In the year of Trump, student Republicans at odds

Identifying as Republican has always brought challenges for UC Berkeley students. But in a year when Donald Trump‘s White House campaign has sharply divided the GOP, maintaining party loyalty is harder than ever for college Republicans.

“Some of us have been extremely critical of Trump, but we’ve been able to rationalize things with him to the point where we can say we will vote for him,” says Jose Diaz, president of Berkeley College Republicans. “That’s been difficult … It leaves a sour taste in our mouth.”

Two undergraduate students stand at Berkeley College Republicans booth near Sather Gate.

Branden West and Jose Diaz staff the Berkeley College Republicans booth near Sather Gate. (UC Berkeley photo by Yasmin Anwar)

Diaz himself is torn. He sees himself as a new face in the young-conservative movement. As a Latino, he doesn’t think he looks like what the average Trump supporter imagines when they think of a Republican. He also feels like a sore thumb at UC Berkeley: At this historically liberal university, being a conservative immediately makes you stand out.

On social issues, Diaz says he is a moderate. He feels kinship with libertarians’ laissez faire stance on marijuana and marriage equality. He is also disturbed by Trump’s ever-changing rhetoric regarding the possible deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants. Before being accepted to Berkeley, Diaz did border patrol and anti-narcotics work with the U.S. Coast Guard.

“It gave me on-the-ground, front line experience with these issues,” Diaz says. “I could see the heartache in people’s eyes. You had your bad apples, but most people wanted to improve their lives and become upwardly mobile.”

Headshot of Jose Diaz

Jose Diaz, president of Berkeley College Republicans (UC Berkeley photo by Yasmin Anwar)

Still, he cannot bring himself to support Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. On any given day, he’s not certain whether he will vote for Trump. During a recent Berkeley College Republicans meeting, the student group could not come to a consensus about whether to endorse Trump. In the end, Diaz said the BCR wasn’t unified enough to make an endorsement.

Other BCR members don’t have such qualms. Claire Chiara is running for the state Assembly seat for Richmond held by Democrat Tony Thurmond and was a delegate bound to Trump at the Republican National Convention in July. While Trump’s inflammatory comments have caused some of her peers to abandon the candidate, she says she is undeterred.

“With regard to Trump’s candidacy in specific, the goal of strengthening support is mainly contingent upon dispelling the many myths about his persona,” says Chiara, who places more value on”the truth of his lifetime and business track record” than on his “sound bites.”

Party officials’ concerns over their nominee boiled over recently when a 2005 tape emerged revealing Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, comments the campaign later brushed aside as “locker room talk.” The morning after the second presidential debate, House Speaker Paul Ryan told Republican lawmakers he would no longer defend Trump.

Chiara says she wasn’t deterred by Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women, a claim he later said was “just words.”

“What Trump said was cocky and offensive, but was no worse than what any man or woman has said in their own homes or to their own friends,” Chiara says.

Claire Chiara stands in a crowd at the Republican National Convention

Claire Chiara was one of the youngest members of the California delegation to the Republican National Convention. (ABC7 News Bay Area photo)

“He apologized, and the media response and attention to this is excessive. This issue is nothing more than a distraction, a textbook red herring meant to pull the public’s attention away from real issues and onto something exciting and sensational. Americans have bigger issues to focus on like jobs, economic growth, immigration reform, stopping global terrorism and protecting civil liberties,” she says.

Other BCR members had different reactions: Diaz says Trump’s comments were somewhat of a tipping point. He is now considering a vote for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.

The BCR isn’t only struggling with internal conflicts. In September, protesters destroyed a Trump cardboard cutout on Sproul Plaza, one of the pivotal sites in the history of the Free Speech Movement. A few weeks later, students shouted down James O’Keefe, a conservative activist and provocateur. O’Keefe, who told passersby he was a grad student, also built a faux brick wall out of cardboard blocks, and criticized some students for repeatedly knocking it over.

BCR members condemned their classmates, accusing them of betraying their ideals of free speech and an open society.

“This string of incidents is beyond unacceptable,” Chiara says. “UC Berkeley prides itself on being the birthplace of free speech, and yet many students are only interested in protecting speech that they like or support; this perspective is fundamentally antithetical to the First Amendment. In cases relating to freedom of speech, the Supreme Court has reiterated that this constitutional right is designed specifically to protect controversial speech, and unfortunately our campus community has ignored that lesson.”

One student, Abraham Youhana, thinks the condemnation by some BCR members of liberal students is a little too similar to Clinton’s assertion that many Trump supporters are “deplorables.”

“How are we supposed to get anything done if we demonize the other side?” asks Youhana. “How are we supposed to get policies passed that benefit the American public if we are busy fighting?”

A cardboard cutout of Donald Trump in the Berkeley College Republicans booth that was torn apart by vandals and taped back together by club members

A cardboard cutout of Donald Trump in the Berkeley College Republicans booth was torn apart by vandals and taped back together by club members. (UC Berkeley) photo by Yasmin Anwar)

It’s not fair to assume the actions of a few students reflect the disposition of all liberals, Youhana says.

“People complain about Republicans and generalize them as old white racists,” says Youhana, whose Christian family emigrated from Iran after the 1979 revolution that turned the nation into an Islamic republic. “But if you can’t sympathize with Democrats… that’s ridiculous, too.”

But is Youhana a Trump supporter? Not quite.

“There’s a distaste in supporting Trump (in the BCR) as someone who represents us,” Youhana says. He says he opposes the Republican nominee on economic grounds; both Trump and Clinton oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an international free trade agreement.

Like Diaz, Youhana says he can’t support Clinton, either.

“I don’t demonize Hillary Clinton,” says Youhana, “but I have issues with (her) ability to exercise policy,” adding that he is also given pause by the former secretary of state’s vote in favor of the invasion of Iraq and her handling of an attack on U.S. government facilities in Benghazi.

Youhana says he’s not even sure he will vote for down-ballot Republicans.

“Among young Republicans, the schism falls between people who believe in party loyalty and those who want to upset bureaucracy in the system,” Youhana says. “I’m in the second group.”

Youhana and Diaz both say they intend to run for office at some point, echoing Chiara’s ambition. There may be a silver lining left, Diaz says.

“If Republican leaders don’t listen to the voice of the young generation, and they don’t take issue with traditional establishment politics, they’re going to have a hard time attracting younger voters,” Diaz says. “Whether that means we have to get lower to hit rock bottom for someone else to pick up the baton… I think our party will adapt. I think it’s in our best interest to adapt.”