Behind the closed door of a private study room in their campus library, three members of the College Republicans broached a subject that had become taboo among many of their friends: whether their club should publicly support Donald Trump.
“This could be our last chance if we don’t vote for him,” said Derek Kukura, 24, a junior at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga who heads the club, arguing that for all of Trump’s flaws, the real estate tycoon and GOP presidential nominee would be better than letting another liberal politician cement big-government policies. “Maybe we should tell people.”
“Not me,” said Tucker McClendon, 21, shaking his head so furiously that his bowl cut flopped. “I don’t want to be associated with it.”
Nicholas Chapin, 18, said he planned to cast his first presidential vote for Trump–but he was in no hurry for the group to advertise it. “Maybe we should wait for another election,” he said.
The age of Trump has complicated a rite of passage for many young conservatives. Instead of getting their first taste of canvassing, working phone banks or rallying for a cause, they are grappling with the baggage of a nominee whose words and record are fueling emotional debates about racism, misogyny and sexual assault. The campaign has split college Republican clubs nationwide and turned those willing to stand up for Trump into targets for criticism and ridicule.
GOP clubs at Harvard and Princeton made headlines this summer when they declined to endorse Trump, citing his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States and his comments about Mexican immigrants. The head of the National College Republican Party followed suit. And last week, following a Washington Post report about a 2005 video in which Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women, a student group at the overwhelmingly conservative Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., derided him as a man “who constantly and proudly speaks evil.”
Chapin, one of Kukura’s fellow College Republicans, thought about the folks in the state whom Trump had captivated and declared him the candidate for the “angry white man.” He sighed: “Instead of feeling like it’s my generation’s first election, it feels like my parents’ last.”
McClendon, who plans to vote for independent candidate Evan McMullin, has argued that as young white men in the South, he and his friends have a duty to reject the sort of hateful rhetoric that characterized many of their forebears.
“The man is a racist and a bigot,” McClendon said of Trump.
One recent evening, Kukura placed a sign in the student center that read, “College Republicans: The Best Party on Campus.” Half a dozen students attended their first meeting of the year, amid empty chairs and empty tables.
“So, I’m just curious,” Kukura said to the group. “What do you guys think of Trump?”
“I abstain,” McClendon said.
“I’m not absolute on all his policies, but I’m voting for him,” one said. “She lies too much.”
“I feel good if he’ll take advice from Mike Pence,” said another.
“Even though he’s crude, he’s a kick-ass, take names guy, and that’s what our country needs.”
“The Supreme Court is the most important thing,” said Brittany Self, 21, a communications major who was wearing a Marco Rubio T-shirt. “It just can’t be her.”
But when Kukura mentioned that the group could make some phone bank calls before the election, Self sounded less eager.
She was happy to work the phones, she said, but only for local candidates–not for Trump.