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Trump, GOP seize on campus protests to depict chaos under Biden

Former president Donald Trump and other prominent Republicans are seizing on the eruption of campus protests across the country to depict the United States as out of control under President Biden, seeking to use the mostly peaceful demonstrations as a political cudgel against the Democrats.

The pro-Palestinian protests at numerous colleges — including Columbia, Yale, Emory, the University of Southern California, the University of Texas at Austin and others — include encampments and barricades intended to highlight protesters’ denunciation of Israel’s military onslaught in Gaza, as well as to push universities to divest from companies with ties to Israel.

Beyond the disruption to campus life, top Republicans have highlighted the antisemitic chants that have occurred at some of the protests. The issue is complicated by a debate over what constitutes antisemitism — and when criticism of Israel crosses that line — while some student organizers have denounced the chants or said they are coming from outside activists.

Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has cited the protests to accuse Biden and Democrats of being unable to maintain order or quash lawlessness, an accusation he has leveled at the president on other hot-button political issues. He has also highlighted the protests as a way to air his own political grievances, including the lack of similar demonstrations around his current criminal trial.

As the protests have mushroomed in recent days, numerous Republicans have sought ways to highlight them as an example of the country’s slide into chaos. Several Republican lawmakers, including House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), have visited the campus of Columbia University, the site of some of the most sweeping protests, to call for its president to resign for purportedly failing to contain the demonstrations.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, dispatched more than 100 state troopers to the University of Texas at Austin to clear out pro-Palestinian protesters, resulting in dozens of arrests. Most of the charges against the protesters were later dropped.

The campus protests present conservatives with some of their favorite targets: elite universities, progressive activists, “woke” culture and civil rights leaders. In addition, attacking the protests allows Republicans to change the subject from less friendly political terrain, such as abortion rights and the war in Ukraine.

Their rhetoric is harsh in many cases. Sens. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) and Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) have demanded that Biden mobilize the National Guard to protect Jewish Americans on campus. Hawley compared the standoff to the battle over segregation in 1957, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower summoned the National Guard to force the integration of Central High School in Little Rock.

Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) suggested the college protesters were mentally unstable. “You don’t get to turn our public places into a garbage dump. No civilization should tolerate these encampments. Get rid of them,” Vance posted on X. “If you want to protest peacefully fine. It’s your right. But go home and take a shower at the end of the day. These encampments are just gross. Wanting to participate in this is a mental illness.”

The GOP rhetoric has not been limited to campus protests, sometimes covering pro-Palestinian actions more broadly, including those that have shut down roads and bridges in some cities. Cotton, in a post on X, urged those who get stuck behind “pro-Hamas mobs blocking traffic” to “take matters into your own hands.” Following criticism that some might read that as a call to violence, Cotton amended his post to say “take matters into your own hands to get them out of the way.”

Supporters of the campus protests say they are peaceful, and that accusations of antisemitism are often a pretext to shut down dissenting voices.

The students are “peacefully protesting for an end of the Israeli genocide against Palestinians in Gaza,” the group Jewish Voices for Peace, which supports a cease-fire in Gaza, said of the Columbia protests. “ … We condemn any and all hateful or violent comments targeting Jewish students; however, in shutting down public protest and suspending students, the actions of the University of Columbia are not ensuring safety for Jewish students — or any students — on campus.”

The Israel-Gaza war has deeply fractured the Democratic Party, posing significant political challenges to Biden months ahead of November’s presidential contest. Biden pledged steadfast support of Israel after Hamas militants stormed through the Israel-Gaza border on Oct. 7 and killed 1,200 people, many of them civilians, and took 253 hostage, according to Israeli authorities.

Israel responded with a punishing military campaign in Gaza that has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, imposing a siege that has created a humanitarian catastrophe as Gaza’s health system has collapsed and the population faces a looming famine. The resulting protest movement has electrified many younger voters and progressives, as well as others in the Democratic coalition that Biden needs to repeat his 2020 win, who have called for the United States to impose conditions for aid to Israel or suspend it altogether.

Democrats have voiced a range of views on the legitimacy of the protests, and Biden has sought a balance between condemning antisemitism and supporting students’ right to protest. Republicans, in contrast, are largely unified in casting the demonstrations as a disgrace, echoing conservative denunciations of the anti-Vietnam War protests of the 1960s.

Trump this week called a 2017 neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville — which he said at the time had “very fine people on both sides,” prompting a bipartisan backlash — a “peanut” compared with the current protests on campuses. Speaking to reporters after attending his criminal trial in New York on Thursday, Trump repeated the comments he wrote on social media and went further. He called the Charlottesville gathering, where a counterprotester was killed, “a little peanut” and added, “it was nothing compared — the hate wasn’t the kind of hate that you have here.”

Trump has contrasted the pro-Palestinian demonstrations with the lack of protests outside the Manhattan courthouse where he is on trial for an alleged hush money scheme. In seeking to blame Biden for the campus protests, Trump has accused the president of hating Israel, Jews and Palestinians, and accused Jewish Democrats of hating their religion. Many of the protesters are Jewish students, and progressive Jewish organizations have helped lead a number of protest movements since the war began in October.

“The Courthouse area in Lower Manhattan is in a COMPLETE LOCKDOWN mode, not for reasons of safety, but because they don’t want any of the thousands of MAGA supporters to be present,” Trump wrote on Truth Social on Thursday. “If they did the same thing at Columbia, and other locations, there would be no problem with the protesters!”

The tone of the criticism is not new; since Biden took office, Trump and other Republicans have pushed the notion that America is descending into chaos and lawlessness on his watch. From illegal immigration to soaring inflation to violent crime, they have regularly painted a picture of a country out of control.

These assertions have often been exaggerated or without context, but Trump has seized on them to promise a fierce crackdown should he return to power.

And during his 2020 reelection campaign, Trump tweeted in response to the large-scale protests over the police killing of George Floyd, which were mostly peaceful but occasionally turned to looting, writing, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The post was widely criticized for potentially encouraging private citizens, or police officers, to take deadly aim at looters.

Trump’s own position on Israel has often been hard to pin down. He has tried to position himself as a firm defender of Israel, but he has also criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s handling of the war and sought to exploit the fissures in Biden’s coalition over U.S. support of Israel.

After the Oct. 7 attack, Trump insulted Israel’s leaders while praising the intelligence of the Hezbollah militant group. Faced with a backlash to that comment, the former president proposed harsh policies against Muslim migrants, saying he would reimpose his ban on travel from Muslim-majority countries and deport students involved in pro-Palestinian demonstrations.

In the weeks after the Hamas massacre, Trump said his administration would revoke student visas of “radical, anti-American and antisemitic foreigners.” Other Republicans still running for president at the time — including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) — and GOP members of Congress similarly called for the visas of “pro-Hamas” foreign students to be revoked.

The spread of the college protests has ignited a renewed Republican response. When word circulated last Wednesday that pro-Palestinian protesters were planning to occupy a lawn at the University of Texas, Gov. Abbott sought to show that his Republican-dominated state would not tolerate a repeat of the encampment at Columbia University, dispatching state troopers.

The Texas Department of Public Safety said it responded to the campus “at the direction of” Abbott, who applauded the crackdown on social media. He said the protesters “belong in jail” and that any student participating in “hate-filled, antisemitic protests” at public colleges should be expelled.

Incidents at some universities have fed the criticisms, though pro-Palestinian activists say they are isolated incidents. Video re-emerged this week of a Columbia student who has taken part in the pro-Palestinian protest encampments declaring that “Zionists don’t deserve to live.” The student, Khymani James, made the comments in a video posted in January, although he has since stated that they were wrong. Columbia said it had barred the student from campus, but it was unclear whether he was suspended or expelled.

In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp (R), following protests in several cities including Chicago and San Francisco, stressed that he would not tolerate anything similar in his state. Recounting a conversation with Georgia’s public safety commissioner, he said: “You know how I feel about people blocking bridges, airports and other things like we’re seeing around the country. I said, ‘If they do that, lock their ass up.’”

In New York City, Speaker Johnson and a group of GOP lawmakers visited Columbia’s campus on Wednesday, where they demanded that the university’s president, Nemat “Minouche” Shafik, resign for failing to quickly dismantle the pro-Palestine encampments and, in their view, for not doing enough to ensure that Jewish people on campus felt safe.

Their visit appeared to raise tensions, as Johnson was met with boos and pro-Palestinian chants. One student yelled at Johnson to “get off our campus,” while another shouted, “go back to Louisiana, Mike!”

And on Capitol Hill, Republicans last week urged the Biden administration to intervene in the demonstrations. Rep. Elise Stefanik (N.Y.), a top-ranking House Republican, sent a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas and Attorney General Merrick Garland, calling on them to deport students who she said “are brazenly endorsing Hamas and other terrorist organizations” by participating in demonstrations and related events on campus.

Separately, a group of 27 Senate Republicans, including every member of the Senate GOP leadership team, signed onto a letter to Cardona and Garland calling on the administration “to take action to restore order and protect Jewish students on our college campuses.”

“The Department of Education and federal law enforcement must act immediately to restore order, prosecute the mobs who have perpetuated violence and threats against Jewish students, revoke the visas of all foreign nationals (such as exchange students) who have taken part in promoting terrorism, and hold accountable school administrators who have stood by instead of protecting their students,” the letter said.

Isaac Arnsdorf contributed reporting.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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