The only conservative scholar on campus?

A right-wing philosopher in Texas tells John Gill how a minority of students can shut down debates and intimidate lecturers – and why he backs Trump

April 27, 2017
A group of flamingos and a Marabou stork
Source: Alamy montage

If you want an apt metaphor for the state of modern America, you could do worse than take a stroll through the grounds of Texas’ state Capitol.

Located at the heart of the Lone Star State’s capital city, Austin – a liberal enclave in a deeply conservative region – the steps to the magnificent domed building, cast in red granite, teem with politicians and their aides. But it’s the bickering and squabbling in the branches overhead that draw the attention.

Great-tailed grackles look a bit like an elongated blackbird, but songbirds they are not. Scores of them hiss and whirr and click at each other incessantly in the evergreen oaks that flank the Capitol building. Minor disagreements quickly escalate into full-on brawls. The other birds forced to share the branches – some rather diminutive doves – seem browbeaten into silence. Sitting for a moment in the cool shade beneath, I wonder whether the grackles learned this behaviour from the politicians, or the other way around?

Neighbouring the Capitol is the University of Texas at Austin campus. Posters pinned to telephone poles implore passers-by to “teach kindness” and “teach close listening”. But neither is much in evidence in US public life at the moment. By common consent, last year’s presidential election campaign was the most divisive and acrimonious in living memory, and the first few months of Donald Trump’s presidency have done nothing to bridge the growing cultural and political chasm separating liberals and conservatives.

A symptom of that polarisation is what many critics regard as the increasing scarcity of conservatives in US academic departments, leading to ideological homogenisation and driving a wedge between academia and wider society. But conservatives have not been grackled into silence quite yet.

One of Trump’s most prominent academic supporters is UT professor Daniel Bonevac. The philosopher received considerable media attention during the election campaign when he became a spokesman of sorts for the Scholars and Writers for America group, which argued that the property tycoon was “the candidate most likely to restore the promise of America”.

This claim provoked derision from, among others, fellow academic Brian Leiter, who worked with Bonevac in the 1990s. On his blog, Leiter – who is now Karl N. Llewellyn professor of jurisprudence and director of the Center for Law, Philosophy, and Human Values at the University of Chicago – suggested that since his former colleague was a “highly competent analytic philosopher”, he must be “very naïve in thinking that supporting Trump is instrumentally rational” as a means to achieving his political goals.

This criticism captures the intrigue of Bonevac’s position: how could a respected philosopher, a specialist in logic and ethics, support a presidential candidate whom many would see as having a distant relationship with both coherent thought and truth?

In person, Bonevac is affable and scholarly in demeanour. When I meet him, at UT’s Perry-Castañeda Library, he cheerfully laments having spent the morning searching fruitlessly for a Latin text that the library appears not to stock. It is tempting to ask straight away how someone like him could publicly endorse a man who, when asked during the campaign to name the last book he had read, replied: “I read passages, I read areas, I’ll read chapters – I don’t have the time.” But I decide, instead, to start at the beginning. How did Bonevac, a native of industrial Pittsburgh, get into academia?

“I grew up in a neighbourhood where nobody went to college,” he explains. “When I was about to go to kindergarten, I remember my mother trying to prepare me. I was only four years old, and I was really nervous. I said to her: ‘I have to go tomorrow, but what about the day after that?’ And she said: ‘Oh yes, the day after that, and then you have 12 years of school, and then you go to college, and then you get a master’s degree and then you get a PhD.’ Why she told me that I don’t know, but it meant that from the age of four I knew I was going to get a PhD – so that was always my plan.”

His recollection is that the college campuses that he attended – Haverford College in Philadelphia and then the University of Pittsburgh – were not particularly politically charged. Nevertheless, he admits that he had a “few deviant years” during that period, when he “sort of caught the bug of the 1970s” and ended up working on Democrat George McGovern’s run for president in 1972. “But my parents were Republicans, and I eventually reverted to the fold thanks to Ronald Reagan.”

Daniel Bonevac
Callie Richmond/University of Texas at Austin
Daniel Bonevac


So how much of an anomaly was a card-carrying Republican on 1980s campuses?

“I was aware that I was in a minority, but there were other Republicans around, and lots of people who I would describe as moderate liberals, so I didn’t feel like an outlier,” he explains.

He estimates that when he started out, liberals outnumbered conservatives in the humanities by a ratio of perhaps three or four to one. Today, it’s more like six to one among his immediate colleagues, he says. “But that makes us remarkably conservative for a humanities department. Some of the research I’ve seen recently makes it more like 10 or 15 to one.”

If he’s right, then that context helps to explain the level of interest in his decision to break ranks and declare his support for Trump. So why did he do it?

“What’s tenure for if you can’t speak out when called upon?” Bonevac replies. “I am among the least vulnerable people on the planet, so surely I should be able to do this if anyone can. There was a narrative developing – especially on campuses, but in parts of the media, too – that Trump’s appeal was entirely with uneducated people, and that anyone with college education shouldn’t even think of supporting him. I thought: ‘Well, that’s not true – there are plenty of intellectually respectable arguments for supporting Trump and even more against his opponent [Hillary Clinton].”

What dismayed him most, he says, is that for every person who agreed to sign the Scholars and Writers for America statement, four or five were sympathetic but declined, fearing they would become “pariahs”.

As for himself, Bonevac says that several students thanked him for breaking what they saw as a sort of omertà and letting them know that “there are professors on our side”, but he was equally gratified when liberal-leaning colleagues reacted not by shunning him, but rather by expressing “great pride” that one of their own had appeared in the Washington Post as an election commentator.

From the late 1980s until a few years ago, one of Bonevac’s most popular courses was titled “contemporary moral problems”. Based on readings from classical philosophers, it focused on controversial political issues.

It started as a joint venture with a left-wing colleague, who would give the arguments on one side while Bonevac took the other side. “That worked well for many years until my colleague got tired of it [and] started calling the course ‘contemptible moral problems’,” Bonevac says. “So I moved to doing it on my own, but with basically the same format: one day I would give the best arguments I was aware of against abortion; the next class I would give the best arguments in favour of a pro-choice position and so on.”

Occasionally – “maybe once a decade” – someone would complain that Bonevac was biased about a particular issue, but he insists that he was scrupulously even-handed. Then, on the last day of one of the iterations of the course, someone “stood up and gave a diatribe against the entire course [around] how biased it was” – although he maintains that he had never seen the woman in his class before, and questions whether she was even one of his students.

Meanwhile, in another course he taught called “ideas of the 21st century”, he noticed students switching off as soon as he broached a topic with “contemporary resonance”. One example is civil rights: “I don’t say anything controversial about it, but the moment the topic came up they checked their phones, and there was no conversation, no questions. I talked to them afterwards and what it came down to was that they had heard this story so many times, and they knew there was a politically correct line…They don’t want to hear the sermon again, and if you’re not [giving the politically correct line] then that’s very dangerous and they don’t want any part of it.”

These days, he says, viewpoints that some students disagree with will not even be debated. “The attitude is: ‘Let’s not find out what [this historical figure] is saying and then raise objections: let’s just stop you talking about it. Take, for instance, [the economist Friedrich] Hayek. Increasingly students just say: ‘Wait, he attacks socialism? Let’s shut that down right now.’”

Pro-life protesters

However, Bonevac is adamant that what has occurred is not so much a wholesale change in attitude among students as the adoption by a small, vocal minority of the role of “thought police”.

“In a class of 250-300, there are now always a few who are very far to the Left and very outspoken, and who don’t want alternative perspectives discussed,” he says. “The other students won’t challenge that. Occasionally, someone will say something, but you can tell that they think they’re doing something incredibly brave and they have a note of defiance in their voice. Up until about two years ago, [what they are arguing] would have been seen as an entirely reasonable thing to say, and something they would have felt completely free to say.”

Overall, Bonevac does not regard UT Austin today as being any more politically charged than the institutions of his youth. Take its reaction to Trump’s election: “We had a demonstration on campus the day after Trump was elected, but most of the people involved seemed either to be affiliated with very left-wing studies or to be from off campus,” he says. “Typical students in most of my classes weren’t talking about this too much. So I don’t think things have changed too much from my undergraduate days, apart from the presence of a very vocal minority.”

But the “atmosphere of danger in the classroom” created by that vocal minority affects not only students but tutors, too, because it is “very easy for a student to pluck out one quotation” during a discussion about a contentious topic and mispresent it as the lecturer’s own opinion.

How, though, would such an out-of-context quote be used against him by a student?

Bonevac considers for a moment. “I did have a student in the fall semester who would ask me all sorts of weird political questions that weren’t really directly relevant to the class, and who always held his phone in a position that suggested to me that he was recording. And that’s when I started thinking: ‘Yes, this isn’t just student-to-student – I am also a potential target,’” he says.

The university hierarchy has assured him that they support his courses and “don’t want this to become a place where people can’t have these conversations. So I have no fears about that,” Bonevac says. “But, on the other hand, I don’t want to become the subject of some Daily Texan [student newspaper] article as a professor who says [something controversial]. I’ve seen it happen to some other faculty members [elsewhere], where some statement gets taken out of context and there’s this big controversy.”

His concern is not only that students will suffer if topics such as immigration and “anything to do with race and affirmative action” become no-go areas for debate, but also that such censorship is contributing to the political polarisation in society at large.

“I do think something is lost if a course is just about learning the arguments on the Left, and almost none of the intelligent arguments on the Right. The last election is a good example of that – people were gobsmacked by positions and arguments that they’d just never thought through because they’d never encountered them before.”

Bonevac admits that in the Republican primaries he voted for the ultra-conservative Texas senator (and former UT Austin adjunct law professor) Ted Cruz – disparaged by Trump as “Lyin’ Ted”. So what were his reasons for ultimately backing a man whose candidacy he initially mentioned in class merely as “a way of getting a laugh out of students”?

The scales fell from Bonevac’s eyes while watching a Trump campaign rally on television. “I meant to watch for just a few minutes to see what this was about, and I ended up watching for more than an hour,” he says. “It was clear that something very different was going on. This wasn’t a politician making a speech: he was interacting with the crowd…It wasn’t hate filled. It wasn’t angry. It was actually very funny – he’s an entertainer.”

Confrontation between Trump supporters and anti-Trump protesters

Trump won him over for two reasons in particular. “One is that I think he correctly identified the dangers of a globalist attitude that threatened to overturn the interests of the United States – as well as, I think, Britain and Western Europe and, in general, what I consider the beacons of freedom and human rights in the world.

“One way to put it crudely is that if you thought of the entire world’s population as voting on something, you wouldn’t like the outcome, because most people don’t live in English-speaking countries with our traditions of law and rights. It’s not that there’s something magical about English, it’s just that that sort of political tradition spread to certain countries, and the interests of those countries are pretty important to protect – partly because they are the world’s interests.”

Trump’s other main attraction for Bonevac was his declaration of war on the administrative state.

“Woodrow Wilson and other progressives created this monstrous bureaucracy of Washington, which has increasing control over people’s lives without any accountability,” Bonevac explains. “Someone in the [Environmental Protection Agency] suddenly wants to shut down the coal industry? No one voted for that. There was no act of Congress. This was something issued from that bureaucracy…More and more of our life is controlled by those kinds of things, and Trump was the only candidate who saw that this was the chief political problem in the US right now.”

Our interview takes place before the failure of Trump’s first attempt to reform healthcare. But his administration has already been rocked by headlines about chaos within the White House, links with Russia, controversial appointments and furiously received and legally flawed attempts to ban travel to the US from a number of mainly Muslim countries. So is Bonevac still impressed by Trump?

“More so: I’m thrilled,” he replies.

What has thrilled him?

“Oh gosh. Everything,” he laughs. “The appointments, I think, overall, have been fantastic. There were a few where that’s not the person I would have chosen…”

What about the education secretary, Betsy DeVos? I interject. DeVos is a prominent advocate of parents’ rights to use public money to put their children into private or religious schools, and she struggled during her notorious confirmation hearing to answer some basic questions about public education.

“She’s too far to the left for me,” Bonevac says, laughing even more heartily. After considering the question further, he adds: “DeVos is definitely off the usual path. And she is someone I’m nervous about in various ways – partly because if you think of the administrative state as something like a lion that needs to be tamed or controlled, then you do want someone who is familiar with lions to do that. Does she have the requisite experience and backgrounds to do that? I don’t know: time will tell. But I do like the fact that she’s an outsider, because the alternative – that you just give the lions whatever they want – is not what we need.”

I’m keen to hear Bonevac’s defence, as a logician, of Trump’s approach to facts, coherent argument and the truth. Does it not trouble him that the president is willing to play so fast and loose with these things?

“Yes,” he replies. “But it has been troubling me for years. Through the Obama years, I felt I was constantly being fed a diet of lies: things that were not true at all, or were technically true but deeply misleading.”

Give me an example, I say.

“The debate about Obamacare. The entire case for it made no sense whatever. You’re going to do something that will increase the use of medical resources, but do nothing to increase supply, and then prices will fall? You only have to take one semester of economics to know that that combination of claims makes no sense.”

Bonevac was also frustrated to hear advocates for Obamacare frequently relying on expert opinion to make their case. In doing so, they were committing “the fallacy that logicians call an appeal to authority. There’s a place where that’s appropriate, but at a certain point, you actually have to argue the issues…I felt that on Obamacare, [as well as] on climate change and on the Iran [nuclear] deal, key things were being kept from the public, and the constant appeal to authority [didn’t convince me because] lots of experts disagree, so you have to make the argument.”

Whereas Barack Obama would frequently make arguments that Bonevac says were “technically true but misleading”, he suggests that Trump – characterised by many as an out-and-out liar – “very often” makes claims that are “technically false, but expressing some deep truth”. Take his widely disparaged claim that Obama ordered the security services to monitor his communications during the election campaign. “Is that true or not? Is there any evidence for that? I have no idea, and none has been produced,” Bonevac says. “On the other hand, I think it has raised people’s consciousness about some things [around state surveillance] that have been going on that they hadn’t connected before…He’s trying to shift the conversation and raise issues, and he does it in a blunt way.”

Daniel Bonevac on Fox News
Fox News

So is truth an acceptable price to pay for a politician to get things done?

“Lying isn’t acceptable. But putting things more boldly – exaggerating…”

But there are plenty of examples where Trump has said black is white, I interject.

“There have been a few of those, and I am not a blanket defender of this,” Bonevac replies. “But I think he recognises that the media are an enemy of his, and I see his tweets as something like FDR’s fireside chats [President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s radio broadcasts] or Reagan’s speeches. He realises that he has to communicate with people over or around the media. A 140-character limit [in a tweet] means you sacrifice nuance…I don’t love what it’s doing to our political discourse, but I didn’t love the state of our political discourse previously either.”

What, then, about Leiter’s suggestion that Bonevac and the two other philosophers who signed the statement supporting Trump were “naïve suckers”?

Bonevac replies that he has “huge respect” for Leiter, and is “sure that’s how it looks to him”. But he cites his own background to explain why his perspective differs.

“Most of my relatives that I’m in touch with are still back in Pittsburgh, in or near the neighbourhood where I grew up,” he says. “They were very enthusiastic Trump supporters from the beginning, and it’s not because they were naive. They’re mostly blue-collar workers. In a few cases they have a college education, but they didn’t go to elite institutions. They’ve lived with an economy over the past 15 years – we can’t blame this all on Obama – that has left people like them, and their neighbourhoods, behind. They’ve seen jobs dry up. Conditions become worse. Inflation affects them hugely at the grocery store or the gas pump. And they were eager to have someone who was concerned about people like them, and who didn’t treat [their impoverishment] as an acceptable cost.

“Someone like Leiter may think those problems are inevitable…and that’s possible. On the other hand, the start to solving them – if they can be solved – [requires you to] see that the problems exist, and try to think them through. Trump is the first politician in a long time to try to do that.”

That said, Bonevac also sees Clinton’s rival for the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders, as something of a fellow traveller. “Sanders supporters and I actually get along quite well,” he says. “We have different solutions, but we see the problems in terms that are not so far apart. Both saw the country approaching a yellow light. Sanders supporters wanted to step on the gas, Trump supporters to hit the brake. Clinton supporters didn’t see the signal. That’s part of the reason why she lost. She thought it was fine to say: ‘Four more years of this.’”

The fact that support for Sanders was so widespread among academic liberals has made being a Trump supporter on campus “easier than you might think”, according to Bonevac.

“The question is, is it naive to think that things can get better?” he asks “I don’t think so. But the problems are hard, and if in the end Trump can’t solve them – at least we tried.” 

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Reader's comments (3)

"I felt that on Obamacare, [as well as] on climate change... key things were being kept from the public". It's a pity the interviewer didn't explore this statement further. One suspects it would have shown that Professor Bonevac is just plain wrong in some of his's not a question of right vs left, but entrenched beliefs over evidence
The philosopher is bored with orthodoxy and a loose cannon like trump provides welcome catharsis ! How cathartic? Only time will tell.
I think the issue is it often comes down to morals. Is it ever appropriate to let someone say something racist in the name of debate? I would argue no. The "politically correct line" is about acknowledging peoples' basic human rights not, for example, discussing if "separate but equal" was ever possible (and pointing out that minority groups have also advocated for this sort of thing at times). On a side note the real issue with Trump is his blatent sexism and racism. Anyone who doesn't have an issue with that is speaking from a relatively priviliged and/or unempathetic position. It's no wonder other people don't like it.