Ben Rasmussen ’18 was rushing to make the subway in Manhattan when he received a startling message in the Yale College Republicans (YCR) board group chat. An impostor Twitter account, tweeting from the handle @YaleRepublicans, had announced the group would not endorse Donald Trump for president.
Rasmussen was shocked. YCR had already discussed the possibility of endorsing Trump earlier in the year and had decided against taking a position. But after the fake tweet on August 8, chapter co-presidents Emily Reinwald ’17 and Michaela Cloutier ’18 decided that they needed to take action. Cloutier and Reinwald texted the other five YCR board members to plan the next steps, but by then Rasmussen was deep underground. The train took about an hour, during which Rasmussen was out of the loop. When he exited the metro, Rasmussen was hit with more alarming news.
In the time he had gone without a signal, Reinwald and Cloutier had released a public statement on the YCR webpage endorsing Trump.
“While not every member of our organization supported Trump in the primary,” the statement read, “as an organization and branch of the GOP we support Republicans up and down the ballot. And yes, that includes supporting Donald Trump for president.”
That day, Rasmussen resigned from the YCR board.
The saga of the Yale College Republicans began four days earlier. On August 4, the Harvard Republican Club (HRC) posted a lengthy statement on Facebook denouncing Donald Trump, calling him a “threat to the survival of the Republic,” and urging other college Republicans to join in “condemning and withholding their endorsement from this dangerous man.” The post received over 181,000 likes and was well-received by many students at Yale. Pressure mounted on the YCR board. Yale students wondered: what would our Republicans do?
Four days later, in the early hours of August 8, the Yale College Republicans appeared to have joined the #NeverTrump bandwagon with the fake tweet: “the Yale College Republicans will not be supporting Donald Trump in the fall.” A screenshot of the tweet quickly went up on the Facebook group Overheard at Yale, drawing over 500 likes.
But at around 8:30 that morning, Reinwald commented beneath the original post that YCR had been impersonated and was in no way connected to the handle @YaleRepublicans. Less than an hour later, Cloutier commented with a link to YCR’s official statement on the matter.
The Overheard post blew up. Some Yalies expressed outrage, others disappointment, and a few voiced sympathy, angered that YCR had been the target of a hack. Many prominent news outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, picked up the story, comparing Yale’s Republicans to Harvard’s.
Within three days, two new student organizations emerged from the embers: the Yale New Republicans and Yale Undergraduate Conservatives Against Trump.
As the Yale conservative community split, an eerie parallel between the campus conflict and the growing gaps within the national Republic Party arose. Long before the earthquake of Trump’s nomination, fault lines had already appeared among Yale’s conservatives.
The same day that the co-presidents released their statement, four YCR board members—Rasmussen, Michael Fitzgerald ’19, Grant Gabriel ’17, and Jay Mondal ’19—resigned. The four then formed a new organization called the Yale New Republicans (YNR).
On August 11, YNR released a statement on its new Facebook page, describing itself as a group that aims to “unify a broad base of politically minded, right-leaning individuals” and that will promote “forward-thinking Republican values.” Because YNR is not officially associated with the National College Republican organization, they do not face the same constraints that motivated the presidents of YCR to endorse Trump.
In separate interviews with The Politic, Rasmussen, a former vice president of YCR, and Michael Fitzgerald, his YNR co-president, agreed that Reinwald and Cloutier had not given the board an opportunity to discuss the Trump endorsement before they announced it.
The YCR board had already debated whether they should endorse Trump in previous months. Because the seven board members disagreed about Trump, they had decided to refrain from taking a position. Both co-Presidents declined to be interviewed for this article. However, in an email, Cloutier wrote that there was “no decision to be made by the board” regarding Trump because the YCR constitution holds that the purpose or the organization is to “aid in the election of Republican candidates at all levels of government.” By ratifying the constitution earlier this year, Cloutier argued, all seven board members agreed to support the Republican nominee for president.
Rasmussen and Fitzgerald had both participated in YCR since they arrived at Yale, but they expressed disappointment in the club’s minimal presence and general lack of vigor. Rasmussen described the group as “a bit of a joke on campus.” Rasmussen and Fitzgerald admitted that the only members of YCR who actually participated in group events were the seven board members themselves. At a debate-watching party referenced in the Reinwald and Cloutier’s statement, only the board members attended.
Rasmussen admitted that many young Americans associate the Republican Party with wealth, stuffiness, and intolerance towards LGBTQ and minority communities. He and Fitzgerald hope to change this perception by pivoting away from a socially conservative model—though social conservatives are welcome—and adapting the group to a younger population.
YNR hopes to revitalize the GOP’s presence on campus and build a committed base of Republican activism. Before school began, YNR already had a mailing list of thirty. The group collected about forty new names at the Extracurricular Bazaar, and Rasmussen estimates that the club will have around a hundred members by the end of the school year.
The Yale New Republicans plan to hold weekly meetings, organize voter registration events, and campaign for down-ballot Republican candidates. Rasmussen and Fitzgerald also hope to engage groups with potentially different viewpoints from their own—organizing town hall conferences with the Yale College Democrats and the Yale Black Men’s Union, for example.
Does YNR plan to endorse a candidate for president this year? It’s up in the air. The group’s members will discuss their options, and while it is unlikely that they will endorse Clinton, some members may vote for her. Fitzgerald will likely write-in a name, and Rasmussen has not yet committed to a candidate. As is the case with many conservative groups this election, YNR is struggling to pick between multiple unsatisfactory options.
At the same time that YNR was emerging, another group of campus conservatives against Trump appeared. Even before the end of the previous school year, Alexander Michaud ‘17 had spoken with Quinn Shepherd ‘19 about organizing against Trump. The idea lay dormant until the YCR statement, at which point Michaud decided that someone had to speak out forcefully against Trump. Within the week he, Shepherd, and Tessa Murthy ‘19 founded Yale Undergraduate Conservatives Against Trump (YUCAT), a group whose mission is to stop Trump from winning the presidency.
Shepherd, who hails from Illinois, is deeply involved in conservative circles on campus. A self-described “loose libertarian,” she is editor-in-chief of the right-leaning publication The Yale Free Press and also a member of the Yale Political Union’s Party of the Right. Shepherd does not belong to the YCR and was unsurprised that the group endorsed Trump. She is nevertheless disappointed in its choice to endorse someone she believes does not serve the party well and misrepresents conservative values.
Shepherd attributes the Trump endorsement to the fact that most YCR members are Republicans first and conservatives second. By contrast, Shepherd is a conservative first and then chooses the party that best represents her beliefs. It is therefore unsurprising that the membership of YUCAT, a group of around 15 anti-Trump students, overlaps with the YPU, a philosophically oriented organization with four conservative parties.
Whereas the YNR has long-term aspirations, YUCAT’s sole objective is to prevent Trump from reaching the White House. Although YUCAT will present different presidential options, like Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party or Darrell Castle, the Constitution Party’s nominee, the group has not yet decided whether it will endorse a candidate. Shepherd is confident that some members of YUCAT will vote for Clinton. She herself will vote for Gary Johnson because she will vote in a solidly blue state, but she says that she would vote for Clinton if she lived elsewhere. YUCAT might canvass or operate phone banks for someone like Johnson, and it may attempt to form an alliance with Latino groups on campus because both they and YUCAT have a “mutual investment in [Trump] not winning.”
But it is unlikely that YUCAT will campaign for down-ballot candidates. Shepherd believes that young conservatives must let the current Republican Party die out and rebuild from the ground up.
When asked about YUCAT’s plans for after the election, Shepherd said that, although they do not have any concrete plans at present, some group will need to focus on reintegrating Trump supporters and addressing their “very real anger.” She hopes this process will be “as smooth and quick as possible.”
Karl Notturno ’17, a senior philosophy and history major in Silliman College, is perhaps the most notorious Trump supporter on Yale’s campus. Even if students have never met him in person, they are likely to recognize his name from his numerous pro-Trump posts on Overheard at Yale.
Notturno was eager to talk about Yale’s pro-Trump contingent. This year, he said, three freshmen who live on his floor told him that they support Trump. Notturno conceded that the freshmen probably would not want this fact broadcasted, which is typical of Trump supporters on campus. He told The Politic that when a student mentions liking Trump, the volume of his or her voice decreases by “about ten decibels.”
Notturno sympathizes with these students, whom he estimates might make up about a third of the Yale student body. When Trump first emerged as a candidate, Notturno initially thought he was “insane.” It was only after Notturno explored Trump’s speeches and policies that he came to believe that Trump had tapped into something very important.
Perhaps because it took him a while to embrace Trump, Notturno loves talking with people about his choice. Notturno’s biggest complaint is that Yale students are unwilling to respectfully debate with one another, which he believes precipitated the breakup of the YCR board. Although it was within the co-presidents’ constitutional right to endorse Trump without consent from the rest of the board, Notturno thinks Cloutier and Reinwald could have done a better job communicating with their members.
Notturno mentioned he is “a little bit upset at the fracturing” of the Yale Republican community, and that people are too quick to cut ties when a more inclusive group would be beneficial to all, especially a group as small as the Yale Republicans. Still, he realizes that the YNR founders have some “well-grounded policy differences” with Trump, and he hopes the group can coexist peacefully with YCR.
Notturno is most concerned with the elitism he perceives in campus political discourse. He believes that Yalies, like members of the Republican establishment, are out of touch with the rest of the country. Instead of relying on the New York Times and Wall Street Journal for their news, Notturno says, Yale conservatives should broaden their media consumption so that they cease to “buy their own spin.” If students looked outside of the elite bubble, maybe they, like Notturno, would believe that Trump will win “in a landslide.”
The conservative Yale students interviewed for this article stood united in their conviction that the Republican establishment is in shambles. Not only has the Party foundered on social issues like gay marriage, but it has also responded inadequately to members of its base that are angry and disenchanted with American democracy. If conservative leaders at Yale all want a revitalized, younger Republican Party, why can’t they work together to achieve their often overlapping goals?
Joshua Altman ’17, the president of the conservative William F. Buckley Jr. Program, broke down Yale conservatives into five broad constituencies. The first is what he calls the “Moderate Conservatives,” run-of-the-mill American conservatives who firmly believe in capitalism, the Anglo-American legal tradition, and admire figures like Ronald Reagan. Similar to these conservatives are “GOP Republicans,” a group that holds similar values but is committed to toeing the Party line. Two small but influential groups are the “Christian Conservatives” and the pro-Trump “Alt-Right.” The last group Altman named was what he called the “disaffected liberals”—liberal students alienated by aspects of Yale’s campus culture.
When asked about the split between YCR and YNR, as well as the emergence of YUCAT, Altman gave an ambivalent response. Although he sympathizes with aspects of both YNR and YUCAT, Altman thinks that the YCR statement and ensuing controversy is another example of how the Right “just can’t get its act together.” This lack of coordination, he noted, is especially remarkable for a community that, despite its philosophical diversity, still constitutes a small minority of Yale students.
Part of the problem likely has to do with a split between “philosophical conservatives” and conservatives more interested in advocacy, Altman argued. He noted that YCR and YNR, as campaigning and advocacy organizations, draw from a different population than YUCAT, whose members come mostly from the philosophically-driven YPU. These categories do not need to be mutually exclusive, but on Yale’s campus they often are.
Perhaps Trump’s rise has exacerbated the long-standing tensions on campus between conservatives who prioritize intellectual debate and conservatives who focus more on political action. As if to emphasize the split between the activists and the would-be philosophers, Altman described a new faction on campus: the anti-anti-Trump supporters. These students are not necessarily pro-Trump. But they dislike that liberals and establishment Republicans frequently dismiss Trump out of hand, and want to debate his merits.
In past elections, the Republican presidential candidate would be supported by the vast majority of conservatives, sweeping both the activists and the intellectuals. Now, because of Trump, campus conservatism is in crisis, and two groups of students who have never had a substantial need to work together are scrambling to respond.
No one knows whether conservatives can unite to prevent the rise of another Trump. But one thing is certain: the Grand Ol’ Party is splintering. There are fundamental disagreements between old conservatives and young, Christian conservatives and socially-liberal capitalists, the elite and the populists.
Even the conservative community at Yale – made up of students remarkably similar to each other in age, education, and often ideology – stands divided. If they cannot unite, there seems to be little hope for the cohesion of the national Republican Party.