IOWA CITY — Conservative students have rejoiced at Iowa colleges since Donald Trump won the presidency.
Progressives were in a funk but have emerged ready to man the barricades against Trumpism.
Those are conclusions from IowaWatch interviews with students and faculty at six Iowa public and private universities in March and April.
“Just going from Democrat to Republican, regardless of how you feel, is big change for everyone,” said Aaron Clemens, 21 of Birmingham, a junior sociology major at William Penn University in Oskaloosa. “For a lot of people if they hear something they don’t like, they automatically get mad, and discussion goes from civil to argument fast.”
“There’s a general vibe,” said Alexander Newkirk, 23, of Des Moines, a third-year history graduate student at the University of Northern Iowa. “You get a sense from people that things are a lot more heated now in a certain sense.”
Clemens and Newkirk were among 11 students interviewed for IowaWatch’s fifth annual College Media Project to explore the political debate at Buena Vista University, Loras College, Simpson College, University of Iowa, University of Northern Iowa and William Penn University.
Although the discourse is more orderly and less radical than in the 1960s, students sense the 2016 election has changed their world, and political debate is no longer a rarity on campus.
“It’s just so ubiquitous,” said Bryan Kampbell, 42, associate professor of communication studies at Buena Vista in Storm Lake. He noted “a perception maybe across the country that, whether you are happy about the election or not, somehow, as a nation, we have sort of turned a corner, that things are different.”
Rachel Zuckerman, University of Iowa’s Student Government president, believes the campaign effects will last awhile.
“I think there were long-term polarizing effects of the really contentious race that we continue to see play out,” said Zuckerman, 22, of Livonia, Mich.
Some faculty, even Trump opponents, see one silver lining in the results: Students are engaged in public affairs like never before.
Annamaria Formichella Elsden, 52, Buena Vista’s dean of the school of communication and art, said White House messages about deportation and Trump’s campaign allegation Mexico is sending “bad people” to the U.S. have caused fear among undocumented students.
“I think there is reason for them feel less safe,” she said.
Rylee Kerper, 21, a University of Iowa senior, said emotions remain strong and focused on action to counter Trump policies.
“It’s less anger and more, ‘What are we going to do now …. and how are we going to help people affected?’” said Kerper, a political science major from DeWitt.
Many fear Trump’s election will embolden extreme conservatives. In Indianola, Simpson College sophomore Belle Ward, 20, fears “people who could be more homophobic, racist, Islamaphobic are potentially less hidden about those beliefs now.” But she hasn’t seen any of that behavior at Simpson, and she said people shouldn’t “vilify” anyone because of how they voted.
At UNI, Nikia Watson, 20, a sophomore political science major from Chicago, said, “The university is doing a better job at pushing for diversity and inclusion and making us feel more welcome since the election took place.”
Nevertheless, some minorities found motivation to get more politically involved, said UNI junior Ashley Sanchez. A psychology and Spanish major from West Liberty, Sanchez, 20, said, “We’re no longer going to be in the shadows; we’re going to be active, and we’re are going to show we’re here to stay.”
Such debate spills out of the classroom and into the streets.
The protests haven’t always been peaceful in Iowa City. Madhuri Belkale, a University of Iowa freshman from Cedar Rapids, said tension mounted after the election.
In late January, someone painted “Nazi scum” on a on North Clinton Street home in Iowa City where a Trump banner was hanging. A day earlier, a man burned an American flag on the downtown pedestrian mall to protest what he believed was the threat of fascism under Trump.
Naomi Clark, 40, assistant English professor at Loras College in Dubuque, said many students are getting more engaged. They had “a false sense of security” the majority of Americans share their views, “and I think they’re seeing that wasn’t so much the case, and so they are more interested in promoting their ideas and connecting with those who share them.”
But some students feel discourse has calmed since the inauguration.
People were “hyper aware of things” during the campaign, said Morgan Langan, 20, a senior from O’Neill, Neb., and a Buena Vista College environmental science major. “Now the talk is more of like what’s happening in sports.”
Elsewhere, however, political concerns persist, especially after Trump signed controversial executive orders.
Kyle Apple, 19, vice president of University of Iowa College Republicans, said, “The election was all anyone wanted to talk about for the first few weeks and again following the inauguration. Now, it only spikes up when Trump does something people think is controversial.”
Apple, a freshman political science major from Eldridge, said conservative students are vastly outnumbered on campus, leaving them reluctant to challenge their liberal peers.
“When Republicans speak up about issues they are passionate about, they are instantly labeled racists, bigots or misogynists. The labels attached to us for simply thinking different are wrong,” he said.
IowaWatch college journalists contributing to this story are Krista Johnson of the University of Iowa, Allyssa Ertz and Lindsey Graham of Buena Vista University, Jeremy Esparza of William Penn University, Sami Graff of Loras College and Tamesha Derby of Simpson College.
This story was produced by the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism-IowaWatch.org, a non-profit, online news Website that collaborates with Iowa news organizations to produce explanatory and investigative reporting.
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