Columbia University College Republicans’ decision to invite far-right speakers and those outside the mainstream political establishment this fall marks a departure from the group’s ideology in previous years, prompting some of the its alumni to worry that moderate conservatives will be alienated by CUCR.
In the coming semester, speakers coming to campus at CUCR’s invitation includes Mike Cernovich, a blogger who has called Islam a “death cult,” claimed that “diversity is a code word for white genocide,” and has a history of spreading conspiracy theories, including the debunked “Pizzagate” theory that Hillary Clinton ran a pedophilia ring out of a Washington pizza restaurant.
Former members of CUCR said this year’s speakers would not likely have been considered acceptable in the past.
“My first few years on the board, there would be no suggestion of bringing anyone like this. Last year, there was a little bit of it,” former CUCR President Andy Truelove, CC ’17, said. “Some people did not run for the board because of this new attitude.”
CUCR’s self-described mission—to provide a platform on which Columbia conservatives can explore all facets of conservatism—has not changed. Typically, CUCR does so by bringing speakers to campus. Past speakers include former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, political consultant and lobbyist Roger Stone, and libertarian pundit John Stossel.
“You have to remember, conservatives are a major part of the Republican Party, but they’re not the whole Republican Party,” CUCR President Ari Boosalis, CC ’18, said. “It’s not my duty to define, ‘We’re gonna bring this type of speaker,’ you know, that’s not my job. My job is to bring a wide variety.”
Unlike many past and current members of the group, Boosalis said he does not see this year’s list of speakers as a departure from years past, adding that he feels that these speakers are in line with conservative morals. He added that he believes right-wing speakers are merely causing more alarm in the post-Trump world, where audiences are more sensitive to the presence of the so-called “alt-right.”
“We want to understand, ‘Why are people following these guys? What values are they pushing that allow people to want to believe those ideas?’” he said. “And then we can ask, Is this something we should personally believe in? Or is this something we should challenge and question and find a remedy for?’”
Boosalis also said that he invited speakers considered to be more “establishment,” but they declined.
Although less common, far-right speakers have been invited by CUCR prior to the Trump election. The most notable example was Jim Gilchrist, the co-founder and president of the Minuteman Project, a volunteer activist group that “[runs] volunteer scout patrols and [offers] assistance” to the U.S. Border Patrol on the U.S.-Mexican border. Gilchrist spoke at Columbia in 2006.
But with an already-existing negative stigma associated with being a Republican on Columbia’s largely Democratic campus, CUCR alumni worry that a lineup of speakers who have voiced views aligned with white nationalism could worsen the group’s reputation, especially after the 2016 election.
“A lot of conservatives kind of felt like they needed to keep their mouths shut or lie low because of all the stereotypes,” said Annie Ninivaggi, CC ’17, CUCR president in 2016-2017. “I think everyone in the club was a little bit afraid that because there was so much tension on campus that we were going to be quieted.”
After the Gilchrist controversy, the club tried to present itself in a way that would be less alienating to the general student body. Ninivaggi said she worries that the group’s speakers this year aren’t likely to produce constructive conversations regarding the wide spectrum of conservatism.
“Focusing on the shock value approach can be OK if they’re trying to make a point—I get it—but I think what needs to be done is people need to be more perceptive of other people’s views, conservative and liberals alike,” Ninivaggi said. “Just because you’re a Republican does not mean you can be grouped with racists.”
But others have pointed out that by bringing in controversial speakers, CUCR draws more attention to itself.
“I think there is a correlation between having controversial speakers and having status, whereby bringing in someone like the group at Middlebury College did last spring and having that person bullied and harassed by protesters would draw positive attention to our side,” CUCR member Sam Rosecan, GS ’17, said. “That is a different trajectory for the club than bringing in a tax policy adviser or someone like National Review editor Rich Lowry or [Republican mayoral candidate] Nicole Malliotakis.”
Ultimately, Boosalis said he is less concerned with engaging the broader Columbia community than with bringing in a wide range of conservative views.
“People don’t really want to listen to us. People are not willing to hear the other side most of the time. … What’s important to me is bringing someone interesting every week,” Boosalis said. “At the end of the day, I’m doing what’s best for my members.”