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Mike Johnson Is Stoking the Culture War to Save His Job

The accidental House speaker’s visit to Columbia University was a cynical P.R. stunt.

Mike Johnson takes questions from reporters doing a visit to a student protest at Columbia University.
TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images
Mike Johnson at Columbia University on Wednesday.

Last week, House Speaker Mike Johnson channeled Arthur Vandenberg as he adroitly steered desperately needed military aid to Ukraine around isolationists in his own party. Vandenberg is best remembered as the florid Michigan Republican senator who went from an American Firster before Pearl Harbor to an invaluable internationalist partner with Harry Truman during the early days of the Cold War.

On Tuesday afternoon, Johnson discovered his inner Richard Nixon as he rushed to Columbia University to denounce protests of Israel’s over Israel’s six-month war in Gaza. In 1968, Nixon, in his second bid for the White House, did everything in his power to demagogue the Vietnam-era protests at, yes, Columbia.

At this rate, Johnson, a world-class political changeling, will probably morph into Warren Harding by the middle of next week. 

Standing on the steps of Columbia’s Low Library, and sometimes fighting to be heard over heckling students, Johnson began with somewhat modulated comments (for a Republican) excoriating the October 7 Hamas attacks and decrying the troubling rise of antisemitism on campus.

But then Johnson remembered that he is hanging onto his job by a thread and needs to placate the extreme right-wing Freedom Caucus. So, the accidental speaker embraced the dangerous notion of deploying troops to college campuses (“If these threats are not stopped, there is an appropriate time for the National Guard”) and threatened to “revoke federal funding to these universities if they can’t keep control.” 

And for good measure, Johnson also called for the resignation of embattled Columbia president Nemat Shafik, who heavy-handedly had called in New York City police last week to break up a protest encampment and make arrests on university property. 

Part of the reason why Johnson made the pilgrimage to Columbia is that it is always good politics to demonize left-wing students, especially when a half-dozen House seats in the New York area are in play in November. First-term GOP incumbents Mike Lawler and Anthony D’Esposito, who accompanied Johnson to Columbia, were also on campus Monday to meet with Jewish students and to hold a press conference. It is conceivable that with one more visit to Columbia this week, the two Republican legislators may have to pay tuition.  

Protesting students have been a perfect foil for politicians since the 1960s. Unconcerned with electoral politics and animated by the righteousness of their cause, these protesters often make extreme statements and (shocker!) sometimes even block traffic. TV footage on all networks, which reflects a built-in bias towards drama, gravitates towards students who (to borrow a marvelous 1968 book title from the late Nicholas Von Hoffman) come across like “the people our parents warned us against.” 

Since most voters are not on college campuses, it is easy for TV to portray any large demonstration as a reenactment of the Russian Revolution. On Fox News, before Johnson’s press conference, there was talk about dreaded “outside agitators,” those amorphous villains who in the 1960s were blamed for triggering civil rights protests. But beyond Fox, we are also dealing with the journalistic conventions of the news media, which could make 100 arrests on a campus of, say, 15,000 students seem like an alarming breakdown of authority. 

As someone who was on the University of Michigan campus during the 1960s, I have an innate sympathy for most student protests, as long as they don’t turn violent or harass individual students. The lessons of the 1960s for both administrators and protesters are rooted in a sense of patience, a willingness to search for common ground, and an intense resistance to calling in the police unless people are being harmed rather than merely inconvenienced. Put another way, the funding threats from 11 angry major donors will cost a university in the long run a lot less money than wall-to-wall national publicity over student upheavals on campus. 

The Columbia riots of 1968, part of a wrenching yearlong narrative of assassinations and upheaval, were made to order for Nixon, who was fighting Nelson Rockefeller on the left and Ronald Reagan on the right for the GOP nomination. Before the Oregon primary, Nixon made a major speech in which he called the uprising at Columbia “the first major skirmish in a revolutionary struggle to seize the universities of this country and transform them into sanctuaries for radicals and vehicles for revolutionary political and social goals.”

What Nixon was implying was that Columbia would be renamed Ho Chi Minh University and MIT would be known as Chairman Mao Tech. 

Then, as now, social class envy played a major role in turning student protesters into archvillains for the general public. Pioneering campaign journalist Theodore White, who became the voice of the establishment as he aged, made a shrewd point in The Making of the President 1968. White, with a bit of hyperbole, called “the revolt of the students ... novel not only in American history but world history. They, the group to whom society offered most, repudiated what society offered.” That’s why threats to mar the job prospects of any student who is arrested for protesting Gaza are so ineffective—they assume that every student at an Ivy League university wants to work for a hedge fund. 

There are hints that the Columbia administration is slowly moving towards some form of an accommodation with the protesting students. But rumors—aggressively denied by Columbia—are also spreading about calling in the National Guard. In 1971, in a horrendous overreaction, the Ohio National Guard killed four students and wounded nine others at Kent State. That is the powder keg that Johnson (following the lead of Senators Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton) lit with his loose talk about the National Guard. 

For more than a half-century, there has been an unalterable rule of higher education: No good ever comes out of politicians meddling on college campuses, especially during times of crisis.