Education

The Far Right’s College Crusade

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Sitting in front of a roaring fire, Kimo Gandall looks and sounds like a politician from a bygone era. Wearing a three-piece suit and holding a tumbler of Elijah Craig bourbon as a soft jazz intro fades, he begins one of his “fireside chat” videos on Facebook or YouTube, taped at his parents’ home in Huntington Beach, Calif.

“I’m going to talk about the issues, how we’re going to implement them and how we’re going to change them,” says Gandall, 23, a former president of the College Republicans at the University of California at Irvine, before he delves into a detailed report on the financial situation of the College Republican National Committee.

The genteel setting sometimes includes a TV tray holding the Bible, Robert’s Rules of Order, and books such as Samuel P. Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, which theorizes about the likelihood of future wars between the Christian West and the Muslim East.

But Gandall’s buttoned-down persona is at odds with his darker views. He believes, for instance, that the United States is headed toward a race war fueled by progressive politics and the Black Lives Matter movement. “The leftist narrative now wants you to actually kill each other because you’re of a different race,” he said during a July 2020 podcast. “A lot of the leftist, BLM rhetoric — Black Lives Matter — founded itself on wanting racial division, right, when you have whites bow down to Blacks.”

David Walter Banks for The Chronicle

Kimo Gandall: “Our goal is not to be a big tent party. Our goal is to convert, essentially.”

Gandall, who graduated in June with a degree in political science, is not an outlier. Instead, he has become a key figure in California campus politics, and one of many young conservatives across the nation who are leading campus Republican groups further right, ideologically.

The shift has led to a schism among campus Republicans that mirrors the divide in the national party: In a dozen states, including California, campus conservatives are splintering, in part, over whether to support the former president, Donald J. Trump, and his populist message.

But the division also results from allegations that some campus groups are allying themselves with the far right: Individuals and organizations that are, to varying degrees, “antidemocratic, antiegalitarian and white supremacist,” Cynthia Miller-Idriss, director of research at the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab, at American University, writes in her book Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right (Princeton University Press, 2020). While such groups are not monolithic, Miller-Idriss explains, a common belief is that dominant groups — white people, men, Christians, Americans — face an existential threat from an increasingly diverse society. Within that framing, higher ed’s efforts to increase racial diversity and inclusion are seen as a liberal plot to erase white and Christian traditions and culture.

Clean-cut undergraduates who are savvy on social media cloak their extremism in irony and edgy internet memes.

As some campus Republicans move toward the far right, what was previously an assault on higher education from groups based largely outside academe has become an inside job; not a mob of tattooed white supremacists marching across campus in paramilitary costumes, but clean-cut undergraduates who are savvy on social media and cloak their extremism in irony and edgy internet memes.

The shift has been felt by some faculty, who fear that any minor misstep with a conservative student could lead to hate mail, a barrage of social-media backlash, and vilification by conservative lawmakers. Students and faculty of color, and those who are Jewish or undocumented fear that the rhetoric of these groups could spark actual violence. Even moderately conservative students find themselves without a place to share their political activism on campus.

Colleges are left in a quandary: How to deal with students who are hostile to core principles of higher education while also fulfilling their duty to uphold the First Amendment.

Gandall and other young conservatives are disillusioned with mainstream Republicans, who they see as too willing to abandon political and religious traditions to accommodate social and demographic changes.

He calls himself a “paleoconservative,” a term coined in the 1980s by traditionalists who supported strict limits on immigration, an isolationist foreign policy, and trade protectionism. The movement has also been linked to white nationalism, according to the nonprofit Political Research Associates, a social-justice think tank.

Gandall embraces the ideal of a “naturally ordered society,” meaning, for example, that traditional gender roles and heterosexual relationships are required for the good of society. He is against same-sex marriage and has said that “transgenderism is a mental illness.”

He opposes violence and says he could not possibly support white nationalism because he identifies as “half-Hawaiian.” While the College Republicans at UC-Irvine are mostly male and Christian, Gandall said about half its members are from Hispanic or Asian backgrounds.

At the same time, Gandall imagines a violent clash as “the logical conclusion of what the left is doing in their systematic oppression of whites, nationally and in California.”

His warning of a coming race war is a close echo of the far-right sentiments that gained new life during the Trump presidency. As anti-immigrant and white-nationalist organizations have risen to prominence in recent years, they have focused on higher education both to stoke the culture wars and to recruit students to their cause.

“Campuses are an important symbolic space for far-right activism, since colleges and universities are both producers and disseminators of truth and knowledge, and because they have the reputation, on the right, as centers of liberal indoctrination,” Eliah Bures, a visiting scholar at the Berkeley Center for Right-Wing Studies, said in an email.

Gandall, for one, thinks his former university is trying to indoctrinate people like him and his peers. Though he sees the value of a college degree, he’s not buying the talk of higher education changing the world for the better.

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Harry Campbell for The Chronicle

“When the university says ‘change the world,’ what they’re really saying is, ‘change the world in our Marxist paradigm,’” he said in a podcast interview. “That’s really what their goal is.”

While faculty members are usually more left-leaning than the general populace, conservative ideals are not entirely absent on college campuses. Wealthy conservatives and philanthropic organizations have spent enormous sums of money to establish privately funded institutes and think tanks within many public institutions.

At the same time, academics with far-right views have sought to appropriate the methods and tools of peer-reviewed science to rationalize their ideology, writes Miller-Idriss.

The far right is “using scholarly analyses of demographics, race, immigration, crime and identity to make arguments in support of white-supremacist ideologies and platforms,” she wrote, in order to give those ideas a veneer of respectability for the larger public.

Meanwhile, right-wing activists outside academe have spent much of the past five years spreading white supremacy on campus through inflammatory speakers and anonymous fliers. Richard Spencer, founder of the so-called alt-right movement, was a frequent guest speaker on college campuses in the early days of the Trump presidency, sparking outrage and protests with speeches that portrayed white, European identity under threat from a diverse society.

From early 2016 until the fall semester of 2019, white-supremacist groups like Identity Evropa targeted hundreds of college campuses by posting propaganda, according to data collected by the Anti-Defamation League.

The nadir of that activity was the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., when hundreds of white supremacists marched across the campus of the University of Virginia carrying torches and chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans. A violent confrontation followed, and the next day a man supporting the white supremacists drove his car into a group of counterprotesters, killing 32-year-old Heather D. Heyer and injuring dozens of others.

Since then, however, Identity Evropa has dissolved because of internal disagreements. Figures like Spencer have largely disappeared from public life. What has replaced them are student organizations with ties to individuals and groups that, on the surface, appear less extreme. In reality, they have just become more savvy about how they convey their beliefs.

As a representative of the College Republicans at UC-Irvine when he recorded the videos, Gandall is passionate about his political views, citing the philosophers Augustine and Aquinas and talking at length about how his Roman Catholicism shapes his politics.

A less-filtered view of what he and others in the group think can be found on their social-media sites, where they ridicule feminists, Black people, the media, politicians, and even moderate conservatives.

A video posted on the Irvine group’s Facebook page shows a clip of an orc, one of Tolkien’s goblin-like subhumans, from the movie The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, doctored to look like it is wearing a wig. The caption reads: “Why do all unmarried and childless feminists look and sound like this?”

A meme the group reposted spreads the disputed claim that the Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Khan-Cullors used money from the organization’s foundation to make real-estate purchases. (She has denied the accusation.)

On its Instagram account, the College Republicans’ group captions several photos by proclaiming that “the age of the weak, fat, ignorant and cowardly conservative is over.” Similar posts promote self-defense training, including with firearms, to help protect the country from the “radical left whom [sic] would happily firebomb our homes and kill our families if given the opportunity.”

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Harry Campbell for The Chronicle

Miller-Idriss said that such online memes and obscure references employ a common tactic of the far right. This “clever game playing” helps the groups create an insider culture. “It also creates plausible deniability,” she said, allowing them to say they are only joking when they post memes and images with racist or misogynistic undertones.

In an interview, Gandall said the point of the memes is to provoke political enemies but also to attract potential supporters. “The pedagogy, the method of teaching, is that first we shock people with the meme culture, right? It’s attractive and then we get people into the ideology,” he said.

Those kinds of views aren’t likely to win a lot of support on most public college campuses. But the aim isn’t so much political as it is quasi-religious. The messaging isn’t meant to attract a broad following and build political consensus, but to persuade conservatives to adopt a narrower ideology.

“Our goal is not to be a big tent party,” Gandall said. “Our goal is to convert, essentially.”

“I actually think we do much better attracting members when we have this consistent philosophical platform,” Gandall said, “and maybe we don’t have as many members, but we retain them much better because becoming part of the College Republicans almost becomes this social-networking circle of people you trust.”

The provocative messages are also part of a strategy to “shift the Overton window” — a concept named for an official at a conservative think tank — by widening the range of political discourse. “In changing the Overton window, you change what ideas are acceptable,” Gandall said, “and in doing so you de facto begin to warm people up to certain ideas that may have been distasteful by the polling results.”

In 2019, the California College Republicans organization was in turmoil. The statewide association of campus chapters was electing new leadership, and the favorite to win was Gandall.

The previous year, Gandall had helped the statewide group adopt a platform decrying public support for “ethnic, women’s, and sexually deviant ‘community centers’ and ‘theme dormitories’ that engender ethnic nationalism, racial animus and encourage degenerate behavior.”

He was endorsed by Ariana Rowlands, the departing leader of the California College Republicans, a woman with her own history of stirring up controversy. Twice during her tenure as president of UC-Irvine’s College Republicans in 2016, the group invited the provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on campus, sparking protests. Yiannopolous, a former editor at the right-wing publication Breitbart News, was making the rounds of campuses across the country on his “Dangerous Faggot Tour” that year, issuing lines like “feminism is cancer,” and “behind every racist joke is a scientific fact.”

When Gandall won the 2019 election, the California College Republicans split into two factions. The remaining chapters, about two dozen at the moment, describe themselves as the “Trump wing of the GOP” and include some of the state’s largest and best-known campuses — UC-Irvine, the University of California at Los Angeles, and Stanford and Pepperdine Universities.

The chapters that defected formed the California Federation of College Republicans. They now represent a slightly larger number of campuses but mostly smaller institutions.

The federation’s leaders say they left the California College Republicans because of the organization’s divisive tactics and messaging. “There’s a place for activism,” said Michael Curry, chairman of the federation and a junior studying political science at California State University at Chico. “It seemed like their only goal was to piss people off.”

Another reason for the split, Curry said, was that some members of the California College Republicans supported Nicholas J. Fuentes, the leader of a loosely organized group of young white nationalists who call themselves “groypers.” Fuentes has become widely known through a podcast and his America First Foundation, formed to “educate, promote, and advocate for conservative values based on principles of American Nationalism, Christianity, and Traditionalism.”

Those are familiar catchphrases for conservative culture warriors. But Fuentes has a history of making openly racist and anti-Semitic statements, including denying the Holocaust and “asserting that segregation and policies in the pre-civil-rights-era South like separate drinking fountains ‘was better for them, it’s better for us,’” as reported by the ADL. Fuentes has dismissed these statements as being jokes or irony.

“Groypers are explicitly about defending the future of the white race in America,” said Ben Lorber, a research analyst with the left-leaning Political Research Associates.

Dylan Martin, a spokesman for the California College Republicans, wrote in an emailed statement that the group denies any affiliation with Fuentes and does not “condone racist, sexist, or anti-Semitic behavior.”

Gandall, however, has a more nuanced view of Fuentes and his followers, expressing admiration for his “ability to rally otherwise disaffected people and convey issues in an easy to understand format.”

“Groypers are part of where the movement is headed, naturally,” Gandall said in an interview, but he added that he’s not one of them because they’re too “edgy” in statements that many consider anti-Semitic. “I don’t think they’re anti-Semitic, to be very clear,” Gandall said. “I think they just like making anti-normative jokes.”

I don’t think they’re anti-Semitic, to be very clear. I think they just like making anti-normative jokes.

The groypers have become better known on college campuses, in part, by challenging what is now the dominant force in campus conservatism: Turning Point USA, a nonprofit group that reports having some 2,500 high-school and college chapters and revenues nearing $30 million annually.

The organization has gained national notoriety for its “Professor Watchlist,” which seeks to “expose professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda in the classroom.” It has also attracted a steady stream of controversy for its tactics of seeking to influence student-government elections as well as backlash from more mainstream conservatives.

Turning Point’s stated mission is to promote principles of free-market conservatism. But the organization has ties to several far-right groups, and its leaders and representatives have frequently made comments that are racist and anti-Semitic, according to the ADL. For example, Candace Owens, TPUSA’s former communications director, has made several public statements that appear to defend Adolf Hitler and that minimize the threat of white supremacy.

Groypers, however, have shown up at numerous Turning Point events to ask provocative questions and try to discredit the group, which they see as too moderate. The stunts are also meant to recruit Turning Point members who may be open to more extreme views.

Several other College Republican chapters have since shown some connections to Fuentes and the groypers, according to the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights, a nonprofit watchdog of the far right. Clubs at Arizona State University, Husson University, San Diego State University, UCLA, the University of California at Berkeley, and the University of Maine are among those the institute identified as having connections.

Campus groups with more direct ties to the groypers, calling themselves “America First Students,” also formed briefly at Kansas State University and UCLA. Both groups have disbanded, and the founder of the UCLA group was arrested and charged in connection with the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol.

“The far right is attracted to campuses as a battlefield in their own ideological struggle,” Bures, the UC-Berkeley scholar, said in an email. “It’s where they hope to seize the youthful energy and dynamism for a cultural revolution on the right.”

Months after Trump’s November 2020 defeat, he continues to cast a shadow over higher education. Colleges are now trying to manage the confluence of two powerful and opposing sociopolitical forces that arose during his presidency.

One of those is the demand from Black students and faculty and members of other disadvantaged minority groups to undo decades, or centuries even, of disparate treatment that have helped create inequities on campuses and in society at large. The other is, essentially, the ever-present resistance to that demand, almost always from the people who have benefited from those inequities.

Given the nationwide magnitude of those movements, do a few meetings and provocative social-media messages of 50 or so members of the College Republicans chapter really matter to the learning environment and social culture at UC-Irvine or any other campus?

Most faculty members and students who spoke with The Chronicle said the classroom remains a relatively peaceful space.

Despite that, many faculty members are concerned that their words will be recorded and shared with conservative websites like Turning Point’s Professor Watchlist or Campus Reform. Faculty members who are featured in their reports frequently become the targets of hate speech and threats of physical violence, not to mention the opprobrium of some Republican state legislators.

“Faculty are being watched for any possible grounds of trying to radicalize students,” said Leslie A. Hahner, a professor of communication at Baylor University. In the fall semester, Hahner said, two students affiliated with the conservative Young America’s Foundation recorded every one of her lectures.

“Most faculty want students to be able to think for themselves,” Hahner said. “I tell them: I have political beliefs and you have beliefs; I am here to teach you how to think for yourselves,” she said.

Even moderately conservative students find themselves without a place to share their political activism on campus.

Gandall said that he has been outspoken about his conservative ideals in the classroom and that he faces far more pushback from students than from the faculty. The reason for that, he said, is that he is well-read and engages with his instructors thoughtfully.

More commonly, though, he said that conservative students find it easier to just go along with the instructor’s viewpoint because it takes extra time and preparation to challenge the prevailing “leftist” narrative. “Conservative students are not really being censored,” he said, “but conservatives have a market incentive to stay quiet.”

Teresa Neighbors, director of the diversity, inclusion, and racial-healing program in the School of Social Sciences at UC-Irvine, teaches courses that are meant to help students discuss social and political issues from a variety of viewpoints. “The first year I ran this course, I thought it would be difficult,” she said, “but I learned that they can handle this kind of discussion.”

What has happened over time, Neighbors said, is that as knowledge of the courses has spread, conservative students are less interested in enrolling. “There aren’t really many opportunities to discuss these issues in a classroom,” she said. “If conservative students aren’t coming to this class then that doesn’t happen.”

Outside the classroom, members of the College Republicans also have an impact on the campus culture by stirring up animosity against minority groups on social media and hosting provocative speakers, said Diane Le, president of the California Young Democrats.

The greater fear, for many, is that by celebrating controversial speech and ironic internet memes, they could inspire actual violence, said Rabbi Daniel Levine, senior Jewish educator at the Orange County Hillel, which serves students at UC-Irvine.

“The problem is that for some percentage of students this is a joke, without realizing how dangerous this trend is,” Levine said. “Like so many young students, college is a place of experimentation with ideas, but the groyper memes can’t be viewed separately from current and historical trends of anti-Semitism.”

College administrators are generally aware of the ideological shift of campus conservative groups, including at UC-Irvine. The question is whether they can, or should, do anything about it.

After the 2017 white-supremacist protests in Charlottesville, Va., UC-Irvine began a program called “Confronting Extremism” to encourage teaching, research, and service on ways to understand and lessen the threat of violence by people who are opposed to social justice and diversity in higher education.

But there is a limit to what institutions can or should do in dealing with the activities of student organizations that are protected by the First Amendment, said Douglas M. Haynes, the campus’s vice chancellor for equity, diversity, and inclusion. The university has policies and procedures for these groups and applies them regardless of the organization’s partisan affiliation, he said. What the university shouldn’t do, Haynes said, is treat partisan political activities as a kind of social illness, even when they are completely in opposition to the university’s values.

Others, however, are urging institutions to take a more preventive role in identifying and countering far-right activity on campuses, especially after a year when most students were socially isolated because of the pandemic.

The continuing racial-justice protests and the backlash against them are going to create a “toxic mix” on campuses in the fall, said Miller-Idriss, one of five authors of a guide for parents to help identify and counter online extremism that their children may encounter.

Carla Hill, senior investigative researcher for the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said one thing institutions can do is call out speech that is racist or anti-Semitic when it occurs. Colleges can’t tell students that they can’t express their beliefs, “but they can say, ‘This is bigoted language.’ We need to call things what they are.”

Meanwhile, the political forces that have pulled many campus Republican groups away from the mainstream show no signs of slowing.

Late in May, the California College Republicans organization announced its affiliation with two new groups with national ambitions. The first, “Republicans United,” started out as a sort of umbrella organization for chapters at Iowa State and Arizona State Universities. The chapter at Arizona State attended this year’s “America First Political Action Conference” — an event convened by Fuentes, the leader of the groyper movement — and hosted Vincent James Foxx, who has promoted racist and white-supremacist views and also spoke at the conference.

The California College Republicans, several of its campus chapters, and members of Republicans United are also among the more than 20 campus Republican organizations in 12 states that have aligned themselves with the College Republican Patriot Coalition. The group has published a list of its charter members and a position statement warning that immigrants to the United States, both legal and illegal, are stealing jobs and college seats from American citizens and are here to undermine European culture and values.

“The demographics of our cities have radically changed in the last sixty years resulting in cultural genocide,” the group says on its website. “When not fixated on the distribution of opportunity of resources, foreign ethnic groups quarrel amongst themselves over centuries old feuds, halting these conflicts only to unite against a common enemy: American culture and heritage.”

Through an anonymous spokesperson, the group declined to comment.

Even as groups with national ambitions attempt to unify a loosely organized movement, the fractious nature of the far right is never far from the surface. The group College Republicans at Georgia State University said that it had not been asked about being included as an affiliate of the new Patriot Coalition and that it had no interest in joining.

“There are numerous clubs listed on here with well-documented, extremely problematic histories such as blatant displays of racism and anti-Semitism,” said a statement that the Georgia State Republicans group posted on Twitter. “There is no language we can use to convey just how strongly we abhor such behavior.”

In California, the competing campus Republican groups have tried and failed to reunite, and the distrust between them has only seemed to increase.

In March, leaders of the California College Republicans at UC Berkeley announced the chapter was leaving the California College Republicans, calling the state umbrella group “disgraceful” and “a blemish and a scandal to the name College Republicans.” They also charged that some in the state organization supported Fuentes.

Martin, the spokesman for the California College Republicans, wrote that the group had no interest in attacking the other statewide organization, “but we do wish they’d stop spreading false rumors.”

Gandall said in an email that the attacks from the Berkeley chapter “are nonsense and a reflection of infighting rather than actual substantive allegations.”

But he predicted the problems of disunity nearly two years ago when accepting his election as chairman of the California College Republicans.

“There is a fire, it’s really an inferno at this point,” Gandall said, “burning through everything. It’s burned through our organization, it burned through theirs.”

“We all lose interest in the Republican cause,” he said, “when senseless drama occurs.”



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