The Right-Wing Outrage Machine Is Doing Campus Conservatives No Favors
Its over-the-top tactics are a far bigger problem than the lack of intellectual openness
University of Minnesota students protesting College Republicans’ display of President Trump’s Build the Wall slogan on campus. Wikipedia, Creative Commons.
For the bargain price of $5,000-$10,000, Matt Walsh, a columnist for The Daily Wire, a self-described conservative site, will deliver his lecture “Transgenderism Is a Ridiculous Myth” at your college. Perhaps “every real person” Walsh meets thinks that “‘transgenders’ are mentally deluded sexual perverts,” as he insists on Twitter. But it’s no surprise that a man who peddles callousness for clicks makes people angry.
On April 27, Walsh spoke to an audience of hundreds at the University of Wisconsin-Superior (UWS). After his talk, “The Left’s War on Reality,” he fielded 11 friendly questions. Outside the venue, about 45 protesters demonstrated but didn’t disrupt the lecture. An anemic effort to disinvite Walsh through a petition drive drew just 189 supporters and failed. The administration maintained that although “some may find Mr. Walsh’s views offensive, universities…must welcome free speech.”
In short, a conservative writer who has described President Biden as a “demented pervert” spoke his mind at UWS. A win for free speech on campus, right? Wrong, according to some conservatives, who, lacking good reasons to be angry, settled for bad ones.
Campus Reform, a webzine founded explicitly to serve as a “conservative watchdog to the nation’s higher education system” barked: “REPORT: Leftist students angry that Matt Walsh spoke on campus.” Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), a 62-year-old nationwide student campus group whose UWS chapter invited Walsh, accused the administration of co-planning the protest. It shared a video of the small meeting, “Engaging in Civil Discourse,” at which administrators answered questions and discouraged aggression. The protestors asked the administration to move the event off campus, but were turned down. There’s nothing there. But that didn’t stop other outlets, including The Daily Wire, from amplifying YAF’s spin.
Sensible people with a search engine and 10 minutes to spare see through this kind of story. Sensible people who care about higher education detest this kind of story. Those who hope to improve higher education, which is, indeed, left-leaning, politicized and, at times, inhospitable to the free exchange of ideas, need sensible people to take up their cause. But for conservative outrage merchants, improvement isn’t the point.
Consider, again, Campus Reform, a project of the Leadership Institute, an outfit that trains conservative activists. If you follow Campus Reform on Twitter, you can wake up at 6 a.m., ready for your day of doom scrolling and find five stories stacked up in your feed: “California college compares conservative group to Hitler,” says a typical, tweet. Click on it and you’ll learn that one student of the 13,000 that attend Santa Barbara City College made something like that comparison. Did some students at the University of Florida organize a communist party to compete in student government elections — without success? That merits two articles. No story is too trivial to make a headline.
Nor is this right-wing outrage machine a new thing. It’s been in business for years and is in fact a growth industry. In 2019, when a communications office produced a sleepy item about how some consider the phrase “OK Boomer” offensive while others do not, Campus Reform was hot on the trail. In 2017, when a University of North Texas undergraduate penned an article on “manspreading,” Campus Reform was there. In 2015, when a Princeton University freshman lamented that other students made fun of the way he pronounced “Cool Whip,” and described that as a microaggression, Campus Reform covered that too.
Nor has Campus Reform been alone over the years in circulating such stories. The freshman “Cool Whip” column drew the attention at the time of the College Fix, the National Review and even the late, lamented Weekly Standard. The Daily Wire, which is, according to at least one media monitoring organization, the top publisher on Facebook, cited Campus Reform when it covered the communications office newsletter scoop. Ben Shapiro, the Wire’s editor-in-chief at the time, shared the story with his 6 million Facebook followers. When Campus Reform contributors accomplished major feats of journalism, such as getting 20 University of Virginia students to sign an anti-Christmas petition in 2016, Fox and Friends and other programs took keen interest.
Some outlets, I assume, are just satisfying reader demand for “Look, the campus lefties are at it again” stories. But Campus Reform has been forthright, at least in its fundraising appeals, about its other motive in producing an avalanche of anecdotes and exaggerating the sins of higher education, namely, stoking the Republican base. Indeed, it let it all hang out a few years ago when it noted: “Conservative students face constant abuse from their peers. Their grades get docked by leftist professors. Their rights get violated by spineless school administrators. … This is still America, isn’t it? Didn’t we elect Donald Trump?”
Playing up the real and imaginary transgressions of higher ed to gin up anti-left outrage and push right wing-flavored Republican politics isn’t limited to Campus Reform. Like YAF, Turning Point USA, a $40 million outfit, was founded in 2012 to support “student activists committed to … promoting conservative values on campuses.” If Turning Point’s 2.6 million Facebook followers are any indication, it is now even hotter than YAF.
Its “Professor Watchlist,” which claims to “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom,” in fact indiscriminately targets professors who express left-liberal views outside of the classroom, or produce research that might support such views. Turning Point’s professor profiles now include department chair or other employer contact information to enlist students and parents in helping to punish them. If the outfit weren’t so fervently against cancel culture, such tactics might suggest that it was for it.
As for Republican politics, Turning Point events have featured chants of “Lock her up,” and “Let’s go Brandon,” the latter led by Donald Trump, Jr. at the outfit’s AmericaFest 2021. Attendees of that conference heard from a Mount Rushmore of higher education thought leaders: Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, Madison Cawthorn and Matt Gaetz. President Trump himself has spoken at multiple Turning Point events. Not satisfied with the politicking he could do under the auspices of a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Charlie Kirk, Turning Point’s founder, has now established Turning Point Action, a 501(c)(4) that can campaign for candidates and hold actual Trump rallies.
It’s hard to say how the December 2021 “Protect Our Elections Rally,” which advanced Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, served Turning Point Action’s mission of “educating youth in order to be a resource for free market thinkers to futher (sic) advance their values to educate and empower the younger generation.” Turning Point claims that it wants to educate young people, not propagandize them, but one could be forgiven for concluding otherwise given its tactics.
In Passing on the Right: Conservative Professors in the Progressive University, Jon Shields and Joshua Dunn observe that one of the worst effects of left-liberal dominance in higher education is that it “deprives conservative student activists of mentors who might deepen their politics.” One way to address that problem would be to support early-career conservative faculty in their struggles to survive the dismal academic job market. Another way might be to support programming to which conservative students might be drawn. This could include classical liberal thought, the American founding, political philosophy or literary classics.
Such efforts could be greatly aided by outside funding. But the propaganda assault on higher education by Campus Reform and Turning Point turn off prospective donors and undermine such efforts. Or when Michael Anton insists that universities are “wholly corrupt and wholly opposed to everything we want, and increasingly even to our existence.” Or when J.D. Vance echoes that universities are “dedicated to deceit and lies” and “control our lives” and conservatives must “honestly and aggressively attack the universities.” The message is that universities are irredeemable and any hope of reform is a delusion, so no point in wasting money on them.
But there is another way in which such attacks, hardly lacking in aggression, are hugely counterproductive: They undermine campus conservative voices in convincing sensible people within universities that there is a problem with ideological one-sidedness that needs to be fixed — especially, when such attacks can be so patently dishonest.
Once, in a “Campus Craziness” segment, Tucker Carlson had a genuine case of academic misconduct on his hands. The history professor he put in the spotlight — Fang Zhou, a professor at Georgia Gwinnett College — had boasted of giving speeches in class, unrelated to his area of study, about his partisan policy preferences. He openly admitted that he considered it a job well done if his students voted for candidates who shared those preferences. He proudly circulated on social media a story in the student newspaper concerning a political chant he shared in class.
Even ardent defenders of academic freedom would agree that such freedom does not extend to this kind of classroom proselytizing. If Carlson had called for an investigation into Zhou, he would have been on solid ground. But Carlson did not do that. Why? The speeches Zhou boasted about (scroll down) were “anti-illegal immigration speeches.” “If my students vote for anti-illegal immigration candidates,” he said, “then I have done my job.” The chant in question: “Build that wall!” Carlson had Zhou on his show not to bury Zhou but Zhou’s campus critics.
Who can blame sensible people in universities, whose support any reform effort would need, if they think that Carlson, with his vast viewership, or J.D. Vance, who may be the next GOP senator from Ohio, is a bigger threat to higher education than their dogmatic colleagues in gender studies or the office of diversity and inclusion? Who can blame them if they are less distressed about misguided petitions and more distressed about Carlson peddling false accusations that lead to death threats against Harvard University’s Danielle Allen and then refusing to apologize or offer a correction? Who can blame them if they suspect their conservative critics of bad faith?
I can’t. And I’m a conservative.