Where have the campus protests gone? Not the anti-Trump initiatives, but the student marches and occupations of 2015-16. The news on higher education shows a sharp downturn of last year’s particular brand of unrest, when students at University of Missouri and a hundred other campuses, led by Black Lives Matter elements, charged their own schools with personal and institutional racism. We had an outburst at Smith College that echoed the previous pattern of minority students accusing an institution’s teachers and administrators of vicious racial attitudes, but that was last August. Since then, I’ve seen only scattered and short-lived affairs that don’t add up to a movement, not to the degree that they did before.
An old buddy from graduate school has a theory about it. He teaches at a large university in a rhetoric department, and he’s an acute observer of social changes. His conception of rhetoric goes deeper than the expert handling of words. Rhetoric is a social behavior, he says, one that springs from fundamental impulses of human organization and survival. He was telling us this long ago during our seven-year ascension to the PhD. While we were reading French theory and German philosophy to go along with the literary canon, he was reading Kenneth Burke and social psychology. Today, he’s a great admirer of Steven Pinker, especially The Blank Slate. (Recall that Pinker was the only Harvard professor to speak out in defense of the science behind Larry Summers’ infamous explanation for the dearth of women in elite STEM departments.)
His theory is this: in higher education there is a small population of individuals who feel insecure, under-appreciated, and resentful. Every denizen of the campus knows this. Faculty members who haven’t succeeded at different stages of their respective careers often fall into this group. Perhaps the book manuscript that one labored over for years has been rejected by five different scholarly presses; or someone didn’t earn tenure at a previous institution and found a job at a school that he feels is inadequate to his talents; or another isn’t popular with students . . . the reasons may vary. But they’re bitter.
Another group that falls prey to disappointment may be found among students who wanted to go to medical school (as more than one in five undergraduates at four-year colleges intend) but couldn’t handle Organic Chemistry and Calculus II. Or they couldn’t get in to the undergraduate business school, or a preferred sorority . . .
Administrators who work in offices of diversity and make their living by uncovering acts of exclusion and discrimination make up another likely pipeline for the grievance collective.
These individuals needn’t be numerous to have an impact on the campus climate, either. It takes only 40 people clustering outside the President’s Office to create a newsworthy embarrassment.
Many of them, my friend continues, “cathect” their resentment to the issue of race. It’s one of those delicate and overdetermined social pressure points open to feelings of injustice and victimhood. People who nurse general assumptions of life-is-unfair find race a convenient attachment, a way to give their impressions external form and internal rationality. The protests of last year suited them well. If you watch the many videos of the protesters at work, you can see how emotional they are. That explains one reason why they erupted on so many campuses. They served as rituals for the expression of profound dismay.
College leaders were their prime target, and the wrath could sometimes become downright abusive. But that doesn’t seem to be the case so much this year. In recent months, the students haven’t placed college leaders in the dock. They have found a new and improved object: Donald Trump. He is now the focus of bitterness, not the presidents and deans at selective schools, who proved unsatisfactory antagonists anyway because they were so conciliatory and bureaucratic. Mr. Trump provides the angry activists with a more workable enemy. While the presidents speak a managerial therapeutic language, Mr. Trump is unapologetic, and he has no traces of white guilt, male guilt, or liberal guilt. He is also about to become the most powerful man in the world, which makes him better suited to protest than the mere head of a college. As Nietzsche well expounded 130 years ago, resentment feeds on villains of sufficient force and stature. The more powerful and successful they are, the more easily they can be blamed for others’ powerlessness and failure. President Obama couldn’t play that role, of course, because of the color of his skin and his obvious discomfort with American power.
In this respect, my friend continues, Donald Trump has proven a great boon for college leaders. He has taken the pressure off of the administration and brought it upon himself. His election provided college leaders with an opportunity and they took it with dispatch. When the surprising results came in that night and early morning, presidents were quick to issue statements of concern and support for troubled undergraduates, for example, here at the University of Michigan. When faculty and students devised plans to have their campuses declared sanctuary spaces, college presidents jumped to comply. One week after the election, more than 100 of them signed a letter asking Mr. Trump to
“Condemn and work to prevent the harassment, hate and acts of violence that are being perpetrated across our nation, sometimes in your name, which is now synonymous with our nation’s highest office.”
All of these actions signaled to everyone that a fearsome presence is looming beyond the campus walls, and college leaders are on the right side of things—that is, the students’ side. The emails and declarations of vulnerability after the ascension of Mr. Trump worked rhetorically to remove the college leaders themselves as objects of any protests that might arise once election results were confirmed (as many protests did, in fact, take place). When students gathered on quads and marched on streets and, in a few cases, burned American flags, presidents weren’t going to intervene. They didn’t want to get in the middle, not after fortune had allowed them to join the forces of the aggrieved.
From what I can tell, the shift has been accomplished. The campus is united once more. The enemy is now off-campus. We have a classic case of the scapegoat. The college campus is still a tense place, but tension has a new outlet.
This transformation demonstrates the elemental cultural shake-up embodied by the President-elect. The fact that he has been instrumental to the realignment of sympathies on campuses shows that he does, indeed, touch upon taboos and correctnesses that have prevailed for so long in higher education that crossings of them appear nothing less than outrageous. But for this very reason, the overemotional reaction to his election isn’t wrong. It rightly indicates two things. One, Mr. Trump represents much more than a change in policy. He is a threat to the hegemony of identity politics, or what Mark Lilla terms “identity liberalism.” And two, the reaction shows how fully and emotionally liberals and progressives have invested themselves—their very selves—in that hegemony. They have turned what should be a marketplace of ideas, opinions, values, and methods into a fraught environment of sensitive identities.
In the eyes of people troubled by his candidacy, Donald Trump bears out all their suspicions. His success puts the entire system of identity politics in jeopardy, along with the emotional superstructure built on top of it. Millennial students have grown up with it—they’ve never known anything different. College administrators and professors have absorbed it as a standard part of their professional lives. In this, students, faculty, and college officials are one. The president-elect has given them back their common mission.