The Campus Affluenza Epidemic

By Heather Wilhelm Published on March 25, 2016

In 2013, Ethan Couch, a well-off Texas teenager, killed four people while driving drunk — with a potent mixed cocktail of marijuana and Valium in his bloodstream — while on a restricted license. In a defense that will likely go down in history, long after our republic has shuttered its faux-gilded doors, Ethan’s attorneys argued that the boy suffered from “affluenza” — a term, as the New York Times put it, “that dates at least to the 1980s to describe the psychological problems that can afflict children of privilege.”

Shortly thereafter, Ethan was sentenced to a stint in a “cushy” rehab facility, as a local magazine put it, and 10 years’ probation, as opposed to the 20 years in prison prosecutors thought he deserved. Even then, his adventures were not over: Late last year, he and his mother, whom the same local magazine called one of “the worst parents ever,” sparked a manhunt by skipping town to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Young Mr. Couch was soon detained for violating his probation.

This week, Emory University — a school in Atlanta that costs $65,000 a year to attend — became the latest in a long line of American colleges to demonstrate that “affluenza” might come in different forms. I’ll let the school newspaper, The Emory Wheel, speak for itself, with this Tuesday report: “Students protested yesterday at the Emory Administration Building following a series of overnight, apparent pro-Donald Trump for president chalkings throughout campus.”

I’ll pause here, so we can regroup. In case you’re wondering, “chalkings” is not a code for some sort of nightmarish B-movie Donald Trump cult induction, or a euphemism for those scary outlines that police make around dead bodies, or even a reference to a pro-Trump “Make Sororities Great Again” assault where a lineup of mini Ivanka look-alikes use chalk to circle their hapless pledges’ unacceptable body parts.

No, the “chalkings” causing fear, loathing and consternation on the Emory campus were as simple as they sound: The writing of words, done in chalk. Those words said, in most cases — get your safe space ready — “Trump 2016.”

At the sight of these eye-burning lines constructed out of a writing tool frequently deployed by 5-year-olds on sidewalks, around 40-50 students marched into the administrative building, the Emory Wheel reports. Their leader, a pensive and lugubrious sophomore, sounded the alarm: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

I really hate to quote Donald Trump, because he’s one bad proverbial burrito wrapped in questionable golden foil, but sometimes he says it best: “Sad!” If you’re a normal person and you’ve spent your life working hard and earning a living and actually facing a real problem or crisis or two, you’re probably thinking the same thing about this whole Emory brouhaha.

Look, Emory students, we get it: The rise of Trump might be traumatizing. However, whining is not a strategy. Also, if some provocateur decides to write “Trump 2016” all over your campus in a transitory medium that disappears with the first drops of the next rain, you might not want to hand that person the over-the-top, hysterical freakout they’re likely trying to inspire. Alas, this is exactly what happened at Emory.

The school’s president, James W. Wagner, was “called into the board room by students and listened at the head of the table while they described how the appearance of the chalkings made them feel,” the Emory Wheel reports. (In case you’re wondering, those feelings included “frustration,” “fear,” trauma and copious tears.)

“What do we have to do for you to listen to us?” the students asked Wagner, to which he responded, to his credit, “Good gracious! How on earth are you going to survive in the real world, you goofy participation-trophy loons?”

Just kidding! Here is how the university president actually responded: “What actions should I take?” Wagner later followed up with a sympathetic campus-wide email, paired with a promise to review footage from security cameras in an attempt to find and punish the pro-Trump chalkers. Emory’s student government, meanwhile, has offered emergency counseling for traumatized students.

Meanwhile, an ocean away, the city of Brussels faced the aftermath of savage jihadi suicide bombings that killed at least 30 people and wounded more than 200 others — a horrifying reminder that safe spaces don’t really exist. Don’t tell that to the affluenza-stricken students at places like Emory, however. Don’t try to make them feel better, either. It’s the weirdest thing: They seem to be reveling in their “pain.”


Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin, Texas. Her work can be found at and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.

This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics on March 24, 2016, and is reprinted with permission.

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