Meet the Despised and Emboldened College Republicans of UW

Once teetering on the edge of oblivion, the political club is now bigger than ever and in the spotlight. But who are they?

On the evening of January 20, hours after Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States, a man named Milo Yiannopoulos spoke at Kane Hall on the University of Washington campus in Seattle.

The building—a gray concrete box constructed of smaller gray concrete boxes—is one of several on the perimeter of Red Square, a wide red-brick expanse in the center of the campus that serves as a venue for outdoor events and protests. On sunny days, it will often be covered in tables helmed by student clubs hawking flyers to passersby. They’re mostly local chapters of larger organizations, from the American Academy of Developmental Medicine and Dentistry to the campus chapter of the Zeta Tau Alpha sorority, with the Earth Club, Amnesty International, and Socialist Alternative in between. The clubs are often concerned with social justice, pushing progressive ideas onto impressionable minds.

It was a different kind of club that invited Yiannopoulos: the university’s chapter of the College Republicans. One month after his appearance here, the now-infamous figure would lose the biggest speaking gig of his life, a book deal, and his job after a video surfaced of him defending pederasty. But on inauguration night, he was an ascendant Internet celebrity who had generated his fame by trolling liberals to the delight of disgruntled conservatives. He was best known for amplifying the online harassment of feminist video-game journalists—in what became known as “Gamergate”—in 2015 and of Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones the following year.

Amid the tumult of the 2016 presidential election, Yiannopoulos emerged as one of the most influential voices of the so-called “alt-right,” a wing of American conservatism that defines itself in opposition to multiculturalism and political correctness and that has been embraced by white nationalists, among other groups. He arrived at UW as a sort of bizarro-world version of Marilyn Manson, in the sense that he was feeding on outrage.

And January 20 was a feast.

Outside Kane Hall, initially peaceful protests escalated into violence after a contingent of anti-Trump marchers showed up and endeavored, with some success, to block people from entering Yiannopoulos’ speech. One local high-school senior with blood on his face was beaten, he told a KOMO reporter, by a trio of men because he was wearing an American-flag hat. A camera operator for Breitbart, the conservative blog where Yiannopoulos then served as an editor, was assaulted by persons unknown. Reporter Kelsey Hamlin, who was on the scene, later wrote that many older Trump supporters “were aggressive, attempting to instigate fights, and in some cases succeeding. One even carried around a taser.” Then a Yiannopoulos supporter shot and nearly killed a leftist organizer, allegedly in self-defense. That shooting is still under investigation by campus police.

Inside Kane Hall, the auditorium seats were half-empty. People chitchatted, waiting. Then UW Young Republicans president Jessie Gamble emerged on the wooden stage at the front, grabbed a wireless mic, and began to introduce the night’s speaker by addressing the kerfuffle outside. “Our intent with Milo was to break the conversation about free speech wide open,” she said. “Ever since President Trump was elected, this campus has gone from being intolerant to conservative ideas to being homogeneously anti-conservative. False accusations, labels, and buzzwords have been tossed our way by the intolerant left. Republican students are discouraged by this rhetoric to even speak up on this campus.

“To those Huskies who can relate in the audience, or watching online: This event isn’t about us. It’s about you… . When your voice and your ideas are not heard, discourse suffers. If you take anything from this event, we hope you’ll come to class Monday morning and are encouraged to partake in the discussion around you. I promise there are other conservatives in your class waiting to speak up.”

Since that night, Gamble has received rape and death threats, and other members of the Young Republicans say they have been stalked and assaulted. At the same time, membership in the group is at an all-time high, with attendance of up to 30 students at their meetings. That’s about equal to the UW Young Democrats. They’re mostly but not wholly white, young men. All appear to be in their late teens or early 20s. Some come for the camaraderie, to be contrarian, or out of curiosity, while others are aspiring career politicians. Gamble, for instance, says she is hoping to start work for the King County Republicans as their political-outreach director once she graduates at the end of this quarter.

In the aftermath of the melee, the group was portrayed with a cartoonish villainy, cast as the kind of simplistic evildoers that do not exist in the real world. Some of this was their own doing. While the anti-fascist activist shot outside Kane Hall was still bleeding and near death in the hospital, the College Republicans opined on their Facebook page that for “violent political agitators” and radical leftists, “It’s time your flame is put out. If you keep prodding the Right you may be unpleasantly surprised what the outcome will be. You’ve obviously learned nothing after Trump’s election.”

One commenter suggested a revision to this post: “We apologize for inviting a Nazi on to campus and recognize our role in stoking prejudices that ended up with one of our fans SHOOTING SOMEONE. We realize our short sighted bigotry only leads to violence.” Another was more direct: “Being that one of your people just shot an unarmed and innocent man, your statement can only be taken as a threat of violence toward anyone not standing on your side.”

Gamble and company dismiss this accusation, and more generally the idea that the College Republicans are somehow responsible for that violence outside. She’s even expressed skepticism about reports from The Seattle Times and our own Kelsey Hamlin identifying the shooter as a conservative Yiannopoulos fan.

Despised and uncowed, these millennial Republicans represent the future of American conservatism, for good or ill. Seen from the outside, their views can seem bizarre to many in deep-blue Seattle. But the thing about ideology, of course, is that it looks a lot different when you’re standing on the inside.

How is it possible for two narratives of reality—of what’s obvious, in front of our faces, and shouldn’t be up for debate—to roar past one another like shrieking jet boats skeeting through the expansive waters of a flooded Valley of Death? Right or wrong, what is the internal logic that allows a club full of seemingly civilized people to invite a harassment-inciting pundit, then turn around and be like “Who, me?” when a supporter of that harasser shoots an opponent of that harasser, during the speech? To find out, I sat in on meetings and talked to these young politicos who stand as the future of our country’s ruling party.

While the College Republicans have long existed on campus, the current iteration came out of a void in 2011, when freshman Kyle Curtis was looking for a club for campus conservatives, with little success. “The conservatives at the time on campus were hiding under the banner of a Young America’s Foundation,” he recalls, referring to the college wing of a group founded more than half a century ago in the home of conservative intellectual William F. Buckley, Jr. “I believed with an election year looming … that we needed a proud and bold Republican banner,” Curtis says. The result: the modern incarnation of the UW College Republicans. Early on, the organization sometimes acted as a support group rather than a political entity. “At UW being a conservative is sometimes not easy,” says Curtis.

In 2014, the group found an enthusiastic new member in Jessie Gamble. A defector from the campus Harry Potter group, Gamble’s first exposure to politics had been reading the voter pamphlet for libertarian Ron Paul (father of current Kentucky Senator Rand Paul) in 2008, during Barack Obama’s first run for president. According to an interview she did last year with the UW alumni magazine, Columns, her favorite U.S. president was Teddy Roosevelt.

Gamble grew up in a town with no stoplights. Carbonado sits in the shadow of Mt. Rainier, its population less than a thousand, most them white, married, single-occupant drivers. Its main claim to fame is that in 1899, the coal mine for which the town exists exploded, killing dozens of miners and badly injuring at least four more. The mine company was quickly exonerated of any wrongdoing, as The Seattle Times described in the front-page headline “THE INQUEST INTO THE CARBONADO DISASTER RUSHED THROUGH WITH UNSEEMLY HASTE.”

Pale and earnest, Gamble wears her straight brown hair in a ponytail. When I meet her for the first time at a College Republicans meeting in a tiny classroom inside the gigantic white mansion that is Denny Hall, she wears a gray blazer, a white open-collar blouse covered in small black dots, black slacks, and black shoes that are a cross between pumps and cowboy boots. Gamble will be the first person in her family to graduate with a bachelor’s degree, she says. She remembers growing up somewhere between working-class and lower-middle-class, “depending on whether my dad could find work” at a series of jobs ranging from cabin builder to purchasing manager. Her mother was a bookkeeper for a tire company. “My mom’s a moderate libertarian, my dad’s like a Ron Swanson libertarian,” says Gamble, referring to the Parks and Recreation character who describes his ideal government as one man in a room, “and all he gets to decide is who to nuke.” Gamble’s father “actually wants the government that small,” she says. “Like, nonexistent.”

These are the two poles between which Gamble places herself. “When I think of conservatism, it’s maximum individual liberty and minimum interference,” she says. “It can be a utopian idea at times,” Gamble admits, “because that’s not how the world works. You do need some rules, boundaries, types of programs in place that bind everyone together and keep order.”

Early on, Gamble supported Rand Paul in the Republican presidential primary. The club itself didn’t pick a candidate—the other members supported Ted Cruz and John Kasich—but it did agree to support the nominee, whomever it was. “None of us thought it would be Trump, but it was,” Gamble says. “And we kept our promise.” Subject to the same conventional wisdom that permeated the media, they feared that their embrace of Trump might spell the end of the group. “That was a big risk, obviously, because we could have lost all three members and we’d basically be defunct,” Gamble recalls.

That didn’t happen. Instead, after joining forces with another campus group, Huskies for Trump, their numbers began to swell, the group welcoming “10 or 15 members” the week following Trump’s nomination. “They were excited,” she says.

As a result, Gamble began to see the greater appeal of Trump to the party. “After working in the Republican party for two years,” says Gamble, “I figured it might be a way to open [the party] wide open and have the average person partake in their political party—which is effectively partaking in their government, too, because if you’re cut out from the party and all you do is vote, you’re really not that involved. I figure Trump might bust that wide open.”

She is clearly attracted to Trump as a brick that’s been thrown through the window of the Washington, D.C., status quo. Yet, when he won, she and the rest of the College Republicans were shocked. “We had maybe 30 people in the room looking at me like, Where do we go next?”

This is an especially difficult task because Trumpism is difficult to define in traditional political terms. It has a lot to do with rejecting globalism and very little to do with the traditional social “wedge” issues like gay rights or abortion that have recently served as rallying points for Republicans. Trump’s America, wrote the conservative National Review in January, is “an America that emulates (even if hypocritically so) the lost culture of the 1950s; exploits fossil fuels; is run by deal makers who make money ostensibly to achieve a GDP that can fund the niceties of American civilization; opposes unfettered free trade and is united by race and class through shared material success; assesses winning as what’s workable rather than what’s politically correct or doctrinaire; makes ‘tremendous’ cars, air-conditioners, and planes; has the largest and most powerful and least-used military; and is loyal to our allies and considerably scary to our enemies.”

That’s the order that Trump is endeavoring to keep. Of course, the eternal pickle of politics is in the details: deciding, in the process of keeping order, when, how, and to whom the rules apply.

And it is here where there is daylight between Gamble and her president—and, by extension, her fellow College Republicans. On the specific question of undocumented immigrants and what Trump has promised to do with them, Gamble recognizes that the conservative position—which Yiannopoulos characterized in his speech as “Let’s have a bit less immigration”—amounts in concrete terms to splitting up families and sending some number of people back to crushing poverty and civil war, as Trump has already begun to do. “Yeah, that’s a tough thing,” says Gamble, pausing to think. “There’s so many reasons why people come to this country illegally… . Some of them, they just sold everything. They’re at the border, they’d go back through that hundred-mile area run by cartels… . To me, it’s kind of our fault in terms of bureaucracy and how backed-up it is.”

Gamble’s flexibility on immigration may have something to do with the fact that she knows undocumented immigrants. “To round up and deport everyone—I don’t think that’s going to happen,” she says, but if it did, “I would be shocked. I have a few friends that I would not hear from again.

“It’s very improbable,” Gamble says. “It would be such a waste of money.”

Yet Gamble’s take is by no means the consensus. Another group member, who asked that his name be withheld, takes a much more hard-line stance against people who come to the United States illegally. “We can’t be looking at appeals to emotion,” he said, adding that liberals cannot think soberly about this subject because “for them it’s a human-rights issue.” Borders should be secured, immigration laws should be enforced. “If they have legitimate concerns, those can be brought up” in the process of enforcement, or afterward. Period.

As you might expect from a room full of college students, disagreements are the norm. An average meeting of the College Republicans can include socially liberal libertarians, “Christian cultural conservatives,” populists, bipartisans, ex-Berners, self-professed ex-Social Justice Warriors, the politically naive, and Main Street conservatives with an emphasis on good governance and minimal wealth redistribution. Universally accepted, though, is the assertion—nay, the palpable truth—that club members are meeting on hostile ground, on a campus dominated by the cult of identity-based victimhood. It is in their meetings that these stubborn heretics, who will not bend to kiss the papal ring of the new social-justice order, comfort one another on the righteousness of their cause in the face of perceived ideological oppression.

After World War II, Romanians lived for two generations under a brutal communist regime, until popular unrest ignited into bloody revolution in 1989. The fallout from those 42 years of authoritarian socialism includes an economy in shambles, widespread political corruption, and a relatively low but equitable standard of living. For example, the hospitals where Mihai Ciustea grew up in northeast Romania are “terrible” but “very cheap,” he says. “The care is arguable” in terms of quality, he says, but conditions are cramped and austere.

Ciustea—now a naturalized citizen—experienced some culture shock when he emigrated to the United States about a decade ago, following his mother through a teacher exchange program. Take schools: Where he grew up in Romania, teachers were typically treated with respect in the classroom, he says, and it was normal for students to pop home for a snack during 10-minute breaks. In South Carolina, where Ciustea moved at age 13, it was just the opposite: The teacher’s authority was “a joke,” while public schools as buildings and institutions are “more like a prison for kids,” he says. On the other hand, he says, Americans were also more open to disagreeing opinions, whether the subject under debate was same-sex marriage or Holocaust denialism, both of which are illegal in Romania.

“It’s just the spirit of ‘Let them be; if they don’t hurt other people, don’t care about them’ ” that he loves about America, Ciustea says. He’s a loquacious young man with dark hair and a thick Romanian accent who wears collared shirts and eyeglasses. A handwritten sign reading “Furry Lives Matter” sat on his desk during one recent College Republicans meeting. He considers himself a “progressive” in the tradition of FDR. “Free speech is way better than trying to hide things under the carpet, like in Europe,” he says.

Before he was a College Republican, Ciustea was a Bernie Sanders supporter, starting not long after the Vermont senator and avowed socialist announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2015. He had heard about Sanders from classmates, and later met a number of supporters after stumbling into a Black Lives Matter march. “The protest kind of came out of nowhere,” he recalls. “I walked out on Red Square and saw them, and joined.” The seemingly spontaneous march lifted Ciustea’s sense of optimism in the future. “I didn’t think I was going to change the world” in one fell swoop, he says, “but I felt positive.”

That optimism began to erode as Ciustea began to perceive “what I’d call the regressive left … the left turning on itself.” “For example, they’d say there’s no such thing as reverse racism, meaning that as a minority one cannot have prejudice,” he says. “From my personal experience, that’s clearly a falsehood.” As a public-school student in South Carolina, he saw plenty of fights that broke down along racial lines, and other instances of one minority group attacking another. “It’s patronizing to say that you as a group cannot do something bad. Saying that there’s no such thing as reverse racism or reverse misogyny or whatever,” he says, gives the group in question “carte blanche, a free check, and prevents them from improving themselves.”

The ideological honeymoon finally ended in August 2015, when Black Lives Matter activists Mara Willaford and Marissa Johnson interrupted Sanders during a campaign speech at Westlake Park to criticize him and others for inadequately opposing racism. Sanders didn’t argue with them or try to force the mic back, which struck Ciustea as weak. “Instead of standing in his place or fighting for his own right to speak,” the Romanian-American says, “he had this sad and passive” look of a man who’s figuratively biting his tongue. “[H]e didn’t want to seem rude or racist, because the ladies who took his microphone were black.

“He was basically bullied off the stage,” Ciustea says. “He seemed to me like a pushover.”

Ciustea isn’t the only ex-Berner in the ranks of the College Republicans. Freshman Connor Harris was similarly repelled by what he sees as a sanctimonious political culture in which people are “discouraged and publicly shamed for saying certain things that aren’t of the norm,” he says. “That’s what really drove me. I’m all about people’s right to free assembly and free speech.”

Free speech is a central theme with the College Republicans. Yiannopoulos’ thesis in his talk was that free speech and thought are under attack by leftist identity-politics pieties. “Here, we’re obviously a minority on campus,” says Gamble, so “everyone’s mad and is like, ‘That shouldn’t be free speech.’ And it’s like, ‘But that’s the whole point’ ” of the First Amendment. “It’s the idea that isn’t popular, that isn’t mainstream—that’s what should be protected.”

While it’s difficult to argue that a political party that currently has free rein over the legislative and executive branches of the federal government is outside the mainstream, that is undoubtedly the case on most college campuses, where liberal politics are the rule—more so in Seattle, where only eight percent of ballots were cast for Trump.

“For me, my identity as a Republican is … key to who I am as a person,” says Jack Pickett, a College Republican and representative in student government. But at liberal UW, he says, “There’s a hesitation, an apprehension you feel about telling people … because you know even if people are polite about it, they’re going to be opposed to you.” One time, when he told a liberal friend that he was a Republican, “She was like, ‘Man, I feel like you’re coming out of the closet or something!’ ”

Lindy, a sophomore College Republican who asked that her last name not be used for fear of harassment, half-agrees with that analogy. “Conservatives do feel marginalized, but mostly only in liberal spaces, whereas undocumented students or queer students, they feel marginalized all the time,” she says. “I wouldn’t put [the two instances of marginalization] on the same level. I do believe that conservatives are marginalized on college campuses,” but off-campus and especially outside cities, not so much.

Many of UW’s young Republicans interpret accusations of racism or similar sins as meaning that they are purposely, consciously “prejudiced,” as Ciustea puts it. The argument centers around intention, and can be oversimplified as: Conservatives care about intentions, liberals about effects. As a consequence, accusations of racism by liberals end up sounding dishonest to these students, just another tool to moralistically bludgeon opponents into submission. “A lot of people aren’t interested in rational debate,” says one College Republican who asked to remain anonymous for fear of harassment. “If [the other person’s] political beliefs don’t match up with their own, they’ll call them names—racist, bigot, xenophobe, anti-Semite.”

But are these accusations just a rhetorical dodge designed to derail rational debate? Consider the Muslim ban. As a candidate and after winning, Trump promised to deliver “a complete and total shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” for an indefinite period of time. Barely a week into his presidency, Trump signed an executive order banning all resettling refugees for four months, Syrian refugees indefinitely, and immigration regardless of visa from Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen. Later that day he promised to prioritize Christian refugees over Muslims.

Gamble disputes that the immigration freeze—which was later killed in court following a lawsuit from Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson—constitutes a Muslim ban because it doesn’t include all or even most majority-Muslim countries. But asked whether it is unreasonable for American Muslims to feel targeted, she replies, “No, I don’t think so.” And then we talk about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

The news came in as a 6-year-old Gamble was getting ready for school. Suddenly, she wasn’t going to school anymore. Instead she spent the day watching skyscrapers burn and crumble on the television beside the rest of her family. The experience is seared into her consciousness like a cattle brand. “That was my big introduction to what was going on in the world,” she says. “And it still sticks with me to this day… . It was so hyped and we had to find an enemy and we had to do it fast… . Some people, they still hold on to what they heard the 12th of September.” Including Gamble: For her and her age cohort, “It’s always been a post-9/11 world.”

She tries to be aware of this bias and manage it. “For my generation … anytime you see a Muslim in public you’re going to get worried, you’re going to get a little anxious,” she acknowledges, “because it’s kind of conditioned after [9/11]. It was conditioned when me and my friends were really little, and so it’s something that we have to overcome.” I ask her whether it would be unfair to call what she’s describing “racism” or “xenophobia.”

“No, that’s pretty much what it was,” she says. “I don’t intentionally mean to be racist, I don’t mean to be xenophobic; I’m still trying to navigate through all the stuff that happened through my lifetime that conditioned me, to try to overcome that. For the most part, I hope I do a good job. Obviously I don’t mean malice toward anyone. It’s very live-and-let-live for me and my brand of conservatism, which is not the case across the board.”

Typical Seattle liberals “think everyone thinks the same as them,” Gamble says, “and when they see someone who doesn’t, they get freaked out.” Overhead, the ceiling lights glare down. Gamble is describing to fellow College Republicans the experience of coming out as a Trump supporter in her classes. Many classmates glared at her, she says, but several closet conservatives approached her afterward to express their sympathy.

More than any specific constellation of political positions, it is a shared sense of cultural oppression that binds the College Republicans. It is because the College Republicans feel oppressed that they invited Yiannopoulos. They were acting out. Just as Milo is a self-styled troll for free speech, the act of inviting him was itself an instance of trolling for free speech by the College Republicans. They did what they weren’t supposed to do, said what they weren’t supposed to say, to prove the point that they can speak and act in flagrant disregard of what they see as a suffocating leftist orthodoxy, one that demands that we all refer to transgender people by their lived pronouns and defer to the lived experiences of members of oppressed groups.

They say they have felt persecuted and shamed to the point of becoming politically closeted. Yet, despite the fact that their party took control of both the country’s executive and legislative branches, the College Republicans are not standing down. They never expected their candidate to win, and now that he has, they’ve found themselves caught between him and the ocean of constipated fury many Seattleites feel—daily, like a migraine—towards Trump. In the pressurized political atmosphere of 2017, their sense of persecution has only grown more acute.

“Conservative,” says Gamble, while holding court with the small army of conservative club mates, “is kind of the new counterculture. Like—what did Milo call it?—punk rock. It’s a type of ideology and lifestyle that everyone is telling you not to do—from the government, the media, society, your teachers—everyone around is telling you, ‘This is bad, don’t do it!’ But like a moth to a flame, you want to do it.”