WHEN THE Sphere arrived at the GSB for Dinesh D’Souza’s talk last quarter, it took us a while to find the line for Stanford students. In contrast with the 120 or so non-students who crowded one line with their Trump shirts and MAGA caps, we counted only fifteen undergraduates in the other. These acolytes of the right continued to pour in after the doors opened, and as the room filled up, finding seats proved hard even for some members of the Stanford College Republicans. This was just the kind of audience that craved the vitriolic anti-Democrat spiel that made D’Souza a star among the alt-right—not really what you’d expect from a Stanford crowd.
It’s tempting to read this turnout as yet another sign of SCR’s irrelevance on campus. Even the few students who came from outside SCR (the students in the line) weren’t all enthusiasts: some were there to confront him; others brought stink bombs. Those who stayed home didn’t miss much: after seeing what D’Souza had to offer and giving him an honest chance to impress us, the Sphere was less frightened than bored.
The problem is that changing students’ minds didn’t seem to be SCR’s goal in the first place—after all, neither D’Souza’s rhetoric nor his content were geared toward the kind of intellectual debate we have on a college campus. Instead, the organizers were more concerned with making the talk into a conservative rally for local Republicans, which they filmed and put out on the Internet for even more alt-righters to see. Ultimately, this was not a conservative event for Stanford; this was a conservative event at the expense of Stanford. And understanding the difference between the two is the key to reframing the free speech debate on campus.
First, we realized that truth-seeking minds were not D’Souza’s target audience. His whole spiel relied on so-called “crushing facts”—facts that, according to him, settle an argument all by themselves. For D’Souza, the “crushing fact” that only two Democratic congressmen switched parties in the 1960s and 1970s ends the conversation. For his intended audience, this single fact proves the narrative that the Democrats never ceased being the party of racism and bigotry, whereas Republicans were always on the right side of history.
This talking point and others like them are rhetorical tricks: make a claim that has an obvious response, and have one talking point ready to deploy against the obvious response. So armed, D’Souza’s disciples are usually one step ahead of their adversaries—just enough to leave the latter with nothing to say. D’Souza’s model is to equip his audience with quick-and-dirty, easy-to-remember facts that, stripped of context, mislead.
Even if serious academics responded with talking points of their own, D’Souza would probably manage to out-talking-point them—clearly, he spends a lot of time crafting sophistries against the overwhelming historical evidence he chooses to ignore. To effectively counter him, historians would have to collect dozens of sources, introduce them to the public, and use them to craft a historical narrative that tops D’Souza’s talking point—much as Princeton’s Kevin Kruse has done on Twitter. But preparing this kind of retort is much harder than dealing in talking points, and getting people to sit through them is harder still.
D’Souza’s rhetoric is incompatible with serious academic inquiry, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the few neutral students at the talk didn’t fall for it. John Kohler, ‘22, who questioned the speaker during the event, said that the D’Souza “made a few points which I found informative and logical,” but that the content of the talk was “mostly filled with historical half-truths and common conservative talking points.” Kohler said that “a more productive student response might have been to push for a discussion format more conducive to real discourse.”
But as D’Souza delivered crushing fact after crushing fact, we came to a realization: the point of the talk wasn’t to change students’ minds. Instead, SCR brought D’Souza to campus to energize the MAGA crowd and get students to pay for it with time, money, and attention.
The idea that you can “take on Stanford’s best leftists” with a simple recipe speaks strongly to the anti-intellectualism of Trump’s base. It’s probably a good feeling to see Stanford’s best and brightest get superficially shut down by someone on your side of the aisle, and that clearly emboldened SCR’s target audience, the dozens of attendees who came from outside the Stanford community. Now, did Stanford stop SCR from theatrically exploiting students for a right-wing endeavor aimed outside the campus community? No. It supplied funds, labor, and a venue to make it happen.
It’s time we stop discussing controversial speakers in terms of free speech because the content of D’Souza’s talk is not the most important issue. The problem is that these events exploit Stanford students to rile up the kind of Republican who wastes time shit-talking Stanford in the Daily‘s comment section. The issue of free speech is cover for a group that capitalizes on university resources to forward a national agenda. D’Souza’s speech was a great time for the non-students who drove in to see it, but it gave nothing of value to the curious students whom student-funded events are meant to serve—nor did it seek to. SCR is so intellectually bankrupt that they’ve simply given up on their peers.
So when we left the D’Souza rally, we didn’t feel that we were any closer to the truth than when we walked in—even though this is what we were promised in exchange for giving D’Souza money from our student activities fees. This money comes out of tuition instead of the endowment, so it’s only fair that students actually get something out of the event. We were hoping to see the best case for conservatism: the modern Burke, or as close as we could get. Instead, we saw D’Souza using student questions to pander to a crowd that already believed him behind a wall of Stanford-subsidized security.
Instead of trying to invest itself with the morally questionable power to veto campus speakers—or to create useless positions like a Director of Academic Freedom—the ASSU should take constructive steps to prevent opportunistic events like this one from happening again. For political events, the Undergraduate Senate could require that at least enough students to fill 50% of the venue sign a petition supporting the event. As long as they exist, SCR and other conservative groups won’t stop trying to misuse student funds. To ensure that Stanford-funded events serve students instead of exploiting them, it’s up to the ASSU to set concrete standards and take them seriously.
Daniel Ferreira & Elijah Spiegel