Nationalist ‘antics’ or the future of the GOP? College Republicans are at war

The College Republicans are worried. Yes, it’s partially about their Democratic peers, but it’s also about the other young people who call themselves Republican. 

The more moderate among them say they fear far-right students’ “antics” will corrupt the party. Their counterparts fear the party is too stodgy to capture the attention of undecided voters. In a few recent cases, in California and Washington, the groups actually have fractured over who should lead them. 

Underlying the college conservatives’ fears: that the Republican Party as a whole is in trouble.

For young Republicans, embracing a conservative identity while enrolled in college is a decision to be an outsider. Many of them feel ostracized on their campus for their beliefs. That fosters an “us vs. them” mentality. 

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That might partially explain why they host events such as “affirmative action bake sales,” in which they sell treats with different prices based on a person’s race. These types of events are meant to rile college communities, and they often succeed. Students both broadcast their views against affirmative action and generate as much attention as they can.  

That played out at the University of Washington last May, when a group calling themselves College Republicans hosted that kind of bake sale. They found themselves the subject of national headlines, and the statewide organization of College Republicans denounced what they had done. The state College Republicans has instead recognized a different group of campus conservatives — the Husky College Republicans. The original group declined to speak to USA TODAY unless members were offered anonymity. Members said they feared for their safety.

Jack Pickett, now the western vice chairman at the College Republican National Committee, was part of the College Republicans at the University of Washington and also led the statewide group. He was involved in the decision to start over. 

The chapter, he said, had crossed the line a couple of times, and the bake sale was the final straw. Pickett recalled he was not happy when leaders decided to bring Milo Yiannopoulos, a far-right speaker, to campus in 2017. Outside that event, a man protesting was shot by someone who had come to see Yiannopoulos. 

Parade Marshall and far-right political commentator Milo Yiannopoulos speaks during the "Straight Pride" parade in Boston on August 31. "Straight Pride" advocates who support President Donald Trump and counter-demonstrators who consider them homophobic extremists staged dueling rallies in Boston. (Photo: JOSEPH PREZIOSO, AFP/Getty Images)

Pickett considers himself a conservative, but says he didn’t initially support Donald Trump’s campaign for president. (He now does.) He had thrown his support behind businesswoman and politician Carly Fiorina in 2016.

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His critics have seized upon what he described as a more traditional type of conservatism, calling him a “Republican in Name Only.” People have attacked him online for his weight and claim he doesn’t deserve his current position. The old group of college leaders he helped to oust still meets.

Battling over the identity of a college group is vexing, Pickett said. It distracts from a larger, perhaps more difficult goal: recruiting new conservatives. 

“It’s very difficult to do that when you have a group who’s misusing your name and working almost intentionally, it often seems, to drive people away with their antics,” Pickett said. “That’s not something that anyone, even right-leaning students, want to be a part of.” 

For its part, the Republican National Committee doesn’t appear to be worried about potential divisions in its youth movement. The party is currently running an effort to register voters called “Make Campus Great Again.” 

“When it comes to issues college students care about, like securing a job after graduation, the choice is clear: a booming economy under President Trump or a government takeover of every aspect of their lives under Democrat leadership,” RNC spokeswoman Mandi Merritt said in an email.

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The split between conservative policy wonks and energized activists is one that Amy Binder, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego, and Jeffrey Kidder, a sociologist at Northern Illinois University, have been studying for years. They’re currently writing a book on student activism. 

In recent research, they found individual students themselves straddle those lines. They join the traditional college Republican groups because of the political connections they can build. But they might also join a local chapter of a group like Turning Point USA. Founded by Charlie Kirk in 2012, when Kirk was 18, the conservative group is known for its attention-grabbing tactics at colleges. This is the group that started the Professor Watchlist, a project meant to track, “expose and document college professors who discriminate against conservative students and advance leftist propaganda.” They also host summits often attended by major figures in the current administration, including the president, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. 

President Donald Trump takes the stage at the Turning Point USA Student Action Summit last month. (Photo: Andrew Harnik, AP)

Kidder said groups like Turning Point likely do a better job of appealing to students who are interested in more than just the traditional, campaigning-style politics. 

Conservative and liberal students also tend to organize differently, Binder said. Students on the left may feel more comfortable within the university. Many have student affairs offices directed toward minority students, like Black or LBGTQ cultural centers. Conservative students, in contrast, may find themselves drawn off campus to groups like Turning Point, which have a lot of money and resources to help them organize.

Then there are the students who don’t fit with those groups’ ultra-conservative agendas, who may find themselves door-knocking or phone calling for Senate campaigns. And for those students, especially in blue states, rabble-rousing may not be an option. Joaquin Romero, 21, a junior studying economics at the University of New Mexico, chairs the New Mexico Federation of College Republicans. He has also long been involved with state and city politics. Currently in New Mexico, the state with the largest percentage of Hispanics in the country, Democrats hold all seats in Congress, the governor’s office and both the state House and Senate.

Romero said his goal is to shift the college Republicans group away from the incendiary approach some had taken in the past. In 2017, the UNM group invited Yiannopoulos to campus, and police intervened to break up protests. Romero said he understands some people appreciate watching things burn, but he sees those efforts as counterproductive. 

“Things like the Milo event where you have someone on stage that says inflammatory things that are in my opinion not even conservative,” he said. “It not only drives people away, but it also ignites the wrong kind of people.” 

The goal, Romero said, should be to recruit people who want to carry on the “conservatism of (Ronald) Reagan.” That lasts longer, he argued, than the furor generated over provocative speakers.

At San Diego State, ‘America first’

Infighting among conservative students in California prompted a majority of the state’scollege Republicans to start a new organization altogether. They split off from the California College Republicans about a year ago to create the California Federation of College Republicans. That group’s chairman, Matt Ronnau, also heads the chapter at University of California at Berkeley.

Initially, Ronnau said, the divide among College Republicans was between those eager to embrace the president and those who wanted to embrace a more traditional model of conservatism instead. Those lines, he said, have now blurred. The split came down to differences in how to run the organization. The new group, the federation, now has 30 chapters and is recognized by the College Republican National Committee. The old group, the California College Republicans, still exists, but didn’t return a request for comment. 

Ronnau describes himself as a member of the “Trumpian camp,” but said many of the federation’s members are not. Still, some have swung extremely far to the right. The San Diego State College Republicans, who belong to the federation, describe themselves as “unapologetically Nationalist + America first” in the group’s Twitter profile. They have retweeted Michelle Malkin, a controversial figure who has come under attack for her support of the far-right writer Nicholas Fuentes, and VDARE, an anti-immigration website popular among white nationalists. 

A look at the Facebook page of the San Diego State University's College Republicans. The group aggressively appeals to the younger generation online with content other students say sometimes offends. (Photo: screenshot)

Oliver Krvaric, president of the San Diego State group, said a split exists between establishment Republicans and the next generation.

On VDARE, Krvaric, a 21-year-old senior studying international security and conflict resolution,said it’s possible to retweet some of the outlet’s views on specific subjects without endorsing all its content.He did say he’d rather the group focus less on helping conservative students land political jobs, a traditional role for College Republican groups, and instead work to wage the “culture war.” For instance, although he wouldn’t say where he stood on issues such as same-sex marriage, he said generally men and women are better suited for different roles. And many group members oppose abortion rights. 

The group’s members also hold hard-line views on immigration.

“I don’t think anything here can be classified as radical by anyone in good faith, though it does threaten to displace the establishment,” Krvaric said.

Ronnau, of the statewide group, said he was unconcerned the San Diego chapter’s views would be reflective of the federation as a whole.  

“We want to let clubs operate kind of more or less the way they see fit,” he said. “San Diego State is much farther to the right than other clubs in our state federation, but we all coexist together.”

Ronnau doesn’t see a return to the era of Republicanism that would be familiar to Mitt Romney- or John McCain-types. He said many young people support the president, and more young people will step up to continue to push the “right-wing populist agenda.” 

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Columbus Day post rocks University of Maine

There are signs, though, the young conservatives may grow extreme. It used to be that Kirk and his fellow Republicans weresome of the most vocal conservative voices on college campuses. But some young Republicans are turning away from Kirk, viewing him as too moderate.

That’s the case for Jeremiah Childs, the vice president for the College Republican group at the University of Maine. Childs pushes an “America-first” agenda that’s unabashedly Trumpian in support of strict immigration policies. The group often posts about gun rights, memes criticizing Democratic presidential hopefuls and support for the military writ broadly.

A look at the Facebook page of college conservatives at the University of Maine. The group recently came under fire for its posts about Columbus Day and Native Americans. (Photo: Screenshot)

He said other groups, like Turning Point, spend too much time talking about economic issues rather than cultural ones, like the anti-abortion movement. Childs said he was also worried about the rise of concepts like nontraditional gender roles and “third-wave feminism.” 

In October, the group posted a message on Facebook in support of Columbus Day while describing some Native American tribes as “corrupted by rampant ritual sacrifice and cannibalism.” The post generated local backlash. Childs said the intent was not to rile and he didn’t think Native Americans in the area cared about the controversy over Columbus Day.

An indigenous student group protested the post, according to Inside Higher Education. And a local tribal ambassador of the Penobscot Nation told an NBC affiliate she was in favor of stripping Columbus’ name from the holiday, calling him a “war criminal.”

Still, Childs said the outrage was the result of “left-wing activists.” 

The College Republicans at the University of Maine recently also came under fire for their plans to host Malkin. The hotel hosting the event pulled out, but the students have since found a new venue, Childs said.

The group’s adviser also resigned after the students invited Malkin. Dan Demeritt, spokesman for the University of Maine, said the club isn’t official without one. Childs said they have candidates lined up. 

Malkin has been facing public scrutiny lately because of her support of Nicholas Fuentes, a far-right writer who attended the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, a gathering of white supremacists. After that rally, counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed after James Alex Field drove a car into a crowd of anti-racist demonstrators.

Though he has said he is not a white nationalist, Fuentes has also joked the Holocaust didn’t happen. Fans of Fuentes have also been coordinating attempts to heckle speakers from Turning Point USA and another conservative group, the Young America Foundation, according to the Daily Beast.

Childs said his group does not endorse Fuentes and they’re not associated with him.

But the Maine group also posted a poll featuring Charlie Kirk of Turning Point USA, a person Childs described as a “Country Club Republican,” and Fuentes.

“The major question,” the Maine students wrote, “seems to be should the Republican Party move towards ‘Nationalism/America First,’ or towards ‘Libertarianism’ with a softer approach towards social issues and immigration?” In the students’ poll, Fuentes represented the first option, Kirk the second. Eighty-two percent of the 5,200 who voted went with Fuentes, the rest for Kirk. (These types of Internet polls, it should be noted, can be easily gamed, especially by young digital natives.)

As for the critics in the conservative space, Childs said he doesn’t think they understand the circumstances of poor and rural Americans. He said they likely come from prosperous backgrounds.

Childs’ sentiment reiterates what many of these young conservatives think of each other: They just don’t get it. 

Education coverage at USA Today is made possible in part by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Foundation. The Gates Foundation does not provide editorial input. 

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