college protest
Conservative outlets like Fox News have been running wall-to-wall stories about PC-related incidents on college campuses, such as left-wing student protesters shutting down speaking appearances by Ann Coulter and the like. Credit: Fibonacci Blue/Flickr

Why did it take the latest damning revelations about the Trump family’s Russia connections to provoke Fox News anchor Shepard Smith to ask “Why is it lie after lie after lie?…If there’s nothing there—and that’s what they tell us…If all of that, why all these lies?”

Fox News has abetted so many of the president’s cons that Smith’s outburst was indeed surprisingly off message for the network. But why—throughout Trump’s vulgar, violence-invoking, free-speech-ravaging ascent to the White House and now through his first six months in office—have so many others in the chattering classes remained fixated on a much smaller danger to our freedoms: politically correct college students?

Instead of challenging Trump’s threats against open expression and inquiry—including his own debasement of “free speech” in a one-man cacophony of self-contradictory tweets and Rose Garden lies—a national chorus of alarm, goaded by a well-funded crusade, has spent most of the last year-and-a-half hunting up threats to our freedoms from students and deans on some of the nation’s college campuses.

“Hysterical Yalies Protest A Free-Speech Panel,” cried the conservative National Review. “Campus Activists Weaponize ‘Safe Space,” warned a writer for The Atlantic, on student demonstrations at the University of Missouri. (Since real weapons weren’t involved there, “weaponizing” might better have been saved for Texas’ “campus carry” law that allows students to carry guns to class.)

As one who’s opposed political correctness since writing my book Liberal Racism 20 years ago, I see no excuses for a Yale student screaming obscenities at a professor and demanding that he and his wife be fired for defending others’ right to wear potentially offensive Halloween costumes, or for a University of Missouri professor calling for some “muscle” to block a reporter from covering a demonstration, or for students at Berkeley—even if prompted by outside provocateurs—to engage in or threaten violence against white students in order to protest racism.

Still, Shep Smith’s outburst reminds us that the campus follies and even Trump’s sleazy Russia connections are only symptoms of the disease this administration is carrying and spreading: the dissolution of civic-republican rule of law and essential norms of self-interest, honesty, and decency that Republicans once used to champion against autocracy, self-dealing, and “lie after lie.”

Where were the “free speech” crusaders three months ago, when a PEN America report documented more than 70 separate instances of President Trump or senior administration officials smearing journalists and denying them access and platforms? Why didn’t the crusaders challenge the gag orders Trump imposed on federal agencies, including barring the Environmental Protection Agency from providing information on climate change? And what about the administration’s oft-repeated intention to tighten libel laws?

Well, Trump is “new to government, and so he probably wasn’t steeped in the long-running protocols…” explained House Speaker Paul Ryan; “I think that he—he is learning as he goes.” How about acknowledging that intemperate 19-year-old students are learning, too—and faster than Trump, who, even at 71, hasn’t learned to honor civil discourse and truth-seeking?

Official and semi-official efforts to stifle Americans’ purely verbal dissent began during World War I and surged again during the Cold War with McCarthyism, which ruined thousands of innocent people’s careers in the name of fighting Communism. Such efforts to stifle dissent were made against civil-rights and anti-Vietnam War protestors, in the 1960s.

Leftists’ and liberals’ reactions erupted darkly at times, too. I’m not about to defend the Communist Party or the violent Weathermen, and I have metaphorical body scars to show from criticizing destructive black protests in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Having taught Yale undergraduates for 17 years now, I know well that campus activists who try to silence others shouldn’t be coddled, but challenged to reconcile their overwrought perceptions with complex realities.

Still, I do wonder why they’re being assailed so relentlessly by a lavishly-funded conservative campaign whose sources I detailed last fall, among them the ultra-conservative Earhart, John Templeton, and Bradley Foundations, the Koch brothers’ DonorsTrust, and others that sustain a myriad of organizations that target campuses, including the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the David Horowitz Freedom Center, and Campus Watch. And I wonder why so many pundits have hopped on the anti-PC bandwagon.

The American Conservative magazine’s Rod Dreher did that in January, 2016, lampooning what he mockingly called young “Social Justice Warriors” for whom “‘dialogue’ is nothing more than: ‘You sit down and shut up and listen to us tell you how bad you are.’” But when Trump advisor Steve Bannon warned the media to “keep its mouth shut and just listen for a while,” Dreher quickly excused that statement as a “different message” and cautioned against characterizing the Trump administration as “absurdly authoritarian.” He mocked liberals’ outrage at “The Fierce Tyranny of Now,” apparently forgetting his outrage at the fierce tyranny of Social Justice Warriors.

If disparaging the press were the worst of Trump’s sins, he might have good company, including me at times. But not after Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor, asked CNN President Jeff Zucker over breakfast shortly after the election why CNN commentators Van Jones and Ana Navarro, who’d criticized Trump harshly, hadn’t been fired.

Just as troubling as these specific offenses are the dishonest campaigns for “free speech” and “election integrity.” Most free-speech crusaders applauded the 2010 Citizens United ruling’s extension of First Amendment-protected political speech to business and other corporations, because that ruling lets fiduciaries of shifting whorls of anonymous shareholders buy up expensive megaphones at election time as their less-moneyed critics get laryngitis from straining to be heard. That doesn’t level the playing field for citizens to debate how to regulate money-making itself. And it does nothing for the shrinking speech rights of workers in the very corporations whose disembodied political “speech” it protects.

The same conservative foundations that fund the “free speech” crusade are also bankrolling efforts to pass state voter ID laws that effectively are voter suppression laws. Trump obliged this campaign by claiming falsely that millions voted illegally in 2016, and by creating a Commission on Election Integrity to collect detailed information on individual voters. Many states have rebuffed that request, but where are the free speech crusaders?

The threat that the crusaders, Trump—and, yes, some of the worst campus activists—seem determined not to face head on is that the deepest threats to our freedoms are coming from increasingly unjust, unregulated, predatory economic practices that have already dispossessed and degraded enough Americans to prompt eruptions more dangerous than a few campus follies.

Conservatives used to insist that what the Constitution rightly protects in freedom of speech, a healthy civil society rightly modulates. Trump’s vulgar, violence-invoking campaign—which included his villainizing of the “political correctness” of angry, frightened students—reminds us that our civil society has been weakened by decades of predatory investing and marketing that, under the cover of defending freedom, elevated a failed casino financier and relentless self-promoter to the White House.

Without a stronger, more coherent civic culture, a cacophonous free-for-all of “free speech” always unleashes a free-for-none, a chaos within which—as Hannah Arendt warned—words and deeds part company, the words becoming more empty, the deeds becoming more brutal. Yes, there’s a lot wrong and repugnant about “snowflakes” and “crybullies” who act out this dissolution—and about college administrators’ indulgence of them to ensure “customer satisfaction” for their own market-driven purposes. But Shep Smith’s outburst on Fox News is only one sign that the campus follies that have preoccupied so many for so long are only a symptom and scapegoat for the civic dissolution that Trump and the “free speech” crusaders are accelerating but will do almost anything but acknowledge, much less confront.

Jim Sleeper

Jim Sleeper is a lecturer in political science at Yale. He is the author of The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York and Liberal Racism.