The Future of Trumpism Is on Campus
At colleges across the country, young supporters of the president are demanding that College Republicans fall into line.
In August of 2016, Michael Straw had just gaveled in the year’s first meeting of the Penn State College Republicans. The classroom was packed, with students filling every seat and lining the walls. Many were returning members, and some were brand new. But a few weren’t members at all—and they were angry. Halfway through the meeting, they erupted into chants of “Trump, Trump, Trump.”
From the back of the room, someone shouted, “Cuck!”
The week before the meeting—which was captured on video—the College Republicans announced that they would not endorse Donald Trump for president. Straw, a senior at Penn State and the group’s president, had surveyed dues-paying members, and found that most didn’t support the party’s nominee. Thus, the executive board took to Facebook to post the club’s first unendorsement of a Republican candidate: “Conservative ideals must be defended from individuals who have tried to extinguish them in the past,” the statement concluded. “Future generations depend on us to defend these principles so they may enjoy them as well.”
The Bull-Moose Party, the school’s pro-Trump group, accused Straw of holding a fraudulent vote. Zach Bartman, then the chair of the Pennsylvania Federation of College Republicans—the umbrella organization for all College Republicans in the state—called on him to resign for not supporting the GOP nominee. But Straw refused.
And so it was that members of the Bull-Moose Party showed up at the first gathering of the College Republicans to demand a new election of the group’s executive board. An image topping a Daily Collegian article from the night captured the dramatic scene: Straw, in a sleek blue suit, stood resolutely behind a lectern with his eyebrows raised, while a t-shirt-clad young man in a baseball cap gestured toward him in an emphatic appeal for change.
Ultimately, the Bull-Moose Party lost its appeal and the Pennsylvania Federation didn’t remove Straw. The College Republicans spent September and October of 2016 helping down-ballot candidates, like Senator Pat Toomey, get reelected instead of knocking on doors for Trump. The Bull-Moose Party, meanwhile, focused on the presidential race: “We were the ones doing the campaigning. We were knocking on doors,” said Sean Semanko, a sophomore who is now the secretary of the Bull-Moose Party. “The College Republicans didn’t help us at all.” The group even got Eric Trump to pay a visit to campus the day before the election.
But the College Republicans still stand by their decision not to endorse. “They invaded my meeting, and tried to wreak havoc,” Straw told me in an interview roughly one year after the fact. “I look back on it, and I still think I did the right thing for the organization.”
For some Republicans, Donald Trump’s candidacy was a welcome middle-finger to the political establishment. But others were averse to the man on an ideological, temperamental, and visceral level. Over the course of his first year as president, a series of prominent Republican lawmakers have denounced him, including Arizona Senator Jeff Flake, who criticized the “reckless, outrageous, and undignified” behavior coming from the Trump administration.
But the civil war within the Republican Party is also being waged in campus multipurpose rooms across the country. Ahead of the 2016 presidential election, College Republicans wrestled with whether—and how much—to embrace Trump. In August 2016, the Harvard College Republicans announced that they would not endorse him in the presidential election, calling him a “threat to the survival of the Republic.” The Duke University Republicans abstained from endorsing either candidate. The University of Virginia College Republicans endorsed Trump, only to retract their support after the now-infamous Access Hollywood tape emerged in October, writing “we do not feel Donald Trump accurately represents the way we view and conduct ourselves.” And a handful of the Yale College Republicans quit to form their own group after the club endorsed Trump.
More than a year later, things still aren’t back to normal on the quad. In many ways, the debate over Trump taking place among College Republicans mirrors the national intra-party one: It pits young conservatives who view Trump as a distraction from long-held conservative goals of shrinking government and defending family values against those who see Trump’s presidency and distinctive message as a much-needed adjustment of the party’s priorities.
During a speech to the College Republican National Committee in 1987, President Ronald Reagan called them the “vanguard” of the GOP whose work will “ensure the continued success of Republican goals.” But today, they’re unable to agree on what those goals should be.
College Republicans form an integral component of the party’s grassroots campaign efforts. While it’s true that College Republicans aren’t exactly representative of Trump’s base, these young people represent the next generation of Republicans—and what now seem like low-stakes debates on college campuses will ultimately come to define the party’s future. If Trumpism has a political future, these young people will likely be its torchbearers.
Reagan McCarthy, a junior on the Penn State College Republicans executive board—who was indeed named after America’s 40th president—told me the club wants to move on from the drama of 2016. “There’s definitely some people [in College Republicans] who still are not huge Trump fans because of the nature of his rhetoric and his tweeting … but everyone accepts that he won,” McCarthy said. The group is supportive of the president’s efforts to further the Republican agenda, like pushing for tax cuts and Obamacare repeal. “There’s no reason to be divided anymore.”
Yet interviews with more than two dozen young conservatives revealed that they remain divided, still wrestling with the same questions that plagued them in 2016. “Just because [Trump] is a Republican doesn’t mean we need to be rubber stamps,” McCarthy told me. She hopes the party will back more candidates like Flake, “who will stand up for our values when the president might not get it exactly right.”
Other Republicans I spoke with think that’s a big problem: The College Republicans may have accepted Trump as president, but they still aren’t committed to his vision. “They are basically the establishment at the college level,” Sean Semanko said. “They’re still talking about Ronald Reagan. We’re talking about the new movement, the MAGA movement.”
Semanko, who has always identified as a Republican, was involved with both the College Republicans and the Bull-Moose Party at Penn State. But once the latter started campaigning hard for Trump, Semanko said it encouraged a lot of Republicans to “convert” to the Bull-Moose Party. Trump, he says, has made people excited about the GOP, when they were previously “scared away by the warmongering, gay-hating, super-religious right.”
Semanko and the other Trump Republicans I spoke with described the MAGA movement as having four basic tenets, including building a border wall and cracking down on illegal immigration; staying out of foreign conflicts; and a more protectionist trade agenda. Semanko predicts that the “economic nationalism that Trump and Steve Bannon advocate for is exactly where [the party] is going.” The fourth tenet, he said, is ending “political correctness”—a consistent, if vague, rallying cry for Trump’s supporters. Semanko says members of the Republican establishment, including the College Republicans, are too careful when they speak. “We don’t like these people being so soft and weak,” he told me. “Trump is a fighter.”
Elliot Jersild, who was also a member of the Bull-Moose Party and served as the group’s president for one semester, put it this way: “I think voters are more aware that they can get something better than old-fashioned Republicans, someone who will actually fight for the middle and lower classes,” he said. “Candidates now are going to have to be much more willing to acknowledge the struggles of working people. You can’t just open up our trade, you can’t just support NAFTA without analyzing whether it’s actually worth it for the working class.”
Jersild voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, and interned for the Republican National Committee in 2016. But in Trump, he says, the party has finally found a strong leader. “The big thing for me is that Trump, his willingness to fight for Republican values, that’s something I feel has been lacking,” he said. “I always feel a little strange when a kid my age espouses 50-year-old National Review talking points. National Review has always thought they were the Republican Party, but they’re not,” he said. “It’s the working class.” (As exit polls showed, while white working-class voters supported Trump, an overall majority of working-class voters supported Clinton.)
Like Steve Bannon, Bull-Moose Party members argue that the next generation of conservatives should be pushing for the populist, anti-establishment candidates—not just people who identify as Republican. In Pennsylvania, the club is backing Bobby Lawrence, one of seven Republican candidates challenging Democratic Senator Bob Casey in 2018, whose slogan is—you guessed it— “Make Pennsylvania Great Again.” The group has also channeled the energy it amassed in 2016 toward launching The State Patriot, a new student publication meant to serve as an alternative to the school’s “mainstream media.”
The State Patriot, which describes itself as “Penn State’s Source for Real News,” offers mostly opinion columns, with a few out-of-date news items sprinkled in. One recent column hit the College Republicans for choosing “safe” speakers and using trigger warnings during a lecture series. Another from November asks “does the [Daily] Collegian have a problem with white people being in college?” A third unpacks “Diversity as State Ideology: The Accelerating Death of Traditional America.”
All this is to say, “We’re not shutting up,” Semanko told me. “We’re still advocating for Trump.”
In many ways, Donald Trump is a relic of a bygone era. Until this year, the 71-year-old lived in a tall tower filled with gilded French furniture and fresco-style ceilings. Trump still thinks of Time magazine as a powerful tastemaker, and even his campaign slogan is meant to evoke nostalgia. Yet many of the young people I spoke with view him as a rejuvenating force for the party—the hero who has finally disrupted the Brooks Brothers-wearing, National Review-subscribing GOP.
“He’s bringing up issues that have needed to be brought up, like handling immigration,” Jarrett Cathcart, a senior at the University of Central Florida and president of the UCF College Republicans, told me. “What has been going on with illegal immigration over the past eight or 10 years or so, it’s not good.” He added that Trump’s tweets are something people his age appreciate: “He’s typing it out, he’s telling us what he thinks, that’s something Millennials on social media really value.”
At Arizona State, the club benefitted from a Trump wave. “He’s [increased the] numbers of College Republicans at ASU by incredible numbers,” the group’s president, Jennifer Custis, told me. Custis, a senior studying secondary education, history, and government, said deciding to support Trump was never an issue: “People loved him.” And Andrew Mendoza, the president of the University of California-Davis College Republicans, said he saw something special in Trump right from the beginning: “His out-and-out nationalism was amazing,” he said, adding that Trump’s ideology defies labels. “I think he’s an individual.”
During the past few years, young voters have been steadily leaving the Republican Party. In the most recent poll from the Harvard Institute of Politics, only 22 percent of Americans under 30 identified as Republican, compared to 38 percent identifying as Democrats and 39 percent as independents. While young Republicans still mostly approve of the president’s job performance, a recent analysis from Republican pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson points out that there are two large areas where they disagree: immigration and climate change.
Less than 33 percent of young Republicans who approve of Mr. Trump say they view climate change as a serious threat, but among young Republicans who disapprove of the president, that rises to over 60 percent. While over 70 percent of Trump-approving young Republicans believe undocumented immigrants and refugees are a threat to America, 60 percent of Republican Trump disapprovers say the opposite.
If the party continues to lose young voters, it will be because of these differences, writes Soltis Anderson: “In that case, the party’s turn to Trumpism will have won out among the young who still call themselves Republicans, but at the expense of scaring off many young voters who might have called themselves Republicans in another time.” Soltis Anderson concludes that “for Republicans who are dismayed at the direction of the party, counting on a new generation to ride to the rescue may be overly optimistic.”
The anti-Trump College Republicans I spoke with seemed to have come to this conclusion, as well. For them, the past year has been an exhausting whirlwind of emotions: first frustration, then confusion, and finally, a deep sense of hopelessness. After Trump won the election, Ben Rasmussen, a student at Yale, officially pronounced the Republican Party dead. Rasmussen had quit the Yale College Republicans after the seven-member group endorsed Trump, and co-founded an anti-Trump Republican club—the Yale New Republicans. Four members left with him, and three stayed behind. Rasmussen said the weeks before the election were silently hostile—that the two tiny groups had a “Cold-War” relationship: “We’d walk by each other in the hallways and just not make eye contact,” he told me.
But Rasmussen’s experiment failed. After Trump won, there were fewer opportunities to get involved with GOP politics, and the New Republicans’ membership, which had grown slightly, dwindled. They decided to stop paying hosting fees for the club’s website. “It turns out that is what many Republican voters want. They want Trump,” Rasmussen told me. “The Republican Party that has this long lineage that goes back to Eisenhower and Reagan, it’s dead. A new chapter has opened. It’s a chapter of the alt-right, of Pepe the Frog, of white supremacist Charlottesville protesters.”
In Provo, Utah, even on a campus as conservative as Brigham Young University’s, being a Republican “has such a negative connotation,” Madison Barr told me. Barr, the president of the BYU College Republicans, said membership in the club dropped steadily throughout 2016, largely because people wanted to distance themselves from Trump.
She said the president’s rhetoric revealed an ugly side of her party, a side that became visible to her during a recent interclub debate. The College Republicans were discussing whether Trump should extend DACA protections for Dreamers—undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children—when one club member suggested that all Dreamers, regardless of their criminal history, should be deported. “I don’t think that’s a Republican thing to do, to just deport people,” Barr said. “It’s just like a core issue. How can we be so different in the same party?”
Barr, who graduated in December, told me she hopes the club will reject certain elements of Trumpism after she’s gone. In the same vein, she wants more traditional conservatives like Flake and Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse to step up and steer the party in the right direction. “I’m hoping that Republicans will realize this isn’t what they want. This isn’t who they are,” she told me.
But a few days after Flake announced his retirement, I called Barr back to find her increasingly pessimistic about the future of the party—and facing a Jeff-Flake scenario of her own. “Do I keep fighting? Is it worth it?” she said. “Because sometimes it doesn’t feel like it.”
At Ohio State, Donald Trump’s nomination tore Nick Frankowski’s club apart.
More than 70 people showed up to the first meeting of the Ohio State College Republicans in August 2016. The group had made it through the turbulent presidential primaries and the withdrawal of hometown boy Governor John Kasich. But members couldn’t agree on whether—or how much—to support Trump. The candidate was hated by some in the group, and loved by others; so they never took a formal position. In the end, the group “kind of didn’t really do much,” Frankowski, the club’s current president, told me.
That indecision led a chunk of frustrated members to join Ohio State Students for Trump, a chapter started earlier that spring by Nick Davis, a junior studying natural-resource management. Davis, who believes Trump has “energized the people in America who aren’t typically into government,” said he started Students for Trump because no one else on campus was doing anything.
In late September 2016, Davis’s club and the depleted College Republicans attempted a show of unity. They rented a room in the Ohio Union and co-hosted a presidential debate-watching party. The room was full of students on both ends of the Trump spectrum, who were eager to watch the first face-off between Trump and Hillary Clinton. Things quickly got rowdy. While most people were quietly listening to both candidates, a handful of passionate Trump fans in the front of the room were treating the debate, as Frankowski put it, more like a “high-stakes sporting event.” For a full 90 minutes, they booed when Clinton answered a question, and cheered heartily when Trump did. Occasionally, they chanted, “Lock her up!”
It was a clash of personalities, Frankowski told me. “There wasn’t really anyone in charge,” he said. “We tried politely asking [the Trump supporters] to settle down. Most of those [requests] were rebuffed.”
Instead of unifying the two groups, the debate-watch extinguished what remained of their rapport; they never collaborated again. For the next two months, just like at Penn State, the Students for Trump did all the legwork for Trump, while the College Republicans remained passive, campaigning only for local city council and judicial races. “Most everyone thought [Trump] was going to lose, and we would all kind of move on from there,” Frankowski said. But instead, Trump became president, and by the end of the school year, the College Republicans were down to 18 members.
To Frankowski, some of the fervor surrounding Trump—the graphic t-shirts showing Trump tossing Clinton off a motorcycle, the chanting, the red MAGA hats—represents the trivialization of American politics. “When I first got into politics I always thought it was this noble thing,” he said. “I guess maybe I’ve just gotten jaded as I’ve gotten older…” He still hopes Trump is an anomaly. “I honestly think the Trumpian strategy only works for Donald Trump,” he told me.
In 2017, the College Republicans focused on bringing speakers to campus, networking, and preparing for the 2018 gubernatorial and Senate elections. “We’re really focusing on things that bring us together, just disregarding the stuff that’s more divisive,” Frankowski said. In early fall, the group went bowling. In December, they went to the zoo.
Earlier in the fall semester, Nick Frankowski and Nick Davis, leaders of the rival Republican groups at Ohio State, had a sit-down. It was awkward, but it had to be done. “We just said you know, the election’s over, we don’t want to be at each other’s throats anymore. Kind of let bygones be bygones, and move forward with the Republican agenda,” Frankowski told me, adding that the hard feelings between the groups were mostly gone.
But Davis characterized the conversation differently. “[Frankowski] came up to me and he was like, ‘Let’s come together and blah blah blah, and let’s sit down and talk and come up with ways to include Trump people,’” he told me. “Well that meeting never happened because he didn’t want it to happen.”
Davis says since the election, the College Republicans have been slacking. “They’ve been really lazy,” Davis said, adding that they still aren’t encouraging Trump supporters to come to the meetings. “When you have people in there who feel it’s their responsibility to push their own Republican narrative instead of the one that people chose, that’s where the main issue lies,” he told me. “I think that issue is nation-wide.”
This fall, the Students for Trump decided to rename themselves: Now they’re Students for Conservative Leaders, and they’re pledging to campaign for candidates who back Trump. At some point, Davis would like to see the Ohio State College Republicans under entirely new leadership—an executive board made up of people who understand where the party is headed.
“The Republican Party is the party of Trump now,” Davis said. “The people overwhelmingly chose Trump, and [the College Republicans] need to respect that. How do we expect to get anything done if people are constantly fighting?”