Trump’s College Republicans Vow To Keep Fighting

A generation of PC-hating, wall-building young Republicans are riding high on the Trump train. But are they in it for the long haul?

Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Oct 31, 2016 at 1:24 PM ET

James Allsup has taken the Trump Train all across Washington State University this year. He’ll be damned if election night marks the end of the line.

The president of WSU’s College Republicans, Allsup has spent the last 12 months remaking the once moribund club into the image of the party’s new standard bearer: unabashedly nationalist and confrontational, with little appetite for safe spaces or the school’s inclusive, multicultural gatekeepers. In late October, he spearheaded the construction an eight-foot tall Trump-inspired wall on the middle of campus, which drew hundreds of protestors. Whether Donald Trump wins or loses next week, Allsup vows he’ll continue his candidate’s populist crusade.

“Not a lot of college kids get jazzed up talking about the free market or comprehensive immigration reform or stupid shit like that,” the 21-year-old junior told Vocativ. “They see that we’re having fun. They see that we’re going against the grain. And they see we’re willing to push back against the social-justice-check-your-privilege mentality.” 

The Republican nominee for president has been as divisive among campus conservatives as he’s been in the GOP at large, raising questions, and some worries, about the party’s future. As some prominent College Republican groups agonize and openly revolt against their candidate in home stretch of the campaign, others like Allsup are laying the groundwork for an offensive that stretches beyond November 8. Often from outside the elite universities vaunted by the media and political establishment, these energized students want to turn Trump’s political brand into a millennial movement.

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It’s a precarious proposition. Recent polls show that Trump’s support among likely millennial voters now hovers around 20 percent, with many backing the GOP nominee simply “to keep Hillary Clinton out of the White House.” That figure, an historic low for a Republican nominee, is just over half of the 37 percent won by Mitt Romney among this age group in 2012. Meanwhile, a number of campus conservatives fear that Trump’s inflammatory comments about women and minorities could drive even more students away from the GOP.

“Young voters are more concerned with issues of decency than their parents or grandparents might realize,” Michael Fitzgerald, a sophomore at Yale University, told Vocativ. “When you have a Republican candidate spewing racist and sexist rhetoric it will effect how a lot of these people — many of them first-time voters — see the party.”

Troubled by Trump’s candidacy, an unprecedented number of College Republican groups have denounced or officially refused to endorse him. Republicans at the University of Connecticut declared their party’s candidate was “mentally unstable,” while those at Harvard said the real estate developer and reality television star posed a “threat to the survival” of the country. Even the head of the National College Republicans said publicly that she would not support him.

A former treasurer for the Yale College Republicans, Fitzgerald quit the organization after it officially endorsed Trump this summer. Like many of his conservative peers, he’s at a loss. “I don’t know if after this election I will call myself a Republican,” he said.

But elsewhere, Trump’s brash populism and self-styled image as a business magnate continue to inspire a cadre of college kids who see themselves as part of a burgeoning youth movement. Students for Trump, an all-volunteer group that began in a North Carolina freshman’s dorm last year, established more than 100 chapters across the country during the campaign, many of them at state schools and blue collar towns that were overlooked at the beginning of Trump’s meteoric rise. Its sprawling social media network, which boasts more than 43,000 Twitter followers and 73,000 fans on Instagram, hums day and night with a steady stream of campaign agitprop along with photos of students decked out in Trump-inspired swag.

“It’s a spring blossom that we’ve brought to the Republican party,” said Ryan Fournier, the chair and founder of Students for Trump. “We’re bringing a different type of politics. A different approach.”

That pivot appears to have paid off for Allsup at Washington State University, which is near the border of Idaho and almost 300 miles southeast of Seattle. When he became president of the school’s Republican club last year it had only four members, he said. An ardent Trump supporter, he vocally championed the candidate’s tough stance on immigration and trade and was unafraid to clash with campus liberals over “political correctness.”

Allsup’s College Republican club now has more than 30 active members, most of them new to politics, he said. In addition to building Trump-inspired walls, they are out actively campaigning for their candidate. Emboldened, Allsup has also become the chairman of the Washington College Republican Federation, a post he will use to push Trump’s brand of politics long after the election.

“I think if College Republican chapters decide to revert back to being Jeb Bush apologists they’re going to have a real problem,” he said. “We’ve shown that a strong, silent majority exists at colleges that can generate better turnout and more energy.” 

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Just how long that energy can sustain itself remains uncertain. “I have trouble seeing potential for a movement” among campus Trump supporters, said Katy Harriger, a political science professor at Wake Forest University and an expert in political participation and voting among college-age people. In an interview with Vocativ, she pointed to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008, which generated an unprecedented groundswell of support among students leading up to the election. But it didn’t last.

“As soon as election was over it was like back to work for them,” Harriger said. 

Some of Trump’s most savvy campus crusaders have already backed away from the spotlight. Volodymyr Kolychev and several students supporting the Republican nominee at Oregon’s Portland State University generated national headlines and drummed up millions of page views across conservative news sites during a series of clashes with Trump opponents and liberal activists last spring. Since then, the Portland State Students For Donald Trump group that he founded has all but disbanded.

“I was never retardedly enthusiastic [about Trump],” Kolychev, who continues to speak openly about white nationalism and the alt-right community, told Vocativ. “If we don’t go viral, there’s little incentive to do anything.”

Still, he said he cast his ballot for Trump in Oregon, a vote-by-mail state. And his days of antagonizing his progressive peers are far from over. “I’ll probably still fuck around,” Kolychev said. “You can always troll with something else.”