When President Donald Trump convened the White House Conference on American History in mid-September, he wowed attendees with news that he’d signed an executive order establishing a National Committee to Promote Patriotic Education.
This was necessary, he said, because U.S. teachers have been pushing students “to hate America.” The major culprit? The late Howard Zinn’s 40-year-old, 784-page book, A People’s History of the United States. Trump accused the World War II veteran-turned-scholar of promoting “propaganda” intended to make students “ashamed of their own history.”
Unsurprisingly, Trump’s audience ate up these declarations, but however rapturous the response, neither his rhetoric nor his conclusions were particularly new. In fact, he was repeating a longstanding trope about U.S. education, zeroing in on those responsible for delivering both critical thinking and concrete skills to future generations of leaders and workers. And, while Trump did not specifically mention college professors, the idea that a cadre of left-wing educators are indoctrinating impressionable young adults has become the raison d’être for a host of conservative groups that are working to establish a firm toehold on campuses throughout the 50 states: Campus Reform, the College Fix, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, the Leadership Institute, the National Association of Scholars and Turning Point USA, among them.
Stay in the loop
Never miss the news and analysis you care about.
Of particular interest — and urgency — for them is the denunciation of scholar-activists who support Black Lives Matter and anti-fascism (or “antifa”).
Alexander Riley, a Bucknell University sociology professor, made the case against antifa on Campus Reform’s daily blog, calling the anti-fascist movement “a loose confederation of half-educated malcontents who entirely reject the logic of intellectual debate.” He then went on to say that antifa groups want “to crush the skulls of those with whom they disagree in the manner of sociopathic criminals throughout humanity.”
Black Lives Matter has been similarly slammed, with founder Patrisse Cullors repeatedly referred to as a “trained Marxist” whose agenda includes the “destruction of the family.” Pulitzer Prize winner Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project has also been hammered for teaching “self-loathing.”
As vitriolic as these statements are, it is important to note that Campus Reform does far more than publish a hyperbolic blog.
Training the Next Generation
As Truthout has previously reported, Campus Reform trains conservative students to become paid “campus journalists” who “report” on progressive faculty and student groups whose views they oppose. It is a project of the 41-year-old Leadership Institute, a multimillion-dollar organization with deep roots in the Reagan-era New Right, that, in 2016 alone, spent $15.8 million on campus activities.
Conservative donors have been more than happy to pony up for the cause, and Campus Reform’s work has been made possible thanks to the support of foundations connected to libertarian billionaire Charles Koch and dark money outlets, including Donors Trust and the Donors Capital Fund that the Charles Koch Foundation controls. Other support for Campus Reform has come from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Ed Uihlein Family Foundation, mutual fund manager Foster Friess, and other deep-pocketed donors.
This support has enabled Campus Reform to train students to monitor and report on progressive campus activism and establish conservative organizations to counter the purported left-wing biases they claim are evident at every college and university in the country. The group also places affiliated students on a fast-track to jobs at conservative think tanks; media outlets including Breitbart, The Daily Caller and Fox News; and with local, state and federal lawmakers once they graduate.
Case in point: Gabriel Nadales. Nadales is currently the regional field coordinator at the Leadership Institute and is a frequent contributor to the Campus Reform blog. Although he did not respond to Truthout’s three requests for an interview, his YouTube videos, frequent appearances on Fox News, and writing about his time as an “antifa activist” consistently portray the anti-fascist left as “hateful people” who think they are opposing totalitarianism, but who are instead little more than “domestic terrorists.” As Nadales tells it, when he was 16, he was lured to demonstrations protesting cuts to public education. “I wanted to be part of fighting for a better world,” he told Fox News. “I thought the U.S. was a fascist nation. I didn’t believe in America.”
That was in 2010. Nadales’s conversion to conservatism, he says, occurred after he enrolled in southern California’s Citrus College, where he was introduced to the economic theories of Milton Friedman and Thomas Sowell. Their insights, he says, caused him to do a complete 180 and he subsequently found his way to mentorship at the Leadership Institute, formed a Young Americans for Liberty chapter at Citrus, and took his spot on the conservative lecture circuit after he completed his studies.
“Antifa does not stand for something. They stand against something. They stand against the First Amendment,” Nadales told Fox News’s Laura Ingraham. “They are such cowards that they have to cover their faces and are mostly up to something not good.”
Very Fine People
Nadales is hardly alone in making these assertions, and they have had an impact, placing faculty who have expressed support for antifa groups and Black Lives Matter in Campus Reform’s crosshairs. Some have also found their way onto the Professor Watchlist maintained by Turning Point USA, a list of hundreds of college faculty members who are openly critical of capitalism, or who support movements for social justice that the right finds threatening to business as usual.
This includes Truthout contributor and Rutgers history professor Mark Bray, author of Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, published by Melville House. “My first run-in with Campus Reform was right after my book came out in August 2017 when they noticed me on ‘Meet the Press,’” he told Truthout. It was two weeks after the “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, Virginia, and Bray says that Campus Reform misconstrued his comments about violence and reached out to the president of Dartmouth College, where Bray was then a visiting professor, for comment. “President [Philip] Hanlon denounced me and because Campus Reform reported this, the story was picked up by Breitbart and I got hate mail and death threats. But more than 120 Dartmouth faculty and the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) signed a letter of support for me,” he said. “This helped me enormously. The bonds of solidarity we build with each other make the threats and doxing less effective. They’re absolutely essential.”
Bray called these bonds into play again this summer after Trump called antifa “a terrorist organization” and Bray responded. Writing in The Washington Post, he noted that Trump misrepresented “the anti-fascist movement in the interests of delegitimizing militant protest and deflecting attention away from white supremacy and police brutality that the protesters oppose.”
Conservative media outlets including The American Spectator, Breitbart and the Campus Reform blog — as well as the Israeli media outlet Haaretz — picked up Bray’s comments. “I continue to get negative pushback,” Bray says, and while he finds this “disturbing,” it has not been silencing for him.
Like Bray, Campus Reform-target Johnny Eric Williams, a professor of sociology at Connecticut’s Trinity College, has also remained outspoken. Although he was forced to take a semester’s leave after he and his workplace were targeted by the group following tweets about racism and white supremacy that went viral, he has refused to stop speaking out. “I’ve been through the wringer, but it’s my job to tell the truth,” he told Truthout. “Since my leave, the administration has supported my First Amendment speech rights. That’s what academic freedom is all about.”
Tenured Texas A&M sociology professor Wendy Leo Moore agrees. Moore is currently facing a two-day salary suspension for participating in September’s #ScholarStrike. “After Jacob Blake was shot, many of us felt that we had an obligation to do the strike in a way that paused and called attention to racism, police brutality and white supremacy,” Moore told Truthout. “I teach about criminal justice, and while I did not want to disrupt the flow of my classes, and knew that my students had been having a really challenging time due to COVID, I decided it was important to take a stand and participate.”
Moore had been informed that the college opposed faculty participation and had been warned that the college considered the strike an illegal work stoppage, a violation of a Texas law banning strikes by state employees. “It was not a strike against the state,” Moore said. “It was a work stoppage to support Black Lives Matter and [oppose] racism. It was a pedagogical decision for me to take part.”
To date, Moore’s stance has been lambasted in several articles posted by Campus Reform, but like her peers, she is heartened to have received the backing of the American Sociological Association, PEN America and the AAUP, and expects to have a hearing before the college’s Committee on Academic Freedom, Responsibility and Tenure on Campus in late November.
“The right wing has targeted people who are pushing economic justice, environmental justice and racial justice, and any professor who explicitly supports Black communities or other communities of color can get the right’s attention,” said Jasmine Banks, executive director of UnKoch My Campus, an organization promoting fiscal transparency and democracy on campus. “Their tactics aim to make it risky to promote equity and inclusion.”
Naming names and stealth attacks — including the surreptitious taping of speeches, lectures and programs — are part of the right’s game plan, Banks says. Since “gotcha”-type provocations orchestrated by well-known conservative provocateur James O’Keefe took place in 2015, Campus Reform has largely focused on overt, coordinated disruptions and threats to particular faculty members, with each attack lasting for about a week before the group moves on to someone else.
Last winter, Liberty University business marketing student Addison Smith, a Campus Reform contributor and Turning Point USA activist, was accused of illegally recording private conversations on campus. Under Virginia state law, failure to get the consent of at least one party to the taping of a conversation is a felony, but as of October 20, 2020, Smith was still writing for Campus Reform and appears judicially unscathed.
Truthout reached out to the Campus Reform writers Lacey Kestecher, Leo Thuman and McKenna Dallmeyer to request comment for inclusion in this article, along with numerous people from the Leadership Institute, including Gabriel Nadales, but none of them responded to requests for comment.
“Groups like Campus Reform work hard to create the illusion that conservatives are a beleaguered minority on campuses,” says Isaac Kamola, a political science professor at Trinity College and creator of Campus Reform Early Responders, a year-old effort to assist individuals and institutions that have become the focus of right-wing acrimony.
“In truth, they’re going after anyone who is not teaching a worldview that they subscribe to — for example, that the U.S. was founded on structural racism — a viewpoint they call ‘un-American.’ This can then roll out into calls for violence against an individual or an institution, or calls for a professor to be fired or sanctioned.”
But the ultimate agenda is not simply to boot out progressive faculty, Kamola says. Rather, it’s to gain a greater foothold into the academy for conservative, libertarian ideas. “Their conservatives-as-victims narrative reinforces straight, white, male power. Charles Koch and his allies believe that if you can get people when they’re young, give them jobs and a chance to meet prominent scholars and activists, launch them into careers, you’ll have an unparalleled power base,” he said. “Our job is to call them out on this.”