Alec Dent, a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill, often feels like an outsider on campus.
“For conservatives, you sort of feel out of place,” Dent, who is from Lumberton, said. “Most Trump supporters here don’t really feel comfortable saying they voted for him. No one’s walking around with their ‘Make America Great Again’ hats on.”
Donald Trump’s election and some of his administration’s early decisions have caused friction between liberal and conservative students on college campuses across the United States, including in North Carolina, a key battleground state Trump won.
Many of the state’s largest colleges – including UNC-CH, N.C. State University, Wake Technical Community College, Duke University and N.C. Central University – are in Wake, Durham and Orange counties, which Democrat Hillary Clinton won. Trump carried nearly all of the state’s suburban and rural counties.
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While some college students in North Carolina led the charge to get out the youth vote for Trump, others staged walk-outs during Trump’s inauguration and participated in protests in Raleigh and Durham. Dent said he’s witnessed an uptick in protests on campus since the election.
Conservative students at UNC-Chapel Hill, N.C. State and Duke emphatically agreed that the majority of pushback on campus hasn’t come from faculty or administration, who have been largely supportive of conservative students and groups, they said. Rather, the bulk of it has come from their classmates and peers.
Some of my liberal friends are willing to have a discussion, but others are close-minded and almost militant about another perspective.
Frank Pray, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill
“The administration really does want to have an open dialogue on campus and brings a truly diverse community of thought to Carolina,” Dent said. “It’s really the students here who are kind of intolerant.”
Frank Pray, a senior at UNC-CH, said he has received death threats, been called a “racist” and a “bigot” and had his car vandalized – all because he’s an outspoken Republican on campus.
“As a vocal conservative, I expect to get pushback, but there’s a difference between discussing opposing views and being called names and threatened,” Pray said. “Some of my liberal friends are willing to have a discussion, but others are close-minded and almost militant about another perspective.”
Pray said he received the threats via text, email and social media, including Facebook. He said he did not want to disclose whether he reported the threats to campus police because of concerns for his safety, though he said he did report the vandalism incident to the Chapel Hill Police Department.
A flier found on the UNC-Chapel Hill campus and also circulated on social media in February threatened violence against Trump supporters. “If you see something ...” was printed above drawings of a man with a “Make America Great Again” hat and a man with a swastika tattoo. “Do something!” the flier continued, showing drawings of the tattooed man being hit on the head with a baseball bat that said “Bash the Fash.”
UNC Chancellor Carol Folt and other administrators issued a message condemning the fliers.
“We take these matters very seriously,” they wrote. “The flier and its message are the antithesis of the values that are the foundation of our University. It is not designed to spark civil discourse or encourage thoughtful debate. Its intentions are to incite violence, and there is no place for that here or in our society.”
UNC’s campus safety department has not received any complaints from students alleging that they were threatened because of their conservatism or affiliations with Trump, said Randy Young, a spokesman. Requests made to Duke and N.C. State asking whether their campus safety departments had received complaints of that nature were not answered.
Harrison Preddy, a junior at N.C. State, said people have vandalized cars with conservative bumper stickers on campus, including egging cars, ripping windshield wipers off and slashing tires. The day after Trump’s election, two men yelled at Preddy while he was dining at a restaurant near campus, calling him a “racist, fascist bigot” because he had a “Don’t tread on me” bumper sticker on his car.
Many conservative students are now “stuck in the closet,” Preddy said, including some minority students “who people assume are Democrats.”
“There’s been a lot of violence against conservatives on campus. It’s terrifying and intolerant,” Preddy said. “Your voice and opinion only matter if you’re a Democrat. At every turn, we’re never given the chance to express ourselves. Liberal students have the privilege on this campus.”
Nationwide, Clinton received 55 percent of the youth vote on Election Day while 37 percent voted for Trump, according to data analysis by Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement. However, millennials’ support for Clinton was lower than it was for Democrat Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.
Young adults’ willingness to cast a ballot in North Carolina also declined. Only 53 percent of registered voters between 18 and 25 voted, down from 55 percent in 2012 and 60 percent in 2008, according to advocacy group Democracy North Carolina.
Students for Trump, a national organization started by two Campbell University students in 2015, was launched in part to galvanize young voters.
“Our job is to inform and mobilize young voters to vote for Donald Trump. One of the biggest issues in today’s society is the lack of political participation among the younger crowds,” the group’s website reads. “With social media being one of the best ways to get in touch with the younger generation, we aim to reach out to students from colleges and high schools all throughout the country.”
While many College Democrat organizations endorsed Clinton, some College Republican groups were hesitant to endorse Trump. N.C. State’s College Republicans supported Trump, while Duke’s College Republicans decided to “abstain” from endorsing the candidate. UNC-CH’s group chose to neither endorse nor refuse to endorse Trump, drawing ire from the editorial board of the Daily Tar Heel, the school’s student newspaper.
“By refusing to disavow Trump, they have set themselves up in a similar position to many national Republicans – but without the private power of congressional negotiations to influence Trump for the better,” the board wrote in a December editorial, calling on the group to “hold him accountable” and “stand for a more principled, virtuous conservatism than this.”
Share or retreat?
Pushback on campus has made some conservative students all the more eager to share their political views, while others are retreating.
Mitchell Siegel, a freshman at Duke, was a vocal Trump supporter “from the beginning” and hoped there would be more room for debate after Trump became president. However, the atmosphere has become “very emotionally charged and hostile,” he said. Several weeks ago, he witnessed a friend crying in his dorm room after being “verbally abused” by other students for voting for Trump.
I’m concerned for my generation. The way people act is crazy. I expected a little more maturity.
Mitchell Siegel, a freshman at Duke University
“I’m concerned for my generation,” Siegel, 18, said. “The way people act is crazy. I expected a little more maturity.”
Some students said they think there’s a silent minority of conservatives on college campus. For two years, Pray was chairman of UNC-CH’s College Republicans group and grew membership from about 65 to more than 500 students.
“My goal isn’t to change people’s minds. It’s to make sure that other conservatives know that it’s OK to fight for your principles and what you believe in,” he said.
Dent, who is editor-in-chief of UNC-CH’s conservative publication, the Carolina Review, is trying to get more students involved with the Review.
“There are a lot more conservative students on campus than people realize, but it’s the others who have the loudest voice,” Dent said. “I’ve tried to raise my voice, and I think it’s important for them to know they’re not alone.”
Others, however, are retreating. Some people have scraped off their bumper stickers and stopped speaking up in class because they’re afraid, Preddy said. Though there are about 300 names on an email list for N.C. State’s College Republicans group, only 25 people attend an average weekly meeting and he’s been told that some students are too scared to attend. He’s thought about organizing protests for conservative causes on campus, but worries about the backlash.
“It’s hard to motivate people to go out and be criticized. We’re a scared minority,” he said. “We did win, but we can’t celebrate that we won. We’ve retreated.”
Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; @madisoniszler