Surely, there's no place less likely to become the site of an impromptu Trump rally than a college campus. And yet, at a recent Rutgers University event, throngs of students erupted into cheers of "Trump! Trump! Trump!"
Would many of them cast a vote for Trump in a GOP primary? Probably not. For these students, Trump is not the leader of a political movement, but rather, a countercultural icon. To chant his name is to strike a blow against the ruling class on campus—the czars of political correctness—who are every bit as imperious and loathsome to them as the D.C.-GOP establishment is to the working class folks who see Trump as their champion.
That might not be much comfort for the numerous people on the right and left—myself and most of my colleagues included—who consider Trump a narcissistic, fearmongering authoritarian peddling a destructive, fascistic policy agenda. But what if his supporters aren't actually applauding his agenda: what if they're merely applauding the audaciousness of his performance?
"Trump's becoming an icon of irreverent resistance to political correctness," Milo Yiannopoulos, an editor at Breitbart, told me. "It's why people like him."
Even some people on campus.
'A Mark of Privilege'
College students and Trump supporters have at least something in common: Both groups are plagued by legitimate economic anxieties—middle-class job losses and burdensome loan debt, for example. But the argument can certainly be made that these concerns are trumped (pardon the pun) by cultural issues, at least as evidenced by the priorities of both groups. And when it comes to the culture wars, they are on opposite sides.
The masses of people who show up at rallies for Trump—and have propelled him to Republican frontrunner status—are thought to be uneducated, coarse, and intolerant of immigrants. College students, on the other hand, are so tolerant their tolerance is borderline oppressive. Trump's backers despise the political correctness of liberal elites: Students think liberal elites are closet reactionaries who disdain leftist goals and refuse to nominate black actors and actresses for Oscars. The two groups might possess a shared distrust of social progress—Trump people, because it's happening too quickly, and student protesters, because it's not happening quickly enough—but they are on opposite ends of that fight, and virtually all others.
So why did a bunch of millennials break into an impromptu Trump cheer at Rutgers? To be clear, this was a pre-sorted group of non-liberals: conservative and libertarian students affiliated with the campus's Young Americans for Liberty chapter. The occasion was a visit from Breitbart's Yiannopoulos, a social media celebrity associated with the GamerGate and online anti-feminist movements.
Yianopoulos, a British writer and conservative provocateur who revels in controversy, is currently travelling to college campuses across America. He calls it his "Dangerous Faggot Tour." No, Yiannopoulos isn't disparaging gays (though he wouldn't care if they were upset): he is gay himself, a fact to which he makes frequent (and X-rated) references. Subverting expectations is part of Yiannopoulos's shtick: he aims to create a safe space—if it can be called that—for students to express their views, even if those views are vile and offensive. His goal isn't to persuade—it's to shock critics who thought nobody had the nerve to say such things out loud.
Yiannopolous's talk at Rutgers hit on many familiar themes—the evils of feminism, the hypocrisy of Black Lives Matter—and inspired a predictable protest. Several student protesters–a distinct minority of the event's nearly 500 participants—stood up part way through the debate. "This man represents hatred," said one woman, who smeared fake blood—red paint—over her face. The protesters eventually broke into a chant of "Black Lives Matter! Black Lives Matter!" Their outbursts interrupted Yiannopolous and temporarily prevented him from continuing.
In an interview with Reason, Yiannopoulos derided these protesters as privileged hypocrites who weren't interested in an actual exchange of ideas.
"It's certainly a mark of privilege, being able to spray yourself, other people at the talk, and the venue, in red paint and not have to worry about the poor janitor who is going to have to clean it up, who was of course black," said Yiannopoulos.
It was these outbursts that inspired the Trump counter-cheer. Yiannopolous's fans in the audience eventually succeeded in drowning out the cries of "Black Lives Matter!" with their own cries of "Trump!"
Matthew Boyer, a Rutgers student, leader of its YAL chapter, and organizer of the event, told Reason that the people chanting "Trump," were "individuals who have been railing against political correctness" and identify with "Trump's recent actions as part of the anti-PC movement."
The crowd at Rutgers—and at Yiannopolos's other appearances—certainly suggests that some students are sick to death of the liberal orthodoxies being drilled into them during every waking moment of their time in school. What if millions of Americans feel the same way?
'Despise Them and Their Culture'
"Nobody votes for Trump or likes Trump on the basis of policy positions," Yiannopoulos told me. "That's a misunderstanding of what the Trump phenomenon is."
Yiannopoulos, who affectionately (and with clear intention to troll) refers to Trump as "daddy," clearly understands something about the phenomenon that mainstream journalists are now only beginning to grasp in the wake of Trump's decisive South Carolina victory.
It's something perhaps best summed up by The American Conservative's Rod Dreher, who was inspired by my article about American University's plans to establish social justice training in its dormitories. In response, Dreher wrote:
This has a lot to do with why people support Trump. They know that the academic elites despise them and their culture, and are going to try to educate their children into hating themselves and their culture. Can Trump stop AU or any other university from doing this? Of course not, and we would not want to live in a country where POTUS has that kind of power. But a vote for Trump is a vote against the class that's doing this p.c. indoctrination. They know that Trump doesn't give a rat's rear end about p.c. — and they love that about him. Shoot, when I read the Robby Soave piece, my knee-jerk response was, "Give 'em hell, Trump!" …
Again: this is not a justification for voting Trump. But if you think that the various establishments in this country aren't working in your interests, and indeed may be working against your interests (as in the Orwellian AU program, in which students indebt themselves to the tune of over $40,000 per year to be educated into why they should despise themselves or others along racial and cultural lines), this is all fuel for the, "Screw it, I'm voting Trump" bonfire.
The AU example is just one of many. Think of the Oberlin College students who assailed the (likely lower-income, less-well-educated) cafeteria staff for failing to prepare ethnically appropriate dishes. Think of the Yale University students who lashed out at administrators for failing to shelter them from insensitive Halloween costumes. Think of the Northwestern University students who claimed victim status because they weren't chosen for solos in a burlesque performance. Think of Melissa Click.
There is ample anecdotal evidence to support the idea—right or wrong—that college campuses are more repressive and ideologically-stifling than ever, and that students are suffering because of it. Consider a recent news story about the mental anguish of Brown University's far-left student activists:
"There are people breaking down, dropping out of classes and failing classes because of the activism work they are taking on," said David, an undergraduate whose name has been changed to preserve anonymity. Throughout the year, he has worked to confront issues of racism and diversity on campus.
His role as a student activist has taken a toll on his mental, physical and emotional health. "My grades dropped dramatically. My health completely changed. I lost weight. I'm on antidepressants and anti-anxiety pills right now. (Counseling and Psychological Services) counselors called me. I had deans calling me to make sure I was okay," he said.
This student and his compatriots sound like they just survived something like a mass shooting. But nothing of the sort occurred. The most traumatic event at Brown in recent months, according to the story, was the publication of a racially problematic column. Brown's student activists are enduring sleeplessness, panic attacks, andß suicidal thoughts because of it.
As Dreher noted, if you believe this sort of thing is as common on campus as it appears to be, and it infuriates you, and a candidate comes along who rails against the cult of political correctness—not just on campus, but everywhere—well, maybe you cheer for him.
'Feminism is Cancer'
If colorful characters like Trump and Yiannopoulos are leading an anti-PC movement, some independent-minded students are copying their tactics.
At the University of Michigan on Tuesday, Yiannopoulos is scheduled to debate Julie Bindel, a feminist whose controversial views on transgender issues has made her an enemy of the left as well. The two were previously banned from a University of Manchester debate (the subject, ironically, was censorship), but will receive a warm welcome from UM's conservative and libertarian students. Tuesday's debate will focus on feminism and free speech, and is sponsored by the campus's alternative student newspaper, The Michigan Review.
To promote the event, Review editors Omar Mahmood and Hunter Swogger filmed themselves asking random students whether they would rather give their children feminism or cancer—a nod to Yiannopoulos, who once polled his Twitter followers on the same question.
Even the most dedicated anti-feminists don't actually believe feminism is worse than cancer (presumably). And Swogger and Mahmood deliberately eschewed seriousness in their presentation of the question. But that's beside the point.
"The reason we asked the question is because it is so absurd that we were sure to elicit reactions," Swogger told me.
Elicit they did.
"I don't appreciate humor at the expense of other people," said one student in the video.
It was an unsurprising reaction.
"The video was just to promote our event and to have fun, but it shows exactly how humorless these people are," said Swogger, who describes himself as "passionately libertarian."
More surprising was Facebook's response. Swogger tried to advertise the video on the social media platform, but received a message from Facebook administrators that the video violates their policies.
"We don't allow ads that refer to the viewer's attributes (ex: race, ethnicity, age, sexual orientation, name)," according to the policy.
But it's not clear to me how the video actually breaks that rule. It's not clear to Swogger, either.
"The only grounds to ban our advertising on are ideological or sensitivity," said Swogger.
This would not be the first time, of course, that non-leftist read ideological retaliation into a social media platform's decision to suppress content. Yiannopoulos himself made such a charge after Twitter stripped him of his verified status for unspecified policy violations (the "feminism is cancer" tweet may have had something to do with it). Just last week, Twitter banned Robert Stacy McCain, a conservative blogger and notorious anti-feminist. The reasons are unclear, but it's impossible to ignore the fact that Twitter recently created a "Trust and Safety" council for the purpose of policing hate speech and harassment on the platform. The council doesn't include any prominent free speech supporters, but it does include anti-GamerGate leader Anita Sarkeesian—of whom McCain was frequently critical.
The inescapable conclusion for many on the right is that they are unfairly policed—not because they are behaving badly, but because they don't articulate the correct views.
'A Wonderful Spectacle'
Given all that, it's no wonder non-leftists think media corporations are against them. Media members are against them, too. And so are colleges.
Cheering on the likes of Trump and Yiannopoulos might just be one way for them to cope with that perceived reality. Trump's naysayers claim—with good reason—that his candidacy is a disaster for the Republican Party: his election to the presidency would destroy the country. But that's a selling point for his supporters—not because they love destruction, but because they're suffering under the status quo, too. At least with Trump, they can enjoy the show and collect some small measure of vengeance against their PC overlords.
One person who is definitely having a good time is Yiannopoulos. He doesn't mind that protesters scream at him wherever he goes—in fact, he welcomes it. He enjoys it.
"The whole thing was pandemonium," Yiannopoulos told me, recalling the Rutgers event. "But a wonderful spectacle."
Pandemonium, but a wonderful spectacle. Would anyone deny that the same could be said of the 2016 GOP presidential race?
You know who to thank for that.