After College Presidents, Republicans Are Coming for Liberal Donors

In a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland this week, the Republican senator Josh Hawley demanded a federal investigation into dark money groups subsidizing “pro-terrorist student organizations” holding anti-Israel protests on college campuses. He cited Politico reporting linking big liberal philanthropies to some pro-Palestinian organizers. Open Society Foundations, for example, founded by the oft-demonized George Soros, has given grants to the anti-Zionist Jewish Voice for Peace, which has an active university presence. Hawley noted that an I.R.S. ruling denies tax-exempt status to organizations that encourage their members to commit civil disobedience, calling nonprofit funding for the groups behind the anti-Israel demonstrations “almost certainly illegal.”

Even if Garland doesn’t act on Hawley’s request, the attorney general in a second Donald Trump administration probably would. That’s one reason I fear that the backlash to the pro-Palestinian campus movement — which includes lawsuits, hearings and legislation — could help Republicans wage war on progressive nonprofits more broadly.

If they do, the right would be following a well-worn authoritarian playbook. In addition to repressing critical voices in academia and the media, the autocratic leaders Trump admires have regularly tried to crush the congeries of advocacy groups, think tanks, humanitarian organizations and philanthropies often referred to as “civil society.” Hungary, for example, passed what it called the “Stop Soros” law, which criminalized helping refugees and migrants apply for asylum. More recently, Hungary enacted a “sovereignty law,” which, as a report from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put it, “offers the ruling party and the Secret Service vast powers to accuse and investigate any groups or individuals that influence public debate and may have had foreign training or contact for any part of their work.”

That Carnegie report, written by Rachel Kleinfeld and published in March, offers a stark warning that something similar could happen here. In fact, Kleinfeld argues, it’s already started.

Titled “Closing Civic Space in the United States,” the report describes a wide array of efforts to curb organizing and assembly. Kleinfeld criticizes the left as well as the right, citing, for example, the pandemic-era rules that kept churches closed even after bars had reopened. But as she writes, “the vast majority of efforts to close space currently come from the illiberal right,” which is integrated into the Republican Party, and thus into government, in a way that has no analogue on the left.

Texas’ Republican attorney general, Ken Paxton, for instance, has targeted a network of Catholic migrant shelters called Annunciation House, accusing them of abetting human smuggling. He also opened an investigation into the liberal watchdog Media Matters for America, accusing it of manipulating data in an investigation into Nazi content on the social media platform X. Both these crusades have been blocked by courts, but they demonstrate the right’s ambition to use state power to hound nonprofits that oppose its agenda in ways that recall Hungary under Viktor Orban.

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