexual violence on campus is a real problem; laws and rules don’t remove everyday racist and homophobic attitudes and students are right to look for new ways to protest.
It is easy to lampoon their arguments and demands, but it’s more important to understand their deeper anxieties.
Whatever the causes, today’s campus politics have the wonderful zealotry of youth, but the underlying quest for safety and control is more fitting for a nursing home.
Trigger warnings and Trump’s demagoguery minister to similar anxieties. Maybe it’s just a phase.