The words linger, as the air thickens with the tautness of the moment.
The smoke clears.
All eyes turn to the small table by the side of the dining hall to see a sophomore from California, eating lunch with her father, wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. She faces that harsh, two-word rebuke from another student and is thrusted uncomfortably into an unpleasant spotlight.
Such is the tense social pressure by which many Donald Trump supporters on campus feel constrained. It's an environment in which they argue one side is vilified to such an extent that open expression of support for Trump could provoke visceral responses and compromise relationships not only with friends, but also with the professors who determine their grades.
The sophomore from California hadn’t always been fearful of open support for Trump, but that changed over the summer. She attended a Trump rally in Anaheim, California, where she found herself in the middle of one of the most notable clashes between Trump supporters and protesters.
“Inside, people were being polite, not being douchebags,” she said. “After it ended, protesters had shut down the street, wearing masks and bandanas to cover their faces. One group of young men got in my space. They were aggressive, taunting and intimidating me.”
In what felt like one of the longest walks of her life, she walked hurriedly through the throngs of protesters who she said had continued to taunt her. She watched as another Trump supporter was assaulted. Protesters keyed cars. They smashed bottles on windshields.
“I was a female, all alone, wearing a Trump shirt,” she said. “I’ve never been more nervous.”
She was alone then, but not now, surrounded by Trump supporters who express the same fears and reluctance to publicize their endorsement of a controversial candidate in an inordinately divisive election year.
A sophomore from Virginia, an outgoing student, makes a request: He, too, would like to be quoted anonymously for fear of any social or academic consequences of revealing his identity as a Trump supporter.
He’s openly political, never shying away from a debate. But to come out and proclaim support for Trump to the entire campus is simply too much of a social liability. Nonetheless, come Election Day, he will be voting for Trump.
“As someone who believes in conservative principles and has a distrust for government, especially in its larger forms, I am inclined to vote for Trump,” he said.
But his reasoning is in some respects just as personal as it is philosophical: He said that President Barack Obama’s economic policies had irrevocably harmed his family’s financial well-being. He hoped that a Trump administration would roll back harmful regulations that had hurt businesses.
A senior from Colorado, who also asked to be quoted anonymously, said that he, too, worried about the economy. But his central focus was on the Supreme Court, to which he hoped to see conservative justices appointed. Such a decision, he said, would have lifelong implications and was therefore of the utmost importance.
The sophomore from California was, among other things, drawn to his refreshingly simple rhetoric.
“People rag on him because he doesn’t say anything, but at least he doesn’t waste his breath spewing all this shit,” she said. “It’s plain English, but the man’s clearly educated. That’s just how regular people talk.”
But not every Trump supporter loves their candidate. A junior from Pennsylvania who describes himself as a libertarian Republican admitted that he was reluctant to vote for Trump.
“He’s a jackass,” he said. “This should have been such an easy win for Republicans, with all of the information that’s come out against Hillary Clinton. Any experienced, capable Republican would have won, but we don’t have an experienced, capable Republican. We have Donald Trump. He’s an egotistical, narcissistic maniac.”
Still, he wasn’t entirely antagonistic to Trump’s candidacy, if only because he viewed him as a slightly better alternative to Hillary Clinton.
“Hillary Clinton has already proven herself to be an unfit leader,” he said. “She has failed the country and specific citizens on multiple occasions as Secretary of State, with the Iran deal, in Benghazi, with her email scandal. She’s bought and owned, clearly corrupt. That should not be rewarded with the highest office in the land. It’s likely that Donald Trump will be a bad president. It is an absolute certainty that Hillary Clinton will be a bad president.”
Indeed, if one central thread connected all of the Trump supporters interviewed, it was a tangible disdain for Clinton.
“If Hillary thought running as a staunch conservative would win her the presidency, she would do it,” the sophomore from Virginia said. “She has no backbone. Having control over people is her end, and politics is her means.”
The senior from Colorado agreed.
“I could never vote for Hillary Clinton,” he said. “She should be in jail. She’s complaining like she’s a victim, but had she turned in all those emails when they were subpoenaed, or if she hadn’t even kept classified information on a private email server and committed a federal crime in the first place, she wouldn’t be here. She’s a very determined candidate and a fighter, but she’s been involved in so many scandals, and I don’t know how she’s gotten away with it.”
Andrew Brennan, the chairman of the College Republicans, openly supports Trump. He said that he had been disappointed by some of the discourse in this election cycle, but that in his mind, actions spoke louder than words. Such was a common theme among the Trump supporters.
“There’s a far greater degree of moral corruption in the things she’s done than in the things Donald Trump has said,” the sophomore from Virginia argued.
“Triggering mollycoddling adolescents”
There was another major theme: that Trump was cutting through “political correctness.”
“There’s been a cultural conflict boiling in the U.S. since the ‘60s, and the funny thing is that the people who were protesting back then are people who today would be protesting against safe spaces,” the sophomore from California said. “The insidiousness of PC is that you can’t get the point across anymore without walking on eggshells. So what Donald Trump is doing is really triggering these mollycoddling adolescents.”
The Trump supporters often viewed political correctness and safe spaces not as a beneficial means of ensuring civil discourse but rather as a means of intentionally silencing one side. The sophomore from Virginia said that colleges and universities had created safe spaces as a means of censoring conservative forms of political expression. Tolerance on college campuses, he said, should apply to all forms of speech, even those which the other side would consider repugnant.
“I think people need to be able to encounter ideas and not be hurt by them,” he said.
But students on campus, the junior from Pennsylvania said, have used safe spaces and political correctness to shield themselves from those ideas and to vilify those who hold contrary beliefs.
“If people don’t like what you’re saying, somehow it’s a problem with you, not them,” he said.
But Dan Palazzolo, the chairman of the political science department, said that in some respects, the Trump campaign had actually reminded people of the importance of political correctness.
“It’s kind of been given a good name by Trump,” Palazzolo said. “Many colleges are now being called decent for at least upholding civility.”
Defending the Donald
Trump’s supporters recognize that their candidate has been called sexist, racist, xenophobic and misogynistic, and many even recognize that he’s deserved criticism. Consistently, though, when presented with the laundry list of allegations leveled against the Republican, the students defended him.
In response to Trump’s 2005 comments to Billy Bush that he grabbed women “by the p----,” the sophomore from California was unfazed. She said that it was a distraction from more important issues.
“I’m not offended by the Trump tapes,” she said. “It’s gross and very uncouth, but I was talking to my boyfriend, who is in the Marine Corps, and he said that those comments were G-rated compared to stuff people in the Armed Forces say on a daily basis. I’m glad Trump apologized, but it’s not a crisis.”
To the sophomore from Virginia, Trump’s comments were inexcusable, but he said that Clinton’s history was equally troubling, if not more so.
“Many women accused Bill Clinton of raping them, and Hillary shamed them,” he said. “That speaks louder than anything Trump said on a tape.”
Then, the students were asked about Trump’s plan to build the wall and the controversial comments he made about Mexicans in his presidential announcement address in June 2015.
The senior from Colorado said that he was in support of Trump’s immigration policy, as was his Mexican grandmother, rejecting any argument that Trump was racist or xenophobic.
“Donald Trump is anti-illegal immigration,” he said. “He’s not anti-immigration.”
The sophomore from California added to his sentiment.
“The immigration problem with Mexico is not so much a racially charged thing as it is a matter of national security,” she said. “There’s nothing racist about wanting a strong border and wanting laws to be enforced.”
She said that Trump’s words had been misconstrued.
“It would be racist to suggest all Mexicans are rapists, criminals, and drug dealers,” she said. “But he didn’t. And facts are not racist. Drugs and crime are coming in from Mexico. That’s not to suggest that all Mexicans are bringing them, and that’s not what he suggested.”
This was challenged by his call in December 2015 for a “complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.”
Several Trump supporters, including the senior from Colorado, drew the line at that proposal, but the sophomore from California said that Trump had begun to more clearly explain his position.
“He is calling for a temporary ban on people from nations controlled by the Islamic State,” she said. “If I lived in Syria and ISIS came knocking on the door, I’d pack up and leave. But shit, if a country said, ‘We don’t have any information about your background,’ how shocked would I be to be turned away?”
The junior from Pennsylvania added that the U.S. had a logical reason to be wary of immigrants from those nations.
“If there’s reason to believe and statistical evidence to suggest that a certain group of people will be a greater threat to national security, we can’t be afraid of being labeled racist,” he said. “That’s the problem with political correctness. It’s a cowardly tactic that protects people’s feelings. It’s thinking with our hearts more than our minds.”
All of the accusations against Trump fit into a larger context, the sophomore from Virginia said.
“There is a narrative prevalent today that the stereotypical rich white man is racist, sexist and evil,” he said. “But that’s not accurate to who Donald Trump is. I’ve seen the way he’s interacted with families who’ve been hit by loss and tragedy, and I see this compassion. He says he wants to help black people. Democratic policies for the longest time have hurt black people.”
If one thing worries Trump supporters more than the possibility of social retribution, it’s academic retribution. College classrooms, from the perspective of a Trump supporter, can be intimidating.
“My professor says Trump supporters are on hallucinogenic drugs and says that they should be forced to wear a ‘Scarlet T,’” the sophomore from California said. “And they say Trump’s the Nazi.”
The Trump supporters acknowledged that they weren’t surprised to see the level of opposition to Trump from academia, but they were surprised to see the ways in which that opposition was expressed by professors who they felt were stifling debates instead of sparking them.
The sophomore from Virginia, for example, said that in one of his classes, the professor had instructed students on how to vote. The senior from Colorado said that his professors had consistently come down more harshly on papers in which he had defended Trump and the GOP.
But in spite of the other students’ experiences, Brennan said that he had not encountered negative pressure or retaliation as an open Republican and Trump supporter. In fact, he said that the political climate on campus was far better than that on other campuses.
“I’ve always found Richmond to be pretty apolitical,” he said. “The business school is more conservative. Jepson has a more liberal bent, and there are more Hillary voters on campus, but there is support of Trump. I don’t feel suppressed. People have been cordial.”
Palazzolo said that it was difficult to prove academic retaliation because of a lack of explicit evidence, but he would not count it out entirely, acknowledging that a college campus is not the friendliest environment for a Trump supporter. After all, he said Trump had confronted the values of academia in ways that other Republicans had not.
The junior from Pennsylvania said that it was undeniable that academic and social pressure existed and was felt by Trump supporters.
“That pressure manifests itself in the fact that I’m not comfortable talking about this when other people walk into the room,” he said. “It manifests itself in the fact that so many of the Trump supporters you’ve interviewed are speaking anonymously. It manifests itself in the fact that I know Trump supporters who have been told to go f--- themselves for their beliefs and subsequently are afraid to say anything about this election.”
Can Trump win?
The most confounding question, in the end, is whether Trump even has a chance at winning the election. Most of the Trump supporters said they were unsure how the election would turn out, predicting that it would be a close race.
Brennan was more optimistic.
“He was always going to be the underdog,” he said. “Based on historical factors, it’s typically very difficult for a party to keep the White House more than two terms. Economic indicators, like slow growth, are certainly a factor. It’s a change year. Certainly he could lose, but I feel like he’ll pull it off.”
Palazzolo acknowledged that there was validity to Brennan’s prediction, considering economic indicators and discontent with incumbents and establishment leaders. He said there was another factor that threatened to break the historical trend, though.
“Models suggest he’d win, but he can’t, because he’s such a terrible candidate,” he said.
The junior from Pennsylvania agreed, arguing that Trump had spent too much time making ill-advised comments that he was subsequently forced to defend, instead of attacking Clinton. It was another reason he had voted for Trump with reluctance.
“He’s broken the mold, and I admire that of him,” he said. “But it’s like my friend says: Right idea, wrong guy.”
But for every other Trump supporter interviewed, the principle of the matter now came before party.
“If it had been a safer candidate, the GOP would have won in a landslide,” the sophomore from California said. “But the GOP is not what we want. To suggest that a safer candidate or an establishment politician would be better, for what? For the same old, same old? I’m sick of politicians. Most people are. There is no better candidate to take it all down. He’s taken the birdcage that is Washington, D.C., and shaken it all up.”
Whether Trump wins or loses, every Trump supporter recognized that the Republican Party will need to determine the course of its future after this election. All of them expressed hope that Trump would have a lasting impact. They hoped that the next presidential nominee would be an outsider, too, albeit perhaps a less controversial, more eloquent one. Some hoped that the party would double down on populism. Others hoped that it would continue to focus on economic issues and leave social issues to the states. However, they were uncertain that the party leadership would allow Trump’s supporters to change the direction of the party and weaken the power of party elites.
Certainty — and healing — will only come with time. Once the election is over. Once the winner celebrates and the loser goes home. Once the partisan divisions and the heated discourse of this election season have passed. Once the smoke clears.
Contact features editor Damian Hondares at email@example.com.