fbpx
Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Campus Chaos Is the Deep State’s Fault

Protesters’ apocalyptic behavior is a reaction to higher ed’s subsumption into the establishment.

Minneapolis,,Mn,-,Apr,23,,2024:,A,Protestor,Draw,On

As the most dramatic campus protests since those against a national draft more than 50 years ago wind down, lucid, prescient voices have pinpointed their specific causes in ways that can shift policy for the better. These plausible policy shifts range from a more careful hand with immigration at home to a change in America’s approach to Israel abroad to sustained government pressure on institutionally-backed “wokeness.” But, along with specific causes, there’s a possible deeper reason for these protests that deserves consideration, one with a less controllable effect: higher education’s proximity to government power, and that proximity’s effect on students. 

For 80 years, elite universities and their emulators have forged connections with the Washington administrative agencies and their corporate, academic, nonprofit, and media outgrowths that form our “deep state.” These connections have increasingly stripped elite higher education of its knowledge-producing purpose, and set it toward minting a “power elite” divided between careerist technocrats and dissenting ideologues. In the process, over more than fifty years, they have created a new style of politics practiced by the ideologues with the implicit backing of the technocrats. 

Advertisement

This style goes beyond what is commonly described as woke progressivism and, though it has militant Marxist elements, it goes beyond even those. Its approach to the world is apocalyptic, and it is obsessed with purity, power, and victimization, which means that its closest model is fascism. Tracing how it developed and moved into politics since the 1960s leads straight to the black box that is elite universities’ relationship to the deep state. 

Eighty years ago, state universities founded off of Abraham Lincoln’s transformative land grants educated most Americans and were the focus of much of the country’s research and growth. National government spending to fight the Nazis and then the Soviets changed all that, giving unprecedented authority to a very different set of educational players. 

These were what we now think of as “elite” universities, most but not all clustered in the Northeast United States. Many had been founded or developed by Puritans, their descendants, or the Gilded Age industrialists who had bought their way into that elite institutional class. All of them were private. All of them had been developed along the German model of research universities, which were linked to the German state but given freedom for their faculty to perform specialized scholarship and broadcast their opinions. Staffed by administrators with international connections, these universities supplied early generations of civil servants to Washington, DC. But it was in the second part of the twentieth century that their influence skyrocketed. 

There was nothing sinister about this trend. Private universities had invested in specialized research and also housed scientists of distinction; the American government badly needed scientific research. Funding flowed accordingly. But, as a result, and thanks to a concomitant leeching of power from private sector unions, city parties, state legislatures, and moral associations, these universities increasingly became exclusive passageways to power in the United States. They also increasingly minted the interest group advocates, politicians, civil servants, and single-issue activists  now drawn to the centralizing politics of Washington, DC, and they became increasingly intertwined with the new national nonprofits operating there. Finally, they provided a model for state universities and smaller private ones that aspired to their influence. 

Advertisement

The result of this shift was twofold. On the one hand, universities began emphasizing metrics, campus expansions, leadership schools, and social improvement projects to prepare their students for applied leadership and extend their influence in Washington and abroad. On the other, they committed themselves to affirmative action to ensure that specific groups weren’t cut out of influence. They also set up administrative departments and sub-departments for these purposes. This began a slow-then-fast passage of power inside universities: from professors to administrators, from knowledge-producers to influence-seekers. Increasingly, beginning in the late 1990s, Washington, DC got directly involved. It increased university funding and then used its funding power to create surveillance bureaucracies inside colleges in the name of diversity and equality, notably regarding sexual assault. The House of Representatives’ recent legislation establishing “a broader definition of anti-Semitism for the Department of Education to enforce anti-discrimination laws” is simply another example of this trend. 

But the triumph of the university-as-power-center is only one part of the story. The other is the response this shift has created among the students universities say they’re serving. Many students entering major universities today, particularly elite ones, confront a dispiriting reality, perhaps reflected in rising rates of Ivy league depression: They have become low-level members of a global corporation. Their options are to join this corporation’s management ranks (with an economics, political science, international relations, or psychology degree) or become part of its permitted internal dissent (with degrees in anthropology, sociology, increasingly history, or a stint at a Teachers’ College.) It’s the manifestations of this second option, institutionally-underwritten dissent, that are on display at the encampments: protests, at some level, against the government money that funds both universities and the weaponry now being used in Gaza. 

But these manifestations are on display at a much higher, less manageable decibel level than at any time since the late 1960s. In many ways, those parallel protests more than 50 years ago are the clearest, least cluttered model through which to isolate the impulses at work in the ones today.

In the 1960s, a center of unrest, again, was Columbia. The driving issue, again, was universities’ ties to Washington’s defense apparatus and their resulting investment in another distant war, Vietnam. Again, police were called. But careful observers also noticed a more disquieting element surfacing, one that also applies today. A Columbia professor who observed the unrest at the university in 1968 described his students who participated in it—not just taking over Hamilton Hall but holding a dean hostage, presaging later events at Harvard where protestors threw administrators down the stairs—as trying to “attain the apocalypse.” 

This “apocalyptic” style had already migrated from universities to politics a year earlier, when some of the same players who would take over universities in 1968 showed up in Chicago. There, at the National Conference for New Politics, they attempted to fuse Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam activists to influence the platform of the Democratic Party. Many of the players at this conference shared a near-total, reflexive disillusion with the institutions set up to fight the Cold War, especially elite universities, which had promised them an education in the life of the mind and then sold out, supporting a government sending their peers to die in Vietnam. Now, they were taking their own stand against the structures. 

Like many rebellions by people who aren’t equipped for them, this 1967 convention reduced itself to the most basic forms of politics: crusading using the barrel of a gun; or enacting the primal dichotomy of master and slave. It ended up commandeered by Communists and Black Power advocates who formed squads to intimidate more moderate delegates. From there, it got taken over by self-proclaimed “dictators,” and devolved into what one observer called “an incendiary spectacle, a sterile, mindless, violence-enamored form of play.” People “performed rituals or confessionals”; “talked revolution”; “talked about…anomie”; and screamed, “After four hundred years of slavery, it is right that the whites should be castrated!” 

Troublingly, participants in these actions weren’t marginal players. Among them were people who would end up influencing, indirectly and directly, Yale and Columbia; writing for the Los Angeles Times; and advising the White House. In the years following 1967, they and others like them “sold out” and professionalized, becoming part of the power elite. But they didn’t entirely lose their top-down, confrontational, extreme style. 

Today, the trends that first surfaced in the late Sixties have hardened thanks to universities’ growth and the resulting rise of metrics-based education as well as its social justice-based alternative. They’ve also hardened because they seem justified by the American government’s increasingly obvious corruption. When these trends again manifested at the encampments in 2024, much of the coverage either ignored them or put them down to outside agitating, professorial brainwashing, or the urge to play hooky. But these latter explanations seem wishful. Radical organizing and classroom indoctrination need fertile ground to take root, and the students who took their rebellion the furthest did it under threat of suspension. The most extreme among them were protesting because they wanted what the protests offered. What, exactly, might that have been?

One of the things the protests offered was purity of the sort provided by traditional authoritarianism or utopian Marxism. Much of the extreme activism on display this spring reflected the desire for a rigid structure that bulwarked against creeping social corruption. The women at UCLA dressed in hijabs, at least one of them Korean, represented the traditionalist example of this impulse. So did the identification across encampments with the militancy of Hamas. The other side of this coin was futuristic: a utopian, Marxian, “unisex, and asexual” struggle of solidarity against the immutable forces of capital and empire. Protestors linking arms at the Columbia encampment to block students who might be part of the “oppressor class”—“ Zionists”—was an example of this side of the trend. 

But there was something else these protests offered: an even more disquieting manifestation of apocalyptic impulses let loose in a social vacuum. By the end of the protests, the master–slave dynamic in evidence in Chicago in 1967 was on full display.At one encampment, students—one in a hijab, one  brandishing an umbrella bearing the colors of the Ukrainian flag and another waving a Palestinian flag—advanced screaming and crying on police, with ragged cries of “Pigs go home!” and “Keep going keep going,” as the officers  executed a strategic retreat. These officers were in a bind: How does one deal with people who style themselves aggressors and victims? Stop them, and they’ll scream in pain; retreat, and they’ll leer and keep coming. At Harvard, UPenn, GW, UCLA, and USC,  similar scenes of “incendiary spectacle” played out, with students desecrating statues and American flags and college dormitories, getting off on destruction while embracing the language of the victimized and oppressed. 

Nor did this shift only happen under the pressure of events. Six months before, at the start of the activist wave, Harvard students, including an editor of the Law Review, pursued a Jewish peer across a Harvard lawn. They inflicted no violence on him. They simply cut him off every time he tried to move away, crowding in on him and chanting “shame, shame, shame” over Israel’s coming war in Gaza. Their play was, essentially, a mental one. They used the words of the victimized and the pose of the aggressor to reduce an individual to servitude. 

Many years ago, at some of the very universities where this impulse is now taking shape, professors theorized it. They looked at Nazi Germany, still fresh in memory, and tried to explain it with reference to theories of personality development. In their model, the German government’s rapid transformation of society from 1870 to 1930 had dislocated the German people, making them dependent on corporations, universities, and distant administrators. The trauma of the First World War exacerbated this dislocation; by the Weimar era, Germany’s rulers had leveled their country’s social landscape, creating a generation of people disillusioned with corrupt institutions and cut off from traditional religious and communal ties. For Germans who had lived through these soul-sucking shifts, buying into the Nazis’ extreme, ecstatic politics was emotional payback. They could submit themselves to a cult of absolute dominance in order to enjoy “the thrill of transgression” that “‘nice’ and ‘civilized’ people [could] never have”: creating a politics “detached from personality” and in hoc to emotional “highs” off the “abjections” and “derision” of others.  

It doesn’t take much imagination to trace the way this impulse found its way into Nazi propaganda and into the regime’s treatment of Jews. Frighteningly, in an America leveled and hollowed out by deep-state growth since 1945, the impulse has resurfaced today—not only with regard to Jews, and this time at the hands of the highly educated who have seen corporatist universities up close and become deeply disillusioned with them. In recent years, the impulse has moved between universities and politics proper with the implicit support of deep state operators, in pursuit of political gain. It was on full display at the two most hair-raising legislative battles of the past half-decade, the Kavanaugh confirmation hearings and the passage of President Biden’s climate change bill. 

At the Supreme Court hearings, women who said they’d experienced sexual assault lined the halls between the elevators and the hearing rooms dressed in red robes and white bonnets, echoing The Handmaid’s Tale, another spectacle; or they screamed during votes. When they confronted senators, their style was victimized aggression. Two activists followed the moderate Republican Jeff Flake into an elevator, with CNN’s cameras covering the exchange: “I was sexually assaulted, and nobody believed me. I didn’t tell anyone, and you’re telling all women that they don’t matter,” cried one. 

“Look at me when I’m talking to you,” the other screamed. “You’re telling me that my assault doesn’t matter.” 

A shaken Flake soon reversed his position and voted to ask the FBI to reopen the background investigation into Kavanaugh. 

Media networks broadcasting the exchange did not emphasize that one of the activists, Ana Maria Archilada, was the co-president of the Center for Popular Democracy, with links to John Podesta’s Center for American Progress, the main feeder for the staff of the Obama White House. 

Three years later, as President Biden’s climate-change bill stalled at the hands of moderate Democratic Senators Sinema and Manchin, the same moves were on display. Protestors followed Sinema into a bathroom and to a wedding despite the bride’s mother’s tearful pleas; they pursued Manchin to his houseboat, which they held up as a symbol of his capitalist corruption. Their style was, again, victimized aggression. “Big update. Big, big update,” went one missive on X:

We just found Joe Manchin yet again, in a diner. We swarmed it. We took it over. We seized control. We shut him down so hard he had to flee through the kitchen. We will not walk like sheep to slaughter. We will not stand down. Respect us or expect us.

There was more where this came from. Protestors screamed “we want to live” while blockading Manchin’s car, then accused him of trying to run them over. Or else they pleaded with Sinema that “your constituents are suffering” from climate change while also saying, “We’re breaking her, keep going.” Encouragement was provided by former high-level Obama administration staffers, who had no problem calling Sinema a “c—t”: a word which reduces a woman to an object to be acted on. Eventually, both senators came onboard a watered-down version of the bill. 

Since then, the impulse has surfaced in both culture and politics—almost exclusively at the hands of college-educated intellectuals or activists. In New York’s downtown art scene, an observer describes the dominant style as “a new, hyper-ironized brand of nihilism: nothing matters except the promise of virality, clout, and micro-fame (and the subsequent dopamine hit).” A similar trend is happening in transgender culture, where “the person who fully commits to extreme body modification is demonstrating superiority over others who only go so far as a haircut,” while justifying their move by militantly insisting that there is a “trans genocide occurring.”

***

Once the Palestinian issue began its ascent on college campuses last year, a highly developed and intentional version of this politics surfaced among the most organized drivers of social disruption. Worse, it was implicitly backed by institutional authorities. 

The Young Democratic Socialists at Florida International University have spent months targeting FIU’s president, Kenneth Jessell, over the university’s refusal to condemn Israel. February brought an arrest of an YDSA member for alleged battery of a campus officer (charges were later dropped), likely related to “students press[ing] up against FIUPD officers, edging toward the entry of the building that houses…Jessell’s office.” But militancy isn’t YDSA’s only pose. Texts from an instant messaging and VoIP social platform on which the group communicated, provided by a source with access to them, include a note from Joselyn Pena, the group’s Vice President, saying, “Walking next to Jessel should I trip him.” This post received three supportive emojis. Pena followed it up with an update: “he just went in [a building]-he thinks he can hide from me.” By April of this year, Pena was appearing in a complimentary article on pro-Palestinian youth activism in the “respectable” venue of Teen Vogue, whose editor boasts stints with the Obama campaign and MSNBC. 

Gen Z for Change, the most influential Democratic youth group in the country, is also deeply committed to the Palestinian cause. Run by student leaders who hail from Harvard, Berkeley, Vanderbilt and elsewhere, the group practices a more overt form of YDSA’s politics. According to its vice president, Elise Joshi, “any progressive change, by any means, is our goal.” In practice, this militant commitment means the same combination of victimization and aggression. Joshi talks about  “muster[ing] up every ounce of courage to interrupt” Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre at a White House press conference, even as Jean-Pierre is more than happy to allow her to speak. At the same time, Joshi has no problem “bump[ing] into Joe Manchin” and bragging that she made him “run around in circles like a scared-y cat.”  

This is not normal politics. This is militant politics whose practice is mentally regressive. It involves “acting out” to impact another person, achieve an effect, claim a role. It gets a “high” off breaking the social code, keeping someone off balance, enacting a “violence-enamored form of play.” The actors who employ this “violent and indirect” style confuse their targets by willfully shifting from subservience to dominance and back again. They create a politics leached of reciprocity, equality, or balance. Their obsessions are domination and submission. They have influence in institutions but no belief in them except as avenues to power. Just as in Germany in the 1930s, they are being used by inside operators to advance their own agenda. But for how long can the inside operators keep control? 

This, in the end, is the canary in the coal mine of the protests inside the universities that have sold out to the deep state. Fascism is slouching towards America; in fact it’s already here—just not in the way we’ve been led to believe.

Editor’s note: This piece has been updated with more precise language.