Emory University is an unlikely site for a reckoning between two competing societal visions that are in many ways more alike than they are dissimilar. It is, nevertheless, a perfect venue for a convergence of the ideas for which Donald Trump’s supporters stand and the repressive uniformity adopted by the “safe space” movement on American college campuses.
Druid Hills, the Georgia neighborhood where Emory is situated, is one of the most affluent suburbs on the East Coast. As a college with an over $6.5 billion endowment and with an estimated individual total tuition and boarding cost of approximately $63,000 per year, students who have the luxury – yes, luxury – of finding themselves hermetically sealed within this ivory-shrouded institution are among the most fortunate on earth. Fortune, it seems, breeds fragility. Emory’s students and its faculty appear intent on confirming that the collegiate Mason jars into which the nation consigns and preserves childhood are representative of a stultifying cultural rot.
It is important to note that the “safe space” movement on American college campuses is made up of a minority of students. Those undergraduates just happen to be the squeakiest wheels on campus, and their instructors have done them no favors by indulging their fantasies of victimization. The latest infantile bout of invented trauma to which campus administrators pandered is the notion that Donald Trump’s mere existence is, to borrow an expression, a “micro-aggression.”
Earlier this week, Emory students awoke to discover the name “Trump” and a few vacuous Trumpist slogans etched into campus sidewalks in perfectly delible chalk. The resulting apoplexy from students was as predictable as it was mortifying – less for the students, though, and more for their school. Only a modest uprising of illiberal students appealed to the remedies that have become synonymous with intellectual sequestration; “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces,” and the like. Many, including myself, have made it quite clear that Donald Trump knows exactly what he is doing when he refuses to condemn the KKK and indulges the fancy that he might pay the legal fees of one of his supporters who sucker punched an African-American protester. They are representative of who Donald Trump believes are his base (a low estimation of one’s supporters, indeed), and he will not alienate any of them. The response to “Trump 2016” written in chalk on a sidewalk from some of Emory’s liberal student organizations was, however, by no means proportional to the challenge it represented.
In a message to the student body, a group of student organizations dubbed the chalk art “vandalism.” “Supporting him, repeating his catchphrases, and arguing for his plausibility as the leader of the free world has become a threat to our democracy and an implicit attack on the Muslim, Latinx [sic], Black, and other communities at Emory and across the country,” a statement from this group of student organizations read. “This is not political expression; this is hate speech.”
“After meeting with our students, I cannot dismiss their expression of feelings and concern as motivated only by political preference or over-sensitivity,” said Jim Wagner, Emory’s president, after meeting with the irreparably traumatized students who were privy to the chalk slogans. The University president pledged to conduct a thorough investigation into the incident, identify the student or students responsible for this egregious offense, and charge them with a “conduct violation,” whatever that means.
The impulse among students to perceive themselves literal victims of speech is not new. Nor is the ill-advised legitimacy bestowed upon them by the administrators they hold captive especially unique. A nasty antipathy toward free speech rages like a wildfire within the next generation, and it has been indulged for too long by their elders. This phenomenon is the natural culmination of a society-wide determination to grant virtue to those who are victimized, whether that victimization is real or merely perceived. What started as laudable sympathy became authority. Genuine victims of violence, discrimination, or even simple adversity are surely due some recompense. From this generally accepted notion of justice sprang the ideal of “social justice,” which has become the partial, subjective, funhouse mirror version of the equitable restitution associated with real justice. Today, anyone with a claim to victim status, however dubious, enjoys new and valuable purchase with those in positions of authority. They are deemed righteous, with few questions asked lest the questioner be attacked for gas-lighting the victim. As the demand for victim status has proliferated, so has the supply.
These students and their enablers are content to indulge a persecution complex, but so, too, are Donald Trump and his supporters. These two disparate groups see in one another wildly divergent traits and incompatible worldviews. Their distinctions are, though, less conspicuous than they appear to believe. As studies have shown, Trump supporters, too, perceive themselves to be the victims of circumstance and of the callous indifference – or worse – of the upper echelons of society. They do not believe they have a voice in the political system. They perceive themselves to be beset by “outsiders,” and those who would seek to not only stifle their right to speech but thought. The psychologist Dr. Joseph Burgo noted that Trump has the propensity to dub himself and his supporters victims – of political correctness, of cheap migrant labor, of skillful Chinese negotiators, of a cast of politicians in Washington who have betrayed their own people, et cetera. Theirs is a movement that demands amends for myriad offenses. They seek their validation as bona fide victims, and they want revenge.
In a now famous study for the University of Massachusetts, Ph. D. candidate Matthew MacWilliams sought to identify in Trump supporters some common traits. “Running a standard statistical analysis, I found that education, income, gender, age, ideology, and religiosity had no significant bearing on a Republican voter’s preferred candidate,” MacWilliams wrote. “Only two of the variables I looked at were statistically significant: authoritarianism, follow by fear of terrorism, though the former was far more significant than the latter.”
That trait – authoritarianism — is evident every time a Trump supporter heeds their leader’s call and throws a punch at a protester. That trait is evident each time the press pen at a Trump rally is besieged by menacing figures who hurl insults and threats at reporters and lead them to honestly fear for their safety. Trump backers have claimed that the very fact the celebrity candidate’s rallies draw protesters who harass and verbally abuse his fans is yet another confirmation of the legitimacy of their victimhood. The sad fact is that the agitating leftists who descend on Trump events and the aggressive nationalists who confront them are more alike than they are different.
Of course, the resistance to this message from both Trump supporters and the most dedicated proponents of the “safe space” movement will be understandably strong. Neither will appreciate this comparison much, as is to be expected, and there are obviously reasonable and rational Trump supporters as there are left-of-center college students. The easily “triggered” and tyrannical student body, who would rather throw the fire alarm than allow their peers to hear Ben Shapiro or Milo Yiannopoulos speak, are objectively not representative of the nation’s collegiate body as a whole. Similarly, the demography of Trump supporters is not uniform and, surely, not all are subject to the authoritarian tendencies MacWilliams ascribes to them.
Like Emory’s students, though, the assumed victim status conferred upon them by the press (they are presumed to be white, blue-collar, disaffected Americans who have fallen behind in the globalized economy through no fault of their own) is misleading. Polls, and now votes, have for quite some time confirmed that Trump’s supporters are not merely lower income Americans without a college degree. The celebrity candidate draws substantial support from middle-income, educated, white-collar America, too. It is no coincidence that both Trump supporters and the nation’s easily “triggered” university students recognize privilege in one another but not in themselves.
“We aren’t afraid of chalk,” one anonymous student, who supported the effort to silence pro-Trump messages on Emory’s campus, told Newsweek. “The marks on the campus matter because they’re a symbol of the continued marginalization of students.” This student has a point. The article went on to quote a variety of Emory students who rambled off a litany of grievances with their school and American society in general. This episode is “not just about Trump,” another student confessed. Indeed, Trump supporters might say the same thing.