Donald Trump’s Rhetoric Causing a Rise in Student Activism

Election 2016
Posted By Donna Fuscaldo on March 18, 2016 at 4:20 pm
Donald Trump’s Rhetoric Causing a Rise in Student Activism
Donald Trump (along with son Eric Trump, right, and campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, left) speaking to supporters at his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida on March 15. Gerald Herbert, AP Images.

The rhetoric coming out of the Donald Trump campaign is creating vitriol and unsafe environments on some of the nation’s college campuses, with reports of attacks on minorities and protests that turn violent. And while today’s crop of college students may not have been the most active when it comes to mobilizing against a cause in the past, that may be changing, particularly if Trump ends up winning the Republican nomination.

“As time goes on, we’re seeing more momentum at his rallies and they are becoming more and more violent,” says Shelby Murphy, the co-chair of the Young Democratic Socialists Coordinating Committee. “It’s starting to scare a lot of people. College students are very much aware the political climate is very different than ever before.”

While the Trump campaign is redefining American politics, the rising activism on the part of students is reminiscent of the 1960’s and 1970’s, when students mobilized to protest the Nixon presidency and the Vietnam War. Back then, there were massive boycotts of classes and protests that turned violent, culminating in the shooting death of four unarmed college students by the Ohio National Guard during a protest against the Vietnam War at Kent State University.  Although it hasn’t reached the fevered pitch of decades ago, that doesn’t mean it can’t.

“If Trump continues to talk as he has been doing during the campaign, that will really stir things up on college campuses,” says Lawrence Wittner, a Professor Emeritus of History at University of Albany. “Trump could be the lightning rod for student demonstrations and protests as [he’s] started to do to this point.”

College students mobilizing to stop Trump

One only needs to look at the University of Illinois for evidence that students and even faculty are getting more active when it comes to preventing rallies on their campuses and stopping Trump from spreading his message – one that many argue is incendiary and hateful. Last Friday, student protesters at UIC were able to prevent Trump from coming on stage and effectively ended a rally of thousands of Trump supporters. Fights broke out during the aftermath, showcasing the violence that is becoming all too common at Trump rallies of late.

Prior to the rally, university faculty sent a letter to University Chancellor Michael Amiridis calling for the university to cancel the Trump event, saying, “We are deeply distressed that this event threatens to create a hostile and physically dangerous environment to the students, staff, faculty and alumni who come out to express their opposition.” The letter had more than 40,000 signatures. Faculty pointed to a recent incident at Valdosta State University, in which around 30 black college students were thrown out of a Trump rally after having seemingly done nothing wrong. A Trump spokesman said the campaign had nothing to do with it.

But it’s not only rallies and student protests that are turning dangerous. Violence and racism in the name of Trump is reportedly happening on a handful of college campuses, with reports of Hispanics and Muslims being attacked. “There is a lot of incendiary language and a lot of inciting violence around Islamophobia and racism,” says Eddie Comeaux, associate professor of higher education, Graduate School of Education at University of California, Riverside. “There have been incidents at Northwestern University, there’s been incidents at Wichita State. Even down a lower level, high school campuses are reporting events where the Trump rhetoric incited violence.”

Comeaux says Trump’s entire campaign plays off the fears of “the misguided and uninformed.” They lack a level of awareness and tolerance, which can create a hostile environment on campuses, he says.  But amid all this ugliness, Comeaux says there is an opportunity for colleges and universities to engage their students in healthy dialogues about what has transpired and how to move forward. Schools need to look to see “if there are ways to create conditions on campuses that lead to more interaction across racial lines,” he says.

For college students getting a front row seat to an unprecedented time in American politics, activist Murphy says the rise of Trump shines a spotlight on the differences between the two political parties more than ever before. With many students voting for the first time, it’s prompting them to get more involved, whether through increased activism or education. When the University of Chicago faculty called for the cancellation of the now infamous Trump rally last week, it noted that more than 7,000 students RSVP’d to a protest and over 13,000 expressed interest in protesting. “It’s causing students to look more in-depth into what is going on in the U.S. right now economically, socially and politically,” Murphy says. “It’s a great time for college students to start building their activism.”

For more political coverage, see our special Election 2016 section.

Donna Fuscaldo
Donna Fuscaldo is a freelance journalist hailing out of Long Island, New York. She has also written for,,,, Business Insider, Dow Jones Newswires and the Wall Street Journal.

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