Perhaps it was only inevitable that in America’s most Democratic state, Nilo Asgari’s elephant sticker would get her in trouble.
Amid the intense fervor of the 2016 election, the Boston University student was eating lunch when a fellow student spotted the Republican emblem on her phone case and accosted her.
“He came up and started yelling at me,” says Ms. Asgari. “He didn’t know anything about me.”
Like the fact that her parents immigrated to the US from Iran, for example – and that she opposes the Trumpist rhetoric about immigrants and foreigners.
“There are some values that people associate with the Republican Party that can be really offensive to certain groups,” says Asgari. “People assume that just because someone identifies with the Republican Party that they share those views and it’s not necessarily true.”
Confronted with such pushback, conservatives at Boston universities are flocking to College Republican clubs – causing membership to double or even triple. Some of the new members feel inspired by Trump to up their political engagement, but often it is to reaffirm to themselves – as well as others on campus – that there are more strains of conservatism than just Trumpism.
“Feelings about politics are running very strong,” says Virginia Sapiro, a professor at Boston University who specializes in political psychology. “I think pretty much everyone who cares about politics feels vulnerable for various reasons. And for those in the minority, seeking a safe and congenial space to have conversations with like-minded people would seem attractive.”
Clubs double, triple in size
According to a 2016 Pew Research poll, 57 percent of Millennials identify as Democratic and 36 percent identify as Republican. Democrats also claim more female and college-educated voters. That can make conservatism a tough sell.
During the Obama years, the Northeastern College Republicans had about 30 members, with 10 to 15 attending the weekly meetings. Since the election, the club has grown to almost 100 members, with 35 to 50 attending each meeting.
The Boston University (BU) College Republicans and Tufts Republicans cite similar increases. BU’s attendance has tripled in recent months from 10 to 30 students, and Tufts’ attendance has doubled over the last year, with about 40 students attending each meeting.
A weekly reprieve
Once inside the safety of a Northeastern University classroom, a handful of students swap winter beanies for the iconic red hats stowed in their backpack: Make America Great Again. One student opens a laptop emblazoned with a "Johnson-Weld 2016" sticker, and another shows off a new camouflaged NRA baseball cap.
This is the College Republicans club – a weekly reprieve from liberal campus life, if only for an hour. “This is the only place on campus during the week when you can say whatever you want and nobody will judge you,” says Nathan Kotler, the club’s secretary.
During an overview of the week’s media coverage, club leaders play a Fox News segment, “UConn professor claims Trump voters motivated by white supremacy.” All 40 students laugh in unison at what they see as the lame responses of the professor to Tucker Carlson’s questioning.
At the end of the meeting, they put their red hats and “TRUMP for President” T-shirts back in their backpacks before leaving the classroom.
“We are a minority on campus,” says Noah Tagliaferri, president of the Northeastern College Republicans. “It is cool when students find out there is a group on campus where they don’t have to feel like an outcast.”
Showing another side of conservatism
Despite the camaraderie of College Republicans club, young conservatives say they feel scared or embarrassed to publicize their political beliefs for fear that other students will ostracize them or professors will grade their assignments differently.
“Nobody wants to be called a name or have no friends because they are ‘the Republican kid’ in the group,” says George Behrakis, a freshman economics major at Tufts University and president of the Tufts Republicans club. “And if you write something in class and you show any sort of bias toward conservatism… people feel like they will get lower grades.”
Patrick Collins, executive director of public relations at Tufts, says the university "encourages the free exchange of ideas, diverse opinions and beliefs" and supports an environment "in which all students feel free to express themselves."
Since the election, Asgari says she has removed the elephant logo from her phone case and any other public Republican paraphernalia. But she says she is still a proud Republican: She interns with the Massachusetts Republican Party and she is the membership director for BU’s College Republicans.
Like Asgari, young Republicans at Boston universities are trying to distance themselves from the stereotype of a Trump-supporter – racist, sexist, opposed to same-sex marriage, and so forth.
“There are different strains” of conservatism in Northeastern’s club, says Mr. Tagliaferri. Some members “abhor Trump,” and some identify as libertarians. “But I will say none of them are the strain that are on Buzzfeed or Vox giving the Nazi salute.”
Mr. Behrakis says he wants to start challenging preconceived notions on campus by chiming into the political debates with a moderate conservative viewpoint. And when professors make jokes at Republicans’ expense in class, he plans “to call them out.”
“When we try and do outreach we try to change the narrative on campus about who Republicans are,” says Behrakis. “If we can prove some people wrong, that is a step in the right direction.”
Club members believe they could be a majority on campus someday – if only the Republican Party would mirror their clubs’ platforms and let go of a social ideology that opposes abortion rights, same-sex marriage, or allowing transgender people to use the bathroom of their choice.
“Those are ageist issues,” says Tagliaferri. “Those are issues for 75-years-olds who sip their bourbon and yell to their grandkids about how Bulgarians are ruining the country.”
“But for some reason the old-school Republicans won’t let it go,” adds Mr. Kotler. “But the younger Republicans,” he motions to the classroom, “there is nobody in this room that opposes gay marriage.”