Transylvania University Terrorist Attack: A Case Study In Right-Wing Persecution Complexes

On April 29, 2017, 19-year-old former Transylvania University student Mitchell Adkins walked into a campus coffee shop at the Kentucky University, machete in hand, and started asking people for their political affiliations. When a few students answered “Republican,” he told them “you are safe,” according to an eyewitness. A young woman was not as lucky, and Mitchell violently attacked her with the machete. Thankfully, the victim sustained non-life-threatening injuries and was treated at a hospital and released that day. Perhaps because no one was killed, the story passed without much major media attention, but nevertheless should serve as a warning because it illustrates a particularly troubling aspect of right-wing thought in the United States at the moment: the right-wing persecution complex.

In November of 2015, Adkins made a post on his Buzzfeed user account titled “Discrimination Of Conservatives In Liberal Arts: How a fight for equality has resulted in discrimination on a whole new level,” in which he describes what he sees as a systematic persecution of people with conservative or right-leaning views on the Transylvania University campus. His evidence of this is an anecdotal account of his own experience of being ostracized from his peers for his “beliefs.”

“As a liberal arts college, Transy gets people in from all around the country, including many from different countries,” Adkins writes. “Sweet, I get a fresh new start with fresh new people. I get to make my reputation however I’d like it. But within a week, I had already made several enemies with a single fact; I am a proud Republican. It’s amazing to me that when I listen to someone’s political opinion and then give my own, I’m the one who’s lashed out at for being a ‘racist’ or ‘bigot’, some even go as far as saying ‘bane of society’ or ‘fascist Nazi.’ When it came out that I wasn’t a whole fan of the whole gay marriage Supreme Court ruling or that my ideas of a former Bruce Jenner were that he was in no way whatsoever brave or respectable, that’s when things started to get out of hand. I lost friends left and right. People even went out of their way to not talk to me, to make me a social Pariah because I had different beliefs.”

Let’s examine this for a moment. Within a week of starting classes at this school, it somehow “came out” that Adkins opposes gay marriage and that he doesn’t consider Bruce Jenner “brave or respectable.” He then complains that as a result of this he “lost friends left and right.” I’m not sure if by that he means the common expression “left and right” used to express a great amount of something occurring or if he literally means he lost friends from both the right and the left sides of the political spectrum, but the fact that within a week of meeting people he decided he needed to express to them his confrontational views on hot-button issues suggests perhaps it’s not so much the beliefs he held that caused the ostracization he describes, but the manner in which he presents those beliefs.

Adkins goes on to list more anecdotes for his claims that he was persecuted for his beliefs, including an article printed in the campus newspaper that sought to discourage students from wearing racially and culturally themed Halloween costumes. It’s unclear why he felt this was persecution, but he links it to his own feeling of being offended by a transgender student walking around campus with a rainbow gay pride flag as part of her costume. Adkins then says that if he would have been walking around with a Confederate flag, he hypothesizes it would “resulted in some serious punishment for me.” Considering that his post makes no mention of formal punishments from the University for his previous beliefs, speech, and actions, one can assume the “punishment” he is imagining is more of the social backlash he received for previous incidents in which he said things that offended people.

Adkins then relays a story about being in the University cafeteria and celebrating when it was announced Matt Bevin, Kentucky’s current Republican governor, had won the state’s gubernatorial election. He complains that his joy was met with looks of “hatred and disgust” and comments from people who ostensibly did not want Bevin to win the race.

“People left the table, saying thing along the lines of I was responsible for ruining this state and country, that my political opinion was wrong just because it was different,” Adkins writes. “I have never been afraid to share my opinion, but being in this college has made me reluctant due to the backlash which I know is inevitable.”

For the record, Matt Bevin ran on a rabidly anti-gay platform where, among other things, he compared gay marriage to parents marrying their own children.

“Where do you draw the line?” Bevins asked during a television interview. “If it’s all right to have same-sex marriages, why not define a marriage — because at the end of the day a lot of this ends up being taxes and who can visit who in the hospital and there’s other repressions and things that come with it — so a person may want to define themselves as being married to one of their children so that they can then in fact pass on certain things to that child financially and otherwise. Where do you draw the line?”

Notice a pattern? Perhaps like with Bevins’s extreme and degrading viewpoints on homosexual people, Adkins’s own extreme anti-gay viewpoints are the reason he felt ostracization and backlash among his peers at Transylvania University. After all, I can’t recall the last time it came up in my own casual conversations whether Caitlyn Jenner was “brave or respectable.” Seems like something one would have to go out of their way to express. In other words, Adkins enjoys being the right-wing troll that pushes people’s buttons. And when it results in the expected backlash, he then wants to play victim.

Does this sound familiar?

Consider the recent events in Berkeley. Right-wing professional trolls like Milo Yiannopolous and Ann Coulter have built their careers on offending people based on race, sexuality, culture, and whatever else they can grab onto to get attention by making people angry. Inevitably, there’s backlash to this, and in the case of Berkeley, the result was speeches canceled as a result of protests that got intense the night of the speech in Milo’s case, and potential protests prior to the planned day of the speech in Coulter’s case. The right likes to play up the persecution angle because it suits their agenda to cast themselves as oppressed victims, even though the conservative right has a bulk of the governmental power in the United States.

Adkins ends his post by dehumanizing the people who he feels have persecuted him.

“Dropping out of college was hard,” he writes. “But it made me realize that I’m here for myself, and I need to learn to ignore the occasional plagues of society so I can better myself and make sure to never stoop to their level.”

Seeing people who reacted, admittedly sometimes perhaps a bit histrionically, to his provocative views as “plagues of society” goes a long way into understanding why he decided to grab a machete Saturday and head to campus with the intention of harming them. And it’s hard not to recognize the timing: this happened the same week that Coulter and other right-wing professional trolls were peddling the idea that the right is being persecuted on campuses, framing their personal crusade for attention as a “free speech” issue when it’s really just a power grab.

The idea that the right is being “persecuted” because they demean and insult homosexuals or others and as a result often face backlash for their provocative views is absurd on its face. “Free speech” guarantees one the right to express unpopular views. It does not guarantee the lack of social backlash. It does not guarantee a forum. It does not guarantee that your life will be easy if you decide to express unpopular views in public.

Adkins’s Facebook page is filled with right-wing propaganda. There’s a Fox News link celebrating Donald Trump’s reversal of Obama-era transgender protections, a fake news story about a “Muslim uprising” in Paris, another fake news article about an impeachment of the judge who blocked one of Trump’s travel bans, and a number of memes and videos filled with contempt for Muslims, gays, liberals, immigrants, and other typical recipients of right-wing scorn.

While the vast majority of people with right-wing views don’t choose to engage in machete attacks or other acts of violence, we should all be aware that the extremist views and the reinforcing of persecution fantasies that help to manifest such acts are not so rare. In fact, these views are becoming increasingly common both online and off.

Mitchell Adkins