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Opinion | What Part of Civil Society Will Trump’s Party Target Next?

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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.

Anti-Israel protests have given Republicans a pretext to strike at liberal donors and organizers the way they’ve already struck at university presidents. As Kleinfeld wrote, authoritarians typically persecute the most controversial activists first: “Illiberal actors choose issues involving unpopular groups and cases with the most morally murky facts to create a permission structure that allows them to shut down a much broader set of activities.”

Demonstrations that seem to lionize revolutionary violence have stoked anxiety and outrage among many Democrats, and they’re often full of rhetoric that’s hard to defend. Some readers, I imagine, would be thrilled to see Students for Justice in Palestine’s resources cut off. Whenever I write about the troubling civil liberties implications of attempts to rein in anti-Israel activism, my inbox fills up with furious insults, as well as thoughtful, plaintive emails from people who feel that the climate in academia has become intolerable for many Jews.

But it’s precisely because the protests regularly transgress mainstream sensitivities that the right finds it useful to target them as part of a broader political project. That’s particularly true at a time when so many left-leaning organizations have aligned themselves with the pro-Palestinian movement. As one consultant who works with progressive nonprofits put it to me, careless activists have given Republicans “a Hamas-sized terrorist wedge to go after our entire infrastructure.”

Republicans seem to be laying the foundation to do just that. Last week, James Comer, chair of the House Oversight Committee, announced an investigation into the “money trail” behind the campus protests. “It appears global elites are funding these hateful protests and pop-up tent cities,” he said. “These are the same groups that fund other radical agendas, including diminishing America’s energy production and pushing soft-on-crime policies that harm the American people.”

Meanwhile, the House recently passed, 382-11, a bill that would allow the Treasury secretary to revoke the tax-exempt status of terrorist-supporting organizations.” Providing material support to terrorism is, of course, already illegal, and nonprofits that violate those laws should be shut down. But the House bill gives the executive branch the power to make these determinations unilaterally, and the measure is clearly aimed at funding for campus protests.

A November hearing of the House Ways and Means Committee at which the bill was discussed was full of dark insinuations about the forces behind Students for Justice in Palestine, which was presented as a terrorist front brainwashing naïve young Americans. An Arizona Republican, David Schweikert, spoke about the need to look at the tax code to ensure that “charitable giving, pretax monies,” are “doing good in the world and not ultimately financing evil.”

None of us, presumably, want to finance evil. The question is whether you want the government, particularly one controlled by Trump’s Republican Party, deciding what evil is. Mike Johnson, the House speaker, recently suggested that the F.B.I. investigate Soros’s role in the protests. A Trump F.B.I. wouldn’t need to be asked twice.

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