As DePaul University senior Nicole Been walks around her college campus, she says, students she’s never met call her a racist and a bigot because she’s voting for Donald Trump.
“It’s scary feeling like I can’t walk around campus with a Trump shirt on, or a Trump hat, because I’m afraid of what people might do,” the 22-year-old chair of the college Republicans at DePaul in Chicago, Illinois said in an interview. “At this point, we’re the most hated group on campus.”
Students are fighting over the campaign on campuses across the country. College Republicans constructed an 8-foot tall “Great Trump Wall” at Washington State University in October, a demonstration that met with fierce protest. Emory University students complained in March that they felt unsafe after their classmates chalked messages in support of Trump on campus. The 2016 White House race has even pitted conservative students against one another, as some college Republicans have decided not to endorse their own party’s nominee.
It’s nothing new for Republican students to feel alienated on college campuses. Far more millennials identify as liberal than conservative, and the same is true of their professors. Add to that a wave of liberal activism pushing for trigger warnings and safe spaces at universities—demands that critics describe as coddling at best and threats to free speech at worst—and a presidential election filled with divisive insults, and it’s not hard to see how the divide between college Republicans who support Trump and the rest of the student body may have widened on college campuses across the country.
“The hostility has always been there, but it’s definitely escalated because of the presidential election,” said Jason Ross, the 20-year-old chair of the college Republicans at Bridgewater State University in Massachusetts. In September, vandals crossed out the word “Republicans” on posters advertising the Bridgewater College Republicans and scrawled “RACISTS!!!” underneath.
Inspired in part by the Black Lives Matter movement, younger liberal activists on college campuses are increasingly willing to call out and denounce racism wherever they believe it exists. The push is presumably guided by the belief that doing so is both morally justified and a way to highlight pervasive discrimination and deeply-rooted inequality. And at least some liberal students seem to believe that anyone who supports Trump is racist and deserves to be labeled that way.
There’s no question that Trump’s political rise has emboldened white nationalists. Of course, racism is not always as obvious and in your face as a television spot advertising David Duke’s run for a Louisiana Senate seat. A Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted from March to April found that Trump supporters were more likely than Clinton supporters to describe black people as less “intelligent,” and more “lazy,” “rude,” violent” and “criminal” than white people, though individuals who expressed those views did not make up a majority of Trump voters.
College Republicans supporting Trump bristle at the way charges of racism have been so broadly applied, arguing that the label doesn’t apply to them. “When I hear comments like his supporters are racist, or they hate immigrants, I look at myself and say, ‘Well, am I racist? Do I hate immigrants?,’ and the answer has to be no, and it is no,” said Natalie Callahan, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Utah and chair of the Utah Federation of College Republicans. She added that she has not personally been accused of any of those things, but believes Trump supporters have generally been disparaged by liberals over the course of the election.
In the eyes of younger Trump voters, reflexively characterizing supporters of the Republican nominee as racist, is not only unfair, it’s counterproductive. “In every political party there will always be a few members who are racist, but they don’t represent our party, and they’re not welcome in our party,” Ross said. “I find it appalling how frequently the term is being thrown around. A racist is a terrible, terrible person, and if you use that word to describe everyone and everything, it quickly loses its meaning.”
At Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, Zachary Bartman, the 20-year-old chair of the Pennsylvania Federation of College Republicans, says terms like “racist” and “sexist” are used so frequently against Trump supporters that it’s become something of a joke even among his liberal friends. “A lot of my friends, who I know are voting for Hillary, will kind of just joke around with me and say I’m a bigot, a racist, or a xenophobe because I support Trump,” Bartman said. “I think it’s just a weak way of expressing a political opinion,” but he added: “It happens so often that, at this point, I don’t even care anymore.”
College Republicans may be frustrated with the way liberal students express their political opinions, but that doesn’t mean they reject all of the demands of the campus left. “If people need a safe space, then let them have one. That doesn’t bother me,” Ross said, invoking a concept that has increasingly made its way into the liberal lexicon. “I absolutely think that if students feel unsafe or unfairly treated they have the right to speak up about that, and protest, and make their voices heard,” said Ashley Rosone, the 23-year-old chair of the New Jersey College Republicans and a senior at Ramapo College, adding that she was expressing a personal opinion.
What many college Republicans object to instead is what they view as an attempt by liberal students to crowd out conservative viewpoints in the name of inclusivity. “What I don’t think is right,” Rosone added, “and what I think has started to happen, is when you protest for your own ideas while also actively trying to drown out somebody else’s ideas.”
Some college Republicans believe a Trump victory would upend a liberal status quo that’s been allowed to define what’s politically correct and socially acceptable. “There have been plenty of times that I, or someone I know, will say something in conversation and someone has gotten offended by it, and I’ll say ‘Well, if Trump were in office this wouldn’t be happening,” Been said. “I don’t want to go down in history as the generation that was offended by everything or couldn’t take a joke.”
Despite dreams of creating a more conservative status quo, the fact that at least some college Republicans sympathize with and are willing to concede some of the demands of liberal students suggests that the ideas of the campus left are poised to only become more deeply entrenched. A Trump victory likely would not be enough to entirely change that. A Trump defeat, meanwhile, could leave college Republicans who voted for him and considered his candidacy a validation of their own political worldview feeling even more alienated on college campuses.
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