In order to enact its vigorous agenda, the Trump administration is aggressively recruiting bright new talent to fill what the New York Times referred to as “a darkened, mostly empty West Wing.” The latest attention-grabbing hire is Julia Hahn, a 25-year-old woman who graduated from the University of Chicago with a degree in philosophy in 2013. In late January she was plucked from her job as contributor to the agitprop vehicle Breitbart and promoted to the official White House staff position of “special assistant to the president.”
The political media has placed considerable symbolic import on Ms. Hahn’s appointment. Liberal outlets eyed the baby-cheeked, Beverly Hills-raised UChicago grad with a mix of morbid curiosity and horror, as if she had emerged from the liberal-arts version of the Upside Down. “Was this festering in her all along? Can you ever truly know anyone?” asked a former classmate in the New Yorker, explaining that “learning the canon” is supposed to “ultimately, make you a better person.” What ever happened to the nice Jewish girl who studied queer social theory and cracked anal sex jokes in front of students and faculty to break the ice before presentations?
Conservatives, on the other hand, worried that the appointment of Ms. Hahn, known mostly for her staunch opposition to immigrants and Paul Ryan, is an act of aggression against the Republican establishment. William Kristol, quoted by the Washington Post, went so far as to claim that Ms. Hahn will be “Bannon’s Bannon.” This is a loaded statement considering that Bannon—who earlier this summer referred to his new boss as a “blunt instrument for us”—is now being described by many as the de facto president of the United States.
Who—or what—is behind this mysterious political prodigy?
The question sent journalists to her intellectual breeding ground to sniff around for clues, seeking out her former classmates and speculating about the possible pernicious influences she might have been exposed to on the UChicago campus (Third Coast Straussianism? Milton Friedman? Nietzsche?).
Ms. Hahn is but one in a series of notable alumni that have recently given the university community cause for alarm. And just in September Milo Yiannopoulos praised the university for its public stance against trigger warnings and safe spaces as a “rare glimmer of hope in an otherwise bleak social justice firmament.” For these reasons, students and faculty have expressed serious concern that the elite institution—whose fetish-mongering of Western classics has been blamed for abominations ranging from Tucker Max to the Iraq War—has been, unbeknownst to them, operating as a site for right-wing radicalization of a far darker sort… God forbid, a populist one.
Efforts to pull back the curtain have been foiled by Ms. Hahn’s refusal to grant interviews and decidedly unmillennial approach to social media. (According to the Washington Post, she is commonly referred to as a “ghost” by her colleagues “because she is not on Twitter.”)
But Ms. Hahn has hardly been flying under the radar. For several years the prolific Ms. Hahn produced anywhere between one to three posts daily for the online publication Breitbart News. An examination of Ms. Hahn’s body of work sheds light on just how the 25-year-old upstart’s liberal-arts education equipped her serve in Trump’s White House.
At the University of Chicago, students are taught that the best sources are timeless. This foundation gave Ms. Hahn a unique edge in the fast-paced world of online journalism. For example, in the span of twelve months, on over half a dozen occasions, Ms. Hahn returned to mine the insights of a single person: Ms. Mary Ann Mendoza, whose son was killed by an undocumented drunk driver in 2014. Ms. Hahn made it her habit to check in with Ms. Mendoza for her take on every immigration-related political development, inviting her to comment on individuals ranging from the previous president, Republican and Democratic presidential hopefuls, and media personalities. Here’s just a sampling:
• Grieving Mom’s Heartache Turns to Fury as Obama Honors Immigrant, Ignores Dead Americans
• Arizona Mom Who Lost Son to Illegal Immigrant Explains Why She Endorsed Donald Trump Over Ted Cruz
• EXCLUSIVE Mom Whose Letter Trump Read During Speech: Hillary Clinton’s Campaign ‘Spews Hate’
• Mother of Son Killed by Illegal: ‘Chuck Todd Does Not Belong on TV’
Displaying her breadth, Ms. Hahn established other canonical sources in Julie and Dan Golvach who lost their son in 2015, Laura and George Wilkerson, who lost their son in 2010, and Billy Inman, who lost his son in 2000. Just like great texts, Ms. Hahn found, individuals haunted by personal tragedy can lend depth and authority to almost any article or argument.
2. Cutting-Edge Interpretative Lenses
An intimate familiarity with tradition must be balanced out by a thorough introduction to new interpretative frameworks. Ms. Hahn excelled at applying fresh perspectives to familiar debates, arguing not only that Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein are essentially campaigning for Trump but also broadening her readers’ horizons by gesturing towards the academy, with posts on the contemporary cultural theorist Slavoj Žižek.
Most impressively, however, Ms. Hahn was able to call out conservatives by deftly recognizing their ideological affinities with the academic left. During the primaries, Ms. Hahn raised concerns over Senator Marco Rubio’s prejudice against law enforcement. On February 18, 2016, in her piece “Marco Rubio Says Cops Racist Against Blacks” Ms. Hahn accused Senator Rubio of “siding with the common progressive claim that systemic racism in America’s police departments is victimizing black Americans.”
To prove that Senator Rubio has adopted a militant progressive agenda, Ms. Hahn quotes Rubio as saying, “there are communities in this country where minority communities and the police department have a terrible relationship.”
Someone less familiar with the latest developments in cultural and political theory would surely have failed to recognize Rubio’s progressive turn. More importantly, Ms. Hahn’s observation offers considerable hope to those who worry about the effect Trump’s presidency will have on race relations in America in general and police accountability practices in particular: by Ms. Hahn’s lights Mr. Trump himself sympathizes with charges of systemic racism and victimization of black Americans by the police, as he proved during the first presidential debate when he repeated Rubio’s statement almost verbatim: “You need better relationships between the communities and the police, because in some cases, it’s not good.”
3. Analytical Skills
Liberal arts schools pride themselves on teaching their students not so much what to think as how to think—the goal, of course, being to produce students capable of analyzing and interpreting real world events as they unfold. Ms. Hahn has shown off her chops in this area by applying theory to practice in the case of crime in the United States. In particular, Ms. Hahn has argued that immigration policy is responsible for crimes committed by immigrants: legal immigration is responsible for the crimes of legal immigrants; failure to prevent illegal immigration is responsible for the crimes of undocumented immigrants. Consider, for example, her September 7, 2016 headline, which reads, “VIDEO: Trump Meets with Virginia ‘Angel Dad’ Who Lost His Daughter to Tim Kaine’s Lax Immigration Policies.”
But in late November, Ms. Hahn presciently zeroed in on a new issue that would soon become a top priority for Trump’s national security agenda: the danger posed by those seeking asylum in the United States. Now the American resettlement policies were to be held directly responsible for any crime committed by refugees.
In the lead-in from her November 28th post “Republican-Led Congress Oversees Large-Scale Importation of Somali Migrants,” she writes, “The Somali refugee responsible for attacking young Americans at Ohio State University was deliberately imported into the country by the nation’s federal immigration policy.” Three days later, Ms. Hahn used the following phrase in another headline: “Refugee Program Claims Victims at Ohio State University”—creatively describing the refugee program with the use of an expression usually reserved for terrorist attacks, infectious diseases and internet scams.
4. Truth to Power
Finally, an education in the humanities is supposed to endow students with intellectual courage and persistence. Ms. Hahn left UChicago unafraid to take on one of the premier elected officials in the U.S., Republican Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. Ms. Hahn accused Speaker Ryan in dozens of articles of endorsing “open borders immigration policies.”
Ms. Hahn needed only one quotation to cut to the heart of Ryan’s position on the issue, indignantly and repeatedly condemning the Speaker for once averring that America is “more than [its] borders.” In three separate articles, from October 19, 2015, June 24, 2016, and July 16, 2016, she wrote the following sentence:
“Ryan made the case for dissolving borders—declaring unabashedly that the United States ‘is more than [its] borders.’”
Recognizing that Ryan’s calls to increase the number of legally issued work visas was really nothing more than a step down the road to open borders, Ms. Hahn has likewise been undeterred by Ryan’s subsequent protestations. For instance, in the very same speech from which Ms. Hahn sources her four-word quote, Ryan calls for increased border security and “an immigration system that respects our laws, that respects our people.” Ms. Hahn was not one to fall for such a propagandistic feint: open borders, she said, “is something that, to quote the president of the anti-immigration group NumbersUSA, “runs in his blood.” Open borders, she reiterates, is “in his ideological DNA.”
The question of the source of Ms. Hahn’s political convictions remains open. A brief glimpse into her college career complicates the suspicion that Ms. Hahn was simply corrupted by conservative ideologues at the university. Last week, following the publication of Ms. Hahn’s New Yorker profile, a video began circulating among UChicago students: an hour and a half clip that recorded the proceedings of a panel discussion at a 2013 conference by the Society for Psychoanalytic Inquiry on the topic of “Consciousness and Society.” Ms. Hahn, then a fourth year in the college, delivered a half-hour talk on the historical and theoretical validity of Foucault’s critique of Freud.
Taking the podium in a generously unbuttoned dark navy shirt dress, Ms. Hahn opened with a few words of appreciation for the keynote speaker, Leo Bersani, a literary critic and cultural theorist best known for his writings on psychoanalysis and sexuality, who famously argued that homosexuality can disrupt oppressive social orders. Ms. Hahn proclaimed that his writings had been “hugely transformational” for her.
Ms. Hahn, the only undergraduate on a panel otherwise composed of tenured faculty and a single advanced graduate student, adopted a tone of faux concern and added coquettishly: “That’s not to say that my love of Bersani’s work has not come with some serious drawbacks and obvious negatives. For instance, in the dating scene you’ll end up with a lot of unwanted follow-up calls and offers of a second date when you casually mention over dinner that you’re currently reading a philosopher who encourages you to shatter your current form of experience by going out and having anal sex.” The room responded with a few nervous laughs; the middle-aged professor who introduced her cast down his eyes.
Hahn delivered her lecture with a coyness characteristic of the highly precocious and self-aware: having almost committed the speech to memory, Ms. Hahn delivered her lines with forced affect and calculated pauses. Ms. Hahn argued for a more nuanced evaluation of what, she claimed, was often taken to be Foucault’s wholesale rejection of Freud. This re-evaluation would reveal, she claimed, the compatibility of Foucauldian and Freudian analysis of relations of power and the possibility of liberation through psychoanalysis. Concluding her talk, Ms. Hahn said, “I don’t want to overstate the theoretical similarities here, because clearly Foucault and Freud have very different views and conflating the two would not do either of them justice.”
After all the speakers concluded their talks, some time was left for a Q&A. Occupying the seat at the far end of the table, Ms. Hahn wall-flowered her way through the segment with gentle restlessness. Only one question, directed at the entire panel, afforded her the opportunity to speak again. Addressing the audience, Ms. Hahn hesitatingly tried to repeat the conclusion of the speech that she had just delivered. After a few moments she lost her train of thought. Smiling awkwardly, she admitted, “Ummm, I’m trying to think where I was trying to go with this.” She quickly brought her remarks to a conclusion, looking, for a moment, a little in over her head.
At another point, a man with an unspecified European accent asked, seemingly apropos of nothing, about American politics. (There’s always one at every Q&A.) He was wondering, he said, about how far apart Democrats and Republicans had grown in the United States: “How come there is such a difference in attitudes and values?” he asked. “The nation has similar values but at the same time there is such a difference, if anyone can answer that…” Hahn, smiling sweetly, kept silent.
Whether Ms. Hahn kept her virulent opposition to immigration secret in college, adopted it on the job, or has been and remains an ambitious mercenary, remains unclear. But this brief foray into her past also reminds us of the difference between the political aptitudes that can be acquired through a liberal-arts education, and those that can’t.
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