‘Trump was the woke generation’s 9/11’
Robby Soave on his new book Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump.
Wokeness is everywhere today. Within what feels like a few short years, the woke worldview has become the mainstream in education, popular culture and politics. The election of Donald Trump – in many ways a popular repudiation of political correctness – seems to have intensified these trends.
Robby Soave is associate editor at Reason. In his latest book, Panic Attack: Young Radicals in the Age of Trump, Soave interviews a cross-section of young activists to understand their motivations and drives. spiked caught up with him in Washington, DC to find out more.
spiked: What do you think is the driving force behind the ‘woke’ movement?
Robby Soave: I think it’s important to remember that it’s a small number of people. It’s not actually a generational trend. It’s a small number of young people who have this woke, totalitarian mindset, where anyone who says something problematic should be shunned from public life, kicked off social media or campus, or should be fired.
They are encouraged by having got what they want a few times. They’ve realised that it works to attack, say, Charles Murray on campus. You will get away with it. Maybe the woke culture is receding even now, but there’s been a period of about five years where there were no consequences for this behaviour. If you yell about the Heisman Trophy winner or the Guardians of the Galaxy director, you can get them in trouble and people will listen to you. There’s a feedback mechanism, I think.
spiked: In the context of universities, why is it often the most elite campuses where people feel the most oppressed?
Soave: That’s totally true. It’s not an education-wide problem. You have plenty of schools that people go to in order to get an education that will turn into a job. It’s less of a problem there. The problem is in places like Harvard and Yale where you have very privileged students. I suspect it’s because they are paying a lot more and are paying for an experience more than anything else. And that experience should be one of total comfort – that’s what the purpose of school is for them, just to be a positive reinforcement, affirmation machine. They think that they should not feel uncomfortable or ‘traumatised’ in any way. (Of course, nobody should actually be traumatised at college. But trauma, to these people, seems to mean nothing more than being told you are wrong more than once.)
Of course, at these institutions, there are these huge administrative bureaucracies. They have tonnes of people on staff, whose jobs are just to validate these privileged, overly emotional young people. There can only be so many vice presidents of diversity. Their jobs are just to make every student feel heard and affirmed – even if their demands are ludicrous.
Take Harvard and the Ron Sullivan Jr case. He is a professor of law who briefly represented Harvey Wainstein. The students hated it and said they felt unsafe. The administrators agreed to ‘investigate’ Sullivan to validate the students’ feelings and even removed him as a faculty dean.
spiked: Does the need to feel validated, comfortable and safe arise before students go to university?
Soave: Yes. It’s hard to know exactly why these kids are like this or to point to any one cause. But it’s certainly true that the culture of education has changed dramatically from the late 1990s onwards to reorient towards safety. There has been a reimagining of the purpose of school. School is now more like daycare. It is not trying to push your boundaries, but to make you feel satisfied and safe.
Some of this is in response to what I think was an overblown concern about physical safety in schools. American schools have become more prison-like. If you go back to 1970, you would not find a single police officer in a school in America. Now half of all public high schools have a police officer in them. That means that minor disciplinary matters that should be dealt with by parents, by teachers or by principals get dealt with by the police – they become criminal-justice matters. There is this idea that if we don’t deal with bullying very directly, we don’t hit it head-on, we’d have all these would-be mass shooters – that was the ‘lesson’ of Columbine in the late 1990s.
Again, these schools are very safe. There have always been very few school shootings but they are horrifying so they make the news. The policy response has always been disproportionate to what was actually going on. Those are some of the changes I think that indicate a broader change in culture in education.
Obviously, it only takes a few young people who internalise that understanding of school who then go on to campus and demand this extreme coddling. It also seems that they learn from each other to expect this. Most of the activists I talked to for my book were having conversations with activists on other campuses. So this is not a mindset that is being taught to them by professors. They’re absorbing it from their fellow cohort of student activists.
spiked: What effect did the election of Donald Trump have?
Soave: Trump was definitely an accelerator for nasty feelings – for and against him. There was an activist I spoke to for the book who said that ‘Trump’s election was my 9/11’ – that’s a direct quote. That’s crazy. The day after his election, there was protesting, of course. But there was also lots of crying. There was depression and panic attacks. Classes were cancelled all over the place as if we had just gone through a mass-casualty event. The assumption was that the election obviously triggered people’s mental health or caused exhaustion. You would sound weird if you said: No, this is a routine thing that happens in politics – the opposition party tends to win every four to eight years. I’m no fan of Trump or his policies, but there was a sense among campus radicals that this was the end of the world.
Of course, Trump is nastier and more combative than your average political figure. He commands the news cycle. He’s at the centre of every story. He has also elevated the media to the status of his opposition party, so now every story has to fall on one of two sides. The fact that Trump is so divisive and so omnipresent in our lives puts people on edge. People are more at each other’s throats – partly in reaction to Trump, but also Trump is actively creating a country where that is the reality. He has intensified activist efforts against him. But these activists talk about things in terms of their mental health and the toll it takes on them.
spiked: What do you make of the right-wing response to woke culture? Has it been productive?
Soave: No, I think it’s poisonous. My book Panic Attack is mostly about activism on the left – intersectional feminism, Black Lives Matter, things like that – but I also have a small section on Turning Point USA, a new group on the right. Turning Point exemplifies some of the conservative student groups who are inviting controversial speakers to campus — in my view, solely for the sake of controversy a lot of the time. Not to make a point, not because they even want the person to speak, but because they know it will annoy the left and will provoke a shutdown attempt.
The extremes on both sides need each other so badly. They are mutually reinforcing. The right will do something awful, which will upset the left. Sometimes the left is justifiably upset, but tactically, the left will mishandle it and make the right seem more sympathetic. Each side then justifies its trend toward illiberalism by pointing to how bad the other side is.
I talk also about the alt-right in the book. Of course, the alt-right is even more extreme, made up of white separatists and white nationalists. I think they probably had their high-water mark with Charlottesville. But they are an identitarian movement, too. They want political correctness for white people. It’s a reaction to – but also a borrowing from – the concepts on the woke left, taking them in a more extreme direction.
spiked: How is woke culture affecting the Democrats?
Soave: There’s so many of them in the primaries and most are competing for the same small number of super-woke progressive voters, even though there aren’t many of those voters. The woke wield disproportionate influence. They live in the coasts. They work in media companies, social-media companies, visible places and platforms where you can be noisy. They’re on social media a lot – which journalists pay far too much attention to (including me).
Joe Biden, the frontrunner, is not a candidate for these people. They hate Joe Biden. If he wins this will be a setback for them, perhaps even a repudiation to some degree. But if you talk to ‘normal’ Democrats, out in, say, the Mid-West, who don’t live in big cities and are older, religious or working class, they love Joe Biden. So it will be interesting to see whether the ‘woke-scold’ people will be able to stop Biden getting the nomination. Or if they force him to cater to them, which could poison him to the rest of the country.
Robby Soave was talking to Fraser Myers.
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