This administration is opposed to everything universities stand for.
On a lovely, crisp morning earlier this month, I stood stock-still outside the building where I work, at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, and wrestled with my conscience.
The Miller Center, an institute for the study of presidential history and public policy, had just hired a high-level Trump official — Marc Short, formerly President Trump’s director of legislative affairs — as a senior fellow.
So that morning, we joined Harvard’s Kennedy School as one of the academic institutions providing Trump officials a soft space to land. (Its Institute of Politics gave the ousted spokesperson Sean Spicer and onetime campaign chair Corey Lewandowski coveted visiting fellowships.)
The space between me and the building felt like a moral minefield. If I walked through the door, was I complicit in the destructive illiberalism of the Trump administration?
It turns out I wasn’t the only one wrestling with that question. Over the next week, the battle between the Miller Center’s leadership and the UVA community — including some Miller Center scholars, like me — over the decision to hire Short became a national story. A petition calling for Short’s contract to be withdrawn garnered nearly 2,000 signatures in just a few days.
As of now, the Miller Center’s leadership is staying firm, meaning Short will join the university in just a few weeks. People move from government to academia all the time, but this move is different — precisely because the Trump administration represents a sharp break from past presidential administrations.
Hiring its alumni does not show that the university is open to “diverse” viewpoints, as defenders of the Short appointment suggest. Rather, rewarding advocates of intolerance with a cushy position reveals a misunderstanding of how the forces of illiberalism work.
Charlottesville has experienced Trump’s illiberalism first-hand
Part of the outrage centers on the Miller Center’s location. People here in Charlottesville are particularly touchy about Donald Trump. He repeatedly attacked residents Khizr and Ghazala Khan, Gold Star parents who spoke at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. And after the white nationalist violence that left three dead and dozens injured, Trump blamed “both sides,” offering comfort to the neo-Nazis who marched through our streets.
But the controversy around Short’s hiring is also part of a national debate over what exactly the Trump administration is. Does it simply take policy positions that many professors disagree with, but which fall within the spectrum of mainstream American politics — or does it represent something darker? If it is a vehicle for white nationalism, or even, as some think, a threat to American institutions, what role ought institutions like the Miller Center and the University of Virginia play in providing a professional platform for members of that administration?
Conservative groups have tried to slot this controversy into the familiar narrative of left-wing professors quashing contrary views and conservative voices. “Administrators and faculty members who have signed this petition are making a statement that conservative ideas and perspectives are not welcome in the UVA community,” said the UVA chapter of the Young America’s Foundation in a statement.
But where the Miller Center is concerned, that charge shouldn’t stick. The center employs plenty of Republicans and Democrats, and people here have worked together happily — thrived, even — in that bipartisan and cross-ideological environment. The Miller Center has given positions to Republican foreign policy specialists including Eric Edelman (George W. Bush’s ambassador to Turkey and an undersecretary for defense), Philip Zelikow (who served on the National Security Council under George H.W. Bush and at the State Department for George W. Bush), and John Negroponte (the younger Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations and Iraq, as well as the first director of national intelligence); indeed, Zelikow was director of the center for several years.
No one here matches the stereotype of leftists shutting down debate.
And when it comes to right-wing speakers, for better or worse, the center can pass the right-wing litmus test: Charles Murray, the author of The Bell Curve; Heather Mac Donald, who has been critical of aspects of the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter; and John Yoo, the Berkeley professor and Bush administration “torture memo” author, have all spoken here. (Yoo’s appearance brought out protesters.)
As a vocal critic of the Short appointment, I’ll offer my bona fides as well. A scholar of conservatism, I value working with people on the right and have a long history of collaborating with conservatives and engaging seriously with their ideas. My first book, a history of conservative media, was dedicated to my dad, a devoted conservative, and our lengthy political debates. It was glowingly reviewed by conservatives for conservative outlets including the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times.
I’ve co-written pieces with conservatives — including one arguing that outlandishly offensive speech should be criticized but not banned — and recently moderated a panel at the center that featured the Federalist’s Mollie Hemingway, a major Trump supporter.
It should be a worrisome sign to those who would dismiss this controversy as a matter of mere partisanship that people who regularly speak across the ideological divide see Short’s hiring as a genuine institutional and moral crisis.
As political historians and presidential scholars, the people at the Miller Center are particularly well placed to observe that the Trump administration represents a significant rupture in American politics, a break with the general tenets and bulwarks of modern liberal democracy: equal representation, protection of minority voices, respect for the rule of law, a free press and free inquiry.
We certainly can — and do — disagree on how well various administrations in the past 50 years have lived up to those ideas. No historian of the presidency would argue that any president has perfectly protected and respected them. But conservative or liberal, Republican or Democrat, they were committed to the liberal democratic order.
That the Trump administration is a powerfully illiberal force in the United States today is not a partisan judgment. It is an understanding shared across party and ideological lines. The attacks on the press, on judges, on factuality and truth; the racist exclusionary policies (from Muslim bans to border camps); the deep admiration for strongmen and authoritarians — all these features of the Trump administration have created sweeping concern that knows no party line (though far too many Republicans still support it).
Many institutions have had a hard time adapting to that shift. For decades now, we have understood balanced debates as ones that include liberal and conservative voices, Democrats and Republicans. The Trump era has changed that, and exposed a real philosophical quandary: What do institutions dedicated to protecting an open society do when faced with the forces of illiberalism?
The paradox of tolerance
Where we draw the line has been a question of heated debate in the past few years. Should an institute of higher education host someone who questions whether Jews are people? Who contends that whites are better than other races — or that parents seeking asylum should be split from their children and placed in cages?
Ought that calculation change when someone making those arguments becomes president of the United States? And what about high-level aides and advisers like Short, who promoted that president’s agenda, even if they were not always the most vociferous proponents of the most odious views?
At the Miller Center, we bring all kinds of policymakers through our doors to help us better understand the presidency. Some of these people are incredibly controversial. But our defense of that is easy, mirroring that of journalists: They are our subjects, not our colleagues. Who gets invited to join our communities in respectable positions is quite a different question. There is a difference between Jake Tapper questioning Corey Lewandowski and CNN hiring him (a difference CNN failed to grasp).
Philosophers from Karl Popper to John Rawls have wrestled with the “paradox of tolerance”: Liberals must admit illiberal voices to the public forum, but at some point, liberals have to take a stand against illiberalism, lest they be destroyed — along with tolerance itself.
Marc Short served in the Trump administration until July 20, and to the bitter end was vocally (and inaccurately) defending policies like family separation, asserting that 80 percent of those charged with crossing the border unlawfully don’t show up to their court hearings, when the actual number is closer to 25 percent. More importantly for those in the Charlottesville community, he defended the president’s outrageous response to the clash between white supremacists and protesters.
By all accounts, Short is a real pro as a legislative affairs director. But over the past 18 months, he used his professional skills to abet attacks on liberal democracy — and he has shown no sign that he views that as anything other than a point of pride. Allowing him to join the UVA community for a stint of reputational rehab does not prove the university’s commitment to civil debate, but rather calls into question its commitment to an open society, and makes us complicit in sanitizing and normalizing a particularly malign administration.
If his appointment stands, those of us who cherish the Miller Center and UVA will find it hard to walk through the door each morning.
Nicole Hemmer, a Vox columnist, is the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics. She is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and co-host of the Past Present podcast.
The Big Idea is Vox’s home for smart discussion of the most important issues and ideas in politics, science, and culture — typically by outside contributors. If you have an idea for a piece, pitch us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Author: Nicole Hemmer