It’s hard to think of many topics that are as boring to write about nowadays as Donald Trump’s temperament. Since January, the U.S. public has been inundated with a torrent of news stories about a bewildered television addict roaming the halls of the White House in his bathrobe. When he’s not ordering murderous Special Forces raids and tearing up families by executive order, he and Sean Spicer are both blabbering on about rogue judges, imagined wiretaps, chocolate cake or “the blood of our youth.”
That our president remains a self-aggrandizing, paranoid lout is no surprise to anyone who paid attention to him during the 2016 presidential campaign. By now, there is nothing more to say about the commander-in-chief’s personality. But a related question about our new era remains unanswered. How has the television star’s rise to power changed the temperament of our country?
Last year, when the American Right finally ruptured, I assumed that conservative organizations would be remade in Trump’s image. Naturally, the youngest and most ideologically malleable of these groups would be the first to go. A recent report about Yale’s College Republicans confirmed my early suspicions. Members of a graduate student union at the Ivy decided to go on hunger strike at the end of April. These demonstrators sought equal pay and adequate healthcare from a parsimonious administration. In response, the campus’s college Republicans barbecued a meal in the vicinity of the famished graduate students.
One could describe the barbecue as a backlash or a counter-demonstration. But these terms ascribe political content to a gesture that ultimately stood for nothing. Whereas a conception of distributive justice spurred the union into action, mere sadism motivated the young conservatives to torment their peers. Such shallowness is a hallmark of Trumpian conservatism. It brings to mind the candidate who cruelly ridiculed a disabled journalist. No high-minded ideal drove our president to mock that man. Trump was simply being nasty.
In contrast, here at UC Berkeley, members of the Berkeley College Republicans portray themselves as defenders of democratic values on an illiberal campus. They explain decisions to host widely loathed demagogues at our school through civic-minded press statements. According to their script, Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter would have enriched a desolate marketplace of ideas on campus — if only their speaking engagements had not been canceled.
This is theater. The exaggerated tone of the college Republicans’ bromides gives the game away. One spokesperson for the group remarked that Ann Coulter “is the perfect person to engage in” a debate on immigration. Perfect? Coulter is better known for her occasional anti-Semitic outbursts (“How many fucking Jews do these people think there are in the United States?”) than her grasp of immigration policy. Another campus Republican described the attempt by some to deny Coulter a platform as an “atrocity.” Oh my.
Look past the histrionics, and you will find nothing there. You will see that our discussions about bigots, such as Coulter and Yiannopoulos, tend to devolve into interminable debates about free speech and little else. You will begin to understand that some speech can only be defended as speech, because some speech lacks content. It is just contemptuous noise directed at students. Like their counterparts at Yale, our Berkeley College Republicans have internalized the president’s apolitical nastiness.
What’s more, the organization’s commitment to free speech (an essential right for everyone) is shallower than many realize. I think back to last September, when an undergraduate at our school tried to make a substantive contribution to a political debate on campus. The student designed a DeCal called “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis.” He drew on a wealth of scholarly material and took the time to put together a rich syllabus. Nevertheless, a creepy, anti-Palestine nonprofit called the AMCHA Initiative lead an effort to pressure the UC administration into shutting down his lectures. As far as I am aware, the Berkeley College Republicans made no show of solidarity with the imperiled student who designed the DeCal.
At times, it can seem like the facsimile liberalism of campus conservatives is little more than a convenient shield against moral censure. But there is more going on here. The congruity with Trump runs deep. Again, the Coulter debacle is instructive.
BridgeUSA is a centrist organization that cosponsored the canceled event. The founder of that group has since written that his erstwhile conservative allies “used the label of free speech as a tool for publicity.” His charge seems plausible. Watch a recent Berkeley College Republican press conference about the Coulter incident. Shameless self-promotion is an essential element of the spectacle.
But then, so is genuine indignation. How does one explain sincere outrage in the absence of a deep commitment to any political principle? Moral vanity is the culprit. It intoxicates the college Republicans and many others in their movement. Matt Christman describes the Trumpian conservative’s frame of mind as such: “If everyone hates me that means that I’m right. … (That) is proof that (my) ideas are too much for the mob.”
The Berkeley College Republicans certainly encountered its fair share of hatred over the past year. Protesters and vandals denounced and harangued the campus conservatives during a semester of tumult. With each successive riot, the college Republicans became more certain that their “cause” was just. And every step of the way, television cameras rolled to capture the drama unfolding on campus.
Faced with jeers, the crass entertainer gets lost in his character. Lines are blurred. And politics becomes reality TV.
Michael Youhana is a UC Berkeley law student.