Plus, if not Trump, who?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, nonpartisan, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum on the news of the day — then “my take.”

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Today's read: 13 minutes.

Today, we are breaking down what happened when three college presidents testified before Congress on antisemitism. Plus, if not Trump, who?

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Marianne video!

Marianne Williamson is polling about as well as Nikki Haley in the Democratic primary right now. So we sat down with her for an interview:

Thank you, Mike.

A few weeks ago, I got to sit down with Mike Pesca on The Gist, a podcast that I love, to talk about my work with Tangle and the challenges of covering political news in 2023. Mike has been one of my favorite pundits in the left-of-center newscape for a long time, and I really appreciated him having me on. You can listen to our interview here.

Quick hits.

  1. Special Counsel Jack Smith has asked the Supreme Court to consider and quickly rule on whether presidential immunity protects former President Donald Trump from prosecution. (The ask) Separately, Rudy Giuliani's civil defamation trial to determine punitive damages began in Washington, D.C., yesterday. The case involves two election workers from Georgia whom Giuliani could owe as much as $43 million. (The trial)
  2. Inflation continued to cool, easing pressure on the Federal Reserve, as the Consumer Price Index increased 3.1% from a year ago. The inflation index rose 0.1% on a monthly basis — slightly above 0.0% forecasts. (The numbers
  3. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky arrived in Washington D.C. to meet with President Biden and Republican leaders as Congress considers another round of military aid. (The visit)
  4. A jury ruled against Google in an antitrust case brought by Epic Games, which argued that the company's app store and billing practices constitute a monopoly. (The ruling)
  5. A Texas woman left the state to obtain an abortion after the state Supreme Court reversed a lower court order, ruling that she could not seek an emergency abortion in Texas. (The decision)

Today's topic.

The college presidents. On Saturday, Liz Magill, the president of the University of Pennsylvania, resigned amid controversy over remarks she made during congressional testimony on antisemitism. Magill, along with presidents Claudine Gay of Harvard and Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), appeared last Tuesday before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

The three presidents testified for several hours, but the parts of their testimony that got the most attention came when Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), a Harvard graduate, asked whether "calling for the genocide of Jews" violated the schools' codes of conduct or constituted harassment. Each president gave indirect answers to her "yes or no question,” saying that it depended on the context and whether the speech turned into conduct.

When asked, Magill said "if the speech turns to conduct" then yes, it would constitute harassment. Her comments drew significant backlash, and she later posted a video on Twitter trying to clarify the university policies.

“I was not focused on, but I should have been, the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate. It's evil, plain and simple."

However, the damage appeared to have been done. Shortly after, a wealthy donor withdrew a $100 million gift to the university and videos criticizing her testimony received tens of millions of views on social media. A petition calling for Magill to resign received over 26,000 signatures.

Magill then announced her resignation on Saturday.

"It has been my privilege to serve as President of this remarkable institution. It has been an honor to work with our faculty, students, staff, alumni, and community members to advance Penn's vital missions," Magill said in a statement.

Shortly after the testimony, Republicans in Congress announced a new House committee investigating antisemitism on the campuses of elite colleges. Critics of Gay and Kornbluth continue to pressure them to resign, as well. On Tuesday, Harvard’s board voted to keep Gay as the school’s president despite the backlash. 

Today, we're going to explore some reactions to the testimony and the news Magill is stepping down from the right and left, then my take.

What the right is saying.

  • The right mostly supports Magill’s resignation and says the Harvard and MIT presidents should also be ousted. 
  • Some say their testimony is emblematic of the broader issues plaguing U.S. colleges and hope this moment brings a reckoning for these schools. 
  • Others argue colleges need to rethink their free speech policies. 

The New York Post editorial board said “one awful university prez down, most of US academia to go.”

“Most American university leaders would’ve done just as badly, and so would the default replacements for Magill & Co. Because they all won their jobs precisely for the willful moral blindness that forced out Magill and may yet oust the other two,” the board wrote. “It’s the job of a modern college leader, you see, to wrap a warm haze over the hard left’s takeover of the campus, the faculty and the administration so the money keeps flowing in from the alumni and the feds so that the ideologues and the soulless place-servers can keep on feeding at the trough. Oh, and ensuring that the next generation will steep even more in progressivism.”

Every sick trend in higher education these last few decades is tied to this transformation: soaring tuition and insane administrative bloat; grade inflation and stark de facto racial administration quotas; the emphasis on luxurious dorms and the dumping of most classroom teaching onto grad-student serfs; the phasing-out of courses on the classics and the proliferation of ‘X-studies’ departments; the rise of campus kangaroo courts and mob-rule assaults on faculty and outside speakers who challenge the reigning pieties.”

In Fox News, Jay Greene argued “college presidents just showed America their moral cowardice.”

“The refusal of the leaders of our most elite universities to answer questions directly and to acknowledge inconsistencies in their institution’s response to hatred vented toward Jews and other groups was a shocking display of moral cowardice and intellectual dishonesty,” Greene said. “It appears that actually murdering Jews, since it is conduct, is subject to university discipline, but only calling for their murder — even as Jewish students walk to their dorms or sit in class — is just part of the robust dialogue needed to shape our best and brightest.

“The sudden adoption of an absolutist free-speech position by these universities is especially surprising given that none of them upheld that principle when non-Jews were the targets. Harvard’s record of failing to protect free speech is so abysmal that it was awarded the lowest possible rating by an academic freedom advocacy organization,” Greene wrote. “The hypocrisy of suddenly discovering a deep commitment to free speech when Jews are the ones being attacked is bad enough, but an anything-goes approach to speech on campus is also educationally inappropriate.”

In The New York Times, David French explored “what the university presidents got right and wrong about antisemitic speech.”

“If the university presidents were largely (though clumsily) correct about the legal balance, why the outrage? To quote the presidents back to themselves, context matters. For decades now, we’ve watched as campus administrators from coast to coast have constructed a comprehensive web of policies and practices intended to suppress so-called hate speech and to support students who find themselves distressed by speech they find offensive,” French said. “The result has been a network of speech codes… designed to protect students from alleged emotional harm.”

“It would be wrong to carry on as if there weren’t a need for fundamental change. The rule cannot be that Jews must endure free speech at its most painful while favored campus constituencies enjoy the warmth of college administrators and the protection of campus speech codes. The status quo is intolerable,” French wrote. “But reform can’t be confined to policies. It also has to apply to cultures…  that means disempowering a diversity, equity and inclusion apparatus that is itself all too often an engine of censorship and extreme political bias.”

What the left is saying.

  • The left defends elements of the presidents’ testimony, though they acknowledge the poor optics of their answers. 
  • Some question the motivations of Republicans on this issue, suggesting they don’t actually care about the safety of Jewish students. 
  • Others criticize the presidents for failing to meet the moment during a challenging time for schools. 

In New York Magazine, Jonathan Chait argued “the college presidents were right about campus antisemitism.”

“What Stefanik was demanding was the wholesale ban on rhetoric and ideas that Jews find threatening, regardless of context. A university should protect students from being mobbed or having their classes occupied and disrupted. But should it protect them from an op-ed in the student newspaper calling to globalize the intifada? Or a demonstration in an open space demanding ‘From the river to the sea’?,” Chait asked. “That would entail wholesale violations of free speech, which, in addition to the moral problem it would create, would likely backfire.”

“The presidents’ efforts to deflect every question about genocide of the Jews into a legalistic distinction between speech and conduct may have sounded grating, and Stefanik’s indignant replies may have sounded like moral clarity. But on the whole, they were right to focus on the distinction between speech and conduct, and Stefanik was wrong to sneer at it. A better criticism would be that colleges are failing to protect Jewish students by refusing to enforce rules of conduct. But that is different from, and in some ways the opposite of, the point Stefanik chose to stand on.”

In The American Prospect, Robert Kuttner said it’s “time to call BS” on the right’s concerns about antisemitism. 

“Do you recall Rep. Elise Stefanik’s passionate statement of outrage when a gunman massacred worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh? Me neither, because there wasn’t one. Or how about her eloquent speech attacking the ‘Jews will not replace us’ marchers at Charlottesville? Nope,” Kuttner wrote. “Stefanik is late to the party. The far right is philosemitic only when it serves their purposes. The extreme right defends Jews as a way of both bashing universities and defending Netanyahu, who conflates criticism of Israel's actions with antisemitism. It is a cynical alliance of cynics.”

“Universities have homework to do. In some respects, they have made themselves sitting ducks with exaggerated DEI regimes and attempts to police correct language. When students and faculty are acculturated to be hyper-sensitive to micro-aggressions and the wind shifts to grotesque macro-aggressions, it's time for a new script. But MAGA apologists and billionaire donors are the last people to dictate that script.”

In The Los Angeles Times, Michael S. Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, wrote “college presidents are supposed to be moral leaders, not evasive bureaucrats.”

“I understand their predicament as they tried to square lawyerly advice with what they must have known was the only answer that would be morally acceptable: Calls for genocide are repugnant and subject to university action. But I’m also a Jew, and I was appalled that they could not bring themselves to say that,” Roth said. “College presidents are not just neutral bureaucrats or referees among competing protesters, faculty and donors. We must not hide behind the language of lawyers. We must speak up on the issues of the day when they are relevant to the core mission of our institutions. 

“Leaders of colleges and universities must not allow ourselves to be put on the defensive by politicians who are mostly interested in scoring points. We must defend academic freedom and intellectual diversity to ensure that demagogues don’t get to decide what we read or how we teach. Our campuses should never be so protective that intellectual confrontation is off-limits, and they should foster forms of inclusion and respect that enable students to thrive — to be open to ideas and perspectives different from their own and from which they can learn.”

My take.

Reminder: "My take" is a section where I give myself space to share my own personal opinion. If you have feedback, criticism, or compliments, don't unsubscribe. Write in by replying to this email, or leave a comment.

  • Parts of this are complicated and parts aren't.
  • Presidents should be able to say calling for the genocide of Jews is prohibited while also advocating for free speech.
  • I am very worried about both antisemitism and the ways pro-Palestine protesters are having their speech limited on campuses.

As I said on Friday, I think there are parts of this story that are complicated and parts that aren't.

Here is what is not complicated: When you are a university president and someone asks you if calling for the genocide of Jews constitutes harassment on your campus, the answer is yes. It does. It assuredly violates some code of conduct or policy, and it warrants punishment. The reasons for this are simple: Calling for genocide of Jews is not a legitimate political position, it is an incitement to violence.

Permitting unambiguous genocidal language is also very obviously a threat to the free speech and rights of Jewish students on campus. Free speech is not just about being able to say whatever you want or demonstrate wherever you want — despite what most Americans with a rudimentary understanding of free speech may think. It is also about the freedom for everyone to participate in speech, and to access the metaphorical public square. Obviously, if I were attending a college where students were allowed to call for committing genocide on the Jews, it would be reasonable for me to feel unsafe.

Here’s the complicated part: What constitutes a call for genocide? There are two reasons why the answers from the university presidents were suffocated by hedging and legalese: One is that they were worried about appearing to restrict free assembly on their campuses. The other is that they were worried about the responsibility of defining what constitutes a call for genocide.

As far as I know, there has not been a single instance of a group of students on a campus in America chanting "kill the Jews!" Though there has been plenty of antisemitism, I’m not aware of anything really close to that. For a lot of people, that makes this entire conversation an absurd and gigantic distraction from the thousands of college-aged (and younger) children dying in an actual, real war in Gaza. 

And yet, I'm quite sure some explicit call for the genocide of Jews has happened somewhere, at some point, on some campus (and maybe a reader is going to send me an example right after this email goes out). But I haven't seen any of those instances. What I have seen are students coming together and chanting things like "globalize the intifada," which is one of the things Rep. Stefanik asked the presidents about.

Again, this is where it gets complicated. Intifada is an Arabic word that means tremor or shaking off. Intifada is also used to describe the popular uprisings of Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza strip aimed at ending Israel's occupation — the first beginning in 1987 and the second beginning in 2000. Both intifadas included quite a bit of violence, together amounting to the deaths of approximately 1,400 Israelis and 5,000 Palestinians. This violence included suicide bombings and random attacks on Israelis, and then brutal military campaigns in the occupied territories in response. So, if you are someone who is familiar with this conflict, the word "intifada" and the phrase "globalize the intifada" carries a terrifying connotation — images of suicide bombings and random terrorism and ground invasions and war.

And yet, in many modern progressive contexts, globalizing the intifada is framed as a simple call for what we are seeing now: People across the world rallying in support of the Palestinian cause, peacefully, in the streets. So, is “globalizing the intifada” mobilizing demonstrators or killing the Jews? That's the uncomfortable debate college presidents have to navigate if they want to address these demonstrations in any way.

But they avoided that debate. They agreed with Stefanik that this is a call to genocide, then debated her on the wrong issue: Is calling for genocide a violation of their school’s code of conduct. That question has a simple answer, and Sally Kornbluth, the MIT president, actually provided it with relative ease: She hadn’t heard calls for the genocide against Jew​​s on her campus, and responding to language about “intifada” required more context. She also suggested such chants would be investigated, and would be harassment “if pervasive and severe.” That sounds like a pretty good answer to me.

A lot of pundits criticized all three responses without offering their own, which I find unhelpful. Here is what I would have said:

Yes, any explicit calls for the genocide of Jews would constitute harrasment and be a violation of our policies. As a college president, I am committed to creating healthy learning environments where students are free to protest and express themselves, but that would not be legitimate political speech — we draw the line at calls for violence.

Then, when the inevitable follow-ups about "global intifadas" came, they could have said they would have to evaluate the context of the chant. They could have noted that it is impossible to speak in hypotheticals given the nuances of these situations. I don't know why that was so hard for Magill and Gay, and I certainly understand why not being able to offer a thoughtful answer could cost them their jobs.

Of course, all of this is worsened by the fact that many college campuses have spent the last decade attempting to ensure students can navigate their learning environments without feeling unsafe. And there has been a broad backlash against the mainstreaming of microaggressions and safe spaces that has resulted in books like The Coddling of the American Mind. In that context, to use that word again, many Jews watched this testimony in horror.

Nothing about this makes me feel particularly good. For one, we’re talking about two instances of bad testimony. I don't think that’s something we should be spending an outsized amount of time on, though the breadth of commentary has necessitated us covering it today. Two, I worry a great deal about how the free speech rights of pro-Palestine protesters are being violated — including college-aged students being blacklisted for jobs. I don’t endorse their views wholesale, obviously, but far too many well intended students — many of whom are still developing their own worldviews — are simply objecting to the horrors of war they’re seeing (maybe for the first time in their lives). Then, they’re punished for speaking up. 

And finally, as much as I believe someone like Liz Magill should not be a university president if she is incapable of navigating this moment, I really squirm at how it’s happening. Magill losing her job reaffirms all the antisemitic tropes about Jews having power and "controlling" things. It's not particularly comforting to watch these presidents lack the necessary clarity on this issue, and it’s even less comforting to watch the backlash to their testimonies being used to prove the most stereotypical antisemitic conspiracies. 

As someone who’s really concerned about free speech, I’m deeply concerned about the various ways that speech is being limited on American campuses. If this uncomfortable debate doesn’t occur in the public square, I worry that what follows it will be worse than an uncomfortable debate.

Your questions, answered.

Q: In the event Trump is unable to be the Republican nominee (legal issues, health issues, etc.) who do you think will be? A Trump loyalist? Someone opposed to Trump personally but with similar policies? Someone of the never-Trump mold? Is it probable to be a current candidate or might someone come out of the woodwork should the landscape change?

— Anonymous from New York, New York

Tangle: I don’t think it’s going to happen. Let me get that out of the way first. 

Hypothetically, though, the answer depends in part on when he drops out. If Trump is elected president but is unable to serve, then the next president would almost assuredly be whomever he picked to be his vice president. That could mean one of the people who have been floated for that role: Kari Lake, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, Vivek Ramaswamy, or someone unexpected like Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) — whom more people should be talking about as a potential vice president, in my opinion.

That would obviously be what happens if the president-elect dies, but I think it'd be true if Trump got into legal trouble, too. I also think Trump’s running mate could be the nominee even if he drops out before the election, simply because a Trump endorsement would automatically make that person a frontrunner. Except for Ramaswamy, I don’t think there is any chance he’ll tap any of the people currently running against him to be his vice president. 

All that said, the Republican Party isn’t required to promote Trump’s running mate to become their nominee if Trump has to drop out of the race after he names one. According to the GOP’s presidential primary rules, the party will choose its new nominee either through another national convention or a majority vote of its delegates. Regardless of which method the party chooses, the outcome should be the same: They’ll elect the next most popular candidate.

If that happens, the primary challenger to Trump’s running mate would be someone who’s still in the race, and at the front of that pack is Ron DeSantis. Even though Nikki Haley has gotten recent headlines for her donations, and she’s a favorite among Tangle readers, she doesn’t look like she has the momentum to surpass him. And Christie and Ramaswamy have made it this far, but being able to say that is about as good as it’s going to get for them.

I wouldn’t bet against the Republican nominee being Donald Trump, but if it ends up being anyone else, I think the most likely person is "whomever Trump picks as vice president" — and if he drops out before he chooses one, I think it'd be DeSantis.

Want to have a question answered in the newsletter? You can reply to this email (it goes straight to my inbox) or fill out this form.

Under the radar.

With the world focused on the Middle East and Ukraine, a Stalin-like purge appears to be taking place in China's ultra-secretive political system. The implications for the global economy and prospects for peace in the region are profound. Even as China's security services have ramped up repression tactics, the unexplained disappearances and removals of foreign and defense ministers is setting off alarms, while other high-profile disappearances (including the generals in charge of China's nuclear system and the most senior officials overseeing the financial sector) are going largely unnoticed. Politico has the story on what we know, who is missing, and what it might mean:

China’s Xi goes full Stalin with purge
In a sign of instability in Beijing’s top ranks, foreign policy and defense officials are vanishing as Xi roots out perceived enemies.


  • 35%. The percentage of Americans who say they have a “very” or “somewhat” positive view of Jews, the highest favorability rating of any religious group, according to a March 2023 survey from Pew. 
  • +28. The net favorable/unfavorable rating for Jews in the same survey, also the highest of any religious group. 
  • 1,122. The number of anti-Jewish hate crime incidents in 2022, the highest number recorded in almost three decades and the second-highest on record.
  • 37%. The percent increase in anti-Jewish hate crimes between 2021 and 2022.
  • 2,031. The number of antisemitic incidents recorded by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) between Oct. 7 and Dec. 7, 2023.
  • 400. The number of antisemitic incidents recorded by the ADL on college and university campuses during this period. 
  • 2,171. The number of complaints of anti-Muslim and anti-Palestinian bias received by the Council on American-Islamic Relations between Oct. 7 and Dec. 2, 2023. 
  • 172%. The percent increase in such complaints over the same period in 2022. 

The extras.

  • One year ago today we wrote about Kyrsten Sinema leaving the Democratic Party.
  • The most clicked link in yesterday's newsletter was the link to our Friday edition, 10 thoughts on Israel, which we made public to everyone.
  • He lost, but he tried: 556 Tangle readers responded to our poll asking about Rep. Kevin McCarthy's (R-CA) legacy in Congress, with 36% saying mostly negative. 29% said mixed positive and negative, 21% said overwhelmingly negative, 11% said mostly positive, and less than a percent said overwhelmingly positive. "I liked that McCarthy showed you could try to play the political game without resorting to Trump/Gaetz repulsive strategies. While he still feels like he lost in the end, I think it's good that he kept trying," one respondent said.
  • Nothing to do with politics: Why do we even have wisdom teeth?
  • Take the poll. Do you think the university presidents should have received repercussions for their testimony? Let us know!

Have a nice day.

Neuroscientists at the Faculty of Medicine and Surgery of the Catholic University, Rome, and the Fondazione Policlinico Universitario Agostino Gemelli IRCCS may have just made a breakthrough in treating memory loss. The researchers genetically modified LIMK1, a molecule with a key role in the normal functioning of the brain, by adding a "molecular switch" which gets activated by the common anti-aging drug rapamycin, improving the memory of the drug-taker. The LIMK1 protein plays a crucial role in determining structural changes in neurons crucial in learning and memory processes, according to Professor Claudio Grassi, senior author of the study. "The next step will be to verify the effectiveness of this treatment in experimental models of neurodegenerative diseases exhibiting memory deficits, such as Alzheimer's disease. Further studies will also be necessary to validate the use of this technology in humans," Grassi says. The findings were published in the journal Science Advances. Medical Xpress has the story.

Review Article with Credder

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Isaac Saul
I'm a politics reporter who grew up in Bucks County, PA — one of the most politically divided counties in America. I'm trying to fix the way we consume political news.