Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history of education at the University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of education and a frequent contributor to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Zimmerman’s latest piece (subscription required) compares the move to “purge” Trump supporters from campus employment to banning people with communist sympathies or affiliations from academic employment during the Cold War era. He begins:

In 1948, President Edmund Ezra Day of Cornell explained why his institution would never hire a Communist on its faculty. “It is a part of the established technique of Communistic activity to resort to deceit and treachery,” Day wrote. “A man who belongs to the Communist Party and who follows the party line, is thereby disqualified from participating in a free, honest inquiry after truth, and from belonging on a university faculty devoted to the search for truth.”

Plug in “Trump supporter” for “Communist,” and you get a pretty good sense of what’s happening on our campuses right now. Students and faculty are demanding that universities sever ties with anyone who worked in the Trump administration or backed President Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election. And the rationale is the same one that was used against Communists and so-called fellow travelers during the Cold War: They don’t believe in democracy, so they don’t belong at a university devoted to it.

But that perverts the democratic ideal, all in the guise of preserving it. The real threat isn’t a horde of evil Trumpers clamoring at our gates. It’s our quest to root out the enemies of democracy, which never ends well for the university.

Zimmerman recalls a Harvard student petition shortly after the 2020 election that called for a “new system of accountability” in hiring academics. No one who had engaged in “the subversion of democratic principles” should be eligible to work at Harvard, the students said. In other words, the students cast themselves not as narrow-minded bigots but as protectors of democracy.

The censors get to define democracy and all sorts of other words and concepts. It is forbidden to even ask questions on some matters. Thus, Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Harvard alum, was removed from the advisory board of the Harvard’s Institute of Politics at the John F. Kennedy School of Government because she wanted to further debate aspects of the 2020 election.

Much of this is subterfuge: It aims to eliminate discordant views, but it adopts a high tone. You see, Stefanik’s removal had nothing to do with Stefanik’s political views, but her villainy: she had raised what the Dean of the IOP described as “false” claims about the election. A banned topic, in other words. But, hey, this has nothing to do with limiting academic freedom.

Indeed, most of these new commie hunters say, yes, they are for academic freedom but some things cannot be tolerated. Dubbing people racists, ever how unfairly, is an approved way to be rid of them and their pesky questions. That way academia can eliminate views it doesn’t like by smearing another human being as racist or an enemy of democracy.

But these attempts are ideological, whether cloaked in the garb of defending democracy or some other noble purpose. Zimmerman observes:

Campaigns against Trump supporters aim to impose a new orthodoxy, all in the guise of protecting our freedoms. Just like the Red-hunters of yesteryear, our present-day political gatekeepers dress up their quest for miscreants in the language of democracy. To defend our system, they say, we must exclude those who have flouted its fundamental principles.

Inevitably, though, our own whims and biases will affect whom we deem an enemy of democracy. Will it be restricted to people who questioned the election results? Or will we add those who opposed Trump’s recent impeachment? Or, maybe, just anyone who voted for him? There’s no telling where that ends.

If you believe in academic freedom, you believe in it for everyone — or you don’t believe in it at all. That was the lesson of the Cold War, when over 100 professors lost their jobs or were denied tenure because of their actual or imagined connections to Communism. And it all made perfect sense at the time, as these kinds of witch hunts always do.

As Zimmerman predicts, this likely will not end well.