CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — 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 over the 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.”
Here at UT-Chattanooga, a picturesque campus in the shadow of the Appalachians of eastern Tennessee just north of the Georgia state line, conservatives have felt unsettled ever since controversy erupted over a public display of support for Trump in April, a political lifetime ago.
A small group of students wrote “Trump 2016” on the sidewalk of a busy thoroughfare, part of a national “chalking” movement designed to show solidarity among young people with the campaign. The pro-Trump chalkers scrawled the campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” and drew an illustration of the U.S.-Mexico border wall that Trump promised he would build.
A freshman named Hailey Puckett posted a picture of the image online.
“Super proud of our art work, but I have a feeling half of UTCs campus is gonna hate it,” she tweeted.
Within 26 minutes, Puckett recalled, her Twitter feed was filled with people asking her how she could do such a thing. Some called for her to step down from her position in student government.
Some students interpreted the message as a symbol of segregation between races on campus and in the country. Students were running to the site of the chalk with buckets in hopes of washing it away.
Some conservatives, taken aback by the response, worried that the campus was no longer a safe space for their beliefs.
Trump backers on campus looked to Kukura, who had recently revived the campus chapter of the College Republicans, to take a stand. He declined.
“We were a new club and we didn’t want to take sides,” he said.
Months later, the idea of standing up publicly for Trump has only become more toxic. Kukura said he has stopped checking his Facebook feed as often because he has grown tired of the vitriolic back-and-forth.
This was not how Kukura had originally envisioned his view of the 2016 campaign. He had grown up in a small Minnesota town and was enrolled in a local community college, but was eager to follow his parents when they retired outside Chattanooga. From blue state to red state, he thought, moving to Tennessee would be a fitting start to a budding political career — and heading the College Republicans chapter would be an ideal first step.
Kukura, who describes himself as more of a Jeb Bush Republican, was unsure about Trump until he spent three weeks during the summer in Italy, learning about Machiavelli. In the sandwich shops and on the streets, he said, strangers told him that “Trump might be good for the United States, but bad for the world.”
“They had a perspective that we might not be able to see because we’re so close to it,” Kukura said. Trump’s focus on putting “America first” appealed to him, he said, because he thought politicians weren’t doing enough to tackle the drug epidemic or to reduce the national debt. The threat of terrorism seemed palpable to him — after all, four Marines were killed in a terrorist attack at a military recruitment center in 2015, a few miles away.
But, Trump was not an easy sell for college students. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had taken up the call by her former rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.), for tuition-free public college, and surveys have shown Clinton making up ground among the young voters she had been struggling with.
Kukura and his friends didn’t like the sound of free college, mostly because they rejected the stereotype that their generation felt too entitled. Nonetheless, it bothered them that they never heard Trump utter a word about how to make college more affordable.
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 said he 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.
Across campus, Trump’s candidacy has prompted a larger discussion about whether this generation should even care about electoral politics.
“It’s kind of become like a big joke,” said Fallyn Iles, 20, a nursing major. Earlier that day, she said, her friends were sharing a cartoon on social media of Trump electrocuting Clinton.
“It shouldn’t be funny, but it kind of is.”
Her friend Brittany Lockwood, 20, a political science major from Memphis, chimed in. “I did not think, until this past year, I would have ever considered voting Democratic. Now I am.”
Lockwood said she wondered why others around her were so easy to dismiss Trump’s comments about women and minorities.
“This is the South, so there are a lot of times people kind of use other reasons to discriminate against minorities and people of color,” Lockwood said. “It’s one thing to support Trump, but when I find out about a friend supporting him, it raises a lot of questions and concerns with me that they are looking for an excuse to be racist.”
Michelle Deardorff, a political science professor, said she understands why tensions amplified so quickly after the April chalking incident. She said the students had not grown up with the idea of friendly political discussions, but were accustomed to mirroring fiery disagreements that devolved in name-calling. She found herself quoting John Stuart Mill’s “On Liberty” to students, preaching about the importance of differing views in a democracy.
“This is a campus that is not used to talking about race, and this election has provoked the conversation,” Deardorff said.
After the chalking, administrators asked Deardorff to convene a town-hall meeting to address students’ feelings. Puckett, 19, a nursing major, sat in the last row. At the event’s conclusion, she said she had no idea that the wall would be interpreted as racist. She said she simply believed in tougher immigration laws. The event turned out to be a cleansing moment for Puckett and others at the school.
“I listened to many people after the experience telling me why they felt uncomfortable with what I said, but mostly how I said it,” she said. “I learned more in that one week than I have in my entire life.”
Among her lessons: Politics can become “too touchy of a subject.”
“It honestly has changed my willingness to talk about politics in front of certain people, but I do not like that,” she said.
At least the College Republicans had one another.
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.