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Renée Graham

Trump’s dictator envy targets universities

President Trump arrives to speak at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md., March 2,
President Trump arrives to speak at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Md., March 2,Nicholas Kamm /AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

It’s not just that President Trump’s rant at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference made him sound like a sentient junk closet. Scheduled to speak for about an hour, his supersized speech (if you could call it that) recalled the late Cuban president Fidel Castro, who often spoke for hours and hours . . . and hours.

Of course, dictatorial similarities go beyond Trump being dazzled by the sound of his own voice, and the assumption that his audience feels the same. It’s also apparent when he threatens basic rights under the guise of protecting them. Now he’s targeting institutions of higher education.

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“Today, I am proud to announce that I will be very soon signing an executive order requiring colleges and universities to support free speech if they want federal research funds,” said Trump, accompanied by the roar of his supporters, in a move that has Trump adviser Stephen Miller’s stench all over it.

Trump is no First Amendment champion. The only speech he wants free is anything that promotes his beliefs and protects his presidency — and that means the most incendiary and hateful rhetoric of the far right.

We reject oppressive speech codes, censorship, political correctness, and every other attempt by the hard left to stop people from challenging ridiculous and dangerous ideas. These ideas are dangerous,” Trump said. “Instead we believe in free speech, including online and including on campus.”

For institutions that fail to fall in line, “it will be very costly,” Trump warned. Annually, colleges and universities receive about $30 billion in research funds.

This renewed presidential hostility comes as hate speech and crimes are increasing on campuses — from racist and anti-Semitic slurs scrawled on walls to public spaces peppered with fliers promoting white supremacy — according to a recent report by the LEAD Fund.

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Historically, going after higher-ed institutions has long been a favorite tactic of dictators. At their best, universities are incubators of intellectual freedom, which is exactly what some hard-line leaders want to curtail. Such repressive actions are not relegated to the past. During his campaign and eventual election last year as Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro , a homophobic, racist, and misogynistic right-wing politician, called for the purging of “leftist proselytising” at his nation’s universities. Some professors have already altered their classes and topics.

Lobbing threats against “political correctness” and the “hard left,” is Trump’s version of cracking down on “leftist proselytising.” It also amplifies a persistent talking point among conservatives that they are being unduly silenced. (This is a sibling to the guffaw- and groan-inducing “No one is more oppressed than white men” argument.)

None of this is new for Trump. It was a campaign theme — what do you think “Make America Great Again” means? And it remains one of the president’s reliable go-tos, especially in a roomful of sycophants who’d rather have this nation reduced to rubble than see it live up to its unfulfilled ideals.

Trump showed his hand less than a month into his presidency. After the University of California, Berkeley, canceled a February 2017 speech by racist provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, Trump tweeted: “If U.C. Berkeley does not allow free speech and practices violence on innocent people with a different point of view — NO FEDERAL FUNDS?”

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Though Trump has offered no timeline for this executive order, even its mention is hard candy for his supporters, especially in an election season that’s already in full abrasive bloom. It’s also a distraction from that unbuilt border wall, former fixer Michael Cohen’s damning testimony, and his world-stage pratfall in Hanoi when he got outplayed — again — by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

Dictators operate in a kind of opposite world. When they say they’re for the people, they exist only for themselves and their own interests. They claim to defend free speech, but move to suppress anything that doesn’t adhere to their desires or bend to their will.

Trump aspires to be like the unaccountable men he so baldly admires, those who can punish perceived enemies with impunity. It won’t stop with the universities. He’s a man without limits, and sometimes you have to take even a pathological liar at his word — especially when it satisfies both his base and his dictator envy.


Renée Graham can be reached at renee.graham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @reneeygraham.