Campus News

Some UW conservatives remain wary of Trump — but College Republicans is more supportive than ever

One year after the 2016 election, conservative students have a mixed view of the president

“I don’t think Trump is a conservative,” Abby Streu, the president of the UW-Madison chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, said. “I think he’s a populist.”

Image By: Cameron Lane-Flehinger

Abby Streu is no moderate — an unapologetic conservative on UW-Madison’s campus and the leader of a prominent right-wing student organization, she has worked to bring numerous high-profile conservative speakers to a campus traditionally seen as a bastion of liberalism.

But when asked about President Donald Trump, her reaction is lukewarm.

“I don’t think Trump is a conservative,” Streu, the president of the UW-Madison chapter of Young Americans for Freedom, said. “I think he’s a populist.”

Streu made clear that she wasn’t speaking on behalf of her entire organization, which includes roughly 30 members who regularly attend meetings. Certainly, she said, Young Americans for Freedom includes people who are more friendly to the president. But her comments follow a trend among conservative students and groups on campus: They’re not thrilled with Trump.

However, for members of College Republicans of UW-Madison, the largest and best-known campus organization for ideologically conservative students, the trend is actually the opposite, said the group’s spokesperson Emelia Rohl.

A month before the 2016 election, the campus College Republicans endorsed Trump, but put out a statement saying the group does not accept all of the then-candidate’s statements and policies and noted that not all members agreed with the endorsement.

In contrast, one year later, “basically everyone is in agreement” on supporting the president, Rohl said.

“Around election time, there was a lot of debate about supporting our president,” Rohl said. “But over the past year, we’ve seen a big shift in College Republicans because now everyone is very open about their support for President Trump.”

Rohl blamed biased media coverage and a “hostile campus environment” during the 2016 election for members’ original hesitation about backing Trump.

“If you tuned in and watched the news before the election, there was all this controversy surrounding President Trump,” Rohl said. “The media, on top of campus climate, could have made some individuals uncomfortable when it came to who they were supporting for president.”

The tepid word choice in College Republicans’ 2016 Trump endorsement was an effort to make all Republicans feel welcome in the organization, “whether they were a huge supporter” of Trump or not, Rohl said. Now, their days of cautious optimism are over.

College Republicans is a different breed of organization than other conservative groups on campus. Its goal is to elect Republicans in the state and nationally, in contrast to other organizations, which promote conservative ideals but don’t always endorse candidates and are not necessarily tied to one party. In campus groups where there is no pressure to support Trump, leaders are not shy about expressing their doubts.

UW-Madison’s Luce Society, a group for conservative women on campus, recently hosted Bay Buchanan, a conservative commentator who pushed for a border wall in the early 1990s — 24 years before Trump did. But the group’s chair, Ellen Schutt, said the organization still “echoes” Streu’s belief that Trump is not a true conservative.

If another Republican decided to run against Trump in the 2020 primary, Streu, who is also vice chair of the Luce Society, said she would “vote for [her] values” — that is, vote against Trump.

“I was a Ted Cruz girl myself … I’d like to see someone fall in line with me [in 2020],” Streu said, while acknowledging that a primary challenge to Trump would have the potential to hurt the party.

As for student organizations on the other end of the political spectrum, there has been no disagreement — groups like the Student Coalition for Progress, the campus chapter of the National Organization for Women and UW-Madison’s various socialist organizations have focused their energy around resisting Trump’s agenda.

College Democrats of UW-Madison is no exception. Claudia Koechell, the group’s spokesperson, said that Trump has “deepened the divide” in the country and “exacerbated hatred” during his time in office.

“It’s surprising that anyone would increase their support for Donald Trump after the first year of his presidency, which has proven to be quite the disaster … but it’s not surprising at all that [College Republicans] would just continue to do what the party [does],” Koechell said.

There may be rifts in the national Republican party — U.S. Sen. Jeff Flake, R-Ariz., recently gave a scathing address denouncing Trump before announcing his resignation — but College Republicans doesn’t see them within their organization. Rohl said she is “surprised” some other right-wing groups have not united around Trump.

“His proposed policies and the work his administration is doing obviously represent conservative ideals and Republican ideals,” Rohl said.

Whether or not they agree with Rohl, even groups that criticize the president are not ready to write Trump off entirely. Despite her doubts, Streu said the current political situation isn’t as bad as it could have been.

“We critique what [Trump] has done wrong, and applaud what he’s done right,” Streu said. “We prefer it to whatever Hillary would have done.” 

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