The College Protests Were Part of a Perfect Trap. Everyone Fell Right Into It—Again. (2024)

Politics

A time-honored tactic by right-wing agitators brought on the “crisis” on American campuses. Everyone fell for it—again.

By Justin Peters

The College Protests Were Part of a Perfect Trap. Everyone Fell Right Into It—Again. (1)

In 2001, a Vietnam-era student radical named David Horowitz decided to once again start causing trouble on campus. A few years earlier, several scholars and activists had begun to argue that the U.S. should pay reparations to descendants of slaves. Horowitz, whose politics had taken a sharp right turn since the 1960s, thought that this was a very bad idea. So he contacted several college newspapers, seeking to place a full-page ad, during Black History Month, titled, “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery Is a Bad Idea—and Racist Too.”

The ad, which had been adapted from a Salon column he had published the previous year, seemed designed to stir passions on the campuses where it ran. In it, Horowitz deemed reparations “an extravagant new handout that is only necessary because some blacks can’t seem to locate the ladder of opportunity within reach of others”; argued that “the reparations claim is one more assault on America, conducted by racial separatists and the political left”; and asked the question: “What about the debt blacks owe to America?”

Horowitz’s inflammatory arguments were not very well received. Many of the newspapers to which Horowitz submitted the ad rejected it entirely. At Brown University, angry students stole thousands of newspapers in which the ad had been printed. At the University of California, Berkeley, students marched on the offices of the student newspaper, prompting its editor in chief to publicly apologize for running the ad in the first place. The mainstream media soon picked up on the furor, and the ensuing press attention ended up making all of the students involved look like twits, while giving Horowitz exponentially more attention than the ads alone would have in the first place.

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Perceptive observers surmised that this had been his goal all along. In addition to his position on reparations, Horowitz also harbored a grudge against American academia, which he had reportedly called “a dictatorship of the left.” (He has since written several books expounding on that tendentious thesis.) The polemical advertisem*nt was clearly designed not to engage in good faith with the notion of reparations, but to elicit isolated intemperate reactions among campus activists. Then, Horowitz could use those reactions to advance the notion that all of academia was biased and intolerant, while he, the author of books such as Hating Whitey and Other Progressive Causes and The Politics of Bad Faith: The Radical Assault on America’s Future, came across as the righteous party. Hell of a trick!

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I thought about the Horowitz reparations hubbub this week, as I watched cops march on college campuses all across the country, charged with clearing encampments of students and others who were protesting the grim excesses of Israel’s war in the Gaza Strip. Lots of people have written lots of things about the Gaza campus protests, the various official responses to them, the validity of the arguments being advanced, and the relative merits of the tactics being used to advance and/or squelch those arguments. But no matter your opinion on any of these topics, no matter what you might think about the protests and how they’ve played out, I suspect that everyone can probably agree on at least one thing: No one in the history of the universe is more easily rolled by bad-faith right-wing agitators than college students, professors, and administrators.

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Whenever conservative demagogues are looking for patsies and suckers to help them make the left look like fools while advancing some stupid reactionary talking point, they know exactly where to turn: the sun-dappled quads of American academia. Students, professors, and administrators consistently fall into traps set by right-wing political actors, traps that are generally designed to use isolated incidents of alleged identitarian excess on campus in order to disparage liberalism more generally, thus sending swing voters into the all-American arms of whichever sturdy Republican candidates are up for election that year. Colleges and universities are the American right’s absolute favorite punching bag, because their denizens never see the uppercut coming, and they never, ever learn to sidestep the blow. They’re like the Washington Generals: They lose, lose, lose, lose, lose.

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Spinning alleged campus excesses into a broader political narrative of liberal chaos and disorder has been a favorite conservative tactic since at least the late 1960s, when Main Street disapproval of the youth-driven protests over the Vietnam War helped to narrowly deliver the 1968 presidential election to an anthropomorphic sheet of sandpaper named Richard Nixon. Modern-day right-wing media have basically built their brand on the backs of left-wing students and professors, whose minor protests and marginal curricula have been consistently inflated into Major Issues by commentators eager to disparage academia and liberalism more generally. The contemporary Republican notion that America is on the brink of collapse is in large part a culture-war trope propagated by activists such as Christopher Rufo, who have spun their own willful misinterpretations of obscure academic disciplines such as critical race theory into boogeymen with which to terrify viewers and voters into thinking that their heritage is under direct attack.

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It’s not hard to understand why the reactionary right bears such a grudge against academia. For one thing, the collegiate spirit of free inquiry and rational debate flies directly in the face of Trumpian because-we-said-so authoritarianism, not to mention the begged questions and other logical fallacies that animate modern Republican discourse. The identity-based disciplines found at many schools threaten a reactionary worldview rooted in the purported superiority of some monochromatic past; many on the religious right, meanwhile, seem to see heresy in the ways that liberal arts educations try to teach students to think for themselves. And I have long suspected that some of today’s most stridently disingenuous Republican pundits and politicians are motivated in part by bad memories of their own college years, in which they felt isolated within their own conservative worldviews and subsequently transmuted those feelings into seething lifelong resentments.

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Or, hey, maybe they’re just political opportunists who know that collegiate actors will consistently make the sorts of moves that allow the right to portray them as fools. There was probably a bit of all of this working on New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik when, a few months ago, she hauled various university presidents into Congress, insisted that certain student protesters’ use of the word “intifada” and phrase “from the river to the sea” directly equated to calls for genocide, and then watched them fumble their responses in truly embarrassing fashion.

The subsequent resignations of the presidents of Penn and Harvard, respectively, were unforced errors on the parts of highly educated people who, first, should have more directly challenged Stefanik’s partisan premises, and, second, should have probably realized that the en vogue campus notion that speech sometimes equates to violence would eventually be co-opted by right-wingers eager to exploit campus unrest for their own political gain. (I’m often reminded of how, back when the rise of the social web was leading a lot of otherwise-smart people to profess that the internet would soon bring about a state of digital utopia, the writer Evgeny Morozov kept making a very trenchant point that almost nobody wanted to hear: Bad people know how to use the internet, too.) The scalps of Liz Magill and Claudine Gay were nice trophies for the ambitious Stefanik, who is rumored to be in contention for Donald Trump’s vice presidential slot. But the hearings and subsequent leadership turnover also helped to promote the narrative of widespread chaos on campus—a narrative that’s a boon to Republicans in an election year.

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So it wasn’t much of a surprise when Congress held a second round of hearings about alleged campus antisemitism. And it wasn’t much of a surprise when, eager to avoid the fate of her former peers, Columbia University president Nemat Shafik seemed directly receptive to her inquisitors’ premises and took a harder-line stance against alleged campus antisemitism than did her predecessors. And it also wasn’t surprising, when, in direct response to Shafik’s testimony, Columbia students set up a protest encampment on the lawn outside Butler Library, which was followed by multiple police actions, complementary protests at other schools nationwide, and the flood of media attention that has turned this manufactured campus crisis into front-page national news for weeks on end.

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For the purposes of this column, let’s set aside questions of the merits of the protests and the various police and administration responses to them. It’s incredibly obvious—to me, at least—that pretty much all of the relevant parties here got rolled by the American right. On the hunt for footage and storylines that they can then inflate into broader narratives of chaos, intolerance, and disorder in a critical election year, the right spun campus protests over Gaza into congressional hearings on campus antisemitism, and trusted that everyone involved would respond so ineptly that they’d be able to exploit the whole thing for months.

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And, mark my words, that is exactly what right-wing politicians and media outlets will do. Even though the campus protests may die down once the semester ends, the footage and discussion of them will live on throughout the spring and summer. The right will draw false equivalencies between the brief occupation of Hamilton Hall and the events of Jan. 6; they’ll disparage President Joe Biden and liberal politicians for “allowing” the protests to happen; they’ll fold it into deathless narratives of decaying liberal cities and elitist intolerance; and they’ll make everyone involved look like idiots while portraying themselves as the righteous parties—the heroes of this whole stupid situation. David Horowitz is probably very proud.

  • College
  • History
  • Israel
  • Protests
  • Republicans
  • Palestine

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The College Protests Were Part of a Perfect Trap. Everyone Fell Right Into It—Again. (2024)

FAQs

Were Vietnam college protests violent? ›

The Vietnam War demonstrations were often quite violent, although certainly not all of them. They were also famous for taking over campus buildings, staging “sit-ins” and all other manner of disruption, and after all, that is the entire point of the demonstration.

What were the college protests in 1960? ›

Student activist Marco Savio founded and led the Free Speech Movement, which spread across college campuses. Between 1960 and 1966, students initially protested civil rights, property, and campus issues before becoming active in the antiwar movement at the height of the Vietnam War.

What happened at the protests on college campuses in 1970? ›

The most prolific university protest of the Vietnam War happened at Kent State University in Ohio in May 1970. Students started protesting the Vietnam War and the U.S. invasion of Cambodia on their campus on May 2. Two days later, the National Guard opened fire into a sea of antiwar protesters and passerbys.

What role did student protests play in ending the Vietnam War? ›

A central aim of campus protests during the Vietnam War was to end the military draft. The call to end the draft was a concrete, specific goal that had a direct impact on students' lives, making the protests highly pragmatic and immediately relevant.

Did the Vietnam War end because of protests? ›

Fifty years ago, the Vietnam War was at the beginning of the end. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, massive protests around the United States made clear how unpopular the war had become. In 1973, a treaty was finally signed during the Paris Peace Accords to end the war.

Why was the antiwar movement especially strong at colleges? ›

Answer and Explanation: In the 1960s, the Antiwar Movement was especially strong at colleges due to fears over the draft at the potential of being forced to fight in the Vietnam War. While male college students received a deferment from the draft, this could be taken away if they failed classes.

Are student protests effective? ›

In the Bay Area and around the nation, such protesters were instrumental in creating ethnic studies programs, cementing free speech policies, curbing tuition hikes and protecting civil rights. They've carried banners to end wars, fought repressive government regimes and rallied for educational reforms.

When did the college protests start in 2024? ›

List of pro-Palestinian protests on university campuses in the United States in 2024
DateApril 17, 2024 – present (1 month, 3 weeks and 1 day)
LocationUnited States
GoalsUniversities divestment from Israel
MethodsProtests Civil disobedience Occupation Lawsuit Picketing Stand-up strikes Hunger strike Civil disorder
2 more rows

Why are students protesting in America? ›

The current protests face additional obstacles because they seek to promote Palestinian rights and to stop Israeli genocidal crimes. Never before have the rights of Palestinians or the criminal militarism of Israel been at the heart of nationwide protests in the United States.

When did college protests start? ›

History. In the West, student protests such as strikes date to the early days of universities in the Middle Ages, with some of the earliest being the University of Oxford strike of 1209, and the University of Paris strike of 1229, which lasted two years.

Why did Americans not support the Vietnam War? ›

Many Americans opposed the war on moral grounds, appalled by the devastation and violence of the war. Others claimed the conflict was a war against Vietnamese independence or an intervention in a foreign civil war; others opposed it because they felt it lacked clear objectives and appeared to be unwinnable.

What college did the first sit in protesters attend? ›

The sit-ins started on 1 February 1960, when four black students from North Carolina A & T College sat down at a Woolworth lunch counter in downtown Greensboro, North Carolina.

How did college students protest the Vietnam War? ›

All of them worked together to form a new Left, a group that occupied buildings, held protests, scheduled Teach-Ins and destroyed their draft cards to protest the war in Vietnam and push for civil and women's rights. Twenty-five of these students, faculty and staff will return to campus Nov.

How many colleges protested Vietnam? ›

That event, combined with Nixon's invasion of Cambodia, led to protests at more than 1,300 college campuses, with some 500 closed by student and faculty strikes. ROTC facilities were attacked, and police and National Guard troops were dispatched to more than a hundred colleges.

How many people were killed in the Vietnam protests? ›

On 4 May 1970, four students were shot dead by the National Guard during a Vietnam War protest at Kent State University. The shocking incident still resonates as a seminal moment in modern US history. Warning: This article contains a video with images that some people may find distressing.

What were the violent protests during the Vietnam War? ›

The October 1967 Pentagon riot, the first national protest against the war, exemplified the agonizingly divisive debate over Vietnam. Ironically, the demonstrators helped the federal government confirm its own commitment to civilian control. Civilian Deputy Marshals, not soldiers, arrested them.

Was the Vietnam Revolution violent? ›

As such, this prolonged period of political violence in Vietnam holds a strong position in history that is indispensable when analyzing the common features of revolutions.

What did college students at the university of Michigan do to protest the Vietnam War? ›

Sit-ins, forums, and take-overs of university buildings are just three examples of how students used their protesting capabilities to oppose the continuation and advancement of the Vietnam War on their campus.

Which university saw four students died during violent protests against the Vietnam War? ›

Fifty-four years ago, four students were shot by the National Guard during an anti-Vietnam War protest at Kent State university in Ohio – a tragedy that still resonates today. As these BBC Archive clips show, the events symbolised political and cultural divides across the US at the time.

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