Students for Trump at Pennsylvania State University couldn’t wait for Donald so they built their own wall, writes Caroline O’Doherty
It appeared on the lawn in front of Old Main, the oldest and most handsome building on campus, around the centrepiece flagpole that carries the stars and stripes, as the students marked one week to go to election day.
“It’s a dialogue wall,” said 20-year-old Kylie Thomas, a chirpy criminology junior wearing a Trump baseball cap and waving a version of the old American revolutionary flag bearing the motto Don’t Tread On Me, more recently revived by the Tea Party.
“People can come over and write a message on it if they want.”
Her fellow Trumpees already had. ‘Hillary for prison’ was a particularly large one.
But surely the symbolism of the wall and its position around the flag was intentional?
“Oh totally. National security is such an important issue and Trump’s national security policy is one of the things that astounds me about him. The idea of a wall - a physical wall protecting us - it’s so mind-boggling.”
She anticipates the inevitable question about Trump’s attitude to women and answers before it’s finished.
“I am more concerned about Hillary Clinton’s actions than Donald Trump’s words,” she says sweetly but firmly. “I love him.”
Engineering student Ricardo Rojas, 22, does not love Donald Trump and in the short time since the wall - a chipboard barrier really - was erected, he had gone almost hoarse pleading the case of the Democrats in both Spanish and English at a counter demonstration outside the wall.
“My father was a political prisoner, a refugee from Cuba, and I would not be living up to his legacy if I didn’t come out here and say that this farce is not what my country needs,” he said afterwards.
“At some level I empathise with my opponents. They love this country as much as I do,” he added generously.
“I disagree with their vision for it but their concerns are legitimate and they have to be addressed. That’s something my generation are going to have to figure out over the next ten or 15 years.”
Ricardo’s rivals were not interested in his magnanimity and one followed him around as he addressed the crowds, carrying a music player blaring out Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better from the musical Annie Get Your Gun.
Ricardo grew hoarser and the music grew louder. “I will stand here until I lose every last bit of my breath,” he hollered through a loudspeaker. That time seemed fast-approaching.
Inside the college, Dr Christopher Beem, managing director of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy, mused on the events. “The Trump students do seem to be having more fun,” he said. “Although there’s an enthusiasm deficit generally,” he lamented.
Elections, arguably, should be fun, especially in Pennsylvania. A reliably unreliable hunting ground for votes, it is one of the swing states with 20 votes up for grabs and Clinton’s precarious lead there is too narrow to depend on.
Penn State University sits right in the rural middle of the state, its vast main campus forming the bulk of the appropriately named town of State College in the appropriately named Centre County.
Elections don’t come much tighter than in Centre County. While Pennsylvania voted Obama in 2012, by a narrow majority of 52%, Centre County voted Romney, giving him 49% of the vote compared to Obama’s 48.9%. There were just 20 votes in the difference.
Penn State’s student body of more than 47,000 tend towards the Democrats - and the official college Republican group did not endorse Trump - but it’s expected to be a tight race on campus too.
Christopher Beem reckons the students - particularly those in the political science department - should be having a blast, getting a kick out of the rivalry, enjoying coming up with the best retaliatory arguments, feeding off the energy of what has been a remarkable campaign and what for most of them will be their first time voting in a presidential election.
Instead they’re exhibiting a kind of bewilderment at the “hyperpartisanship” that has characterised the campaign and how bizarre, bitter, unproductive and uninspiring it has been.
“They are shocked and dismayed and frustrated. They keep coming up to me and saying, is this what it’s always like? And I’m saying no, it’s really not, it’s usually kind of fun.
“I don’t blame them. There ought to be within any kind of democracy the sense that there’s something less than desperation at stake here.
“It should be a case of, ok so if my side loses the election, I feel that our country would be worse off but I don’t think democracy hangs in the balance. However there are people who feel that way now. I feel that way now.”
He accepts that’s a strong statement but points to Trump’s unwillingness to commit in advance of the election to accepting its outcome.
“Many millions of Americans are not able to evaluate his claims about rigging no more than I would be able to if someone told me the derivatives market is a joke and is all rigged.
“And if you can not have a peaceful transition power then the prospects for our democratic system are called into question,
“I don’t think it’s going to come down to pitchforks and torches. I think the culture of democracy in this country is stronger than that. But I think that it is more in danger than at any time in my lifetime, maybe with the exception of the impeachment of Nixon.”
With those rather alarming thoughts in mind, Beem and his colleague, Professor Michael Berkman, devised a Trump Class for their third year students which they’ve been attending every Tuesday for the last few months and which will count as a credit towards their qualification.
It’s an unusual idea to run an academic course on events still unfolding but they felt the unusual circumstances justified it.
“Love him or hate him, this is an amazing, unusual and in many ways unique phenomenon in American political history and it needs to be explored,” Beem explained.
“What accounts for it, why did so many people not see this coming, to what degree is he unique, to what degree is he a reflection of trends and emotions that are present throughout the first world?”
Sirena Rowand is one of the one in five students who applied for the oversubscribed course who got on it and she says it’s been an eye-opener. “It has opened my eyes to how Trump is not as uncommon as a lot of people thought,” she says.
Classmate David Smith agrees. “If he were to lose this election, he has certainly shown that with a lot of his ideas and policies, there’s still a significant amount of support for them, so I almost worry, not about him per se but about someone who’s better able to harness that support.
“Trump isn’t very politically savvy, he doesn’t hold himself back. I worry that if there’s someone who’s able to harness that same type of energy but to be a bit more deceptive, to not turn so many people off, then this movement will grow and ideas previously seen as fringe will become mainstream.”
The class had to leave their own political leanings at the door in order to be objective in their assessment, and even Ethan Paul, who plans spoiling his vote by writing in the name of Bernie Sanders, found something to approve in Trump.
“He released a very progressive lobby reform plan. It had a lot of good points.”
Sirena and David found his dismissal of political correctness refreshing too, fearing it has gone too far in places such as their own university where, as they spoke, the wall on Old Main was being dismantled on the order of the college authorities.
“I also question if, when he comes up with really simplistic solutions to problems, if that’s his actual solution or is he trying to keep it simple to get the average person to understand but he really has something else up his sleeve,” Sirena says.
She also feels that there may be merit in his raising questions of election rigging. “We talk about all these elections all over the world that are corrupt so I feel like there is some merit in saying there’s a possibility that our’s is too.
“I’m not saying I believe the whole thing is rigged but there is corruption elsewhere in our institutions and it’s taboo to talk about it, and there have been cases of voter fraud. Deceased people have voted. Just because we’re supposed to be this great free democracy doesn’t mean we should be naive enough to think it mightn’t have flaws.”
David also wonders if we’re seeing the real Trump. “Or is he dumbing himself down deliberately? In a campaign you can not give nuanced, complex solutions to big issues like immigration, capital flight, the loss of manufacturing.
“They need nuanced, complex solutions but Trump seems to know if you offer simplistic ones, people will listen. It’s the same for Hillary - her most successful moments in the debates were not when she gave answers on policy but when she made a quip or delivered a quick rebuke.”
The class have next Tuesday off so they can watch the drama unfold on election night and then there’s one more to assess the outcome.
It’s been compelling, they say, but no, not fun exactly.
Ethan fears there is only one Trump and that there is no moderate intellectual waiting inside of him to take calm control of the White House.
“You only have to see what happens at Trump rallies where they chant about Hillary, saying lock her up.
“I don’t think there will be healing and calm whoever gets in. I think it will be chaotic and very little governing is going to get done.”
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