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Young Conservative Students Express Feelings of Being Silenced, Misunderstood
April 15, 2019
In a closet of t-shirts and hockey jerseys is a red hoodie. Wearing this hoodie is a decision that freshman Steven Barrick decides to make about once a week. It is a hoodie that can be picked out in a crowd, and one that costs Barrick dozens of dirty looks in the hallways. Like any other, this hoodie is just something that keeps him warm from the cold AC of the high school, but there is one major difference: it says “Trump 2020.”
“I know when I put it on in the morning that I’m going to get hated for it, and I kind of have to mentally prepare for it before I leave the house,” Barrick said. “That is what happens every day that I wear this hoodie.”
Barrick considers himself a poster child for the young conservatives at his school. This is partly because he wears his red hoodie to express his support for President Donald Trump, despite all of the looks that strangers give him.
“I need to keep my head up and just go through it, because if I’m going to be open about it, I’m going to get the hate,” Barrick said. “I just wish that people didn’t have an altered view of us right away, and I feel like everyone does.”
Barrick is not the only young conservative who feels blowback when he expresses his views. Although he and other conservatives students live in the red state of Texas, some of them have said that it is common for their peers to silence their voices.
“I have some friends that don’t really like to hear what I have to say and just block me out,” senior Kennedy Haught, a conservative student, said. “They pretty much tell me that I’m wrong. No one really wants to hear the opposite side.”
Haught is a dancer on the Celebrities. One day in the locker room, she said that some of the dancers’ conversation led to the topic of climate change and Haught decided to speak up. She said that some of the girls immediately looked at her in shock and began questioning her beliefs.
“I was trying to explain myself, but everyone was yelling,” Haught said. “I felt attacked and I didn’t have a voice. I wasn’t able to state my opinion without being talked over or interrupted. I think it is good when we have a contrasting opinion, but everyone should have the opportunity to explain their views equally, and that definitely didn’t happen in this case.”
Being a conservative does not hold the same meaning for every person. Although Haught said that she supports Trump as Barrick does, other self-identified conservatives at school may not support him at all.
Another senior on the Celebrities, Jenna McQueen, said that she does not support the president. McQueen said that regardless of whether conservatives support him, people make rash assumptions about what they believe in.
“Everyone assumes that if you are conservative, then you are Trump all the way and you believe in what he does, and that is definitely not the case,” McQueen said. “Assuming that everyone is just in this little box is not the right thing.”
Even though she avoids confrontation as much as possible, she said that having a plain conversation about her views often ends badly.
“I have met people who don’t really hear me out and I think that that’s not really fair, because I am trying to hear them out,” McQueen said. “There is definitely a preconceived wall, and when they hear that I am conservative, they immediately don’t want to hear my reasoning behind it.”
To better understand the experience of young conservative students, The Wolfpack released a voluntary survey on their Instagram, @CPHSNews. Out of the 28 conservative students who filled out the survey, all but one said that people automatically associate them with Trump’s actions. McQueen said that when she is with people who she knows are against Trump, it affects her willingness to be open.
“It prevents me from wanting to come out and say why I believe things, because I feel like they are automatically not going to want to listen to me because they hate Trump so much,” McQueen said. “They think that I am his number one fan just because I am conservative. It definitely holds me back from sharing what I believe.”
Senior debate student Jack Shields said that he is also a conservative who does not support Trump. Unlike McQueen, however, Shields makes a point to initiate political conversation in his daily life.
“Probably every person who knows me, knows I am extremely conservative,” Shields said. “It is something I am really passionate about, so I bring it up a lot and talk about it every day, if not every class period.”
Being open about his views does not reduce the assumptions people make about him. Shields said that in order to gain credibility in a political conversation, he must make his stance on the president clear from the start.
“I have to take the necessary step in a conversation to point out that I don’t like [Trump] and I don’t agree with him,” Shields said. “I essentially have to spend a lot of time proving that my intentions are pure before they will listen to me about anything, because they kind of start from their preconceived notion that I have ill intent and I don’t care as much about the people who are affected by issues. I have to show that I do care, but I just have a different opinion on what we should do in order to fix it.”
Shields, who has been a part of the Speech and Debate team for more than two years, said that he often talks to the other students at debate competitions about political topics while they are stuck waiting around. He said that when he mentions that he is conservative to a more non-conservative group of students, they lose interest in debating with him. This is mainly due to the association they make between him and Trump, he said.
“[It happens] all the time and it is incredibly frustrating,” Shields said. “They apply all of the negative labels they have for him onto you and all of your ideas. It is definitely bad because a lot of the time, they assume that just because he is a Republican president, I agree with everything he does and I am a huge fan of him, but that is actually untrue, I disagree with a lot of stuff he does and I am in no way a fan of him.”
Before the Trump presidency, the Pew Research Center studied political polarization from 1994-2014 in America. They found that the number of Americans who are consistent in their political views, rather than being mixed, has doubled in the past two decades. In the same time frame, Americans who viewed the opposite political party as ‘very unfavorable’ more than doubled, and in 2014, 27 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans viewed the opposite party as a threat to the nation’s well-being.
This data shows an increase in partisanship and the tension between parties, however there have been no similar studies by Pew Research to account for the time that Trump has been in office.
“Unfortunately, there has been a rise of intolerance when it comes to other political beliefs,” Shields said. “It used to be that even though we could disagree politically, there were still things that we could unite upon and talk about that we could build friendships and communities off of. We have politicized everything to the point where we see each other as enemies and we are starting to see less unifying themes in the country.”
Compared to the past five presidencies, Pew Research found that Trump’s approval rating throughout his presidency is consistently lower than the others. The closest that other presidents have gotten to Trump’s approval rating was in January, when Ronald Reagan tied with Trump at a 37 percent approval rating.
An additional comparison to past presidents by Pew Research shows that within Trump’s first 60 days, there were three times the amount of negative news stories regarding Trump than there were during each of the past three presidencies.
Any news surrounding the administration or conservatives can affect the assumptions that people make about their right-winged peers. In January, young conservatives received national attention when Covington Catholic High School students were filmed taunting an elderly Native American man while wearing MAGA hats. Since that incident, there has been much controversy about whether the boys at the pro-life rally in Washington, D.C. were portrayed accurately by the media.
Washington Post published an editor’s note on March 1 apologizing for their misleading coverage on the story. Their note read that “subsequent reporting, a student’s statement and additional video allow for a more complete assessment of what occurred.”
Senior Rehm Maham said that videos like these frame how the country views young conservatives.
“It has really become emblematic of what a young conservative looks like,” Maham said. “It looks like someone in a ‘Make America Great Again’ hat, yelling at someone of a minority who is older than them. I don’t think that is what young conservatives look like, but that has become the preconceived notion in our society.”
Also in January of this year, “Empire” actor Jussie Smollett claimed that he was assaulted by two men who were yelling racist and homophobic slurs, along with “This is MAGA country.” He said that during the attack, they wrapped a rope around his neck like a noose and poured an unknown liquid on him.
Throughout a month-long investigation by Chicago Police, people began questioning the truth of Smollett’s claims. In mid-February, evidence led to the arrest of Smollett, who staged the event and paid two men $3,500 to appear as his attackers.
While the media was blamed in the Covington Catholic controversy, Maham said that Smollett’s choice to bring ‘MAGA’ into his claim is something that can similarly be divisive.
“Conflating and accusing any Donald Trump supporter with bigotry and racism simply due to their support of Trump will only further divide the country,” Maham said. “If we want to see real progress these kinds of broad statements must be avoided by both sides.”
Ninety-five percent of teens own or have access to a smartphone and two-thirds of Americans say that they get news on social media, according to Pew Research. With this level of accessibility, teens may run into stories that misrepresent or generalize people of certain political views.
Regardless of the conclusions teens may make based on the media, students eventually have to put their phones away to learn among a variety of people in the school setting.
Senior Mitch Jackson is a conservative and percussionist who works every day with a range of band students. When interacting with a diverse group, Jackson said that it is important to acknowledge that everyone has different experiences.
“You can be individual about anything you want, everyone is different and has different experiences and views on the world,” Jackson said. “No one 100 percent aligns with another person.”
For him personally, Jackson said that he considers being a conservative just a small aspect of who he is. He said that while he does not fear political conversation, his friend group typically avoids engaging in political topics.
“I know that a lot of people will just argue, and never want to change their views,” Jackson said. “If you can say ‘I respect your opinion, but I just think this way,’ then that’s good and very mature. It just doesn’t always happen.”
While Jackson avoids politics for the most part, Barrick, who wears a Trump hoodie to school on a weekly basis, said that he often expresses his views on politics through his Instagram. He currently has about 900 followers, and once yielded 683 likes and 124 comments on a single political post in response to posters illegally installed on New York City trash cans that portrayed Trump supporters and read “Keep NYC Trash Free.”
Among the support he received in the comment section for his response, Barrick said that there were countless hateful comments. He said that in the past, he has even gotten death threats referring to his politics through direct message on Instagram, which he has had to report to the assistant principals.
“I am judged very badly and when I post something on my Instagram, I get called almost every name imaginable: racist, sexist, bigot,” Barrick said. “Anything you can think of, I get called.”
Although many students from school follow him and can leave comments on his posts, he said that oddly enough, people do not approach him about politics at school.
“I’ve never had a formal debate with someone in person,” Barrick said. “I would like to, but I don’t think anyone has wanted to come up and say ‘I want to debate you.’ It has never happened. I would happily do it.”
Barrick said that he sometimes goes back and forth with those who message him on Instagram, but he otherwise does not have direct political conversations with those of opposing views, as most of his friends have the same beliefs as him. Even if he did have non-conservative friends to debate with, Barrick said that he doesn’t think it would end well.
“There is too much emotion that gets into it,” Barrick said. “It has never happened in person, but if it were to happen, it would most definitely end in name calling. I don’t think that teenagers are usually capable of it.”
Name calling does not have to be the end result of a political debate, according to Shields. Among the several aspects of communicating with people who have opposing views, he said that it is helpful to remember that some people are not fit to have a respectful political debate.
“I have to judge whether the conversation is going to be beneficial or not,” Shields said. “If we are both going to get angry or annoyed, then it is not worth it, but if there is a chance that we can actually learn from each other and communicate, then I will do it.”
Listening to the other person is another aspect of a respectful debate, but Shields said that simply ‘listening’ is not enough.
When a conservative or non-conservative has preconceived notions about the other side, Shields said that this can easily act as a blockade in communication.
“It doesn’t matter what a person is proposing,” Shields said. “If you believe that they have ill intent and that they don’t care about helping people like you do, you are not going to listen.”
Similarly, Maham said that it is crucial to accept that there is a major reason why people have different political views.
“The biggest thing that goes into a healthy political conversation is very simple – it is understanding that both people in the conversation legitimately want what is best for their country,” Maham said.
Understanding that everyone has unique experiences and reasons for their beliefs is something that Haught said she and her non-conservative friends hold close.
“I am actually really close with a lot of liberal people,” Haught said. “One of my closest friends is liberal, and we can talk about things easily and agree to not blow up on each other. We understand that we have opposing views.”
Like most of Texas, Williamson County is a historically red area. In the past five general elections that date back to 2008, Williamson voted 55 percent Republican on average.
Right below Williamson is Travis County – a county that is less than an hour away and voted only 32 percent Republican. When students cross the lines of Williamson County, or the lines of Texas, they will be exposed to new ideas and people.
McQueen plans to move over 100 miles east in the fall to attend Texas A&M University in College Station, TX. With less than two months of high school remaining for McQueen, she said that despite her negative experiences, she is hopeful for her relationship with non-conservatives.
“I have had some really good conversations with people who I didn’t think were understanding,” McQueen said. “So I am starting to learn that it is okay to share what I think, as long as I am willing to hear the other person out.”