The College Campus and Its Discontents: How Edmund Burke Can Explain the Political Dissonance Between College Campuses and the Trump Phenomenon

It is impossible to overlook the current sentiment being expressed on the American college campus following the 2016 election cycle. Acute anger, frustration, and denial has consumed the campus and its politically cognizant college students while intensifying and even radicalizing their partisan ideologies. It is not, however, outlandish to perceive these campuses as bubbles, who trapped inside, are the newest and youngest minds of the intellectual community that have come to vocalize their dissent of the recent election. The intellectual hubs of the United States – Boston, New York City, Washington D.C., as well as some newly recognized regions – have become entrenched in the mystique of their elite collegiate statuses, and yet seem to remain the most ideologically narrow. The observable campus radicalism on these campuses have come to define the dissonance following the election of President Trump. One can begin to understand how the average college undergraduate perceives the world differently from the “forgotten men and women” of the United States who delivered the election to Donald Trump; but perhaps something is being overlooked, particularly within the mores of a typical millennial college student. In considering the mores of the millennial college student within a campus bubble, the question naturally arises: what is inciting this reaction?

My answer to this question is entirely rooted in Burkean-conservative thought. But before attempting to pinpoint the chief influence that is exciting the mores of millennial undergraduates, one should first note the characteristics of a modern college campus and what kind of environment it engenders. The twenty-first century college campus takes elements of a standard collegiate institution and adds aspects of diversity, tolerance, and secularization – each a hallmark of the millennial generation. It is crucial to understand that the average college campus in 2016 is comprised of millennial students who tend to be both left-leaning in ideology as well as the most vocal and particularly critical of the 2016 election outcome. Now, within the Trump administration’s first one hundred days, this vocal criticism has intensified with the assistance of social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) as well as late-night television, most notably Saturday Night Live, which has recently come to impersonate and satirize President Trump with more frequency and playful malice. These factors are substantially intertwined with the mores of the millennial generation; college undergraduates’ frequent use of the internet provides a forum of communication and information exchange (in which they interact with likeminded individuals) and also access to material that discounts oppositional opinions – ultimately reinforces their disposition.

This piece is not an analysis of the uncanny success of the Trump campaign; nor is it one on the unforeseen failure of the Clinton campaign. Rather, its aim is to examine the typical college campus and to understand what, exactly, is driving its discontent and frustration with regard to the recent election. One should not seek the obvious answer – an answer that is validated through disdainful name-calling, stark rejection of dissenting opinions, and emotionally charged positions that compose an intellectually lacking characterization of the Trump administration so far. This discourse only serves to divide the political climate further and contributes little to a constructive dialogue. In actuality, characterizing the Trump administration is such an apprehensive and dismissive fashion only serves to cloud the reasonable mind from understanding the election and the trajectory of United States politics.

Although any millennial undergraduate’s refutation of President Trump’s platform may, on its face, be in reaction to what appears to be rhetoric-driven and partisan policy initiatives, there is a universal and instinctive aura that transcends this campus spiritedness. This intangible and distinctly reactionary sentiment is difficult to understand for we tend to misperceive it as simple anger and frustration. Beyond the messiness of politics, theory provides a clear explanation to why the college campus has become so radical; after all, understanding the theoretical aspects driving the millennial voting bloc’s behavior may reveal questions previously unknown from direct behavioral observation.

As I stated earlier, my ultimate contention in this piece is to assert that the campus sentiment following the election of Donald Trump (and well into his administration) is a backlash premised in conservative thought. It is common to attribute contemporary conservatism to the Republican party; this notion should be discounted, especially within the context this assertion is framed around because this millennial sentiment is, in truth, liberal. Conservatism is not an ideology, but rather a disposition that can be embodied in any movement and reveals itself only in response to a threat. To a millennial college student, the concept of a threat deviates from the typical threats that most conservative strands tend to form their principles against, such as the degradation of tradition, family/community, and faith. Millennial undergraduates, particularly those born in the latter half of the 1990s, hold principles of diversity, tolerance, and secularism as essential aspects of a fulfilling society. They perceive anything contradictory to these principles as a threat to the progressive principles they became politically cognizant under and, also, within which they formed their perception of government and its role in society.

Dealing in absolutes is rather restrictive in any phenomenal examination. Isolating the cause of millennial generation’s reaction is of no exception to this maxim; thus, the millennial backlash against the election of President Trump can be seen as a reaction to the threat to both  core progressive beliefs and to establishment politics. Here, I add my conjecture that many moderate Republicans, who make up a smaller portion of millennials but may not hold their bloc’s attributed principles as dear, would also find issue with President Trump’s election. It would be prudent, though, that before assessing the threats to millennial principles, the concept of threats and appropriate reactionary measures are recognized through the founder of modern conservatism: Edmund Burke.

Burkean theory and the conservative disposition can largely be understood from Burke’s ideas within his work “Reflections on the Revolution of France.” In this, he is critical of the French Revolution, believing that the French abused the option to revolt against their monarchical government. It is here Burkean theory manifests; Burke conceives of a society that respects and acknowledges the traditions it was founded upon, preserving these core traditions for posterity. Here, Burke argues that society is, indeed, an intergenerational “social contract” that instills in each generation the principles and traditions of past generations; this is not to say society is to mindlessly follow the traditions of its ancestors, for Burke also contends that “a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” Burkean theory is largely premised on this concept of adaptability, but also situationalism. To Burke, there is no metaphysical ism that can be construed, abused, and philosophically understood and implemented. Rather, conservative Burkean theory holds the traditions of the past in reference to all unfolding situations, reconciling them with the trends of modernity, and transmitting them for preceding generations.

Understandably, most contemporary conservatives will rebuke the argumentative point that left-leaning millennials, who have come to be major proponents of contemporary progressivism, can be characterized as conservative. One must understand that the characterization of a conservative reaction is entirely different than labeling an entire generation as one that embodies a conservative disposition. It is particularly relevant, though, to recognize the millennial generation as a one of a new political basis – generation that has come to believe social welfare, big government, and aspects of diversity, tolerance, and secularization are all institutions of American society rather than debatable features; that these aspects must be enforced by a centralized authority in order for them to be perceived as legitimate. Therefore, when the argument is made that a nationwide millennial campus reaction is indeed conservative, it implies that these progressive institutions are their traditions and principles.

It is still necessary to understand why millennial undergraduates are having such an adverse conservative reaction to the election on Donald Trump. Of course, it is doubtful that this same reaction would be observed if a mainstream Republican candidate was elected; the issue, then, must be inherent in Trump phenomenon, specifically its refutation of progressive sentiment and its explicit intention of dismantling establishment politics.

A closer look at the progressive sentiments that millennial college students hold as a generational principle will reveal the foundation for their conservative backlash. Implementation of these progressive principles into public life characterizes the progressive movement. And although the modern left carries traces of Wilsonian progressivism, it is currently being cultivated under new trends of diversity, tolerance, and secularization by modern political figures like Barack Obama, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders. Each of these figures had a major influence on the 2016 election, primarily for the Democratic Party and its ultimate nomination of Hillary Clinton, and can essentially be seen as epitomized progressive leaders that are praised by millennials. Yet, it is precisely these figures that Donald Trump used to emphasize his own political doctrine of refuting the nation’s public discourse of liberalism.

Millennial undergraduates, nonetheless, are steadfast in affirming their core progressive beliefs; they participate in protests and often use social media as a platform for sharing their political beliefs. It is not uncommon to meet a college undergraduate who is an avid supporter of  diversity/minority organizations or, more broadly, one who just supports broad progressive reform. Social media, primarily Twitter, is an advantage to them; they use hashtags (#BlackLivesMatter, #ShePersisted, #Resist, etc.) as a protest tool to grant their shared sentiment legitimacy in the public eye. Twitter, as a whole, has become an interesting forum in the 2016 election cycle being used by both the left and the right, the most notable (and controversial) figure being President Trump.

Perhaps, in some sense, it is here that millennial undergraduates feel threatened for not only are their core beliefs threatened by President Trump’s diametrically opposed policy mandates, but their public platform, too, is being compromised. The normalization of unwelcome ideas on a platform dominated by millennial sentiment can only cause disharmony within the campus bubble – an environment that embodies and champions progressive principles. This concept is rather Burkean in nature; the millennial generation from a young and malleable age has grown to understand social media as a key aspect of modern life. As they age and become politically cognizant they take on their political leanings (which tend to be progressive) in tandem with their use of social media. The mores of the millennial become established and cultivated under the trends of modernity. With the introduction of the Trump phenomenon, their progressive-based forum, as well as the mores, are compromised. Naturally, as Burke would understand it, the inclination to preserve one’s principles is warranted – which gives rise to the current campus atmosphere around the United States.

Establishment politics, which is mutually held as a desirable aspect of centralized government by moderate portions of the left and the right, has also been perceived as a threat by millennials. In a way, the millennial generation’s progressive ideals work in conjunction with establishment politics – in order for one generation to pass on progressive principles to the next, there needs to be an established order. This order has come to be recognized as centralized established politics, or beltway politics. The idea of order and the centralized establishment largely is Cartesian in nature and conflicts with traditional conservatism which holds the family, community, and localities as the main forum to maintain tradition and principle. Cartesian school of thought, established by thinkers like René Descartes and Jean Jacques Rousseau, can be seen as a juxtaposition to contemporary conservatism in that it sees society as a distinct entity from the individual and understands social processes (or centralized government) as a way to serve human ends. Yet, to millennial progressives (and some moderates), order and establishment through a centralized power represent a consistent method to influence society as a whole, for progressivism is inherently forward looking and continually adapting to trends of modernity.

President Trump’s commandeering of an American populist platform has come to enrage the millennial college campus. His intention disseminate centralized power to localities and rural America are observed by millennials as a both backtracking the Obama administration’s progressive policies and as a threat to any established progressive principles. The Trump campaign branded itself as the anti-establishment movement and ran on the mandate of draining “the swamp.” In essence, the campaign sought to delegitimize establishment politics that has been institutionalized in Washington D.C. and utilized by various progressive movements – like the Woman’s Suffrage Movement and the Civil Rights Movement. Phasing out intermediaries like special interests groups that organize centralized Washington politics becomes a driving force in the Trump campaign and a core issue for his administration. One can imagine the naturally adverse reaction from the millennial generation that has grew in congruence with establishment politics and perceiving its role in society as a positive force. The Obama administration, particularly, can be well understood as the main vehicle of reinforcement, for millennial undergraduates established their partisan and ideological leanings during his campaigns and his two administrative terms. Burkean thought, specifically the intergenerational social contract, would add validity to this claim; the millennial generation has come to believe that establishment politics is principled tradition. They became politically cognizant under establishment politics, believing it is how to effectively implement policy in order to maintain their progressive principles; they are, therefore, in their right to maintain the institution in order to transfer it to the succeeding generations.

The American college campus, therefore, should be seen as having experienced an abrupt conservative backlash. The Trump phenomenon has shaken the foundation of the progressivism and the millennial generation’s principles, even though the overlaps between the Trump platform and progressivism cannot be discounted. For instance, many progressives came to support Senator Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination; his platform was similar to Trump’s, specifically in trade policy, special interests, and military intervention overseas. This policy “crossover” between the Trump and Sanders campaign can be explained by another conservative school of thought: paleoconservatism. Paleoconservatism, finds issue with both contemporary establishment Republicans as well as the progressive left Democrats. It detests Republicans for acquiescing on modern issues like lenient immigration policies and promoting a free market. Paleoconservatism advocates for nationalism and isolationism, and restrictions on free trade. Progressivism, interestingly enough, supports similar positions like non-interventionism (although still maintaining a globalist position), and more restrictive trade to benefit the working class. This gives reason to the fact that many of Sanders primary supporters  voiced their intent to cast a vote for Trump in the general election. Trump’s platform may be plainly detested by most progressive who believe in opposing policies, but there are observable similarities between both policy preferences of Trump and progressives.

Burke’s ideas of adaptable tradition and its reconciliation with the trend of modernity can attest to the concept of a millennial conservative reaction, though not to the progressive movement as a whole. What should be taken from this analysis of the average college campus and millennial undergraduate is the fact that modern political discourse (that is, up until 2016) has followed a liberal progressive trend. It has not faced a formidable opponent until the rise of Donald Trump who, with his exploitation of rhetoric and demagoguery, was able to overtake establishment politics. Perhaps this signals a newly emerging dynamic in modern political discourse; the ambiguity of the political climate among the divided major parties along with their traditions and principles implies a time strife, reorganization, and an emergence of new leaders. The college campus, although in conservative revolt, may actually be facilitating a reorganization of progressive principles which will come to defend the progressive trends they feel are threatened under a Trump administration. The oppositional dynamic of the intellectual elite and the “forgotten men and women” of America will be put on full display within the next few years and, with it, the contention of how to “Make America Great Again.”

About Kevin Weil

Contributing Editor, Political Theory. | Dabbles in political science, Partisan to Reason. | Email: | Twitter: @KevMWeil