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Stanford College Republicans navigate Trump, friction with mainstream liberalism and their own future

(Courtesy of Stanford College Republicans)

Although Stanford’s undergraduate population tends toward the Democratic party, the University is not without its conservative tendencies. The Stanford Review was co-founded over 30 years ago by venture capitalist and conservative philanthropist Peter Thiel; resident think tank the Hoover Institution once included Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster among its fellows.

The Stanford College Republicans (SCR), meanwhile, have traditionally kept a low profile, but the last several months have seen the group put more effort into engaging the student body. The organization has played a more active role in campus political discussions, and in some cases — such as their controversial decision to host self-proclaimed Islamophobe Robert Spencer last November — they have actively created and steered new conversations. They’re not shy about making their opinions publicly known, either — their Facebook page, for instance, features commentary and links to articles from The Review, Fox News and Breitbart on issues ranging from abortion to tax reform to immigration.

Co-president Justin Hsuan ’18 makes no secret about his political opinions. Even if the University didn’t require student groups to publicly identify their leaders, he says he would still be open about his involvement with SCR.

“Someone’s got to talk about it, right?” Hsuan said. “If you don’t think you’re doing anything bad — which I don’t think we are — and you think people are interested in what we’re doing, which I think people are — why not be open about it?”

Hsuan knew he wanted to get involved in politics when he first came to Stanford, having been politically active for Republican causes in high school. When he first encountered SCR at Stanford’s fall activities fair just days into his freshman year, he knew he’d found his niche, and signed up for the group’s executive board on the spot.

SCR’s mission, according to financial officer John David Rice-Cameron ’20, is to promote conservative ideas at Stanford and challenge what he sees as the campus’ prevailing liberal atmosphere.

“It’s very, very likely that without organizations like SCR, [students] could go their whole lives at Stanford without getting a conservative perspective,” Rice-Cameron said. “What we’re trying to do is promote our ideas on campus and start conversations that will get people discussing key conservative principles, guiding the campus conversation around political issues in a more balanced direction.”

A changing of the guard

Prior to Stanford College Republicans’ rise, the predominant campus organization for right-leaning students was the Stanford Conservative Society (SCS). While the Conservative Society occasionally engaged with groups such as Stanford Democrats in debates, the group was more known for social events than actual politicking.

“Before I came here — let’s say up, until spring 2016 — SCS did very many little wine and cheese events, a few speakers, and such,” said Philip Eykamp ’20, secretary of SCR. “College Republicans, on the other hand, mostly kept its involvement to rather quiet, internal campaign stuff… Nobody really knew about it, and it wasn’t much of a presence on campus.”

In contrast to SCR’s political activities  — knocking on doors, phone banking for local Republicans — Rice-Cameron described the Conservative Society as “more of a social club” than a political organization. It has since come to hold even less of a presence on campus  — the group’s Facebook page hasn’t been updated since its last wine and cheese event in April 2016, and Hsuan said that he’s received just “one email from them all quarter.”

The leadership of the Conservative Society did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Daily.

“I never felt there was a need for two organizations anyway,” Hsuan said.

But as the Conservative Society has declined, SCR has thrived. The major catalyst for group’s rise was the presidential election of Donald Trump. Hsuan and Eykamp say they were both suspicious of Trump during the primaries; Hsuan, a Rubio supporter, recalled being “very conflicted,” while Eykamp feared he might be “a Democrat in sheep’s clothing.” However, Hsuan said that SCR’s members united behind Trump once he won the nomination, wanting to “at least make sure that the Republican wins [the presidency].”

“We’ve felt emboldened by conservative success across the country,” Rice-Cameron said. “At the end of last year, [SCR] decided that they wanted to take on a new approach of being bolder and more active in promoting conservative ideas, and having an impact on the landscape of campus politics.”

With Hsuan and the rest of SCR’s leadership graduating in June, the future of the group will be determined by younger members like Rice-Cameron — members who, Hsuan says, have a very different approach to campus politics than their predecessors did. Rice-Cameron, Hsuan and Eykamp each described current members as more “activist” than their forerunners.

“The tradition for SCR — at least, the one that I was familiar with from my early years here — was that there was no such thing as conservative activism,” Hsuan explained. “The younger generation seems to have this activist, outward-facing bent.”

Asked about forthcoming SCR efforts, Rice-Cameron singled out a new “Change My Mind” series — inspired by podcaster and political commentator Steven Crowder’s activity of the same name — intended to spark “thoughtful, respectful discussions” in public spaces with passersby about controversial issues such as abortion.

Rice-Cameron contrasted his group’s outreach with that of left-wing campus activism, which he criticized as “audacious and flashy.”

“Conservatives don’t really have that insecurity,” Rice-Cameron said. “We don’t feel like we need to shove it down peoples’ throats.”

However, SCR’s tactics have drawn criticism from some of Stanford’s Democrats and more progressive activists.

“I think the reinvigoration of SCR is dangerous and ominous,” said Ravi Veriah Jacques ’20, co-founder of The Stanford Sphere, a self-described left-wing online publication. “Their aim is to provoke without principle or commitment to intellectualism.”

Gabe Rosen ’19, president of Stanford Democrats and an undergraduate senator, said he believes it is important for “people across the political spectrum … to engage in constructive and civil discourse,” but said that SCR has so far failed to do so.

“I believe that SCR has recently been engaged in provocative political activity that does not do much for the creation of an atmosphere on campus conducive for such discourse,” Rosen said.

On Robert Spencer and beyond

Stanford College Republicans owes much of its latest newfound attention to its invitation last fall for controversial figure Robert Spencer to give a Nov. 14 speech on campus — roughly 20 minutes into the event, about 150 students staged a walkout, leaving the lecture hall mostly empty. The doors were not reopened after the protesters left, preventing new attendees from hearing the remainder of Spencer’s speech.

Spencer’s supporters label him a leader of the “counter-jihad” movement; his critics decry his opinions as Islamophobic (a label he claimed in the title of his most recent book, “Confessions of an Islamophobe”).

Prior to the event, SCR published an explanation of their decision in The Stanford Review, writing that there was “arguably no greater threat to the safety and security of the American people than radical Islamic terrorism.”

The group also wrote that Spencer added “a sorely needed perspective to an important conversation about international security.”

Spencer’s invitation provoked widespread condemnation from students, student groups, and faculty; op-eds in the Daily accused SCR of “promot[ing] anti-Muslim views on campus” and “endorsing Spencer’s bigotry with Stanford’s name and students’ money.”

In response to the controversy, University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell wrote an open letter in defense of “freedom of inquiry and the free expression of ideas.”

Four graduate students, who coauthored an op-ed criticizing Lavigne and Drell’s response, received so many threatening messages that their email addresses were later removed from the letter.

Reflecting on the event, Hsuan said that he “got a lot more than [he] bargained for.” However, Rice-Cameron denied that Spencer was invited purely to stoke outrage.

“A lot of people accuse SCR of being just a bunch of provocateurs, people who wanted to bring somebody inflammatory to campus in order to set people off and ignite this firestorm, and that isn’t true,” Rice-Cameron said. “We knew that people would not be happy with his perspective. We knew that people would react the way they did. That wasn’t the intent.”

Prior to Spencer’s speech, SCR estimated its membership was roughly 35. Rice-Cameron said that the group gained “about 15 new people at the meeting right after the event” and has continued to add members on a weekly basis since then. Today, Rice-Cameron and Eykamp put SCR’s membership at between 60 and 70 members — double what it was before the Spencer controversy.

That growth has also helped encourage SCR’s members be more open about their political opinions. Hsuan and Eykamp both said that some freshmen have asked to be cropped out of group photos, but Eykamp said it is now “less of an isolated event to be a Republican on campus.”

“A lot of us are more open to talking to people if we think they might be interested in being a part of College Republicans,” he added.

And for members like Rice-Cameron, the interest from younger students bodes well for the future of SCR.

“There’s a pool of people in the freshman and sophomore class who are ambitious and driven, and have creative ideas about how they want to promote conservatism on campus,” he said. “It’s going to sustain the club for years to come.”

 

Contact Jacob Nierenberg at jhn2017 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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