Lucian Wintrich, White House correspondent for Gateway Pundit, a political blog allied with the alt-right movement, had a surprisingly undramatic visit to New York University earlier this month. Sporting mussed-up hair and Harry Potter frames, Wintrich, 28, addressed a packed house punctuated by red “Make America Great Again” caps, excoriating what he described as the left’s war on free speech while swigging booze from a flask.
Like other speakers invited by NYU College Republicans, the conservative firebrand and mastermind behind a pro-Trump art show (“Daddy Will Save Us”) that opened on West 18th Street in October, spoke at the club’s headquarters, a mid-sized conference room at the Kimmel Center for University Life furnished to the brim by anti-Trump cartoons. Unlike guests before him, Wintrich completed his seminar without facing much hostility or defiance — until the end, when a lone dissenter flipped him off as he was preparing to leave.
“You support a racist as president, do you not?” the protester confronted Elena Hatib, the club’s president, after several attendees dragged him away from Wintrich. To substantiate his accusation, he cited a 1973 lawsuit against Trump’s real estate business for denying housing to black would-be tenants.
“We are not the NYU Trump Club,” Hatib responded with discernible frustration following Wintrich’s March 23 talk. “That’s what you guys don’t understand: We never endorsed any candidate.”
That misperception attests to a growing ideological divide on college campuses, which, in the last few months, have morphed into microcosms of a fractured Washington. In February, consecutive protests at University of California, Berkeley, and NYU forced the cancellation and truncation, respectively, of scheduled talks from Milo Yiannopoulos and Gavin McInnes, two prominent Trump supporters infamous for their provocative commentary on race and LGBTQ rights.
The two incidents, yielding a dozen arrests and thousands of dollars in property damages, incited a heated school-wide debate on whether incendiary, alt-right ideology deserves spotlight on a college campus. Amidst increasingly violent resistance from anti-Trump factions, Republican students at New York City universities and colleges feel stifled and alienated for exercising a supposedly inviolable right.
In response to the chaos that broke up the McInnes seminar, NYU College Republicans coordinated with school administrators to vet attendees and increase security, said Shiwhan Kim, the club’s press secretary. Extra measures included bringing Wintrich to the conference room through an alternate route, and announcing undisclosed meet-up locations for members to escort attendees into the venue all at once.
Although each event now demands heightened vigilance, Kim said, the club will continue to host controversial speakers. “It is the mark of a muzzled organization when or if it refuses to invite popular speakers who have intriguing and innovative ideas simply due to fear of violence from the left,” she said.
At City College of New York in Harlem, junior José Pascual has been struggling since September to build a network of conservatives large enough to even become an official school club.
Initially called the CUNY Republicans CCNY Chapter, Pascual said the group faced some opposition from college administrators because it was not an official school club and eventually had to dock CUNY or CCNY from its name. Until they can enlist enough members and a faculty advisor, Pascual’s group is working as a chapter of Turning Point USA, a conservative nonprofit.
“Right now we’re just working on recruiting people and we hope to get to the point where we can organize discussions about issues and ideas of the day,” Pascual said.
Both Pascual, the club’s president, and Nicolas Panov, its treasurer, find it easy to feel unwanted on campus. “People judge really harshly,” Pascual said. “In a way it’s a part of my identity to be a contrarian, it’s part of who I am to go against the grain. ... I do understand that I’m kind of assuming a risk by being who I am.”
Republicans at Baruch College, on the other hand, had more success starting their club. When sophomore Chaya Halberstam attended a College Democrats meeting in her freshman year to find a way into politics, a friend suggested that she start a campus club for conservative students. With fellow student Vincent Gangemi, Halberstam formed the Baruch College Republicans, which has now been an official club for a year.
Gangemi, the club’s president, said that administrators at the school’s Office of Student Life welcomed the club because they felt it was necessary to have both sides of the political spectrum represented on campus. “A lot of our events are not specific to the Republican Party, but more about getting people to participate,” Gangemi said. “At the end of the day, that’s our big goal.”
The club has held events such as the “What The Donald?” discussion, during which members debated Trump’s suitability for the Republican Party. In fact, members are split on their support for the president, Gangemi said. “I was never 100 percent a Donald Trump supporter. The way he speaks about women, about immigrants, about people who are handicapped, I think it’s such an embarrassment to our country,” said Halberstam, the club’s vice president. “I’m very critical and I think we all need to be.”
A better way of handling controversial speakers like McInnes or Wintrich, Gangemi suggested, would be to invite those who disagree with club members to events to debate, as a way to diminish the potential for protest. “Even if we invited a speaker who was in some objective sense wrong, the solution to that is having them here, coming to the event, openly debating them and showing them why you think they’re wrong,” he said.
In the interest of fostering dialogue, many conservative student leaders in the city have learned to accept inevitable backlash the opposition.
Ryan Quattromani, president of Manhattan College Republicans, said he recalls just one incident of leftist intolerance that genuinely angered him. When reviewing his application for a resident assistant position, college administrators questioned his ability to respect diversity and inclusiveness, he said. “What if one of your residents is Mexican?” they asked. “What if one of your residents comes out as being a lesbian?”
If publicly identifying as a Republican in the age of Trump generally invites either hostility or ostracization, African-American conservatives receive a combination of both, spiced up by the occasional racial epithet, said Paul-Anthony Cuesta, outreach director at the New York City chapter of the Black Conservative Federation. “It’s tough for any student to come out as Republican, let alone black kids,” he said. “I’ve been called Uncle Tom for daring to identify with Trump’s party.”
At the BCF, Cuesta cooperates with a group of youth leaders to build a citywide caucus of black Republicans by creating a registry of black conservatives at largely liberal colleges and connecting them to conservative leaders. Because the liberal media vilifies all Republicans as supporters of Trump’s most incendiary rhetoric, Cuesta said, college Republicans–especially minorities–feel compelled to hide their beliefs to avoid persecution by peers. That is why, he added, “We are lucky to have prominent African Americans like Tim Scott and Michael Steele serve as symbols for Black conservatism.”
Some students also worry about sharing political opinions with professors for fear that it could harm their grades. “Political science professors ... are extremely liberal and you have to bite your tongue because you don’t want to fail the class,” Halberstam said. Having a Republican club on campus, he said, is vital for students to feel like they can talk freely. Opening their club to the full ideological spectrum, Halberstam hopes, could help reduce the polarity inherent in this current of American politics.
“If we learn to work together now at a young age, we’ll be better off in the future,” she said.