More than two weeks ago, 28 Idaho House Republicans, led by Rep. Barbara Ehardt of Idaho Falls, chastised Boise State University’s newly arrived president, Marlene Tromp, about campus diversity programs.
They said these efforts — such as graduation parties for underrepresented students and fellowships for minority graduate students — “separates and segregates students” while contributing to escalating student tuition. “We need to do things the ‘Idaho way,’” they wrote.
Most of it was wrong, especially the charge about tuition. Legislative disinvestment in higher education is the reason many Idahoans are suffering tuition sticker shock. Even more troubling, it suggested Tromp’s superiors at the State Board of Education were irrelevant. Why even bother with this constitutional board if any disgruntled politician can presume to run higher education on her own?
Yet, Gov. Brad Little remained silent.
As they rallied last weekend, Boise State students emphasized the value of diversity and the programs that embrace it. Case in point: The Black Student Association, which represents about 2 percent of BSU’s student body.
Ryann Banks, a black sophomore at BSU, told the Idaho Statesman’s Nicole Foy that when she found her community, she was “able to thrive in ways I never thought possible.”
Simultaneously, the wheels continued to fall off Ehardt’s clown car.
Nobody was talking about “separate and segregated” graduations. Only after an official BSU commencement in the Taco Bell Arena was held did smaller groups — based on colleges, departments or individual clubs such as the Black Student Association — make their own arrangements.
At the same time, Idaho Politics Weekly columnist Steve Taggart of Idaho Falls discovered a campus alive with efforts to buttress all kinds of students — not just the Native American, black and gay rights groups Ehardt demonized. Among those Taggart highlighted were clubs based on ethnicity — Bangladeshi, Filipino, Chinese and Saudi — and groups based on faith — such as Christian Athletes, the Jewish Student at Boise State, the Latter-day Student Association and the Young Life Club.
In the context of BSU’s $516 million budget, the “overall cost of diversity programs at BSU is relatively minor,” Taggart wrote.
And what did we hear from our governor?
In the ensuing vacuum, the situation has devolved from the absurd into the cauldron of white nationalist politics.
When Idaho legislators went to their mailboxes this week, they found a postcard featuring a cartoonish depiction of Tromp and the state board as clowns whose diversity programs cost taxpayers and create “sacrificial children.”
Among its other claims, the postcard says Tromp and the state board are providing “scholarships for illegal aliens,” an “Alt-Gender-Cult center for LGBTQ creep clowns,” a “gaggle of diversity clowns to gobble up fat paychecks while violating Idaho students,” and a “pronoun scramble on the rainbow stage.”
Nor was it the first episode.
Back in May, lawmakers received another postcard, which declared “Idaho Says No” to Muslims and featured a distorted image of a Muslim man containing phrases such as “Jihad” “gang rape” and “beheadings.”
And guess whose fingerprints are all over it?
Yes, that Alex Jones.
Jones is the hyperbolic, conspiratorial, radio talk show host who once claimed the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., — where 20 kids and six teachers were murdered — was staged.
Idahoans remember him as the guy who once said Chobani, which makes yogurt in Twin Falls, was supporting “migrant rapists” who spread disease in the Magic Valley.
Under threat of litigation, Jones backed off.
Daniel Brannan, the Panhandle area cartoonist responsible for the image, says somebody commissioned his work, but won’t say who. This much we know: The Tromp cartoon postcard says it was sent by an infowars affiliate, the “Infowars Army.”
Jones created infowars.
The Tromp cartoon — along with the anti-Muslim caricature and a couple of racist images that targeted the University of Idaho recently — appear on the message board Infocomm.org and Idaho Reality Theater. Both are mentioned on the anti-Tromp postcard.
Free Speech Systems LLC is listed as the registrant for Infocomm.org.
Jones owns Free Speech Systems LLC.
So there you have it — a conspiratorialist outfit is more or less targeting college diversity and one of Idaho’s highest-ranking professional women.
You can’t help but worry about how many people of Tromp’s stature and sensibilities will take a pass on investing their futures in Idaho after seeing this.
If this incident doesn’t spark another bout of reckoning over Idaho’s unfortunate past with the Aryan Nations and white supremacists, that day is not far off.
And the one figure who should have stood up for Tromp and the moral center of his state remained aloof — almost until the last minute. Only after former BSU President Robert Kustra and Marc Johnson, chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus, called on him to act did Little issue a statement on Wednesday — listed third among six items in the governor’s e-newsletter:
“I am usually reluctant to acknowledge exclusionary, inflammatory displays of opinion. That said, the political cartoon depicted on the out-of-state postcard mailed to Idaho officials, along with the language on the postcard, is distasteful and belittles the volunteers and workers who dedicate their time to advancing opportunities for Idaho students. I do not condone the postcard, but free speech is a tenet of a democratic republic.”
Little may not realize it yet, but Jones and his acolytes are not going to stop.
People are asking themselves:
What kind of place is Idaho?
What does the “Idaho way” mean?
What kind of state does Idaho intend to become?
And what kind of governor have we elected? — M.T.