Image sources: Harvard Republican Club
It’s no secret that the Republican Party could potentially be on the verge of collapse. For the first time since the demise of the Whig party in 1860, we are witnessing one of America’s great parties suffer a tumultuous election that is shaking the foundations of the meaning of conservatism. With the rise of Trump, even Harvard’s Republicans have been struggling over whom to vote for. After the Harvard Republican Club received national media attention for choosing not to endorse Trump, the club’s members have been facing deep inner-club voting divides. Harvard Republicans are selecting candidates influenced by their personal views and values, which are no longer unified with those of the club as they once were. Without an official endorsement of any presidential candidate from the club, the Republican Club’s disunity reflects many of the challenges that the Republican Party itself is facing on a national stage. Although Trump’s rise is making it difficult for Harvard Republicans to vote, it has actually built stronger community within the club.
Trump is commonly blamed for being so unbearable that he himself created the divide within the Republican Party. Even though the Harvard Republican Club decided not to endorse Trump, many Harvard Republicans hold members of the Republican Party responsible for this divide. Declan Garvey, president of the Republican Club, argued to the HPR that the rise of Trump and the divide in the party has been caused by Republican politicians making promises to their constituents that they could not fulfill without a Republican in office. Under Obama, Democrats have championed health care reform, ending the war in Iraq, and passing the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. All of these actions were promises that Democrats made to their constituents. Republicans on the other hand, have spent the last four years blocking Democratic policies while not influencing or implementing new, effective policies. The biggest unfulfilled promise Garvey referenced was the repealing of Obamacare.
Garvey also suggested that twenty years of conservative, Republican affiliated media like Fox News and Rush Limbaugh played a role by “spread[ing] what I believe to be false information by selling fear, selling hatred, and selling anxiety.”
Freshman Kiera O’Brien, on the other hand, accredited the divide to shortcomings in the Republican Party’s platform. O’Brien believes the party is not accepting enough of a larger population in the United States, and the divide is highlighting deep-seated political differences that have existed in the party for a while. These political differences, she said, were especially prevalent among millennial voters in regards to the party’s stance on social issues. “Our platform has been very socially conservative, rigid, and it hasn’t evolved,” said O’Brien.
If Not Trump, Then Who?
The range of opinions about the candidates is scattered across the presidential ticket among the Harvard Republican Club members. When the Harvard Republican Club decided not to endorse Trump, the club used a survey to test the opinions of the members. The survey revealed that there was a clear majority against Trump. Current opinions of the remaining candidates, however, vary. Clinton, Garvey believes, is much more suited to bring about a better future for America. “I’ve heard this line used: we have a very depressing choice but not a difficult one. If I was in a swing state, I would vote for Hillary, which is more a testament to how dangerous I think Donald Trump is than any particular affinity I have for Hillary Clinton,” said Garvey. However, Garvey, who is currently registered in Illinois, said he felt comfortable voting for Evan McMullin because Clinton is already set to win in Illinois. He also mentioned that executive members would be voting for Clinton. None of them were willing to go on record.
Garvey suggested that many Harvard Republicans would prefer Clinton with a Republican controlled House and Senate to Trump in the Oval office. This mindset stems from the belief that Donald Trump is not a true conservative. “The Republican party is a tool. It helps get people in office who respect the Constitution and who believe that the goodness of society comes from the individual and not government programs. When Donald Trump is the head of the Republican ticket, it is not working as a tool,” John Acton told the HPR.
Some Harvard Republicans are afraid of what Trump, even as a Republican president, could accomplish in the Oval Office, especially since Obama has significantly expanded the powers of the executive branch. “There are a lot of things that Trump would be able to do unbridled, especially in the foreign policy arena,” said Garvey. The main concern is that with these powers, a Republican-controlled House and Senate might not be able to act as a sufficient enough check to Trump’s power. The Harvard Republicans seem to be more concerned with the damage that Trump could wreak by seizing power than the Democratic policies that Clinton could possibly strengthen. Garvey claimed that his biggest fear of Trump was his lack of intellectual curiosity. “Trump brags about not reading and brags about not having an open mind … I think that it is extremely dangerous to have a president who only wants to have his preconceive notions confirmed.”
However, unlike Garvey, there are still many Harvard Republicans for whom a vote for Clinton would be too painful. Whether it is her email scandal, her mishap in Benghazi, her support of the Iran deal, her general inability to be trusted, or her abortion policies, most of the Harvard Republicans who are refusing to vote for Trump do not plan to vote for Clinton. Instead, the third party ballot choice serves as a scapegoat for these Harvard Republicans. “I’m voting for Johnson as a default, but also out of protest as well,” said O’Brien. Her protest is against what she believes to be a hijacking of the Republican Party, and she will not vote for Clinton as a default option. However, O’Brien expressed that Clinton would be a “passable” president. “I don’t think that she would promote any change.” she told the HPR. She went as far to say that she would prefer not to vote if she did not strongly believe that it is her civic duty to do so.
Unlike the other interviewed members, Acton expressed a strong resolve in voting for a third party as long as one believes the candidate has the best policies and strongest integrity. Acton said he would be casting his vote for Evan McMullin, whom he thinks has solid conservative policies and an untarnished character.
While a small minority, there are still Trump supporters within the Republican Club. Junior Alex Cullen, who recently published an op-ed in The Crimson in support of Trump, defended the Republican nominee wholeheartedly; he was the only member willing to go on record. Cullen noted that he was the only member he knew of on the board who would be voting for Trump. Both Acton and Garvey, however, said there are at least a handful of members within the club who are supporting Trump.
Cullen said that Trump was not his first choice when the race for the nominee began. However, he thinks that Trump believes in the “greatness this country and the boundless potential of the American people.” Cullen cited Trump’s appreciation of servicemen and respect for the military, along with his emphasis on the power of the people as reasons why he supports Trump.
Cullen also believes that Trump’s stance on secure borders and tighter screening of refugees resonates with anyone, including immigrants, who have an equal right to be thoroughly protected. “I see a difference [between] the way [Clinton] addressed the email scandal in contrast to [Trump’s] response to the recent tapes … I think that Trump has exhibited a greater willingness to admit mistakes.” Cullen did admit that the video leaks have hurt Trump’s chances, but his conviction in continuing to support Trump is upheld by his belief that a vote for a third party is just another vote for Hillary Clinton.
Even with conflicting views in the club, Cullen has not felt alienated by the club. “I think there is unspoken tension because [other members] have a different opinion from me [but] I don’t have any discomfort in being in the club as a Trump supporter,” said Cullen. Although he wanted the Club to support Trump, he did note that he understood were the Republican Club members were coming from when they decided not to endorse Trump. His opinions, however, cannot be generalized to all of the Trump supporters in the Republican Club.
Relations Within the Club
Although the Republican divide is disabling the Republican Party, it is actually building an even stronger, intertwined, and accepting community within the Harvard Republican Club. The Club prides itself in being a big-tent organization that accepts all conservatives on the political spectrum and it strives to be a place of intellectual and philosophical diversity and debate. Acton commented on how the club has been a place where anyone can find “robust debate” especially in a time where less popular opinions seem to be silenced. Because there are so many diverse views within the club on the 2016 election, Acton thinks “it is healthy because we are getting to know each other as individuals who have something in common—we are Republicans in a very anti-Republican campus—but we also have a lot of disagreements and are willing to talk about them.” Acton went on to explain that being a Republican on Harvard’s campus has been a positive experience. At Harvard, he has always felt his convictions challenged by professors and peers, which has led to strengthening and defending his own beliefs.
After the Republican Club denounced Trump, it was able to express the majority opinion without alienating its members. Despite criticism the Club received over email and social media platforms by random people, it has been unwavering in its decision. Some GOP leaders also supported the Club. By not endorsing Trump, the club actually saw its membership at the campus activities fair in September soar. “About thirty [students] said they were going to join the club because of the stance we took on Trump,” said Garvey. He also noted that a couple of students said they would not join the Club because of their stance on Trump. Since the fair, Garvey affirmed, those students have become active members in the Harvard Republican Club.
There is a crucial, positive dynamic in the Harvard Republican Club that has been born out of the divide. Instead of rectifying political differences and rallying behind a single candidate, the Harvard Republicans still identify themselves with candidates from the primaries. “I think [this] has been productive because we have been able to facilitate an ongoing dialogue,” said O’Brien. This dynamic, the Harvard Republicans hope, will help them regroup and reestablish the basis of Republican ideals before the 2020 election.
Although the Harvard Republican Club, along with other anti-Trump organizations, may have weakened the Republican Party in the short-term by refusing to endorse Trump, the club believes the decision will actually strengthen the party in the long run. The club’s main focus is to pick up the broken pieces of the party and rebuild a stronger framework that will hopefully find strong, wide-reaching success in the American political scene. They believe the first step in this process began with their decision to not endorse Trump. This has paved the way to making the Republican Club more inclusive to even partially leaning conservatives, rather than allowing the group follow the country’s spiral into disenfranchising Trumpism.
Outlooks for the Future
Although no one can be certain where the Republican Party will be headed in the next decade, most Harvard Republicans have come to a general consensus that it will not be able to survive in the way that it exists now. “I don’t care about the Republican Party for the Republican Party’s sake. I care bout the Republican Party for America’s sake. If the Republican Party isn’t helping America then something else should take its place,” said Acton.
Harvard Republicans are calling for major changes within the Republican Party, the first being new leadership. “If Trump becomes president we own him, to the extent that we don’t already and anything that happens on his watch is forever tied to conservatism. Younger voters would be going even more quickly to the Democrats than they were in the Obama years,” said Garvey. Cullen on the other hand does not see Trump’s campaign as disastrous in the long run. However, he does believe that Trump’s success is highlighting the discontent of Republicans with their current leadership.
Other Harvard Republicans are looking for a modified, modern platform that expands the views of the Republican Party. O’Brien said she sees the more successful party moving towards a younger audience that is more diverse and inclusive. “The expansion of our club is a larger movement. There are people here on campus who are economically conservative and we need to be recognizing these people without requiring them to be socially conservative as well.”
All the Harvard Republicans have agreed that no matter what the results are in the November election, there will be a fight within the party. Just as Trump’s rise was unpredictable and unforeseeable, so too is the upcoming fate of the Republican Party. The Republican Club here at Harvard, however, is demonstrating that it is possible to strengthen the party in the midst of the Age of Trump. Harvard Republicans have demonstrated that the rise of Trump has put intense strain on the GOP’s relationship with millennium voters and has altered how young conservative are approaching the Republican Party. The divide is forcing young conservatives to question why they associate themselves with the Republican Party, and it is forcing them to decide what political issues are most important to them. Although this struggle is rocking the foundations of the Harvard Republican Club and the Republican Party, Harvard Republicans’ faith in rebuilding the party for the 2020 elections may just indicate that there is still hope for the Republican Party.