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Columbia University
Pro-Palestinian protesters line up tents at the encampment at Columbia University. Stefan Jeremiah/AP

Republicans Are Perfectly Fine With Campus Protests Dominating the News

“There’s a lot of Beltway fascination with the Trump trials, but overall, Americans aren’t paying that much attention,” said a House GOP strategist.

Some Republicans see the national fixation on the campus protest movement as a welcome news moment for their party after weeks of disarray in the House.

And it helps that they think it’s just a much more lively story than former President Donald Trump’s ongoing, historic, first-ever criminal trial.

“There’s a lot of Beltway fascination with the Trump trials, but overall, Americans aren’t paying that much attention,” a House Republican strategist told NOTUS. “The protests are getting a ton of attention because they’re fresh. Voters have their mind made up about Trump, and what happens in the courtroom isn’t going to change whether they like him or don’t.”

Some Trump loyalists, though, aren’t eager for attention to just shift over to the campus tent encampments.

“Anytime Trump is in a trial, and it’s talked about in the news, his popularity goes up,” said Robert Cornicelli, vice president of Veterans for America First.

“I mean, it’s not like the OJ trial,” he said. “So I think people are numb to the Trump trials. They’ll be numb to the protests in another week.”

Whether pro-Palestinian protesters on a growing number of college campuses are a true threat to school safety or are victims of over-policing remains hotly debated. But as Republican elected officials continue to call for more law enforcement action and the jailing of protesters, strategists see a moment for the GOP.

“It’s been a boon to Republicans. Voters don’t want to see college campuses run amok with violence and bigotry, and too many Democrats seem scared to call out blatant rampant antisemitism,” Republican strategist Doug Heye said. “Being jeered at by lefty protesters at an elite Manhattan university was a political gift to Speaker Johnson.”

Moderate Democrats have also trekked to the campus of Columbia to condemn the protests, while the party’s progressive wing has said the students have been unfairly maligned and politicized by conservatives — a message Rep. Ilhan Omar sent in person Thursday. That split accentuates an existing divide in the party over policy toward Israel — one that Republicans were eager to exploit since the beginning of the war in Gaza. That effort ran aground in the House as Republicans argued with each other over foreign aid bills that eventually passed with the help of Democrats. But now the protests offer the GOP a chance to look unified, even if it only lasts until college commencement.

“Republicans are doing everything they can to change the subject,” Democratic strategist David Brand said. “They don’t have the issues on their side, so they have to create false issues. What Republicans do now is wake up and think of some outrage of the day.”

Calen Razor and Ben T.N. Mause are NOTUS reporters and Allbritton Journalism Institute fellows. Evan McMorris-Santoro is a reporter at NOTUS.