Into the Elephant's Den

Four years ago, the Harvard Republican Club chose not to endorse Donald Trump, denouncing his “racial slander” as a “threat to the survival of the Republic.” Several weeks ago, the same club released a very different decision, not only endorsing the President but describing his policies as leading to “the most prosperous and safe lives for Black Americans.” So, what changed? Exploring a central group chat described as a “lion’s den,” a previous election characterized by “Harvard snakery to the millionth degree,” and the experience of two women on the club’s board, The Crimson dug into the factors behind the club’s controversial reversal.
By Joy C. Ashford and Jennifer Luong

What does it mean to be a Republican in 2020?

According to many in the Harvard Republican Club, the answer is very different than it was four years ago.

Those part of the group in 2016 remember it as a community open to “anyone right of Marx.” Older members describe an emphasis on friendly, intellectual discussion and a legacy of female presidents and gender parity.

“I would say I never felt not included,” said Sapna V. Rampersaud ’19, who joined the club her freshman year. Moderate and left-leaning people were welcome at meetings and events, she remembers. She “never noticed that there was any sort of tension related to difference in opinion.”

This was the same year HRC chose not to endorse Donald Trump, after a club-wide poll of members revealed 80 percent weren’t planning on voting for him.

Last month, that same club held another vote on the current president — but this time it looked very different. HRC hosted a Zoom forum open to first-years and those who had attended previous meetings, but only the executive board was allowed to vote. According to several participants who spoke to Fifteen Minutes, the meeting was sparsely attended, and the majority of those present were board members.

In the final vote, the club split along gendered lines: Two women who has served on the board were also the only two people to vote against a Trump endorsement. Reversing their 2016 stance, HRC chose to endorse Donald J. Trump.

No one outside the group seems to know the full composition of the club’s voting board members. HRC’s list of officers on The Hub, the College’s student organization registry, names only four people. Postings on The Hub are rarely accurate, however, and interviews with board members suggested that HRC’s leadership was much larger than just four students. Those interviewed declined to reveal the total number, so it’s difficult to know exactly how many voted in favor of Trump.

Several days after their Zoom forum, the club announced its decision to endorse the President in a written statement posted on their Facebook page, earning backlash from many within and outside of the Harvard conservative community. The statement itself received 49 comments, and many students took to Instagram to condemn the club’s decision.

So how did HRC go from denouncing Trump’s “racial slander” as a “threat to the survival of the Republic” in 2016, to lauding the president in 2020 as creating “the most prosperous and safe lives for Black Americans” and “peace worldwide”?

‘We Really Thought He was Going to Lose’

The Harvard Republican Club has historically been a close-knit group. Grace K. Bannister ’21, a member since her freshman year, fondly recalled a “big tent” community where it was “easy to make friends” and club members often got together in the Quincy House dining hall to “just hang out and talk.” Bannister previously served as the club’s Vice President of Socials, hoping to provide community and foster a better relationship with the Harvard Democrats Club, even leading a joint fundraiser.

After 2016, however, Bannister could feel that “big tent” community beginning to change. She and other older members of HRC discussed a range of factors in the rise of a “pro-Trump faction.”

The first indicator that this faction was gaining power was the outcome of the club’s 2017 leadership elections, which Bannister described as marked by “Harvard snakery, to like, the millionth degree.” Members leveled allegations of voter suppression, and after allying themselves with the John Adams Society, those in favor of Trump’s presidency purportedly registered many people outside the club to vote in HRC board elections.

“It was the first time the Trumpy members tried to do a power grab,” Bannister said, adding that many HRC members left over the internal politics and infighting. “After that, there were so few members in the club that the board basically elected themselves for the next two years." HRC’s current president, Wesley L. Donhauser ’21, confirmed that his election as President was uncontested.

Another, more simple potential explanation for the shifting attitude toward Trump was suggested by a former HRC president. “We really thought he was going to lose.”

But following larger trends in the club and party as a whole, nearly every person interviewed independently cited the shift to a virtual community in light of the pandemic — a community centered around a contentious GroupMe — as a final tipping point. As Bannister put it, pro-Trump members were “coming out of the woodwork.”

‘No, I Don’t Think They’d Say That to My Face’

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, HRC’s group chat wasn’t particularly active; older interviewees said that some would occasionally share an article and facilitate discussion. But at the beginning of quarantine, they saw a shift almost immediately.

“Right off the bat,” one HRC board member said, a couple of people started “dominating the dynamic of the GroupMe.” She’d been involved for three years, and though she said that historically “[HRC] members all knew each other,” many of the most vocal participants in the chat were now people she had never met. One was someone she’d never known was a fellow board member, though he quickly became a “loud, outspoken voice” that she speculated “made people scared to share their opinions.”

Bannister similarly described the club’s central group chat as being “hijacked by a few voices” — many of whom she’d never known in her four years in HRC. “I think that a lot of people felt a lot more comfortable behind a screen saying things in support of Trump than they would to somebody's face on campus.”

In one group chat conversation, a recently-graduated senior expressed criticism of Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett. He shared that he was a former “single issue voter on the matter of abortion,” but doubted Barrett would actually overturn Roe v. Wade. It was more important to him that she would “do a lot of things I don’t like to healthcare, voting rights, environmental protections, etc.”

“Brave of you to post in the lion’s den,” one person responded to him.

Most other comments, however, were negative. One person dismissed his concerns about the way Barrett would rule as “straw man arguments,” calling them “assuming” and “dull.”

Another member responded by directly tagging the Barrett critic in messages like, “How are you so dense” and “Contraception is wack but y’all ain’t ready for that conversation.”

With fewer women in the group chat at the time, the men led the conversation. “Your access to contraceptives is unrestricted,” one joked, seeming to reference the fact that the writer concerned about abortion rights was a man. (All of the named commenters were men, as were eight of the ten participants in the conversation.)

As the group chat grew louder and more “combative,” in Bannister’s words, many veteran members chose to mute the chat or leave entirely.

“I’ve tried to respond, and I’ve just been told I’m stupid,” said an HRC board member who spoke to Fifteen Minutes on the condition of anonymity. She now hopes to completely disaffiliate from the club. The loud voices were taking over, she explained. “They were destroying us.”

‘In a Fighting Mood’

When Grace Bannister opened the Zoom link for HRC’s endorsement forum, she wasn’t particularly optimistic. Looking at the call’s participants, she “already knew what was going to happen.”

By the time the forum was advertised — over email and in the club’s acrimonious group chat — many of the members who identified as moderate conservatives, like Austin B. Barclay ’22, had already grown “disillusioned.” Oluwatobi I. Ariyo ’22, another former member, believed “it was very purposely done that [the forum] wasn’t as well publicized.” Bannister agreed: “Had this thing been better publicized and had people not been so upset with what was happening in the group chat, there would have been more turnout,” she said.

In an interview on the endorsement, club President Wesley L. Donhauser ’21 disputed their criticisms. He said the club held the forum because “we wanted to give everyone a chance to have their voice heard.”

But for the two people on the call whose “voices” weren’t pro-Trump, it wasn’t quite that easy.

“It was nerve-wracking to be one of the only people saying ‘I don't believe this,’ when everybody was just like echo-chambering themselves,” Bannister recounted. It was the tenor of the conversation, however, that surprised her the most.

At one point she remembered being told she should be ready to debate any argument she made. The personalities, she felt, had grown very “Trumplike.” “People were in a fighting mood that night,” she recalled. “It wasn’t the group that I had joined as a freshman.” When Bannister would begin speaking, she’d get a lot of comments in the chat: Many called her a “RINO” (Republican In Name Only) or encouraged her to join the Harvard Democrats.

If Bannister — a four-year member of the club, who worked for two Republican lawmakers and the Republican Governors’ Association — isn’t Republican enough, who is?

The only other person who voted against the endorsement similarly described the meeting’s climate as “vicious.”

“It definitely was a bunch of guys ganging up on us,” she said of the forum. “It felt very targeted.” Despite her position on the executive board, she too was called a “fake Republican.” Notably, she remembered the messages seeking to “shut down her opinions” came from the Zoom chat, rather than direct verbal confrontation.

When asked if HRC still held a spectrum of opinions, Donhauser answered there were “quite a few” members left in the club who disagreed with the endorsement.

But the former board member thought differently: “I think it’s sealed that that’s not the case.”

‘The Most Prosperous and Safe Lives for Black Americans’

In 2016, HRC’s public statement announced a “refusal” to endorse Trump, describing him as a “dangerous man,” who was “poisoning our country and our children,” and “eschewing basic human decency.” The words of these undergraduates reached CNN, NBC and the Washington Post.

The statement’s writers claim to be “ashamed” of Trump and his “racist slander.” After the club denounced Trump, it saw at least 130 potential new members attend an introductory meeting, compared to only 3o during the year prior.

By contrast, HRC’s 2020 endorsement points out Trump’s campaign promises to “Win the Race to 5G and Establish a National High-Speed Wireless Internet Network,” “To Continue to Lead the World in Access to the Cleanest Drinking Water and Cleanest Air,” and to “Hold China Fully Accountable for Allowing the Virus to Spread around the World” as critical components of the rationale behind their support of him.

The statement’s formal list of Trump’s accomplishments included three sections: foreign policy, his work on trade, and a final section on “Black Americans,” which drew the most criticism. “It is our sincere belief that the policies of the Republican party and President Trump would lead to the most prosperous and safe lives for Black Americans,” the third heading read.

Below that heading, however, the bulleted points hardly mentioned “Black Americans.” Instead, they highlighted policies that would generate “private capital investment for disadvantaged communities” without explaining whether there exists a distinction between the categories of “Black” and “disadvantaged.” A later point on criminal justice reform couched Trump’s policies in colorblind rhetoric, praising a push toward “equity for all Americans” without mentioning a disparate racial impact.

Within Harvard’s conservative community, the statement was met with backlash.

“It’s very clear that people who ideologically or morally disagree with the president were not involved,” Barclay said, highlighting their list of cons as “paltry” and “absurd.” The statement’s section on “The President’s shortcomings” made up only 11 percent of the overall word count.

“I fail to understand how that was their list, unless they completely removed ideological dissent,” he continued, arguing that support of Trump is now the club’s standard.

Who then, was involved? “I think Wes just wrote it all on a Google Doc and posted it in the smaller GroupMe and said people were welcome to make suggestions by DMing him or commenting on the doc over a period of 24 hrs,” a former board member familiar with the process wrote in a texted statement.

Donhauser corroborated that account when asked for comment, saying he attempted to “aggregate” club members’ general feelings in writing the statement. “As President it is my job (for better or worse sometimes!) to handle media engagements,” he wrote.

After the statement was released, multiple members disaffiliated, claiming that the group no longer represented their values.

Following the Zoom forum, one former board member still hoped that the statement’s critique section could be “pretty decent.” But “seeing the ‘we think Trump is the best option for Black people’” section was the final straw, she recalled. She wanted to remove her name from everything associated with HRC; the current group no longer represents her views at all.

She and other HRC members had “donated to Black Lives Matter” and expressed “solidarity” on social media, she said. To her, these actions signaled politically that they acknowledged the existence of racism. But for other people in the group, she continued, “It’s like, ‘racism is fake.’”

When asked to comment on concerns about racism within HRC, Donhauser responded that “Racism is something that we take very seriously. It’s something that exists and should be condemned at every corner.”

Fifteen Minutes reached out to numerous other members of the group, including all known board members and affiliates who support the current president. None agreed to provide comment on their role in the vote or statement.

On Facebook, there’s only one comment on the first screenshot of the statement.

“did you ask any black people LMAO.”

‘The Echo Chamber’

Oluwatobi I. Ariyo ’21 came into Harvard a proud conservative. His freshman year, Ariyo penned a widely-read opinion piece for The Crimson titled “Cry from A Lone Conservative.” In it, he criticized an “echo chamber culture where expression of differing opinions is met by hostility.” Harvard, as he saw it, was a school with an “overwhelming liberal majority” where he felt “silenced” and “marginalized” for speaking his mind as a conservative student.

In an interview recently, Ariyo thought back to that op-ed. His former thesis — that liberal colleges are characterized by intolerance for differing perspectives — is a “mantra that conservatives on college campuses really speak to,” he said. But now, he’d say HRC is guilty of that same intolerance.

“It was interesting to see the club that I was in turn into the echo chamber we often denigrate.”

As one of the club’s few Black members, Ariyo described feeling an acute “lack of empathy” for his lived experience. When he spoke up in the club’s chat after the killing of George Floyd, he said his ideas were always “shut down.” “It’d just be like: The numbers say this; Trump’s not racist. The numbers say Black people are killed as much as white people per capita, so there’s no racial problem in the police system. Full stop,” he said.

Ariyo eventually left the chat. “I didn’t feel comfortable being used almost as a token.”

“When I published my op-ed, I was getting all these comments from people in the club being like ‘Oh that’s amazing,’” Ariyo remembered. The same was true this past year, as he tried to start a conservative newspaper on campus. “And then when I bring up something that makes me feel uncomfortable, it’s like my opinion no longer matters.”

As he reflected on his experiences in HRC, Ariyo made his mind up that this wasn’t just a problem with one college Republican club. Rather, he said the tokenization he experienced was “more endemic of the party as a whole.”

“It’s a matter of optics in my opinion,” he continued. “Minority lives matter only as long as they stay in line.”

“The Republican Party loves to showcase their few minority conservatives,” he went on. At times, people were eager to hear what I had to say.” Things were different, though when he spoke up after the death of George Floyd.

“All of a sudden, it’s silent. And you’re alone.”

— Staff writer Joy C. Ashford can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @joy_ashford.

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