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The New Republican Mavericks of Cambridge

9.19.16

Illustration by iStock/KarenBJones


Illustration by iStock/KarenBJones

It has been a very disheartening few months,” says Declan Garvey ’17, president of the Harvard Republican Club (HRC).

A year ago, the members of the oldest College Republicans chapter in the United States were gearing up for what promised to be a bright election season. Democratic favorite Hillary Clinton suffered from years of baggage and controversy, while the Republican field included more than a dozen promising candidates who ranged from members of political dynasties (Jeb Bush) and popular governors (John Kasich) to up-and-coming senators (Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, J.D. ’95).

But as Donald Trump defeated each of these candidates while incurring the ire of many within the GOP, the club turned away from its party’s nominee for the first time in its history. In an open letter published on Facebook and the online publishing platform Medium on August 4, the HRC executive board took the unprecedented step of refusing to endorse their party’s standard-bearer, declaring, “Donald Trump holds views that are antithetical to our values not only as Republicans, but as Americans.”

The letter has been shared more than 125,000 times on Facebook, received more than 15,000 comments, and earned write-ups in publications like The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and The Boston Globe. Club members have appeared on CNN and MSNBC, and other college Republican groups subsequently made similar announcements.

The shock of such an announcement from an organization with an unbroken history of supporting the GOP nominee is certainly one reason for the heightened attention. But within the club itself, the statement signaled something more: it linked members’ profound disenchantment with the election with their recent efforts to comment publicly on campus and national stories in an attempt to make their organization a uniquely vocal conservative mouthpiece in the deep blue political environment of Cambridge.  For a group that defined its role in Harvard student life by speaking out against liberal policies in the name of conservatism and individual freedoms, HRC’s boldest action during this election has been to apply those same practices and values to their own party.

Of course, commenting on news stories on Facebook and Twitter is hardly unusual, even within Harvard’s political circles. The Harvard College Democrats publicize events and discuss current political issues on social media, too, and the group’s president, Susan Wang ’17, says she plans to expand its online presence before November.

But the shift in the Republicans’ language is particularly notable. A year ago, the group’s posts mostly consisted of innocuous expressions of support on Twitter, usually punctuated with an exclamation point. A sample tweet, from August 4, 2015: “Can’t wait for the @FoxNews debate on Thursday! We’ll be looking out for candidates who show competence and integrity.”

A Turning Point

The turning point came last December, when the Harvard College Office for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion distributed “Holiday Placemats for Social Justice” that offered students pointers on how to talk with their families about issues like the debate on the “House Master” title and student activism around race at Yale. Members of the club’s executive board decided to respond with a satirical placemat of their own on their Facebook page. “The thought was, ‘We should say something about this, you know? We should. Because it feels like a line was crossed and we should push back,” Gwen Thomas ’17, then the president of the club, recalls. The comedic protest piece became one of the hallmarks of the student backlash that prompted Harvard officials to apologize publicly days later.

Even more, the placemat parody encouraged HRC members to use the club’s Internet presence to produce a conservative take on events at Harvard and throughout the country. The organization contains a wide range of opinions—it bills itself on its website as a place for “Reagan’s Big Tent Republicanism,” and Thomas adds that it’s “a group that doesn’t totally buy into the mainstream views [on campus], but we’re not always totally homogenous in what we believe, either.” Generally speaking, though, many of its members subscribe to a brand of conservatism that places high value on individual liberties, private-sector solutions to policy problems, fiscal responsibility, and national defense. Following the placemats, the group produced Facebook posts condemning Harvard’s decision to impose restrictions on single-gender social organizations on the grounds that the policy would threaten freedom of association. It similarly opposed efforts on other campuses to steer away from controversial speakers and language by pointing to the First Amendment.

But at the end of 2015, the HRC faced another challenge to these values, and this time the source was within the party. Donald Trump was making headlines with his shoot-from-the-hip demeanor, and the real-estate magnate whom the Harvard Republicans had formerly overlooked was now giving them pause. “Most of us just thought [he] was kind of funny, probably not good for the country, but just kind of a little publicity stunt,” Aaron Henricks ’16, another former president, explains. “And then like most people, we thought it morphed into something a little more serious.”

In a straw poll conducted that November, says Garvey, roughly half the group’s members expressed support for Jeb Bush while the other half backed Marco Rubio, apart from a handful of supporters for other candidates like Carly Fiorina. No one indicated support for Trump. (The club’s website still prominently features a photo of Bush with five students.)

In those early months of the campaign, much like the rest of the country, the group imagined Trump on a path similar to that of Herman Cain, the 2014 speaker at the club’s annual Lincoln Day Dinner who had enjoyed a brief surge at the top of the presidential polls in 2012. Guests at their biweekly Tuesday meetings, who included fellows at the Institute of Politics, Republican activists, and professors, similarly assured the students that the bombastic businessman was a passing phenomenon.

“No room for hatred and bigotry”

But Trump continued to win primaries and outlast his opponents, even while uttering a slew of abrasive, headline-garnering remarks. When he initially refused to disavow Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke’s endorsement in February, the group published a statement condemning the candidate’s actions and affirming, “There is no room for hate and bigotry in this tent.”

For many members, Trump’s victory over his final GOP opponents in May provoked disillusionment. Henricks, for instance, says he “checked out” of the White House race at that point. Others, like social chair Gavin Sullivan ’17, turned their attention to state elections. Sullivan is focusing particularly on the Senate race in his home state of Illinois, where he enthusiastically supports incumbent Mark Kirk in part because the senator has publicly disavowed Trump. “There’s a lot of cognitive dissonance going on when all of a sudden I’m very much not excited [about] and will be actively working against the Republican nominee for president,” he adds. In April, Garvey even told a Boston Globe reporter that he would “have to bite the bullet” and vote for Clinton if forced to decide between her and the Donald.

Yet apart from the club’s KKK statement, these individual expressions of anti-Trump sentiment had not coalesced into an organization-wide stance by the end of spring semester. The beginning of summer vacation meant that the group’s activities—including a potential non-endorsement of Trump—would likely be put on hold. “We kept saying, ‘Oh, we’ll figure it out when we get back to campus in the fall, we’ll hold a meeting and talk about it with the membership,’” Garvey remembers.

Defying the Party Line

But after the Democratic National Convention, and Trump’s attack on a Muslim Gold Star family, Garvey reintroduced the idea of a statement to the executive board. This time, they decided to send an online survey to their members, asking if they planned to support the Republican nominee. Eighty percent of the respondents said that they would not vote for Trump; 10 percent backed him and another 10 percent were undecided. When prompted for comments by the survey, respondents told the club’s leaders to “call out his bigotry, call out his xenophobia and hatred,” says Garvey. “Other members wanted us to go as far as to endorse Gary Johnson or endorse Hillary, even.”

The overwhelming survey majority against Trump and the write-in comments convinced Garvey and the other board members that it was time to disavow him. They finished drafting the statement in the early hours of the morning; a few hours later, they alerted their advisor, IBM professor of business and government Roger Porter, a top staffer in the Ford, Reagan, and George H.W. Bush White Houses. (Bill Clinton has accused Porter of attempting, under orders from the Bush political team, to convince him not to run for the presidency—a charge that the professor vehemently denies.) And a few hours after that, the statement was online.

“In a sense, I was a little shocked, because that’s kind of going against the party line, but then there’s a real reason to do it,” says Christopher Rios ’20, a Republican first-year who wrote to Garvey after the announcement, expressing his support. “And they put their integrity before their party, which is an important thing.”

Nonetheless, there was pushback, as evinced by a series of furious comments on the Facebook post. One line of criticism, vividly expressed in a Washington Post column entitled “The Villains from 1980s Teen Movies Worry that Trump is a Threat to their Children,” tied the club to images of elite prep-school privilege and characterized the students as self-important, entitled, and naive.

And although many students received the news favorably, others disagreed with the stance. Jason Chukwuma ’20, Rios’s roommate and a Trump supporter, says that he still plans to join the club, but firmly opposes what he argues is a capitulation to liberal efforts to discredit Trump with ungrounded charges of prejudice. “I thought that [the club] would at least have the courage to stand up to that, and I was disappointed when they didn’t,” he explains. “And I was subsequently surprised and even more annoyed when the Yale Republican Club decided to stand by Trump.” (Four board members of the Yale club resigned in opposition to that group’s August 8 endorsement.)

But the HRC’s disavowal does appear to have expanded the group’s membership. At the club’s introductory meeting on September 6, around 130 students packed into a lecture room on the first floor of Harvard Hall—five times as many as in the prior year. Garvey thinks that even Roger Porter was surprised.

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