Stephen Crowley / The New York Times

Some Cornellians say President-elect Donald Trump will represent the working class better than other candidates could have.

November 13, 2016

Students Defend Donald Trump’s Appeal to ‘the People Progress Forgot’

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Although a majority of Cornellians responded to Donald Trump’s election with dismay — with over 1,000 demonstrating on Friday to display their disapproval — some students criticized the liberal bias on campus, arguing that the president-elect speaks for constituencies forgotten by previous administrations.

“This guy is not stupid,” said Mark Svenjak ’18. “We’ve basically elected a frat star. He was probably the guy who sat in the back of the classroom and copied off his classmates but then got 100 on every test.”

While Svenjak called President-elect Donald Trump “probably the biggest bullshitter to grace this earth” he stressed that, at the end of the day, Trump still “holds those American values.”

“[Trump] basically lived the American dream,” he said. “He had a little more leeway financially, but he’s a smart man who basically dipped his foot very far in every industry. This is a guy who’s been on WrestleMania, who’s a reality TV star, on top of being an extremely successful real estate developer who basically started the gentrification of what is now modern day New York.”

Trump’s Campaign ‘Spoke to’ Voters

John Rutkauskas ’20, a half-Hispanic student from Illinois, said he voted for Trump despite not agreeing with “everything Trump says.”

“[Trump] could’ve phrased things differently, he could’ve brought up more statistics, but I truly don’t believe he was trying to be racist or biased against Hispanics in any way,” Rutkauskas said. “I think he really cares about this country, and I think he wants to provide jobs for everyone. I really don’t think what he said was that over the top.”

Richard Ulbricht ’18, who voted for Trump in New York, agreed, challenging those who say Trump’s comments disparaged the way African Americans live in inner cities, arguing that his statement was mischaracterized.

“I’m from west Baltimore and I’ll tell you that from people I know back there, people actually living in those communities who are truly underprivileged, that message spoke to them,” he said.

Allison Callen ’18, who voted for Trump in Florida, echoed Rutkauskas, saying she does not anticipate that Trump will be able to “enact something to hurt other people.”

“There’s always been talk,” she said. “There’s been talk for years about banning abortion, and has it been banned? No. Is it going to be? No. I highly doubt that will happen. It’s definitely not the first thing on [Trump’s] list.”

Svenjak, who abstained from the election but said he would have voted for Trump, added that many of the president-elect’s statements are “nonsense” that “cancels itself out.”

“[Trump] said he was going to build a wall and Mexico would pay for it,” he said. “He knows damn well Mexico’s not paying for that and that wall’s not being built. He’s saying it to get votes.”

Svenjak also defended Trump’s campaign strategy, saying “you can’t just pansy around the bush and just kind of go halfway on anything you say” when running for president.

“Either you’re all in or your platform just fizzles out, and that’s what happens with all these other extremely educated candidates,” Svenjak said.

An Audience in the Working Class

While Ulbricht admits his loyalty to Trump has “wavered many times,” he said he maintained his support because he believes the president-elect will ultimately give voice to “the people progress forgot,” transforming the Republican party into “the party of the working class.”

“People who work at these low-wage jobs are not incompetent people or people who are lazy,” Ulbricht explained, giving the example of a Cornell Dining worker who has a degree in math. “She wants nothing in the world but to be a math teacher … but there are no schools that are hiring, because teacher trade unions have made it impossible to bulk up any more classes than they have. So she’s stuck at what she has and she’s trying to support herself and her two kids on it.”

Rutkauskaus’s Hispanic grandparents have been Democrats their entire lives, in both state and presidential elections, but they decided to vote for Trump this year because they felt like “in the past administration, they’ve been left out,” he said.

“These lower middle class individuals were the ones who voted for Obama because they thought he could have some positive change in their lives, but now they’re going to give someone else a chance,” he said.

Kevin Kee ’18 agreed, saying students are accustomed to living in Cornell’s liberal environment, so “they forget there are a lot of people in America who are pretty conservative and have problems that liberal politicians don’t deal with.”

“He’s so different, so non-politician,” he said. “I believe a lot of people who vote for him aren’t Hispanic-hating, racist or sexist people. They’re just sick of the system they’ve been living in and being ignored.”

Ulbricht added that, unlike other students across the nation, students at schools like Cornell are “just lucky enough to have become self-aware” so early on their lives.

“We’re weird. We’re lucky in that we’re weird that way,” he said. “But that doesn’t make us smarter or better than anyone else. I don’t think I’m any smarter than someone who works at McDonalds.”

Cornellians also view racism differently than most people in America, according to Ulbricht.

“Most people in America see racism as actively seeking to harm another person, to make someone else’s life worse because they are a different race than you, and that’s not what I see here,” he said.

Although Kee abstained from voting in this election, he said if he had to choose a candidate, he would have chosen Trump “just to experiment.”

“I feel like a lot of voters voted that way to see if [Trump] can make a difference,” he said. “They want to see if he can actually be different in the White House. Can he make a difference for people who are suffering right now?”

‘Intolerance’ of Campus Demonstrations

In response to the recent slew of campus demonstrations against Trump, Kee said the Cornell community is “overreacting.”

“I understand that they have a basis for their overreaction, but this election was very legitimate,” he said. “It’s how democracy works. People vote and people voted in the proper states for Trump and that’s how he won.”

Rutkauskas echoed Kee’s statement, saying “it’s a little bit silly because essentially what they’re protesting is democracy.”

“Our country spoke up and at the end of the day, Trump won,” he said.

Rutkauskaus offered another opinion, saying that although demonstrations are “all part of democracy,” he does not believe it is the most effective course of action available to students.

“Ultimately, the best way to go about this is to come together and not attack one particular group for voting for a particular candidate or one particular race for carrying a presidential election,” he said. “Regardless of what you say about Caucasians or Hispanics or Blacks, it’s democracy and it’s ultimately their choice. The president is their choice. And the country chose Donald Trump.”

However, Rutkauskaus said there are people on campus who are “very intolerant of opposing political views,” despite the fact that liberals pride themselves in being “all about acceptance.”

“It’s pretty apparent now that [Cornell] is a place that is going to, in one way or another, sort of attempt to intimidate you if you’re not a liberal,” he said. “I can already tell that professors will try to intimidate you if you don’t agree with their political beliefs. Students obviously will do the same thing. They’ll yell at you, they’ll tell you you’re wrong.”

Accepting President-Elect Trump

Ulbricht said he is on the “cautiously optimistic side” about Trump’s impending presidency, saying the president-elect’s advisors will play a significant role in helping him achieve his desired outcomes.

“I see [Trump] as someone who has well diagnosed a problem and doesn’t yet have all the solutions, but he has a lot of very smart people around him that can help him,” Ulbricht said.

While he acknowledged that the election has been “very emotional” and its outcome is still uncertain, Ulbricht cautioned the American people from betting against Trump now that he will assume office.

“You’re betting against yourselves, and you’re betting against the people in America, the working poor, any downwardly mobile groups,” he said. “You’re betting against the most wealthy and everyone in the middle class, because in a presidential administration that fails, so does everyone below it. There are no exceptions to that.”