Higher Ed’s Misguided Purging of Trump Supporters

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Illustration by The Chronicle

By Jonathan Zimmerman

In 1948, President Edmund Ezra Day of Cornell explained why his institution would never hire a Communist on its faculty. “It is a part of the established technique of Communistic activity to resort to deceit and treachery,” Day wrote. “A man who belongs to the Communist Party and who follows the party line, is thereby disqualified from participating in a free, honest inquiry after truth, and from belonging on a university faculty devoted to the search for truth.”

Plug in “Trump supporter” for “Communist,” and you get a pretty good sense of what’s happening on our campuses right now. Students and faculty are demanding that universities sever ties with anyone who worked in the Trump administration or backed President Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. And the rationale is the same one that was used against Communists and so-called fellow travelers during the Cold War: They don’t believe in democracy, so they don’t belong at a university devoted to it.

But that perverts the democratic ideal, all in the guise of preserving it. The real threat isn’t a horde of evil Trumpers clamoring at our gates. It’s our quest to root out the enemies of democracy, which never ends well for the university.

Witness a student petition that circulated at Harvard in November, shortly after Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump, urging the university to establish a new “system of accountability” to review whether former Trump officials could come to campus as professors, fellows, or speakers. Anyone who had engaged in “the subversion of democratic principles” should not be invited, the petition urged.

“A complete disregard for the truth is a defining feature of many decisions made by this administration,” the petition charged, referencing the Trump White House. “That alone should be enough to draw the line.”

But how can we decide who is honest enough to teach or speak at Harvard? After the January 6 assault on the Capitol, the government professor Ryan Enos put forward his own standard: Anyone who “aided a violent insurrection” should be barred from the institution. In a letter to President Lawrence Bacow of Harvard, Enos emphasized that he was “a firm believer in academic freedom.” But members of Congress who sought to overturn the election and “emeritus faculty” who defended Trump should not be allowed to work or speak at the university.

That was a none-too-subtle swipe at U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, Republican of New York, an advisory-board member of the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, who had repeated Trump’s unsubstantiated charges of fraud and refused to certify electoral votes from Pennsylvania on the evening of the riot. Nor was it hard to identify the emeritus professor in Enos’s letter: Alan Dershowitz, one of Trump’s lawyers in his first impeachment trial.

In short order, Dean Doug Elmendorf of the Kennedy School removed Stefanik from the Institute of Politics’ 13-member advisory board — not because of her “political ideology,” he said, but because of her false claims about the election. “These assertions and statements do not reflect policy disagreements but bear on the foundations of the electoral process,” Elmendorf wrote.

That seems like a simple dividing line, at first glance: Supporters of Trump are OK, so long as they didn’t support the overthrow of the election. But in practice, these categories can easily meld into each other.

Consider the recent letter to Dean John F. Manning of Harvard Law School, demanding that the school avoid hiring or hosting any Trump official or elected representative “who was complicit in the administration’s immoral actions.” That includes anyone who engaged in separating immigrant families, rolling back LGBTQ rights, or eroding worker protections, the letter declared. “We urge you to make a clear statement that people who condone and participate in anti-democratic, racist, xenophobic, and immoral practices have no home at Harvard Law School,” concluded the letter, which was signed by over 200 students and alumni.

That’s a formula for academic despotism, not for democracy. And the problem goes way beyond Harvard, of course. At American University, faculty members denounced the hiring of retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster — Trump’s former national security adviser — last November. Never mind that McMaster had clashed bitterly with Trump during his single year in the role. The Trump White House “promoted ideas and policies that are racist, sexist, xenophobic, and problematic,” one professor at American declared. And McMaster “has not spoken out against the Trump administration’s authoritarian policies,” she added.

Got that? If you worked for Trump, you’re automatically suspect. And the only way you can allay that suspicion is by condemning his entire presidency, forcefully and unilaterally.

Likewise, a letter signed by more than 150 political scientists called on universities around the country to refrain from hiring Trump-administration veterans “without first applying the strictest of scrutiny.” In particular, the letter said, we must insure that such candidates uphold “democratic values” and reject the Trump administration’s “regular attacks on academic freedom.”

But of course, these kinds of loyalty tests represent attacks on academic freedom in their own right. Nearly every state had a loyalty-oath law during the Cold War, when professors were required to swear that they would uphold the Constitution and — sometimes — that they did not belong to the Communist Party. Thirty-one faculty members at the University of California were fired for refusing to sign its loyalty oath. Laws requiring oaths remained in many states until the U.S. Supreme Court struck them down in 1967, warning against a “pall of orthodoxy” in American colleges and universities.

And make no mistake: Campaigns against Trump supporters aim to impose a new orthodoxy, all in the guise of protecting our freedoms. Just like the Red-hunters of yesteryear, our present-day political gatekeepers dress up their quest for miscreants in the language of democracy. To defend our system, they say, we must exclude those who have flouted its fundamental principles.

Inevitably, though, our own whims and biases will affect whom we deem an enemy of democracy. Will it be restricted to people who questioned the election results? Or will we add those who opposed Trump’s recent impeachment? Or, maybe, just anyone who voted for him? There’s no telling where that ends.

If you believe in academic freedom, you believe in it for everyone — or you don’t believe in it at all. That was the lesson of the Cold War, when over 100 professors lost their jobs or were denied tenure because of their actual or imagined connections to Communism. And it all made perfect sense at the time, as these kinds of witch hunts always do.

American spies had passed atomic secrets to the Soviet Union, speeding its development of weapons that could obliterate us. In Korea, over 30,000 Americans died while repelling a Communist invasion. Why let anyone who was playing for the other team anywhere near our universities? Keeping them out was “a matter of ethical hygiene,” the philosopher Sidney Hook wrote in 1953, “not of politics or of persecution.”

Likewise, it’s tempting to exclude people who have been linked to Donald Trump and his own attacks on our democracy. Representative Stefanik is the equivalent of a “fellow traveler” during the Cold War: Her statements put her in league with the enemy. She cannot be a part of us, because we love truth and freedom. She is a dagger at our heart.

But that’s the essence of historical hubris, which always imagines that we — and we alone — have got the whole darned thing figured out. We don’t, and we never will. That’s why we cannot and must not purge anyone because of their political beliefs, no matter how noxious they seem.

The biggest danger of all, in a democracy, isn’t whatever horrible group of people we have targeted at the moment. It’s our own timeless conceit that we’re infallible. Don’t fall for it.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with cartoonist Signe Wilkinson) of Free Speech, and Why You Should Give a Damn, which will be published in April by City of Light Press.

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