In 1966, Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California on a promise to “clean up the mess at Berkeley,” which he described as “a haven for communist sympathizers, protesters, and sex deviants.” Reagan got the school’s president fired, attempted to cut the educational budget, and, in 1969, ordered an armed confrontation with student demonstrators who were protesting the war. Officers opened fire with shotguns and tear gas. One student, a bystander, was killed. Another was permanently blinded, and 32 were hospitalized with severe injuries.
On May 1, 1970, President Richard Nixon told an audience at the Pentagon: “You see these bums, you know, blowing up the campuses. Listen, the boys that are on the college campuses today are the luckiest people in the world, going to the greatest universities, and here they are burning up the books, storming around about [the Vietnam War].” Three days later, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on student protesters at Kent State University, leaving four students dead and nine wounded. On May 15, local police killed two black students and left twelve more wounded during a demonstration at Jackson State University in Jackson, Mississippi.
Somehow, despite decades’ worth of counterexamples, the American mainstream remains convinced that campus activists represent a unique threat to public safety and civil discourse. For the last two years in particular, America’s worst opinion columnists have been echoing the hippie-punching sadism of 1960s politicians.
In April, New York’s Jonathan Chait called for “forceful opposition” to “illiberal” student demonstrators. The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf has written dozens of columns about the dangers of political correctness on campus, like students signing petitions or people being mean to racists on Facebook. In May, Bret Stephens wrote in the New York Times that “students with traditional religious values or conservative political views now feel decidedly unsafe about expressing their views on campus.”
Alt-right marcher shouting "Heil Trump." pic.twitter.com/vAaXq5pFYc— Tom Perriello (@tomperriello) August 12, 2017
Friday night, hundreds of torch-bearing neo-Nazi protesters, presumably not feeling “decidedly unsafe,” marched through the University of Virginia’s Charlottesville campus. They chanted “traditional religious values” like “Fuck you faggots!” Former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke joined them to deliver “conservative political views”: “We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in. That’s why we voted for Donald Trump, because he said he’s going to take our country back,” he said. The local police did virtually nothing to stop them, even as they threw rocks and maced counterprotesters. Finally, one of the neo-Nazis rammed his car several times into a mass of counterprotesters holding anti-fascist, worker solidarity, and Black Lives Matter signs, leaving one dead and 19 seriously injured.
Things were tense but calm, turned scary in a hurry. Car plowed into a bunch of people next to the garage we parked in. Horrific scene. pic.twitter.com/riO4fjf4O2— Anna Stelter (@annajstelter) August 12, 2017
Despite having his name explicitly invoked by a neo-Nazi leader during the unrest, Donald Trump opted to remain neutral, calling it an “egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides.” He downplayed the effect his administration’s race-baiting has had on white nationalists: “It has been going on for a long time in our country — not Donald Trump, not Barack Obama. It has been going on for a long, long time.”
Trump’s comment about “violence on many sides” is part of a larger pattern of commentators ignoring the massive power differential between young left-wing activists and their adversaries. Even as neo-Nazis welcomed the election of their favored candidate, and as hate crimes spiked, too many journalists attempted to maintain neutrality. So far, the only demonstrator to actually murder someone on a college campus has been a member of the alt-right, 20-year-old James Alex Fields. But, for years now, the commentariat has lambasted students for trying to repel speakers who pander directly to Fields’ demographic — because student protesters “censored” far-right ideologues, they were made equal to the fans of those far-right ideologues, who actually kill people.
The right-wing media openly prescribed deadly force for out-of-control left-wing activists. Is it any surprise that someone listened?
Student activists prevented statutory rape advocate and alt-right leader Milo Yiannopoulos from directly targeting undocumented and transgender students. They prevented Charles Murray, the most prominent American race scientist since Madison Grant, from speaking at Middlebury College. They prevented Ann Coulter from giving a talk at Berkeley that very likely would have resembled the statement David Duke delivered at UVA. For this, they earned the bottomless ire of the media. Even the day of the murder in Charlottesville, The Atlantic’s Peter Beinart published an egregiously ill-timed article titled “The Rise of the Violent Left.”
For the commentators cocooned in Westchester County and the DC suburbs, ideology is a harmless hobby. But true ideology is not a thought experiment. The ideology put forth by alt-right firebrands like Yiannopoulos inspires action, and that action often leads to hate crimes. The audience expected to attend presentations by Yiannopoulos and Coulter is the same crowd that just marched through the UVA campus carrying torches and giving the Sieg Heil — angry young white men in polos and khakis, radicalized by Breitbart, Infowars, and The Daily Stormer, who carry weapons in anticipation of public clashes with anti-fascists and Black Lives Matter. If you let their heroes speak, you invite them to campus. When you invite them to campus, you invite violent hate crimes. It doesn’t appear out of nowhere, and it doesn’t come from “many sides.”
While America’s milquetoast centrists may have had their judgement clouded by a debate-club mentality, commentators on the right were well aware what might result from a media frenzy against young left-wing demonstrators. Earlier this year, dozens of conservative publications trotted out Ronald Reagan’s decision to use deadly force at UC Berkeley as something to aspire to. In February, Fox News ran the headline “This Is How Ronald Reagan Dealt With UC Berkeley Protesters In 1969.” Similar articles appeared on The Blaze and The Daily Wire. In April, The Federalist published an article titled “Here’s What Ronald Reagan Did When College Kids Went Ape At UC-Berkeley.” Author Donna Carol Voss noted that an innocent bystander was killed and several more injured, but nevertheless asked “Where is Ronald Reagan when we need him? He would have put a stop to it all right quick.” These were not calls for free expression or tolerance of right-wing views — they were calls for blood. The right-wing media openly prescribed deadly force for out-of-control left-wing activists. Is it any surprise that someone listened?
The far right knows exactly what happens when the media continually exaggerates the threat posed by campus politics. The state cracks down, teenagers are maimed or killed, and middle-aged sadists re-elect whoever ordered the violent repression. If not, a vigilante like Fields, high on far-right agitprop, will step in. It worked for George Wallace, it worked for Reagan, it worked for Nixon, and it might just work for Trump. In the most optimistic view, the centrist commentators who wasted so many columns scolding student activists to a national audience didn’t know how useful their screeds were to the far right. They forgot that, for the last 50 years, hysterical media anger at uppity college students has always turned out to be unfounded and embarrassing in hindsight. They forgot that college students were right about Vietnam, civil rights, apartheid, and every other cause handwringing centrists accepted long after the fact. The brightest minds in the liberal media simply forgot that college protesters have never been the perpetrators of deadly violence — only the victims. If this is true, it would serve them well to remember.