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The Right Finds Its Spine

If conservatives can take a hard line on supporting Hamas, why can’t they do it on other issues?

Washington,,Dc,--,July,25,2016:,Senators,Address,Crowds,Outside
Credit: Kelly Bell

By renouncing communism and becoming a man of the right, Whittaker Chambers famously observed that he was “leaving the winning side for the losing side.” The modern history of conservatism is a testament to that insight: Elections are won, bills are passed, activist campaigns are launched, and coffers are filled by the bottomless ocean of donor money that sloshes around the beltway. But below it all, History continues to march leftwards, and those who stand athwart it yelling “stop!” resign themselves to measuring their victories in terms of the temporary roadblocks they can place in its path.

But you wouldn’t know that from watching the events of the past three weeks. In the wake of the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel, which claimed some 1,400 lives—including those of dozens of American citizens—the right mobilized with an unprecedented force of conviction.

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Conservative donors, abruptly realizing that our universities were hotbeds of radical activism, began to apply financial pressure on administrators—or simply halted their donations altogether. Republicans who had never seen an amnesty bill or a guest-worker visa they didn’t like became hardliners overnight, calling for the deportation of foreign nationals who expressed support for Hamas and pushing to defund universities that allowed pro-Hamas protests. Conservative groups embarked on an aggressive name-and-shame campaign against students and professors, compiling a “College Terror List” as a “helpful guide for employers”—and even trotting out a “doxxing truck” on Harvard’s campus.

In short order, the backlash yielded results. Universities rushed to respond to donor pressure, hastily issuing, retracting, and amending statements on the conflict while promising to take further action. Chastened students apologized for and denounced their pro-Palestine statements—but not before a number were fired from prestigious jobs and fellowships. Heavyweight donors called for an employer blacklist of Hamas apologists, the termination of top-ranking college administrators, and further financial reprisals against complicit universities. MSNBC was alleged to have removed three Muslim broadcasters from the anchor’s chair in the wake of the Hamas attacks. (Although the network insists “the shifts are coincidental, and the three continue to appear on air to report and provide analysis,” per the original report in Semafor).

This was a stunning break with the conservatism of the past 30 years. Until now, the institutional right had surrendered to a sense of inevitability about the left’s long march through the institutions. The conservative political imagination seemed unable to conceive of political possibilities beyond the low horizons of the status quo. 

That pessimism proved to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. When a newly elected Donald Trump sought to finally deliver a comprehensive solution to the immigration crisis—the campaign promise that had made him president—he was sabotaged by a revolt from within his own party. When Black Lives Matter burned and looted its way through American cities in the summer of 2020—including many major red-state metropolises—Republicans at every level of government alternated between displays of impotent rage on Fox News and active support for the movement. When a long line of campus uprisings plunged our universities into chaos, the GOP-controlled governments and conservative donors who supplied their funding saw no reason to intervene, let alone close their checkbooks.

Take the example of the GOP megadonor Ken Griffin. Just six months ago, the hedge fund tycoon bestowed on Harvard $300 million—a donation that Harvard repaid by renaming its Graduate School of Arts and Sciences after him. While it may not have been his intent, Griffin’s cumulative half-billion in donations to Harvard have helped pave the runway transporting campus radicals into the halls of American power.

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Last week, Griffin appeared to realize that this may not have been a wise investment. After employing his considerable clout to pressure Harvard into a display of solidarity with Israel, Griffin went on to pledge that his hedge fund would never hire the leaders of a Harvard student group that signed on to a letter blaming Israel for the Hamas attacks. (This pledge was echoed by numerous other powerful donors). “How do you end up in such a twisted place?” Griffin wondered. It’s an excellent question; it’s a question that Griffin could have asked a long time ago.

Marc Rowan, a private equity billionaire and big-dollar donor to Trump’s 2020 presidential campaign, was relatively sanguine about the campus wars back in 2021. As the chair of the board at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, Rowan chuckled: “I’m always the one [saying], ‘What about political diversity?’ And then they move on to lunch.” To his credit, Rowan did push for some piecemeal reforms, helping to create a “problem solvers” fellowship intended to promote political dialogue. But he was careful to couch his goals in anti-partisan language: “Let’s have a discussion of abortion from both sides,” he told an Aspen Institute panel. “Let’s have a discussion of gun rights from both sides.”

Rowan, who has donated some $50 million to Wharton, has now lost his interest in cross-ideological debate. In the wake of anti-Israel demonstrations on campus, the GOP donor called for the university’s president and board of trustees to be fired. He went on to pen an op-ed titled “University Donors, Close Your Checkbooks”—a directive that other powerful Republican donors have already taken to heart: Utah’s former Gov. John Huntsman, whose family has given tens of millions of dollars to the University of Pennsylvania over the years, pledged to “close” his family foundation’s “checkbook on all future giving to Penn,” observing that the university “has become deeply adrift in ways that make it almost unrecognizable.” But Penn had become “unrecognizable” long before this most recent episode: The Ivy League university has been ranked the second-worst college in America for free speech for the last two years in a row, down from ranking among the top seven free-speech campuses in 2012.

Nor is this rapid shift confined to the donor class. Nikki Haley, for example, declared that there should be “no more federal money for colleges and universities that allow antisemitism to flourish on campus.” Two days later, the Republican Larry Hogan, Maryland’s former governor, withdrew his offer to participate in Harvard’s fellowship this fall, citing “the dangerous anti-Semitism that has taken root on their campus.” It’s good to see Republicans suddenly discover that they don’t need to continuously fund institutions that hate them. It’s bewildering that it took them this long to realize as much.

The same is true on the issue of immigration. Senator Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, made a name for himself as an immigration dove first as a champion of the doomed “Gang of Eight” amnesty bill and later as a critic of Trump’s restrictionist efforts. “The reality is, you can’t do it,” Rubio said of Trump’s proposal to deport all illegal immigrants in 2016, adding that Trump’s so-called “Muslim ban” was "not a real proposal"—“I think it's bad policy for the country to say you're going to have a religious exclusion.” Last week, however, Rubio struck a markedly different tone, introducing a resolution to revoke visas and deport “any foreign national who has endorsed or espoused the terrorist activities of Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah” and other groups.

South Carolina’s Senator Tim Scott, a Republican who had joined Rubio in criticizing Trump’s ban on migration from seven Muslim-majority countries, is now calling for similar measures to deport Hamas sympathizers. He has struck an uncharacteristically hardline tone on accepting refugees from Gaza. Rep. Mike Carey, an Ohio Republican, signed a letter urging the Biden administration to deport foreign student visa holders “who have endorsed terrorist activity,” despite having penned another letter in January asking the administration not to deport Mauritanian nationals. Texas’s Republican Rep. Tony Gonzalez, who was moved to hysterics by a border security bill backed by dozens of Republicans earlier this year—describing the bill as “not American” and “un-Christian”—publicly called for war, presumably via U.S. military deployment to the Middle East, before the dust had even settled on the Hamas attacks. In May, Gonzales staunchly opposed the Biden administration’s efforts to send troops to our border. 

Hamas’s savage attacks are outrageous, as are the efforts to excuse or justify them. But so is the mass murder of unborn children in the womb. So is our open border. So is the radicalization of our universities, the carnage and violence on our city streets, and the systematic destruction of our history and heritage. That our conservative leaders have suddenly found their appetite for outrage is laudable, but it’s impossible to avoid wondering where it has been for the past decade.

Republican voters could have been forgiven for wondering why they should turn out to vote at all, if elected representatives like Gonzales were going to situate themselves to President Biden’s left on issues like immigration. They could have been forgiven for asking the same question of Rubio, Scott, and the numerous others who have spent their time in office soberly explaining why we simply can’t deport illegal immigrants or prohibit migration from hostile foreign nations. They could have been forgiven for inquiring where the donor class was when the campus radicalism it suddenly abhors was ransacking the country in the summer of 2020, or when the education system was teaching our youth to hate the country they are to inherit, or when the same factions that are now celebrating the slaughter of Israelis were fantasizing about doing the same to their fellow Americans.

Perhaps this will be a turning point for the GOP and the conservative movement; that remains to be seen. One thing is clear: There can no longer be an excuse for the right’s complicity in the degradation of our country. What the past two weeks makes evident is that our political crises do, in fact, have solutions. That our leaders failed to employ those solutions was not due to a lack of ability; it was due to a lack of will. We should all be grateful that they have abruptly found that will—and we should insist that they don’t lose it in the days and years to come.

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