Police detain a protester as other police officers enter the campus of Columbia University in New York City on April 30, 2024. 
David Dee Delgado/Reuters

Dramatic campus protests are injecting an inflammatory new element into an election year that is already threatening to stretch national unity to a breaking point.

Tensions spiked late Tuesday following an operation by New York Police Department surge teams to reclaim the Columbia University campus from pro-Palestinian demonstrators and followed scuffles, arrests and cancelled classes on at least 25 campuses in 21 states.

The protests were triggered by the terrible civilian toll of Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza, but they’re now exposing the country’s ideological schisms and new political currents. America was already on edge with a former and possibly future president on trial. And if the protests endure, they could exacerbate a campaign season sure to worsen the national political estrangement.

Coast-to-coast demonstrations have seen hundreds of people detained. While most are peaceful, there’s been property damage and some heavy-handed policing – in Texas, for instance.

On Tuesday, protesters outside Columbia’s Hamilton Hall chanted “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free” – a phrase seen by many Jews as antisemitic. And at the University of California, Los Angeles Tuesday night, a violent confrontation broke out between pro-Palestinian protesters and Israel supporters after UCLA officials declared an encampment illegal, multiple outlets reported. But at Brown University, college authorities and protesters came to an agreement that led to the disbanding of a campus protest camp.

The nationwide protests highlight what could be a historic moment as young, progressive Americans embrace the Palestinian cause as never before, conjuring political pressures that could challenge long-established bipartisan support for Israel. Yet they’ve also added to a seam of antisemitism in US society that has traumatized many American Jews who feel under threat in their own nation.

The protests are a new test for President Joe Biden as he seeks reelection with the Gaza war tearing deep rifts in his fragile electoral coalition. The spreading dissent underscores just how badly Biden needs to prevent an Israeli offensive in Rafah in Gaza, which could kill large numbers of civilians and fuel more concentrated protests in the United States. More than 34,000 people in Gaza have already been killed in Israel’s response, according the enclave’s health ministry. Any president torn between implementing what he thinks is in the US national interest – in this case, defending Israel – and his own political imperatives is in a perilous spot, let alone one who is six months from asking voters for a second term. And if protests spread and Biden looks like he’s losing control of the country, the political consequences could be ruinous.

Footage of protest encampments and chanting students are, meanwhile, a gift for presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump as he paints a dystopian picture of a nation racked by unrest. His narrative – adopted by conservative media – is misleading but powerful in the hands of such a proficient demagogue.

On Tuesday, for instance, Trump heaped blame on the sitting president. “We have to stop the antisemitism that’s just pervading our country right now, and Biden has to do something,” he told Fox. “Biden is supposed to be the voice of our country and it’s certainly not much of a voice,” said the ex-president, who has been accused of using antisemitic tropes in past campaign advertising and of appeasing White supremacist and far-right groups like the Proud Boys.

The demonstrations also mark a new front in an intensifying cultural war over education. Republicans, who’ve long loved to bash elite universities, see a populist opening to enliven their base and crush a pipeline of left-wing ideas.

At the same time, university presidents are struggling to balance their own principles with controlling ultra-progressive elements of their student bodies who exemplify the mission of higher education by questioning the status quo but are making some fellow students feel scared and are effectively bringing their institutions to a halt.

And the specter of left-wing extremism is rising as some protests adopt rhetoric that sounds like Hamas or Hezbollah without seeming to acknowledge the Hamas terrorist attacks that killed 1,200 people in Israel in October.

The protests are reaching a pivotal moment.

Will they begin to fade as the academic year ends and students go home? Or will they simmer through a long hot summer and burn with even more intensity in the fall, when classes begin again and the nation will be in an even more brittle political state weeks from the election?

Republicans smell an opening

GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik is a driver of the deepening political backlash against campus protests. The New York Republican is a frequent booster of Trump’s democracy-threatening falsehoods about 2020 electoral fraud. But the Harvard graduate made the critical intervention in a House hearing last year that exposed the stunning equivocating by several Ivy League presidents about antisemitism spiking across campuses in the wake of the war in Gaza.

Stefanik was at House Speaker Mike Johnson’s side on Tuesday as he launched a fresh attempt to skewer Biden and the Democrats over the campus uprisings, after traveling to Columbia last week and demanding the intervention of the National Guard. “This is a moral rot that has taken root across American higher education institutions,” Stefanik said.

Johnson vowed to use the broad powers of the GOP majority in what looks like an organized effort by a political party to supersede university authorities. “Antisemitism is a virus and because the administration and woke university presidents aren’t stepping in, we’re seeing it spread,” Johnson said. “We have to act and House Republicans will speak to this fateful moment with moral clarity. We really wish those in the White House would do the same.”

Republican attempts to exploit campus unrest have a long history. Ronald Reagan ran for California governor in 1966 promising to “clean up the mess at Berkeley” and slammed protests over the Vietnam War and civil rights as having more to do with rioting and anarchy than academic freedom. President Richard Nixon often criticized student demonstrations against the war, once referring to college radicals who opposed his policies as “bums.”

The current GOP attack on campus protests is a no-brainer. The demonstrations are now splitting the Democratic Party between the activism that defines its DNA and party leaders who understand the potential perils ahead if moderate, swing voters – even those who disagree with Biden’s handling of the war – turn against what they perceive to be liberal extremism in an election year. Democrats took years to mostly neutralize the political impact of demands for the defunding of the police that emerged during Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.

Still, the GOP approach is also tainted with hypocrisy. Republicans have spent years complaining that free speech on campus is under threat and that conservative causes and speakers are being driven out. Now that students are exercising those same rights to protest Israel’s policies, GOP leaders are calling for crackdowns and demanding university leaders call in outside police forces to evict protesters.

Republicans are also using the drama of student protests as a shield and to downplay their presumptive nominee’s own extremism. Trump has already said the Charlottesville, Virginia, White supremacist rally in 2017 – at which marchers chanted “Jews won’t replace us” and one person died – is peanuts compared to these student protests. The ex-president was accused of not condemning extremists and antisemites forcefully enough when he said there were “very fine people on both sides.”

Any scenes of violence at protests will also play into GOP hands as key party leaders dissemble about what really happened when Trump’s supporters stormed the US Capitol on January 6, 2021, to try to prevent Biden’s win from being certified. Footage of a protester using a hammer to break into a building at Columbia was playing on a loop on conservative television on Tuesday. And speaking outside the New York courtroom hosting his criminal trial, Trump demanded that protesters be handled just like the hundreds of his supporters convicted for violently breaching the Capitol. “I wonder if that is going to be the same kind of treatment they gave J6?” Trump asked.

The unrest is so far not comparable since there’s no student mob trying to destroy American democracy. But the former president’s arguments will be persuasive to his millions of supporters and only complicate Biden’s position on the protests.

A generational awakening or a passing fad?

The campus protests are so far not close to the scale of Black Lives Matter demonstrations and marches in cities in the US and abroad after the murder of George Floyd by a White police officer in 2020. And they are not yet in the same league as the civil rights and Vietnam War protests in the 1960s and 1970s. But those national movements were tiny to begin with, so there is precedent for student protests growing, and now there is the convening power of social media that can create a sense of common purpose among marchers hundreds of miles apart.

David Farber, a history professor at the University of Kansas, told Paula Newton on CNN International on Monday that Vietnam-era protests “often started small. They were often dismissed as marginal folks … crazy people, but that anti-war movement did catch fire and students played a major role in it. And eventually the tide turned against the war in Vietnam in US public opinion.”

The student radicals of the mid-2020s are not political neophytes. They come from a generation that endured fears of mass shootings at high schools, had their lives shuttered by the Covid-19 pandemic and staged walkouts in the Black Lives Matter period.

It may not be a coincidence either that the student-driven pro-Palestinian protests are taking place in a year when an 81-year-old White man is facing a 77-year-old White man for the presidency. Neither Trump nor Biden have the appeal to younger voters of a John Kennedy or Barack Obama.

At the same time, with some student protests modest in size compared to the universities that are targeted, it’s not clear the protesters are truly representative of an entire generation on the cusp of a political awakening.

Still, anger among younger voters over the war has deep implications for the president’s reelection bid. A CNN poll found majority dissatisfaction over Biden’s handling of the war among registered voters nationwide – with 81% of voters under 35 disapproving. A more specific survey of 18-to-29 year-olds published by Harvard University suggests a nuanced view of the war in Gaza. About one fifth of the cohort view Israel’s response to the October 7 attacks as justified, while 32% think it was not justified. Majorities have sympathy for both Israelis and Palestinians. But the Israel/Palestinian crisis is ranked way behind issues like inflation, health care, housing, gun violence, jobs and protecting democracy in terms of its importance to younger voters.

Still, November’s election is likely to be decided by such close margins that any young voters who defect from Biden or who are simply not motivated to show up could play an outsize role in the swing states that will choose the next president.

As reported by CNN