The recent events at Middlebury College should have been a jolting reminder that all is not well in our polarized culture or, especially, in our institutions of higher learning. The level of chaos on display two weeks ago was incongruent with the understanding most of us have about the experience of university life, and somehow even more disturbing coming as it did from placid little Vermont, on a bucolic campus billing itself as an escape from the pressures of the outside world.
For those of us familiar with the genteel Charles Murray, add to the disconnect above the absurdity of seeing such a man made the target of such violence—a sort more to be expected when confronted with a Bull Connor than a mild-mannered social scientist—and it is easy to see why the story made national news.
Yet to me, and to many others well-acquainted with the sad state of affairs at our elite college campuses, it was nothing new.
When I heard the news, my mind raced back to the events of June 2, 2016. On that day my own graduation from Stanford was upon me, but my mind was not on sentimental last parties or picking up my gown—it was on the end of a Republican presidential primary that had been sealed well in advance, and the rally that night where I could see Donald Trump in the flesh.
Trump came to California, the “yugest” state in the union, even though he didn’t need to. I’d been to a lot of rock concerts in my life, so I knew at once what he was up to style-wise. No sheet music, no lyrics, not even a set list. He knew his dozen songs by heart. He was coming at us with gale-force bluster, assuring the audience he would win California—not just in the primary (which no longer mattered) but in the general election.
It was so ballsy and unbelievable that we all threw our hands into the air and cheered. This was the new rock and roll, and we could do anything.
Until that day, I’d never been to a political rally, never volunteered for a campaign, never bought a hat, never bought a yard sign, never trumpeted my support for a candidate in front of a large class. Trump was my virgin political moment, and I did all these things without looking back, because I finally had a candidate I believed in.
During the Bush and Obama years I’d felt alienated from the idealistic internationalist military vision of the neoconservative-controlled Republican Party, despising the Iraq war from the start. Similarly, I was turned off by the way Republicans seemed to use gays, a tiny minority of the population, as a wedge issue to rally the party’s not-so-tiny evangelical wing. While I was convinced that we needed to tone down immigration for a while to re-grow our middle class and do the hard work of assimilation, Republicans did not seem serious about following through on protecting the border.
Yet I could not in good conscience get excited about the Democratic Party. The extreme obsession with policing words and thoughts, the condescending and increasingly malicious double-standard of identity politics combined with the lack of genuine concern for those who had lost their communities and livelihoods in the push towards globalization were enough for me to steer clear.
At its very core, so much of their liberal ideology seemed to be based on assumptions about the malleability of human nature that were beyond naïve—assumptions that had disastrous consequences in our educational, justice, and economic systems.
Trump answered all these failures of the Democratic Party while advancing past the recent misguided fixations of the GOP. He shifted the political paradigm to a new place that felt . . . well, exhilarating when I saw all my entrenched political enemies and as well as mainstream “thought leaders” denouncing him as dangerous (mostly to their careers).
His willingness to invent his own playbook felt like a miracle: making government work rather than annihilating it, even to the point of offering $1 trillion on infrastructure. Silicon Valley was aghast at Trump, but here was the Disruptive Innovator—the fantasy of every tech entrepreneur—in his most disruptive form, disrupting the very paradigm of society and the laws that bind it. Here was a masterful obliteration of the cautious, calculating political personality that had dominated America’s executive branch—seemingly—forever, in favor of the kinetic flair of a supreme media icon.
As Trump hammered away at the hefty trade imbalances that the United States maintains with China and other nations, I couldn’t help but see suspended behind him the massive trade surplus that we have worldwide in the entertainment industry—a symbol of something we still do way better than anyone else. Could he bring his entertainer’s vitality and inimitability to other American industries that were atrophying?
Then there was a lull, a hesitation—this policy business could get mighty dense, and this speech was lasting over an hour. Trump’s bravura was such that he could instantly sense the shift and turn it inside out. After all, the greatest hit among his song catalogue was so beloved by the audience that they knew it by heart, and the relationship between the man at the podium and his massive, spellbound crowd was such that he could do it call-and-response style.
“What are we going to build?”
“And who’s going to pay for it?”
I had been informed by countless erudite editorials that I would see “hate” and “anger” (usually expressed by these writers in terms that cranked up the hate dial to 11), but the only true hate and anger I saw that night were outside the San Jose Convention Center.
Before the rally, a crowd of protesters was stewing behind barricades, some waving Mexican flags, and one holding aloft a sign that read “Trump, this is Mexico. You are not welcome on our soil.” This should perhaps have served as a gentle warning about what would happen afterwards.
The Trump rally itself was protected by metal detectors and police. However, the complicated network of parking lots and garages around the convention center were less secure. Tight-knit groups of Trump-haters, mainly teenagers, descended upon the people leaving the rally—folks who appeared to have driven long distances in order to be there, probably from California’s less storied Central Valley. These protestors cast orange police cones into the air as they readied for the rampage. My friend hid his Make America Great Again hat inside his jacket, so we escaped unscathed, but the unlucky ones beside us who were wearing shirts and other gear found themselves the targets of a venomous frenzy such as I have rarely encountered in real life or even in fiction. This was something on another scale.
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo later delivered a perfunctory denunciation of the violence unleashed on a reported 24 peaceful rally attendees, but made it clear that the real target of his own anger and hatred was Trump, saying the candidate “needs to take responsibility for the irresponsible behavior of his campaign.”
Yet for those of us who were there, this was a day of images that would never leave our brains: a middle-aged woman with egg yolk dripping through her hair and down her face; a car in a parking garage being shaken menacingly by a group of angry youth surrounding it and laughing as the terrified people inside wondered how far this would go; a bright red hat on the pavement, in flames.
It is at moments such as these when the media narrative breaks down—when individual Americans see a severe disconnect between their own experience and what the New York Times chooses to feature above the fold. When the thin pages of the Times slip from our hands, when this physical world comes flooding in, we want to take “responsibility” back into our own hands and to resist being told that what we see in front of us is somehow “incorrect.”
Yet here we are, months later, and mirabile dictu, we find ourselves launched into the wild with the proof that one man can change history.
I feel those lingering emotions surrounding my graduation each day—the exhilaration of accomplishment and newfound opportunity, mixed with the intimidation that comes of acknowledging our responsibility while processing the viciousness we are likely to face in the opposition.
My wonderment and anxiety are surpassed only by a hope for this country unlike anything I have felt before it. I have but one simple question to ask on behalf of those of us who want to help: Where do we begin?