As Freshmen, They Voted for Trump. Has College Changed Their Minds?

They went to college in surreal times, bookended by a brutal election in which a reality-TV star upended American politics, and a global pandemic that derailed their in-person graduation plans. They were all college freshmen when Donald Trump was elected president, and they all supported the businessman in 2016.Bobby Gannon, a physics major at North Central College, in Illinois, thought Trump’s trolling of liberals was funny. Kayla Bailey, from Liberty University, lamented Trump’s personal conduct but felt he was the best candidate for her beloved West Virginia, a state torn by poverty and drug abuse. Regan Stevens, from the University of Northern Iowa, traveled to Trump’s inauguration, the prize for working full time knocking on doors for the long-shot candidate. And Rebecca, who graduated from Ohio State University and asked, for professional reasons, that her last name not be used, voted for Trump partly because she thought Hillary Clinton was “extremely corrupt.”

I like the term ‘silent majority’ to describe Trump supporters.

Many of these students came from Republican households, in conservative areas, where supporting the GOP was what most people they knew had done for as long as they could remember. So after four years or so of college, have their views changed?College cleaves American society. Republicans are increasingly distrustful of higher education, viewing it as a bastion of liberal indoctrination. The American public in general has soured on higher education in recent years, but the distrust has become most intense among Republicans, according to the Pew Research Center: In 2019, only 33 percent of Republicans said college has a positive effect on the country, a 20-percentage-point plummet from 2012.Voting data from 2016, meanwhile, showed that a college degree was a major fault line between Trump supporters and those who backed Clinton. A post-election analysis of exit polls and federal data by the Brookings Institution found that Trump won every state below the national average for percentage of residents with bachelor’s degrees except Maine, Nevada, and New Mexico. Hillary Clinton won every above-average state except Kansas and Utah. Trump, it seems, was onto this trend from the nascent days of his political career. As he put it during the 2016 Republican primary, “I love the poorly educated.”But what about the well educated? The ones who supported him even before they went to college, and then earned a bachelor’s degree? What role did the college experience itself have on their support for Donald Trump?The Chronicle attempted to contact more than 15 people who were college freshmen when President Trump was elected, and who indicated in newspaper stories at the time that they supported him. Four agreed to speak about how college has shaped their political thinking, and whether they were planning to vote for Trump again in 2020. They had different reasons for supporting Trump as freshmen. Some were more politically active than others. But Trump had a gravitational pull for each.Bobby Gannon thought Trump projected strength. He liked that the candidate promised to restore international respect for America. Trump was an outlaw, and it was exciting to support a candidate who didn’t care what people thought. The social-media outbursts also weren’t a problem. “I think the tweets are funny,” Gannon told the Naperville Sun in 2017, in a story about Trump’s inauguration.Similarly, Regan Stevens was attracted more to Trump’s style than to his position on any particular issue. “He gets a lot of hate for it at times, but I liked his persona of not being a politician, and saying what he wanted,” she says. “That resonated with me as a young person.” Trump was Stevens’s first choice in the Republican primaries. As a freshman, she worked 40 hours a week for his campaign.

Kristian Thacker for The ChronicleKayla Bailey attended Liberty University. “What I believe was already marked in stone when I got there,” she says.

Kayla Bailey was more issue oriented, and her singular issue was West Virginia. The former Liberty University student, who graduated in three years and then entered a master’s program in business at West Virginia University, voted for Trump in 2016 because her primary concern was the health of her home state, which she said national politicians ignored. “We’ve seen a really big decline in our economy,” she told NPR before Trump’s inauguration, “and a lot of people are addicted to drugs and don’t have any hope anymore.”At Ohio State, Rebecca was predisposed to vote for Trump because of her aversion to Clinton, but experiences she had as a freshman before the election sealed her support. Administrators and fellow students tried to police speech, Rebecca says. Right before the election, her dorm had a discussion about Halloween costumes. A student said you couldn’t dress like Princess Jasmine from Aladdin because that would be cultural appropriation.“I pushed back against that,” Rebecca remembers. “I was like, ‘Well, I think it would be terrible if someone dressed up like an Arab, but being a certain character wouldn’t.’” She was frustrated that there didn’t appear to be room for nuance in liberal campus orthodoxy. “There was nothing in the discussion about the intent behind why someone said something or wore something.”As evidence of the open exchange of ideas on college campuses, it was not an auspicious beginning.Colleges are much maligned as liberal bubbles. A thriving campus-outrage industry has sprung up on the right, dedicated to exposing leftism run amok. Trigger warnings. Safe spaces. Snowflakes. But college is also a place where ideologies are challenged, and some students encounter different people and ideas for the first time in their lives. For some, college is a foray outside of the indoctrination machine.That was the case for Gannon. His friends were Republicans. He attended a conservative Roman Catholic high school. He consumed a steady diet of right-wing media, and visited chat rooms and websites where he was bombarded with extremist and unmoderated content.College exposed him to different people and ideas. His appreciation for science started to grow.The summer after his freshman year, something happened that shook Gannon’s confidence in Trump: The president announced his intention to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement, rejecting the consensus of 147 nations that had ratified it by that time. This was no longer trolling. This was a president who seemed to be opposing the scientists, the kinds of people Gannon put his trust in for his academic training.

Carolina Sánchez for The ChronicleBobby Gannon went to North Central College, in Illinois. “When you go to college, you get exposed to a lot of people who are smarter than you. It was a bit humbling.”

His support was further tested later that summer, when Trump announced in a series of tweets his intention to ban transgender Americans from serving in the military. Gannon knows people who are gay, and he had thought that Trump was friendly toward LGBT rights. After all, the Log Cabin Republicans, a GOP gay-advocacy group, vouched for him during the campaign. And the event that had sealed Gannon’s decision to vote for Trump in 2016 was the shooting at Pulse, a gay nightclub, by a man who pledged allegiance to ISIS. Gannon had believed Trump’s strong immigration policies and rhetoric were needed to prevent future massacres.Gannon’s thinking was challenged again during a trip to Europe his senior year. His college-football program traveled to Prague to play another team there. During a bus ride in Berlin, a part-time German tour guide, who was also a history professor, told Gannon that he had grown up admiring America, but that Trump was driving a wedge in the relationship between the two countries. Trump had promised that the world would respect the U.S. more with him as president. College gave Gannon a chance to see firsthand how some outsiders actually viewed the U.S. under Trump.But while college challenged Gannon’s support for Trump, it caused Rebecca to embrace him more tightly.The Halloween-costume debate at Ohio State was just the start. Weeks after the 2016 election, as she was sitting in a Greyhound station waiting for an Uber back to campus after Thanksgiving break, she received an urgent call from a cousin. Do not go to campus. Active shooter.A Somali immigrant, who authorities would later say was inspired by the Islamic State, slammed his car into a group of people on the Columbus campus and went on a stabbing spree, injuring 11 people. A passing officer shot and killed the transfer student. Back in Rebecca’s dorm later that night, everyone was talking about the incident. A liberal friend, she says, told her the next morning that the suspect did not deserve to die and would not have been fatally shot if he had been white. The friendship ended that day.“I was like, ‘That’s ridiculous,’” she says. “I’m even someone who thinks there’s racial bias in shootings, but to believe something so adamantly that every single situation perpetuates your narrative? I could never support this party if that’s how people act in it.”The frustration over what she believed to be the excesses of the left on campus continued into the classroom. She took a class about the history of the 1960s, and says she was asked to write about Bill Ayers, a leader of the Weather Underground and a liberal bogeyman in right-wing circles, after reading an autobiography on the radical activist. “The prompt for the paper was something like, Talk about how he positively exhibited the radical fight for justice in the 1960s,” Rebecca says. “I basically wrote this man is a terrorist. He used political violence. I’m not going to write about how he’s some kind of hero for doing that.”She got a D on the paper, bumping her grade to an A-minus — the only academic blemish in her overall 3.97 grade-point average.“It was so worth it,” she says.Outside of the classroom, supporting Trump exacted a social penalty. Her roommate and good friend was a liberal. Other students, Rebecca says, would ostracize her friend when they learned she was friends with a Trump supporter. Rebecca was never especially vocal about her support for the president, but now, in law school, she doesn’t talk about it at all. Going public, she thinks, could cost her too much.She cast her vote early for Donald Trump.Regan Stevens, meanwhile, was vocal off campus and in class at the University of Northern Iowa. She attended Trump’s inauguration decked out in a Make America Great Again hat and holding a “Women for Trump” sign. She wasn’t afraid to discuss her politics. Often, she says, it was “me versus the whole classroom.”Even if it wasn’t the professor’s intention, she says, the culture in class was not hospitable to conservatives. While she would be the only one expressing her point of view during discussions, Stevens says, students would frequently tell her after class that they agreed with her. “I like the term ‘silent majority’ to describe Trump supporters,” she says.Her faith in Trump was strong as a high-school student, it never wavered during college, and she’ll vote for him next week.

Matthew Putney, The Waterloo CourierRegan Stevens, shown here after the election in 2016, attended the University of Northern Iowa. Often, she says, it was “me versus the whole classroom.”

Gannon, the physics major, voted early for Joe Biden.He’s not sure when he knew he could no longer support President Trump. It was a gradual process. He thinks he might still be a Trump supporter had he not attended college.“I was in sort of a conservative bubble,” he says. “College opened me up to different viewpoints. Not just different viewpoints, but the logic behind different viewpoints. Part of it was also that I was a good student in high school — I got mostly As and Bs — so I sort of had maybe a bit of a superiority complex when it came to my opinions. ‘I’m smarter than this person; therefore my political opinion’s right.’ When you go to college, you get exposed to a lot of people who are smarter than you. It was a bit humbling.”Gannon says he did not experience liberal bias on campus at North Central College. He recalls writing a paper about “pro-life stuff” — “in a gender-studies class in a liberal-arts college, the belly of the beast” — and received an A. Aside from some dirty looks when he wore his MAGA hat on campus the day after the 2016 election, he found his fellow students to be tolerant of his political beliefs.Bailey never felt like an outsider at Liberty. She describes it as two universities: one where earnest people came to learn more about their faith and how to use it to improve the world, and the other embodied by Jerry Fallwell Jr., the recently deposed president, who in her view used it as a steppingstone for politics and media attention. She gravitated toward the former. Liberty affirmed her belief in her faith and politics and her desire to seek out truth, Bailey says. “What I believe was already marked in stone when I got there,” she says. “Growing up in West Virginia, and seeing people struggle, and knowing that I believed in God and that my faith was strong — all of that I knew before I got there.”Bailey says she is clear-eyed about Trump. What does she think about the $130,000 payment he made to the porn star Stormy Daniels? “Obviously that doesn’t look great,” she says, but “my politics and my faith are very separate.” What about Trump’s holding of political rallies as a deadly pandemic rages? “It doesn’t make sense. It goes against what most scientists and doctors are saying. That’s upsetting to me.” Does she think Trump cares about people? She pauses several seconds before answering. “I don’t know,” she says.She didn’t know who she was going to vote for this time around. Then she watched the first presidential debate. Her main concern remains the health of West Virginia, and she was hoping to hear something, anything, from Joe Biden making an economic case against Trump. She didn’t get it. She’s voting for Trump again.“I’m not Trump’s cheerleader. I’m not campaigning for him. I have an understanding of who he is, and what he is,” Bailey says. “That’s why I’m stripping the emotion from it and saying, ‘How’s the economy? How’s business? How have people’s lives been improved?’ West Virginia has seen progress in the past several years, and that’s something I want to continue.”Ultimately, for Bailey, college didn’t make any difference in her politics at all.

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