Angry protests belie moderation of US campus Republicans

While xenophobes get headlines, conservative students show political flexibility

February 7, 2020
Source: Alamy

Beyond the rowdy campus spectacles of nationalist agitators and free-speech demands, some US college Republican leaders are acknowledging a less-publicised reality: they may be more moderate than their national party leaders.

According to several university-level organisers, conservative students demonstrate notably greater tolerance than their party chiefs on key social issues, including showing less overt hostility to immigrants.

Furthermore, a significant share of them might even be willing to consider the possibility that capitalism does not have all the answers for US society, especially as the nation’s income divisions grow, campus leaders said.

Capitalism and immigration were complex topics for campus Republicans, acknowledged Ron Robinson, president of Young America’s Foundation, a leading national conservative youth organisation.

Immigrants who have made sacrifices to travel to the US and start a new life were both resented and recognised by campus conservatives for their “entrepreneurial instinct”, Mr Robinson said. College Republicans also were not immune to some “vilification of others’ success”, he explained.

One prominent example of such contradictions can be seen at the University of Maine, where the College Republicans recently waded into the national spotlight on racial extremism by arranging a talk by Michelle Malkin, a conservative columnist and admirer of Nick Fuentes, a former Boston University student who participated in the 2017 white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The embrace of Ms Malkin and other acts of racial incitement led Amy Fried, a University of Maine professor and chair of political science, to resign from her advisory position with the College Republicans.

Professor Fried said she provided organisational advice to various student groups without getting involved in their politics. But she quit the campus Republicans after urging them to stop using inflammatory social media postings designed largely “to rile people up”.

The vice-president of the University of Maine’s College Republicans, Jeremiah Childs, said the significance of inviting Ms Malkin was overblown. Mr Fuentes, he suggested, was merely a modern practitioner of “appealing to the edgy internet culture” and “rather controversial humour” that helps conservatives win attention.

Mr Fuentes and his followers, who call themselves “groypers”, certainly managed that last November at an event at the University of Houston. There they ambushed Charlie Kirk, the founder and executive director of Turning Point, a major Trump-aligned organiser of campus Republicans, shouting him down and, in effect, chasing him from an outdoor presentation.

Looking past such theatrical tactics, Mr Childs said, the more important divide in the world of campus Republican thought was the wider “MAGA civil war”. That is a reference to an ideological battle between conservatives who see Donald Trump’s campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” as promising help to the US working class, and those whom Mr Childs derides as “country club” Republicans aligned with global capitalism.

In that wider struggle, Mr Childs explained, college Republicans were much more likely than their national party leaders to question the unreservedly pro-capitalist establishment.

“I totally agree” on the need to address income inequality across the US, Mr Childs said. He described his small hometown of Litchfield, Maine as suffering badly from the loss of manufacturing industries, and said the government should do more to provide healthcare to residents. “I don’t think capitalism has been so helpful to Maine, to where I live,” Mr Childs said.

Another Republican campus leader, Cameron Cox, vice-president of the University of Virginia’s College Republicans chapter, said he recognised some of what Mr Childs described.

According to Mr Cox, Republican students regard immigration as a more complicated issue than their national leaders do, especially as it involves “Dreamers” – undocumented immigrants who were brought to the US as children.

He said a firm belief in capitalism remained foundational among conservatives, although he conceded that its on-campus subscribers faced difficulties sticking to such ideals inside liberal student communities.

Young Republicans’ political ideas are often shaped by their families, but when they start university, “you’re suddenly surrounded by all these liberal counterparts”, he said. Often the first beliefs to be surrendered include opposition to gay rights and hard-line positions on criminal justice, Mr Cox said.

One survey of college students last year bore that out. The online polling organisation College Pulse, questioning about 1,000 Republican and Republican-leaning college students, found that 73 per cent admitted to hiding their political views in the classroom out of fear it would affect their grades.

Another reason for the disparity between college Republicans and their professional counterparts in Washington and state capitals, Mr Cox noted, was the simple fact that college students did not need to curry favour with leaders and voters.

“They’re put in a spot where they do need to publicly endorse and promote the president’s agenda,” he said of today’s leading Republican politicians. “And college students aren’t in that same position, so you see a little bit more pushback.”


Print headline: Republican hardliners hog headlines but students are less politically rigid

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