The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At the country’s most elite colleges, some Trump supporters stay quiet

Cornell University’s Ithaca campus. (Courtesy of Cornell University Photography )

In this tumultuous campaign season, Graham Ambrose, a junior majoring in history at Yale University, writes about a group of voters from whom we haven’t heard much: students at some of the most competitive universities in the country who endorse Donald Trump for president. — Susan Svrluga

At Cornell University, junior Irvin McCullough estimates sizable campus support for Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. But he says they’re largely invisible at the Ivy League school: “They’re still in the closet.”

At Yale University, 21-year-old Karl Notturno jokes about being one of the few students on campus openly supporting the Republican presidential nominee. “People sometimes say to me, ‘Oh, you must be the smartest Trump supporter out there.’ ” He tells them, “No, there are a lot of Trump supporters who are a lot smarter than me. The reason you haven’t heard of them is because they’re a lot smarter than me.”

National polls show strongest support for Trump among Americans who didn’t graduate from college. But on the nation’s elite college campuses, from the Ivy League to small liberal arts colleges to top public universities, Trump supporters do exist, even in places known for their liberal politics.

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Some supporters are loud, championing the 70-year-old real estate mogul with an ardor characteristic of the presidential aspirant himself. But many keep a low profile, even among close friends. They say what links them is a refusal to accept “politically correct” codes of campus speech, anger toward voices of authority and, above all else, a deep, visceral disdain for the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton.

On campus, students supporting Trump face a perception problem: how to overcome the enduring public image of Trump voters as uneducated, poor, white and, more baldly, unintelligent. Corey Hong, a sophomore at Washington University in St. Louis, said he believes well-educated Trump supporters are keeping quiet because they don’t want to be perceived as less intelligent than their more liberal peers.

“There are definitely uneducated Trump supporters out there, and unfortunately they tend to be the most vocal about their support,” Hong said.

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Some students said there’s so much hostility toward Trump on campus that it can be difficult to even mention the candidate. Alexander Spanopoulos, a Vanderbilt University senior, said his peers have accused him of being a bigot, a threat to freedom, a white supremacist, a member of Hitler Youth and an embarrassment to the academic community.

“The most interesting statements hurled against me have been that I should leave the country as soon as possible and that I am not on the list to survive the revolution,” said Spanopoulos, who was born in Greece and raised in Memphis. He sees such statements as an attack on the First Amendment. “Labeling differing opinions as hate speech is thinly-veiled censorship perpetrated by those who are unwilling to engage in difficult conversations,” he said. ” … Conservative beliefs are openly mocked by both students and faculty.”

When the Cornell Daily Sun reached out to Olivia Corn, the 19-year-old from Riverdale, N.Y., who serves as chairwoman of the Cornell Republicans, she was eager to speak out on behalf of campus Trump supporters. But she felt betrayed by reaction to the story online.

“There were many horrible comments attacking me personally,” she said. “I lost many friends over my political views simply because they can’t understand my reasoning for why I believe what I believe, and that to me is incredibly disheartening.”

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Sarah Muller, a junior at Northwestern University who supports Clinton, countered: “It’s hardly fair to say that campus Trump supporters are a victims of campus culture. It’s no secret that they hold a minority opinion at Northwestern, but college is a place where people’s opinions are supposed to be challenged all the time. Trump supporters aren’t being mindlessly written off as bigots; they are being asked hard questions about their beliefs and values.”

Trump, Muller said, “has shamelessly established himself as a symbol of racism, xenophobia and sexism. Supporting Trump is an endorsement of those beliefs, so there’s definitely a stigma to it. Trump is one of the most polarizing figures American politics has seen in decades, so throwing your support behind him carries with it a stigma.”

On a number of campuses, when Trump supporters have promoted his campaign in chalk, some students responded with fear. A coalition of student groups at Emory University in Atlanta, for example, wrote an open letter after finding pro-Trump chalkings, calling it an attack on marginalized and minority communities on campus that had created an environment in which students no longer felt safe or welcome.

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At some campuses, there were anti-Mexican, anti-Islamic or anti-immigrant messages written alongside Trump’s name; at others, it was simply his name and slogan.

At Washington University, Hong said the school is so liberal that it’s almost to the point of being militant. “I would argue that while universities make it a priority to make minorities, LGBT or basically anybody else feel safe and accepted, conservatives who make their political stances known are often perceived as less intelligent, and usually are treated as such,” he said.

That, students said, has pushed Trump supporters underground. McCullough, the Cornell junior, said he was invited to a secret gathering with other closeted Trump supporters and was shocked to see some of the people who turned out for it: “There was a kind of a ‘You’re a Trump supporter too? Really!’-type moment,” he said.

Some critics say that Trump uses his blunt speech as a cover for offensive or imprudent policy, such as limiting Muslim immigration. But for those who say they’re tired of being told how to think and speak, Trump heralds a welcome change.

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“Donald Trump’s lack of political experience is refreshing to Americans,” said Josh Parks, a student at the University of Chicago. “A businessman like Donald Trump comes along, never having held public office and unafraid of offending the politically correct elites, and the content and tone with which he speaks resonates with the everyday Americans … it is refreshing to see an individual running for the high office that speaks in an off-the-cuff manner because we are drowning in overly-polished political correctness.”

Many of Trump’s supporters at elite universities also welcome his slogan. ” ‘Make America Great Again’ means once again believing that there is something special about this country, its values, and its culture and that those things are worth fighting for,” said Notturno, 21, who grew up in Washington, D.C.

“It’s an ideological return for which we strive,” Spanopoulos said. “‘Make America Great Again’ means the death of the nanny state, the return to the height of military power, the re-empowerment of our citizenry through returned freedoms and lowered taxes, honesty and transparency in media and government, and, most importantly, shifting power away from the bloated federal government and back to the states, per the 10th Amendment.”

For others, it is simpler: a powerful enmity for Trump’s opponent. Of the more than two dozen students across the country who avowed support for Trump, each cited a profound contempt for Clinton as a primary reason.

“I don’t trust Hillary Clinton,” Hong said.

“I am repulsed by her to the point that I am drawn to Donald Trump,” said Luke Kelly, a junior at Harvard University.

At elite universities, where Clinton enjoys strong support, Trump backers can appear more mythical than real. One recent headline from the student newspaper at the University of California at Berkeley illuminated the scarcity: “Seeking: One Trump Supporter.”

“During the spring semester, I could count on both hands the number of vocal Trump supporters among my classmates,” said Spanopolous.

For his part, Parks enjoys his role at the University of Chicago. During his second week of college, he walked into the student lounge of his dorm wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat.

“A now good friend of mine stopped me, thinking that I was wearing the hat ironically,” he said, “and with a very concerned look on her face said, ‘You do know that the money you spent on that hat goes directly to advancing the Trump campaign?'”

Parks told her, “That’s exactly why I ordered two.”