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When College Republicans Unite With The Alt-Right, What Could Go Wrong?

What could go wrong? Well, everything. A case study from the University of Washington.
When College Republicans Unite With The Alt-Right, What Could Go Wrong?
Image from: Dave Neiwert

Between the Inauguration Day riot and the affirmative-action bake sale, there has been nothing ordinary about the University of Washington’s College Republicans chapter for the past three years. Under the direction of Chevy Swanson, the chapter president elected in fall of 2016, the organization had sponsored a range of activities—two of which became near-riots, the first of which included a near-fatal shooting—that created public-safety issues and inflamed outrage, while alt-right activists and white nationalists swirled around the pugnacious scene it created on the UW campus.

It all finally came to a head this fall when the school’s administration announced it had withdrawn recognition of the group and was shifting its affiliation to a new group, called the Husky College Republicans, headed by Swanson’s onetime rival for the chapter presidency.

That should have ended the matter. However, as things turned out, that was just the start of the problems for Swanson and his former cohorts, now embroiled in a court case arising from threats Swanson made online.

UW’s experience with an unusually alt-right-friendly “College Republicans” chapter somewhat mirrors that of the chapter on the other side of the state at Washington State University in Pullman. There, the leadership of white nationalist James Allsup, who participated in the deadly Aug. 12, 2017, “Unite the Right” rally in Charlotteville, Virginia, created an uproar both before and after he was forced out, and later stripped of credentials within a Spokane County GOP committee.

Other campuses around the country are encountering similar turmoil within the ranks of their local Republican activists. At the University of Maine, for example, the campus College Republicans chapter was left in limbo after their official advisor resigned suddenly in the wake of the group’s decision to invite Michelle Malkin to speak on campus—a protest of Malkin’s recent embrace of the white-nationalist alt-right in the growing internecine battle between more establishment conservatives and far-right “Groypers.”

Campus conservatives have been splitting into pro-Trump and establishment factions for a while now, but the emergence of the alt-right faction as a campus phenomenon has intensified over the past year. In the case of UW’s College Republicans, moreover, the rising influence of the alt-right has created problems since the Trump election.

On the day of Trump’s inauguration—January 20, 2017—the chapter hosted a speaking event by alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos at UW’s Kane Hall that attracted a large crowd of protesters who clashed violently with attendees. Before the night was over, a Milo fan had shot and nearly killed an antifascist trying to prevent her husband from using pepper spray on the crowd.

The invitation to Yiannopoulos was extended by the faction of ardently pro-Trump students who had taken over the chapter during the fall of 2016, particularly Swanson. The following spring, Swanson and a student from Yakima named Jack Pickett competed for the chapter presidency; Swanson won.

Pickett told Daily Kos that he had been dismayed by the invitation to Yiannopoulos and the fallout from the violence that resulted. “I didn’t think it was being run in a way that promoted the mission of recruiting young folks on our campus to the Republican Party,” he said. “I was really concerned about some of the rhetoric and behavior that was being used by the leadership.”

The earlier violence created problems for the UW College Republicans’ next planned event—an invitation to the far-right group Patriot Prayer and its leader, Joey Gibson, who had been organizing violent far-right rallies throughout the Pacific Northwest over the previous year. UW officials demanded a $17,000 bond for security costs for the Feb. 10, 2018, event. The Young Republicans chapter filed a lawsuit against the university, claiming the bond was an onerous imposition on their free-speech rights; the day before the rally, a federal judge blocked UW from imposing the fee.

At the rally, Swanson spoke to the crowd and complained about the attempted fee. “They’re forcing us to pay for their violence,” he said, pointing at the crowd of counterprotesters.

Gibson also spoke to the small crowd of supporters, along with Tusitala “Tiny” Toese and a number of others who wanted to have a word on behalf of “free speech.” Gibson urged the crowd to “take back Washington from Seattle. Ninety percent of the state is conservative, but they have lost their faith. They have lost their faith, they have lost their hope, they have stopped voting, they have stopped running for office, they have stopped being activists. I have seen it. I know several Patriots who are leaving Washington state, because they have lost their faith. … We gotta take back this state, otherwise, you won’t even be allowed to own a gun!” he warned.

Stormer Book Club members at UW 2/10/18
Members of the “Stormer Book Club” participating in the UW College Republicans event in February 2018.

Among the participants in that rally were members of the Cascade Legion, a self-described “self-defense” group organized by a noted white nationalist, Christopher Buck Robertson. Members of the neo-Nazi “Stormer Book Club” drove up from Oregon, donned American flag masks, and menaced the crowd of protesters. James Allsup also was a visible presence.

The group continued pulling stunts intended to maximize their publicity, with Swanson appearing regularly on the radio talk show of right-wing pundit Jason Rantz of KTTH-AM, including a “Beers for Brett” gathering to celebrate the ascension of Trump appointee Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court that produced a disinvitation from the tavern’s owner.

Interviews with Swanson are also featured in a current right-wing Prager University-produced “documentary” about campus “political correctness” titled No Safe Spaces, in which he describes his court victory over UW for the security fee. He made an appearance on Fox News to promote the film.

Swanson also later boasted online that he had purchased guns for himself with the proceeds from the lawsuit against UW.

The “Affirmative Action Bake Sale” that Swanson and his cohorts organized in May 2019 was the group’s final grab for publicity. Goods at the bake sale were priced according to race and gender; Asian goodies were priced the highest, at $1.50, while African American confections were 50 cents, and Native American items were free.

However, behind the scenes, things were going badly for UWCR. In April 2018, the Washington College Republican Federation—where Jack Pickett had managed to win election the previous year—revoked the UW chapter’s chapter for “conduct unbecoming a chapter.” The national version, the College Republican National Committee (CRNC), followed suit and revoked the UW group’s charter later that year.

In spite of the loss of official recognition, however, the University of Washington continued to confer Registered Student Organization (RSO) status on Swanson’s group. This eventually reached the attention of national officials. In October, Chandler Thornton, the national chairman of the CRNC, wrote to university officials asking them to decertify UWCR and to recognize the new group, the Pickett-led Husky College Republicans, as an RSO.

“The fact remains that the [UWCR] continues to engage in hurtful and inappropriate conduct,” Thornton wrote. UW officials responded in short order, agreeing to the change immediately.

That’s about when the threats began, though Swanson had already taken to lashing out on social media even before the hammer fell: “Members of the Republican Party are explicitly after my politics and my career,” he wrote on Instagram in September. “These people are ridiculous and completely evil.”

A little later, he added: “The people who want to deplatform you via lies are evil. Treat them how you treat truly evil people.”

Finally: “I can’t wait till we Round Up and shoot all of the people who have been using the ‘Trump supporters are racists’ line to ruin lives.”

Combined with a raft of similarly violent chatter from Swanson—particularly posting a photo, just before Halloween, of himself dressed up as The Joker, with Jack Pickett’s name overlaid on the photo 24 times—Pickett decided the threats had gone too far, and went to court in mid-November to obtain a restraining order against Swanson. Pickett said he considered the meme a threat, and chose to spend that weekend with his family in Yakima.

Swanson had not re-enrolled at UW (or any other school) last fall and told his friends on social media he was looking for work.

On Nov. 18, King County District Court Judge Susan Mahoney agreed to issue a temporary restraining order against Swanson. As a result, he was ordered to surrender the firearms he had boasted of purchasing.

The legal problems appear to have created other issues for Swanson. On Facebook, he complained to friends that he had been fired from his last job in information security “because they found out I was a republican/right winger” and that “the constant smearing by local papers … has caused the Google results for me to become a very poor representation of myself or my views. I never really expected this to be an issue because my activism has never really been the crazy extremist stuff that some people on the far left have tried to claim,” he wrote.

However, Swanson remained defiant after the temporary restraining order, even as hearings continued on whether or not to make the order permanent. On his Instagram account, he posted pages from the court document, telling his readers they could find “some funny content” buried in the judge’s order.

So when he went before the same judge Dec. 16 for a hearing on Swanson’s request for an extension in order to obtain legal counsel, he found himself in very hot legal water. Judge Mahoney made clear that she was not pleased with Swanson’s approach to the case.

“You’re a young man, and I don’t know that you—I’m not saying that ultimately this order will be issued,” she told Swanson sternly, “but I don’t think you understand the peril you are in at this moment in time, and how significant this is. In the meantime, I would probably suggest using better judgment on ‘here’s some funny things from the court.’ Because I can tell you, sir, that I sit here every day and I take very seriously what I do, and if I write a court order it’s usually not to be funny. And so that’s not really showing very good judgment.” Swanson meekly agreed.

Swanson’s next court date is scheduled for later this month.

Republished with permission from Daily Kos

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