Rich Anderson, the chairman of the Virginia Republican Party wrote to the president of the University of Virginia yesterday. Anderson begins by explaining, “I understand the commitment that public servants make to serving with integrity, dignity, respect, and honor in their taxpayer-funded roles.” The letter concerns Donald Trump, though not in a way that follows intuitively from the premise that public servants must act with integrity, dignity, respect, and honor.
Anderson’s letter demands UVA open an ethics investigation into Larry Sabato, the director of the school’s Center for Politics. Sabato’s alleged ethics violation is a series of mean tweets from his personal account, concerning Donald Trump.
Sabato’s tweets are, indeed, pretty mean:
On the other hand, Sabato’s comments hardly differ from the kinds of things Republicans — including Republicans nominated by Trump and working closely at his side — say about Trump all the time. To be sure, they say them privately, not in public, because they’re afraid of offending his voters. That is precisely the purpose of demanding Sabato be punished for saying it aloud. Their goal is to make Sabato, and other people in positions like his, afraid as well.
Anderson’s putative grounds for deeming Sabato’s tweets an ethics violation are a few stray passages from UVA’s Mission Statement, which Anderson outlined in his letter:
• UVa’s Mission Statement promoting a “learning environment marked by the free and collegial exchange of ideas,” and “unwavering support of a collaborative, diverse community bound together by….values of honor, integrity, trust, and respect;”
• UVa Center for Politics Mission Statement that states, “Everything we do must fulfill our goal of instilling citizens with an appreciation for the core values of American freedom, justice, equality, civility, and service;” and
• UVa’s Code of Ethics for Faculty and Staff that states, “[w]e promote an inclusive and welcome community that respects…opinions of all people,” “[w]e treat every individual with kindness, dignity, and respect, regardless of position or status,” “[w]e collaborate with others in a positive and respectful manner,” and “[w]e act and communicate…with integrity, upholding the University’s values at all times.”
Exactly how Sabato violated any of these guidelines by pointing out that the former president was a deranged narcissist, Anderson does not say. Indeed, if you’re going to take these mission statement nostrums seriously, a line like “Everything we do must fulfill our goal of instilling citizens with an appreciation for the core values of American freedom, justice, equality, civility, and service” would seem to require the University’s staff to oppose Trump.
Of course the legal merits of Anderson’s demand are not the point. It is an exercise in harassment and intimidation. Republicans are flexing their political muscle as a threat to employees of public universities. The GOP may not currently control the state government, but perhaps it might one day, and employees are on notice that they have to tread gingerly around the tender feelings of the Republican electorate.
The occasional Republican pose as defenders of free speech, or mockers of snowflakes, was always a transparent ploy; no abuse by the illiberal left can hold a candle to the illiberalism of a political party pledged to the whims of an authoritarian.
Letters like the one to Virginia are a small taste of their determination to use state power to intimidate critics. This is how Republicans are acting in defeat. Imagine what they will do in victory.