Conservatives on college campuses are in an unusual position. Even as many of their fellow students likely opted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump in last year’s election, student activist groups now have the boost of a Republican president and Congress in power for the first time in a decade.
But local students mix their optimism for the new administration with trepidation about what it means to be a Republican in the age of Trump.
The 2016 election made conservatives on campuses like the University of South Carolina the winners among an age cohort who, statistically speaking, wanted a different outcome. Millennial voters chose Clinton over the victorious Trump by 55 percent to 37 percent, according to numbers from Tufts University.
Even College Republicans were not on board with Trump at the beginning. Officers at USC’s College Republicans say during last year’s primary, they all backed more conventionally conservative candidates like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio.
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When the New York mogul finally clinched the nomination, club chair Lauren Boals says, “We positioned ourselves more for local politics.”
At one point before the election, the College Republicans at USC had an outside group called Students for Trump speak to a club meeting.
“They asked us to raise our hands if we supported Trump, and no one raised their hands,” said Patrick Belk, the club’s executive director. “No one raised their hands.”
The most Trump supporters could get out of the club’s membership then was one student who admitted, “I liked him on The Apprentice.”
Attract and repel
At the same time, they recognize the enthusiasm Trump has brought to politics, saying Trump’s unorthodox campaign inspired a surge of volunteers who otherwise would not have gotten involved in politics.
The same energy has spurred activism elsewhere. Natalie Le, state chair of Young Americans for Liberty, organized a “Free Speech Wall” at the College of Charleston. The group hung a paper scroll on the mall and let students write “whatever they want” on it.
There’s an increasing amount of [political] dialogue. We should utilize it.
Natalie Le, S.C. chair of Young Americans for Liberty
“We’re protesting the college’s ‘red light’ policies,” which allow students to be disciplined for “verbal abuse” for using a “derogatory term,” Le said.
“But it’s vague,” she said. “What’s offensive to one person may not be offensive to another.”
Young Americans for Liberty, a libertarian-leaning organization that grew out of Texas Congressman Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential bid, organized the wall in coalition with Turning Point USA, a conservative student organization, and Strive, what Le describes as the college’s “Ayn Rand club.”
But Trump’s chaotic style also has exacerbated divisions among conservatives. One vice chair of USC’s College Republicans left the club because he thought his colleagues weren’t supportive enough of Trump’s campaign. On the other hand, Trump’s victory even after allegations of sexual assault were made against him had an obvious impact on the club’s membership.
“We have a lot less women in the club,” chair Boals said. “We have four on our executive board, which is pretty good, but there’s definitely been a decrease in the number of females.”
Young Americans for Liberty has its own divisions. Le said the group is split between those who voted for Trump, supporters of Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson, and some who didn’t vote on principle. Meetings have seen spirited discussions of Trump’s travel ban and executive orders.
But she says the election has increased the amount of political discussion on campus all around, where previously Le saw most students “didn’t care about politics.”
“There’s an increasing amount of dialogue,” Le said. “We should utilize it.”
Big Data can lose
“I was elated. I was cheering,” Belk said of Election Night, partly at the thought of a Republican victory, and partly because of schadenfreude at those on the other side so confident of a Hillary Clinton victory.
“My professors came into class the next day, and they were so glum,” he said.
We’ll always get crap for Trump being president.
Lauren Boals, chair of USC College Republicans
Le saw something similar at the College of Charleston.
“A few days after the election, they had a safe space where you could go if you wanted to rant in one of the department rec rooms,” Le said. “I went, and it was more faculty than students. Another girl there left to go to class, and for a while I was the only student there.”
For the self-described “political nerds” in these clubs – people who spent the days before the election flipping states on interactive Electoral College maps – the results were exciting just for the implications it has for the effectiveness of campaigns.
“We’ve all played minor to active roles in campaigns, and it’s incredible to see how big data could lose,” said Michael Neece, the College Republican treasurer at USC.
Young Republicans still feel optimistic about the changes a Trump administration can make. Neece said he set aside some of his concerns about Trump knowing he would appoint a conservative Supreme Court justice like Neil Gorsuch.
But that optimism is tempered by congressional Republicans’ struggles to pass a health care reform bill, which could wreck the party’s legislative agenda.
“I had a lot of frustration, because the Republican Party had seven years to come up with a plan,” Neece said. “I can’t speak for everyone, but I would even work with Democrats on health care. ... I’m optimistic we can finally work together to get things done.”
While Trump may represent the GOP on the national stage, student Republicans hope to separate any negative aspects of the president’s persona with the party ideals that led them to join in the first place.
“We’ll always get crap for Trump being president,” Boals said. “But we’ve made a name for ourselves that we’re not stereotypical, ‘old white men’ kind of Republican.”
“My values won’t change if Trump shifts to more identity politics,” Neece said. “I’ll support more conservative candidates locally.”
But, college Republicans are quick to point out, those concerns don’t change the main takeaway all conservatives have from 2016.
“I’m happy Hillary Clinton’s not president,” Neece said.
BY THE NUMBERS
55% Of millennial voters opted for Hillary Clinton, versus 37 percent for Donald Trump.
27% Of millennials identify as liberal Democrats, the same percent who identify as conservative/moderate Democrats
17% Of millennials identify as conservative Republicans. Another 16 percent say they are moderate/liberal RepublicanSource: Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, Pew Research Center