Donald Trump’s unexpected rise to power put College Republicans nationwide in an unenviable position. Young representatives of a party with an historically unpopular figurehead, College Republicans chapters across the U.S. adopted a number of different coping mechanisms. On some campuses, such as Harvard and Cornell, College Republicans unequivocally denounced him. The decision by the executive board of Yale College Republicans to endorse Trump for president precipitated the group’s fracture. On campuses like our own, the College Republicans simply pretend Donald Trump does not exist.
Even so, the leadership of the College Republicans at UChicago has been remarkably adept at keeping themselves relevant, mostly due to the the particularly prominent role the University plays in the so-called campus free speech debate. The College Republicans have styled themselves as vanguards of free speech on campus against a rabidly intolerant left. And if TV news appearances are to be our metric, this strategy is working fairly well. This is also happening at the national level; the current president of the College Republican National Committee made it very clear that he believes “the Republican Party is the party of free speech, we’re the party of tolerance, [and] we’re the party of inclusion,” which—I mean, come on, seriously. Free speech advocacy provides a narrative framework for young Republicans to escape the indictment of intolerance aimed at a Grand Old Party administration that is still vehemently anti-gay and apparently has trouble condemning white supremacists. It gives them a means to challenge and oppose the left without risking too overt an association with Trump, and particularly for the group’s figureheads, it provides significant limelight on a national level.
All this is not to say the issue of free speech and its proper boundaries on college campuses is not an issue worth consideration; however, the most recent way in which UChicago’s College Republicans rhetorically deployed the issue is beyond inappropriate. This past week proves the extent to which some of the UChicago College Republicans, or at least their leadership, will go to forcibly contextualize national events into the existing narrative of the intolerant, anti-speech left. I am not going to re-litigate the issues surrounding what happened in Charlottesville save to say that our President completely failed to marshall any measure of convincing spiritual and moral leadership in the wake of a Neo-Nazi terrorist attack against anti-racist protestors. This should come as a surprise to exactly no one. Our College Republicans statement regarding the tragedy, while certainly better than Trump’s, is still profoundly misguided.
The University of Chicago College Republicans opted to frame the Charlottesville tragedy in terms of free speech. This is ridiculous and unacceptable. To be clear: What transpired that day is absolutely not “a reminder that the fight to protect the rights to free speech and peaceful assembly” remain paramount. It is a reminder that racism and racists are evil and their ideals are incompatible with the values of a truly free liberal democracy by their very nature, something philosophers like Karl Popper have argued for a long time already. The statement is a transparent attempt to appropriate the heroism of protesters confronting literal neo-Nazis sporting MAGA hats, some of whom were mortally injured or killed as a result, and use it to bolster their own image.
The leadership of College Republicans on campus is obviously in an awkward position. With clear future political ambitions, they cannot make explicit criticism of Donald Trump, lest they wish to face the wrath of the RNC in the same way the groups at Harvard and Cornell did, to say nothing of an apparent minority of Trump supporters within their own ranks. That same ambition necessitates a proud, aggressive image of young, intelligent Republicans fighting for free speech. Using what happened in Charlottesville to that end, however, is incoherent and indefensible.
Jake Eberts is a fourth-year in the College majoring in political science.