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Campus Conservatives Should Check Their Own Trolling

On Monday, October 30, alt-right media personality Mike Cernovich spoke [1] at Columbia University at the invitation of the College Republicans. The invitation was an embarrassment. Cernovich has built a career [2] on leveraging the power of social media to turn lies into likes—he came to mainstream prominence through his Twitter promotion of the “Pizzagate” conspiracy theory alleging Democratic Party involvement in a child sex ring. He has claimed [3] that “date rape does not exist.”

The Columbia University Democrats quickly published an editorial [4] in the campus newspaper denouncing the decision to invite Cernovich. If they had followed the all-too-common campus script, they would then have called on students to shut down or shout down the talk, as has happened on campuses like Middlebury [5] and Berkeley [6]. But instead they urged a much wiser strategy: Don’t feed the trolls. “When students shout down extremists, these bigots are empowered rather than erased,” the editorial advised. “The bigots receive media coverage, and with it, legitimacy that they should never have.”

Instead of trying to prevent Cernovich from speaking, the CU Democrats announced that they would be countering Cernovich’s speech with speech of their own. They scheduled an event featuring speakers who would give an academic perspective on white nationalism at the same time as Cernovich’s talk.

They argued that bringing Cernovich to campus undermined, rather than strengthened, discourse: “If CUCR sought to represent conservative voices on campus, they would bring real Conservatives who can challenge liberal ideas and provide value to our campus. Instead, they’ve chosen to bring racist provocateurs, drowning any possibility of real discussion underneath their bile.”


Speakers like Cernovich really do erode the opportunity for discourse on campus, by polarizing students into opposing camps with speech designed to engage tribal emotion rather than reason. And extreme protest tactics really do make the problem worse—amplifying the trolls [7] while turning off moderates [8] who might otherwise be supportive of the protesters’ message.

It’s no secret that the campus left has done much to erode [9] the quality of discourse at American universities. But the campus right has been happily playing along, often sharing the far-left’s desire to turn campuses into battlefields at the expense of our social fabric. Many campus conservatives have chosen shock value and viral attention over intellectual rigor—nothing else explains the presence of angry buffoons like Cernovich at places like Columbia University.

To be sure, there is an important normative difference between groups seeking to add more speech to the public square and groups seeking to silence speech. As a rule, the former is preferable to the latter, and our laws and university policies should reflect that. Columbia’s certainly do [10]. But the left and right are participating in the same dialectic process, with the same end result: tribal warfare. This means our civic health depends on both camps choosing to reform themselves.

Conservative groups on campus would do well to look to the concept of “virtuous discourse,” which is central to the mission of an innovative cross-partisan network of college students called BridgeUSA [11]. BridgeUSA isn’t about watering down the debate—its founder was responsible for inviting conservative firebrand Ann Coulter to the University of California Berkeley campus earlier this year [12](she ended up canceling [13] due to the threat of violent protests). But it does demand what they call “virtuous discourse,” which acknowledges that free speech may bring no benefits to campus unless speakers honor certain responsibilities: to truth, to civility, to respect, to decorum. These words have a conservative valence, and a nobler mission—a community dedicated to the pursuit of truth and learning.  

The Founding Fathers believed [14] in “ordered liberty”—that freedom could not coexist without virtue. George Washington wrote [15] that the “security of a free Constitution” depends on “teaching the people…to discriminate the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness.” The Founders predicted [16] that forgetting this lesson would lead to despotism, as men who could not rule themselves would come to be ruled by others.

The importance of self-restraint through virtue lies at the core of both America’s founding and conservative thought. Young conservatives should feel proud to own such a rich intellectual legacy—it was Edmund Burke who wrote [17] that “the restraints on men, as well as their liberties, are to be reckoned among their rights.” In times such as ours, that idea is countercultural, and therefore powerful.

Even at the Columbia event, Cernovich and his fans demonstrated values completely opposed to this conservative ideal. A Cernovich supporter played a prank [18] in which he gave protestors a banner that contained a pro-pedophilia message and photographed them with it—at which point Cernovich and other alt-right figures re-tweeted the photo as authentic. Such wanton lying is precisely the licentiousness that Washington warned us about.

It’s hard to abstain from the attention and spectacle that inviting trolls can bring—and it’s even harder to avoid confusing this attention with the feeling that you’re accomplishing something worthwhile. That’s every college student’s dream, on both the left and the right, but they must navigate that dream in an age of social media dominance that constantly equates attention with worthiness. The Milo Yiannopoulos playbook [19] stokes this dangerous trend, Washington’s ordered liberty and Burke’s restraints challenge it.

Conservatives can live up to this legacy by inviting speakers that mount serious, academic challenges to the liberal orthodoxy that prevails on many campuses. Not only will they uphold the traditions that make universities special, they will be more effective at changing minds and advancing their cause. Far left hysteria over conservative speakers will look ridiculous instead of heroic if they’re protesting scholars instead of un-credentialed Twitter personalities. Fence-sitters will see that the far left is guided by quasi-religious dogmatism instead of legitimate critique. And conservatives will center their best ideas in the court of public opinion.  

Nicholas Phillips is a Research Associate at Heterodox Academy [20] and President of the NYU School of Law Federalist Society.

28 Comments (Open | Close)

28 Comments To "Campus Conservatives Should Check Their Own Trolling"

#1 Comment By John Buckenwellow On November 15, 2017 @ 10:54 pm

Yes, I was totally surprised by their decision to bring in that Cernovich fellow! By golly, my black grandson(I am white! so proud!) would have been the first up there to tell him about the contents of the CONSTITUTION! What we need in rough times like these are principled conservatives that do not care this much about the color of skin of immigrants! Someone like Ben Shapirooo would have been great and would have convinced more people about the value of FREEDOM and Israel!

#2 Comment By cka2nd On November 16, 2017 @ 12:22 am

There are times I really wish that the ethos that I think of as being embodied by John Wayne – or at least, the “John Wayne” character we saw in most of his movies – was still alive. Or maybe it’s a serious version of the dueling ethos. Cernovich and his supporter deserve to be punched in the nose for the “prank” they pulled with the NAMBLA banner at Columbia. Some insults really deserve to be fighting words, especially when combined with dishonesty. Talk about swine.

#3 Comment By BruceB On November 16, 2017 @ 2:07 am

Gosh, you were going along so well there. Then this

“Far left hysteria over conservative speakers will look ridiculous instead of heroic if they’re protesting scholars instead of un-credentialed Twitter personalities.”

Or, in a more consensus building, less partisan view, maybe the far left won’t become hysterical when responding to serious scholars.

#4 Comment By MikeCLT On November 16, 2017 @ 9:13 am

So Charles Murray will be welcomed on campus? Where have you been for 20 years?

#5 Comment By polistra On November 16, 2017 @ 9:24 am

Even better, don’t invite anyone at all. Celebrities of all types are shallow and flashy.

Instead, develop your own writing and speaking skills. Work together to prepare a diagnosis and prescription for some specific problem, then start applying the prescription.

#6 Comment By The Other Eric On November 16, 2017 @ 9:54 am

Does the right have serious speakers? You are talking about the party of Donald Trump and Fox news here.

#7 Comment By pbnelson On November 16, 2017 @ 11:00 am

Provocateurs like Cernovich get invited to campus when true intellectuals like 74 year old Dr. Charles Murray get lynched, q.v. Middlebury. Or do you prefer to keep that little “incident” in your memory hole?

#8 Comment By Nick Phillips On November 16, 2017 @ 11:27 am

MikeCLT and pbnelson:

That is the point of this section: “Far left hysteria over conservative speakers will look ridiculous instead of heroic if they’re protesting scholars instead of un-credentialed Twitter personalities. Fence-sitters will see that the far left is guided by quasi-religious dogmatism instead of legitimate critique.”

The point is that when the left freaks out over people like Cernovich, they can get the entire campus behind them. But when they freak out over serious scholars like Murray (or Heather MacDonald, etc.) they are much less effective at rallying support outside their core group. I know it may look like the left is winning the day when they shut down people like Murray, but I work with students at these campuses all the time (including students at Middlebury in the aftermath of the Murray incident) and I can assure you that the far left’s tactics were highly polarizing and kicked up a ton of productive backlash from reasonable people. That is the kind of dynamic that helps conservatives. When they choose instead to invite people like Cernovich, it’s conservatives that get marginalized on campus, instead of the far left. You may say “we’re already marginalized,” but if the goal is to become less marginalized, we need more Murray invitations and less Cernovich invitations.

#9 Comment By mjk 1093 On November 16, 2017 @ 1:23 pm

I’m sorry, how is Ann Coulter really all that different from Cernovitch? She believes in slightly different conspiracy theories? If your idea of “respectable” is Coulter, you’ve got a ways to go yet.

#10 Comment By Nick Phillips On November 16, 2017 @ 3:25 pm


Ann Coulter is different than Cernovich, because as far as I know, she doesn’t willfully lie and she supports her arguments with evidence. Cernovich, on the other hand, is a co-anchor at InfoWars with Alex Jones.

That said, Coulter is not someone I would be thrilled about having on campus. There is an overlap with Cernovich insofar as Coulter is motivated by an emotional desire to antagonize the left instead of offering her own positive program. I mentioned her in the context of BridgeUSA, who invited her in the wake of the Milo-Berkeley debacle to show that the right format can make it possible to have civil disagreements across large partisan differences. Obviously in some sense they were incorrect, because the threat of violence canceled the event. It’s hard to draw a precise line dividing the respectable from the gutter-dwellers, and Coulter is probably right at that line. Reasonable people can differ.

#11 Comment By Native Daughter On November 16, 2017 @ 4:44 pm

The student republicans group on my campus invited Milo, who then backed out for various reasons. I then suggested to them (on their Facebook page) that they invite a real conservative with IDEAS (gave them Victor Davis Hansen as an example) who could be debated with civility. We have Ben Shapiro coming, and while I don’t agree with much of what he says, he does fit into the into the category of intellectual rather than troll, and I am seeing no signs of protests developing. What I don’t understand is why so many college republican groups seek to troll their own student colleagues, and what they think they might gain from this. Something tells me that these kids lead everyday lives of monotony, and hosting a troll on campus is a kind of momentary thrill. I’d prefer they’d head to Six Flags and try Lex Luthor: Drop of Doom.

#12 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 16, 2017 @ 4:59 pm

“Or, in a more consensus building, less partisan view, maybe the far left won’t become hysterical when responding to serious scholars.’

I am unclear where scholarship is the permit for civil discourse or the card to pass the right to engage in discourse. It matter not a twiddle the scholarship. If the group invites a steel worker to address their organization, who hasn’t read word he should be free from violence response.

I guess its probably a good idea to skip what constitutes scholarship in the liberal mind.

Miss Coulter may be feisty. She may even be inciteful rhetorically. But I am unaware that she engage in the tactics described in tie article. Whatever her style, sarcasm, irony and deliberate play on words, mostly for comic play, she is in my view an honest broker in discussion and debate. That dos not mean I find her completely honest and transparent, but he isn’t going to bait and switch you, in my view.

Her rhetorical style can be exploitative, but she does embrace a dialectic form of discourse.

I am wholly unaware of any conspiracy theories he embraces. She has standard which I think she upholds. In my view, despite what economic harm it may cost her she has routinely called out Pres Trump for abandoning those who supported by abandoning the agenda he campaigned on. She has made no excuse for him on that aspect of his Presidency.

Though I would that she openly admit that Iraq was nonstarter and her advocacy was incorrect at nearly every level, he is not the same Miss Coulter of of three years ago. Commendable in my view.

She is an elitist, but I think she also genuinely a believer in the US first and last. And in that, I completely agree with her, every US citizen should.

#13 Comment By MM On November 16, 2017 @ 6:46 pm

What’s wrong with giving the Campus Left the rope to hang itself?

Alan Dershowitz is no right-wing troll, and I believe he’s pursuing a 1st Amendment lawsuit against UC Berkeley…

#14 Comment By M_Young On November 16, 2017 @ 8:40 pm

How about Jared Taylor?
And I’ll bet that ‘Academic perspective on White Nationalism’ had no actual white nationalists, or even people sympathetic to them (us) like Carol Swain.

#15 Comment By Pat Connor On November 16, 2017 @ 8:55 pm

I’ll be honest, my College Republicans group struggles with this, as there really is no sensible center to speak of.

Our leadership are libertarians who only want to talk about Hayek and “muh freedom” and are willfully or ignorantly blind to the culture war as it exists for us in our daily lives. Any talk of social conservatism gets the kibosh quickly from leadership, and it drives resentment, as most of us are not volunteering time and energy so that we can pretend that we’ll make Maryland a red state with a business friendly economy.

On the other hand, there is the Pepe crowd which has gotten bigger in the last year. They bring up valid concerns about how our club does nothing to speak to issues conservatives care about, and how we have a bunch of amnesty shills for leaders.

Neither answer is the right one. But we have avoided strife because we have avoided inviting anyone like Cernovich, mostly due to lack of funds for the campus’s “security” waiver we have to pay for an event like that, but also because most of us aren’t Pepe shills.

But I think it bears worth asking, what does young conservatism look like today?

5 years ago, it was all Libertarianism. That wasn’t good at all.

But now, a lot of it resembles a clash between those who want to tackle issues of race along identitarian lines, like in Europe (and interestingly enough, it is Asian and Indian students who seem quite interested in this in College Republican groups I know of), and those who want to join the Rothbard and Rand Paul fan club.

But what worries me is that the group is skewing more and more male. Our club swelled after the election last year, but when I was a Freshman, we were majority female by a small margin, and now, we are 75% male. That is not good for the future of the movement, and I think it reflects a serious gender gap that is only going to keep growing. Its not that our female members are any less conservative or skew in any direction ideologically different, but it does seem that yo get interested requires a countercultural aspect that I don’t remember when I signed up 4 years ago.

I will say this, though. If there is one thing that does unite us, it is the outrages of the modern campus left, and that in many ways has been good for our group. I worry sometimes about just how radical the campus left is getting (I’ve seen openly Maoist, not just Communist, but Maoist, posters all around campus), but it certainly has made our fractious group more popular in response.

#16 Comment By PR Doucette On November 16, 2017 @ 11:25 pm

I am all for free speech but when did we allow ourselves to get sucked in to the idea that it is a university’s obligation to invite and provide space and security for any speaker that some group of students may want to have visit? I hear people complain that university students live in a bubble of unreality yet never question if it is really a university’s obligation to provide entertainment (be that speakers, music or athletics) in addition to an education. Instead of worrying about what it says about free speech if some speaker is not invited or allowed to speak at a university perhaps we should be asking ourselves why these university students aren’t being told that if they want to hear a particular speak to go off campus out in to the real world (where they all will be living shortly) and take advantage of listening to whomever they want to. As for the speakers, if they feel they want to talk with university students then let them rent a hall and pay for their own security and stop asking everyone but themselves to foot the bill.

#17 Comment By Weldon On November 17, 2017 @ 2:50 am

I appreciate this piece, but surely the glaring flaw is obvious to you?

(Hint, ask yourself why academia skews left, and don’t imnediately assume a conspiratorial answer.)

#18 Comment By Gordan T. On November 17, 2017 @ 10:15 am

PR Doucette,

Thank you for the much needed pivot toward the bigger picture! In this age of ridiculous higher education costs accompanied by extravagant amenities whose relation to the core education mission is at most tenuous, these are indeed worthwhile questions to ponder.

#19 Comment By Centralist On November 17, 2017 @ 10:25 am


I know the answer, most conservative go into the corporate world, Wall Street, start their own companies, or the military. The skew is also only in some departments econ always seems to go rightward and is normally highly free market. The other liberal arts departments are often split about 3/10 professor are conservative. Those three often being retired business leaders or vets that got their Ph.D. and business majors are grouped under liberal arts. Law School also has a major breaking of it. In summation the University being Liberal is a stereo type leftover from 60s and 70s fuels itself by pushing left leaning into and right leaning out on average.

The majority of full time liberal arts professor are liberal because they would rather teach then deal with corporate America. Though as time progresses Colleges are more like corporations and corporations more like colleges use to be (go figure).

I personally want to go into academia, I like to research. I call myself centralist because my views are not neatly defined yet are all attributed to a slight vein of anti-authoritarianism and a deep belief in individual freedom stemming from biracial background, along side a military-union-small business owning family. It creates an interesting dynamic in the highly tribal America because I do not fit into one tribe easily and often people I talk to claim me for their tribe because of some of my thoughts align with theirs.

#20 Comment By Youknowho On November 17, 2017 @ 10:35 am

I know that now he is very old, and that travel might prove a hardship, but why not invite John Lukacs? If you want to challenge your views, right, left, or center, he is the man for you.

#21 Comment By Tyler On November 17, 2017 @ 12:33 pm

I quit reading once he was labeled alt right. You obviously took no time to learn what that even means.

#22 Comment By Colm J On November 17, 2017 @ 1:14 pm

I suppose a “real conservative” is some bow-tied chap who quotes Edmund Burke and Michael Oakeshott a lot – but doesn’t find anything revolutionary about the Neocon permanent war agenda – or anything uncanny about the de facto alliance between Neocons, antifa and the cartel capitalist media.

As for “conspiracy theorists”, the fact that “real conservatives” and Clintonistas still use this term as an insult in the wake of their absurd Russia- Gate hysteria, just goes to prove how far beyond satire modern journalistic discourse has travelled.

#23 Comment By E On November 17, 2017 @ 7:26 pm

alt-right media personality…

Aaaand we are done.

#24 Comment By Brendan Sexton On November 18, 2017 @ 12:04 pm

I am glad to see this conversation here for many reasons, including the ancient free speech rationale that in a free marketplace of ideas the worst ones will be swamped and fade and the better ideas will find fans,or even be “proven” correct if discourse can ever do that.
However, it is hustlers like Cernovich who stoke tribalism and that is a very real and current threat to our civil society. You can make a credible argument that since tribalism was one of the key factors in the last election it may be seen as a real threat to the survival of our species. I mean one of our tribes follows a chief who has both his finger on the nuclear trigger, and a bad case of narcissistic paranoia. (Occasionally delusional paranoia it is possibly redundant to add.)
This is no joke.
So, I am eager, anxious for political or intellectual leadership that helps turn down the tribalist fevers, that looks to heal rather than aggravate. If i go on along these lines I will sound like a hippy flower child, but I think you know what I mean. By this measure, Cernovich is poison. And while I agree that Coulter is an order of magnitude closer to actual discourse, she unfortunately needs controversy and even antagonism to make a living in the career path she has chosen (or, in her case, largely built).
I don’t need this. I believe WE don’t need this. My children and yours don’t need this.
So, free speech, yes, but let’s not abandon our capacity for adult thought and judgment in the name of enabling and promoting a provocateur like Cernovich. Is he *allowed* to speak? of course! Would I invite him to my campus, house, church, school, town square to do so? No sooner than I’d invite the Maoists mentioned above. And I surely would protest or find some other ways to get contrary messages out simultaneously with his appearance.

#25 Comment By Fayez Abedaziz On November 19, 2017 @ 12:58 am

Lemme get this straight:
Some of the right wing, alt described or not, are not ok to deliver you all’s conservative message cause you say that they are not scholars, that they are ‘twitter’ personalities…oh…really…? ha ha is this a joke?
Who are you and a bunch of the above posters saying is a scholar?
Why, Coulter!
And her qualifications are…
I won’t hold my breath for an answer from all you delushional right wing types.
She called for, you know, the bombing of the NY times. Ha ha isn’t that something, and cute, eh?
Lemme see, this bad news Coulter called for the slaughter of people in the Middle East and then force them to become Christians! How about that!
She calls liberals mentally sick and on and on and you all defend her?
She’s honest and a thinker?
Okay, no wonder it took a few minutes of listening to conservatives when I was a young cute (and I’m still good looking) college student to say: these people always want and love war.
These people will talk behind my back and say, “ah…is he a moslem”…ah… is he an aarabb.”
Hey hey…and that is how Coulter talks and that’s why you who like this phony defend her,
Because you are narrow minded!
And I don’t give a rat’s butt what you think,
I know you types are not the sharpest crayons
so, I say, no wonder I have been with the left, whether they were sincere Christians or Jews, who are often more willing to discuss
things then people like this article and the war loving hateful majority of Republicans and conservatives in America that are very ignorant.

There now can you dig it
I doubt it
cause you right wingers are haters

#26 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 20, 2017 @ 11:07 am

” . . . including the ancient free speech rationale that in a free marketplace of ideas the worst ones will be swamped and fade and the better ideas will find fans,or even be “proven” correct if discourse can ever do that.”

In all of US history nothing could be further from the truth. Some of the worst idea from the 18th century prevail to this day. And are perpetuated by men and women with Phd’s.

Scholarship in my view refers to academic scholarship. But it ha come to include nonfiction writing which once had to pass “rigorous” tests or so called “rigorous” scrutiny to get published.

While one can certainly take issues with some of Miss Coulter; analytical, it i clear that she ha engaged what passes for a scholarship in the area of non-fiction material outside of academia.

I am unclear what tribalism one wants to eschew. There are so man brads that acted as a means of oppression as well as a means of working into the system. The US in my view is at its core built from the ethos and culture of Great Britain. Anyone coming here out of Great Britain, had to get permission to do so. The war that was fought was a war against Great Britain. If you entered into the colonies, then your previous loyalties succumbed to those of the British and subsequently to the US.

The use of the word tribes is a disingenuous ply to with suggestions about certain people. But if one want to employ it then it applies to:

French, Italians, Germans, Portuguese, Hollanders, Danes, Greeks, Irish and Spaniards, etc. Notice color is not included because that category is not an ethnicity nor were those of a color other than those considered white even able to compete as individuals muchless as tribes until much later in US history.

Each if excluded from participating banded together to forge blocks of support. I have not even included the religious distinctions and their role in that process, which invariably included acts of violence and at least one case ethnic cleansing. But the rebuttal to exclusion and to eventual assimilation was mutual support for and from your group.

That is US history in the making.

#27 Comment By EliteCommInc. On November 20, 2017 @ 11:12 am

“These people will talk behind my back and say, “ah…is he a moslem”…ah… is he an aarabb.”
Hey hey…and that is how Coulter talks and that’s why you who like this phony defend her,”

She may well be a phony. I certainly have my issues with some of her advocacy. What I don’t challenge is her advocacy on immigration. What I don’t challenge is her advocacy on foreign wars. What I don’t challenge is her advocacy that the US first and last.


I am more inclined to defend her because I like women with legs and astute analytics than I am her fears of Muslims.

#28 Comment By Fayez Abedaziz On November 21, 2017 @ 12:08 pm

To EliteComminc:
Of course I respect your opinions, as I do others, have a good day and happy Thanksgiving
to you and to all.