What Campus Protests May Do to the 2024 Presidential Election


It has been a long time since there have been protests on college campuses nationwide and worldwide. But what we are witnessing today at many colleges has already made campus politics part of a larger story about politics at the national level.

On campus, protests about the ongoing war in Gaza, the plight of the Palestinian people, and responses to those protests are posing a severe challenge for university leaders. For example, at Emory University in Atlanta, the faculty senate voted “no confidence” in the university president after police were called to break up an encampment.

What unfolded at Emory when the police arrived was what one news site described as a “dramatic clash between the protesters and law enforcement. More than two dozen people were arrested, including some school community members.”

In another indication of how the protests are roiling campuses, on April 30, the faculty of Barnard College voted no confidence in that college’s president because of the school’s response to a pro-Palestinian encampment, making it “the first no-confidence vote against a president in the college’s history.” According to an article in The Hill, “Many faculty members were upset about the college’s decision to suspend its students involved in Columbia’s Gaza solidarity encampment.”

At New York University, the full-time faculty of the university’s Gallatin School passed a motion of no-confidence in NYU’s President, Linda Mills, after police arrested students and faculty at another pro-Palestinian encampment. The chair of NYU’s Board of Trustees responded to that vote by expressing the board’s “complete confidence in and full support” of Mills and “her efforts to keep the campus safe.”

At Boston’s Emerson College, the Berkeley Beacon reports that “The Student Government Association (SGA), during its last general assembly meeting on Friday, unanimously passed a resolution calling on President Jay Bernhardt to resign after the four-day “Popular University Encampment” ended in the arrest of 118 protesters.”

All of this builds on what has happened since the October 7 attacks in Israel. Some university leaders have already been caught in the crossfire, with presidents at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania forced to resign over their responses to campus antisemitism.

However, the surge of protest activity and responses to it have now spilled beyond college campuses and become an issue in the 2024 presidential campaign.

Republican leaders and the Trump campaign are trying to use the pro-Palestinian activities on campus to suggest that President Joe Biden is in the pocket of radical leftists. For them, it is another sign of disorder in the country and the world that Biden has been unable to manage.

As USA Today notes, “During a rally in Wisconsin on Wednesday … Trump said: ‘The radical extremists and far-left agitators are terrorizing college campuses, as you possibly noticed, and Biden’s nowhere to be found; he hasn’t said anything.’”

He called on college presidents to “remove the encampments immediately.” Doing so would “Vanquish the radicals and take back our campuses for all of the normal students.”

The New York Times reports that “Mr. Trump has also used the protests to diminish violent episodes involving right-wing extremists that took place during his presidency. He tried to downplay the deadly white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, by calling it ‘peanuts’ compared with the campus protests.

Trump hopes responses to campus protests will reinforce his campaign message that we have a two-tiered legal system, with different standards for progressives and conservatives. He has framed those responses as contrasting to what happened after the January 6 insurrection.

As USA Today puts it, “Trump has suggested that officials might not prosecute the kinds of demonstrators who took over, barricaded, and vandalized a building at Columbia….In condemning the college demonstrators, Trump said this week: ‘I wonder if what’s going to happen to them will be anything comparable to what happened to J6, because they’re doing a lot of destruction, a lot of damages, a lot of people getting hurt very badly… I think I can give you the answer right now … and that’s why people have lost faith in our court system.’”

Not surprisingly, House Republicans are eager to back up Trump’s response to the campus protests. They announced that they would launch an investigation into the federal funding for universities where there have been protests by pro-Palestinian students,

Newspapers report that “Several House committees will be tasked with a wide probe that ultimately threatens to withhold federal research grants and other government support to the universities, placing another pressure point on campus administrators who are struggling to manage pro-Palestinian encampments, allegations of discrimination against Jewish students and questions of how they are integrating free speech and campus safety.”

Last Thursday, President Biden responded to the campus protests and the Republican political strategy in remarks at the White House. He started by drawing a subtle contrast with the way Republicans have responded.

“In moments like this,” Biden said, “there are always those who rush in to score political points. But this isn’t a moment for politics, it’s a moment for clarity.”

Then Biden tried to balance respecting free speech and protecting against disruption. “We’ve all seen the images. And they put to the test two fundamental American principles. The first is the right to free speech and for people to peacefully assemble and make their voices heard. The second is the rule of law. Both must be upheld.”

“We are not an authoritarian nation where we silence people or squash dissent. The American people are heard. In fact, peaceful protest is in the best tradition of how Americans respond to consequential issues.”

But Biden explained, “But neither are we a lawless country. We are a civil society, and order must prevail.”

“So, let me be clear. [V]iolent protest is not protected; peaceful protest is. It’s against the law when violence occurs. Destroying property is not a peaceful protest. It’s against the law. Vandalism, trespassing, breaking windows, shutting down campuses, forcing the cancellation of classes and graduations—none of this is a peaceful protest.”

Biden’s effort to strike the right balance reminds us he has a difficult political problem. He needs to show his support for Israel, hold the line against law-and-order attacks, but also not alienate younger voters, some of whom are either protesting what is happening in Gaza or are sympathetic to the positions protesters are taking.

Whether the war in Gaza, as Senator Bernie Sanders warns, will turn out to be Biden’s Vietnam and tip the election in Trump’s direction, remains to be seen.

It would be a supreme irony if the effort on college campuses to speak up for human rights and human decency in the Middle East helps those who want to sacrifice human rights and human decency at home and abroad.

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