Michael Fitzgerald will vote in a presidential election for the first time ever this November. He loves politics; you don’t become treasurer of Yale College Republicans during your freshman year unless conservative fiscal policy sets your heart aflutter. The 19-year-old obsessed over the last election when he was still in high school. But 2016 has been something of a letdown, if by “letdown” you mean something akin to watching a plant you lovingly tended for eight years burst into flames and morph, phoenixlike, into a week-old taco salad.
“I would love nothing more — especially since this is the first time I’ll be able to vote — I would love nothing more than to be able to vote for Republicans,” Fitzgerald told MTV News. “That’s become increasingly difficult.”
The issue, of course, is Donald Trump. Fitzgerald became increasingly disillusioned as he watched so many leaders he admired endorse the candidate, despite the fact that their misgivings seemed to match his own. “As far as my identity as a Republican, I’ve begun to question that more now than ever,” says Fitzgerald. This messy and confusing season has left him doing something that would have been unthinkable a year ago. “This is where typically I would tell you that I will not be supporting Trump or Hillary, and that I would be most likely writing in the name of another candidate,” he says. “However, given the past three weeks, I am willing to say that I will be voting for Hillary Clinton.”
It hasn’t been a fun year for college Republicans, many of whom are already accustomed to being a beleaguered minority on campus and now are feeling like they don’t have a home in their party of choice either. Plenty of GOP student organizations have endorsed Trump, following the lead of all those politicians who constantly deride the candidate without actually abandoning him. But the resistance movement exists, powered by students who have different definitions of what the Republican Party should be, but are exceptionally clear on what it shouldn’t be: a playground for despots short on optimism and finger length. When an allegiance to a political party is new, it’s much easier to fight back in the hopes that it might look like something you still want to believe in by the time the future rolls around.
The Yale Republicans are one of the college groups that decided to endorse Trump, following the example of the leaders they hoped to supplant someday instead of charting a new path. When they did so, Fitzgerald, along with three other board members, resigned and formed the Yale New Republicans, which is busy trying to register voters and determine what its role on campus will be after the election.
While Fitzgerald is trying to figure out whether his political beliefs fit with the Republican Party at all anymore, Olivia Corn, a sophomore at Cornell, is determined to fix the party from the inside. “Even though I disagree greatly with what happened this election cycle, I love the Republican Party,” she told MTV News. She runs Cornell’s Republican group, which endorsed Gary Johnson last month. “Originally, people started laughing,” she says. “And then somebody said, ‘Wait a second, that’s a good idea.’”
Growing up in Manhattan, Corn was often the only young conservative she knew, and in college, she is resigned to not talking about her politics in the classroom. After this year, she has gotten used to everyone on campus assuming the worst about her. “One of the things that has really infuriated me about the Donald Trump campaign is that he has brought out all the negative stereotypes of Republicans,” says Corn, who is pro-choice and pro–gay marriage. “So, whenever anyone hears that you’re a Republican, you’re automatically anti-gay, you are anti-abortion, you are a xenophobe, a sexist. One of the reasons I want to go into politics is to show that there are rational Republicans out there. My goal is to get people to say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know some conservatives felt this way.’”
Corn and Fitzgerald are far from alone in stepping away from Trump. That isn’t surprising if you look at the polling from this summer showing that Trump was the fourth most popular presidential choice among those aged 18 to 30. The Harvard College Republicans didn’t endorse a nominee at all for the first time since 1888, calling Trump a “threat to the survival” of the country. The University of Virginia Republicans rescinded their Trump endorsement in October after the “Grab them by the pussy” video came out. That video prompted the president of the national College Republicans to tweet, “Definitely not with her, but not with him.” The Georgia Association of College Republicans said it wouldn’t penalize anyone if they didn’t endorse Trump.
The New York Federation of College Republicans, the umbrella organization for the state’s branches, didn’t feel the same way, and briefly tried to kick Cornell University out of the group. The retaliation led Corn to threaten a lawsuit, and eventually the chair of the Federation resigned and went to work on the Trump campaign full-time. Cornell Republicans were quickly welcomed back to the party.
The political dynamic at Liberty University, the evangelical Christian school founded by Jerry Falwell Sr., is very different. “It is much easier to be conservative here than liberal, which is upside-down from most liberal arts colleges,” says junior Dustin Wahl. However, students there have still found plenty of reasons to dislike Trump. After the Access Hollywood video came out, Liberty president Jerry Falwell Jr. told a reporter, “We’re all sinners, every one of us. We’ve all done things we wish we hadn’t. ... We’re never going to have a perfect candidate unless Jesus Christ is on the ballot.” This mirrors what other evangelicals have said about Trump; a recent Public Religion Research Institute poll shows that 69 percent of white evangelical likely voters plan on supporting Trump. Wahl didn’t think these numbers accurately reflected how young evangelicals at Liberty felt, which is why he wrote a statement from Liberty United Against Trump on Monday, October 10. It reads, in part:
Jesus tells a story in the Bible about a man who tries to remove a speck of dust from his brother’s eye, while he has a log stuck in his own. “You hypocrite,” Jesus says, “first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” ... While our president Jerry Falwell Jr. tours the country championing the log in his eye, we want the world to know how many students oppose him. We don’t want to champion Donald Trump; we want only to be champions for Christ.
The statement went viral on the national news. By Thursday, Wahl was hoarse from talking to so many reporters, and the statement had signatures from nearly 2,000 people with liberty.edu email addresses.
This election season has left Wahl thinking a lot about what he believes. “2016 has not made me want to reevaluate my faith,” he says, “or make me think, Am I wrong about what I believe?” His love for Liberty is constant too. But Wahl, who ran Liberty Students for Marco Rubio during the primary, does think young Republicans need to change their party, using the same logic that sent him and his friends up against Falwell. “We were taught to respect our leaders,” he says. “And when you respect your leaders, you hold them accountable when they misrepresent what you believe.”
So what’s next? These young leaders agree that their party needs to do what it prescribed for itself back in the 2012 election autopsy: be more inclusive, offer policies that would attract people of color, and focus less on social issues. The fact that the party has done little to change in the past four years makes it easy to question the GOP’s ability to fix itself anytime soon, to attract young people, or to keep those who had been excited by the party before this year. Even before Trump, the party was not paying attention to young people on issues like gay rights or climate change, and being a college Republican was to be the token conservative in many a social setting.
But Fitzgerald, Corn, and Wahl all agree on the first step, even if the future of their party and their political leanings is still hazy. “We need a flat rejection of Donald Trump if the party is ever going to move forward,” Wahl says. “We need to look at Donald Trump and what he stands for and say, ‘No, we are not doing that again, we are moving toward a fresh approach.’”
In other words, the party needs to follow its youngest adherents if it wants to stay relevant, which means resisting authority when the grown-ups make bad choices. “I’m very proud of the decision we made,” Corn says. “It took a lot of guts to say, ‘You know what? Our principles are more important than our party.’”