Republicans Add Fuel to the Fire as Student Arrests Sweep College Campuses

Tensions have been boiling over at American universities for more than a week now, as protests over the war in Gaza continue to spread on campuses across the country. But Republican leaders are turning up the temperature with increasingly extreme rhetoric—intent, it seems, on escalating an already-fraught situation.

During a visit Wednesday to Columbia University, House Speaker Mike Johnson called on President Joe Biden to send in National Guard troops if pro-Palestinian demonstrations weren’t “contained”—echoing earlier calls by Mitch McConnell and other top Republicans to quash the protests by force. “This is dangerous,” Johnson said, as hecklers booed and chanted. “Go back to class and stop the nonsense,” he told student protesters, who have been encamped at Columbia since last Wednesday. “Stop wasting your parents’ money.” Meanwhile, as Johnson antagonized student activists in New York, Greg Abbott was deploying state troopers to the University of Texas at Austin, where nearly 60 demonstrators were arrested after 500 students walked out in protest of the school’s financial ties to Israel. “These protesters belong in jail,” Abbott said of the demonstration. “Students joining in hate-filled, antisemitic protests at any public college or university in Texas should be expelled.”

Donald Trump, never one to miss an opportunity to score political points, also decried the demonstrations Wednesday, likening the antiwar activists to the white supremacists who marched on Charlottesville, Virginia, during the first year of his presidency. “Charlottesville is like a ‘peanut’ compared to the riots and anti-Israel protests that are happening all over our Country,” Trump insisted.

The comparison is hardly justified, of course: Charlottesville’s “Unite the Right” rally—which was organized by neo-Nazi and far-right militias—resulted in one death and almost forty injuries when a white supremacist drove a car through a throng of peaceful counterprotesters. This week’s demonstrations, by contrast, have involved no significant or widespread physical violence by activists—though there have been notable incidents of harassment and intimidation that raise legitimate concerns about an antisemitic contingent of the movement.

Biden—who has repeatedly maintained “ironclad” support for Israel despite mounting Democratic criticism over the war, which has resulted in the deaths of over 34,000 Palestinians—has explicitly condemned those antisemitic incidents, as have others in his orbit. “No student should live in fear on campus,” Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff wrote last weekend, after several Jewish students at Columbia were targeted with harassment by some pro-Palestine protesters. “Colleges and universities, along with their leadership, must do better.”

All of this, however, is no object for Trump and his allies, many of whom are defining the demonstrations by certain instances of harassment, conflating any criticism of Israel with antisemitism, and further inflaming what’s already a tense conflict. “Republicans are cynically, brutally escalating for their own political advantage,” as Indivisible’s Leah Greenberg put it Thursday. “They want to crack down on protest and dissent and flex their power to go after college kids.”

The GOP’s rhetoric is not just cynical but dangerous, and calls to mind the extreme crackdowns on Vietnam War protests outside Chicago’s Democratic convention in 1968 and at Kent State in 1970—the latter of which ended with four dead and nine wounded after the Ohio National Guard fired on the crowd of students. “We must not repeat the horrors of Kent State 54 years later,” Laurel Krause, the sister of one of the students killed in that massacre, said in response to university efforts to quell the protests.

Indeed, many school responses have been over-the-top, counterproductive, and have led only to more unrest—and it goes without saying that the GOP’s attempts to capitalize on that unrest may only make matters worse. “It’s a complete clown show,” Representative Ilhan Omar, whose daughter was suspended for participating in the Columbia protest, said on MSNBC after Johnson’s appearance at Columbia. “These people do not care about violent protests. They don’t care about the First Amendment. They care about performing their political theater.”

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