Morehouse College in the West End of Atlanta is an all male, historically black college that educates just over 2,000 students at any given time. The college itself is part of the Atlanta University Centre, one of 10 schools traditionally catering for black students in the city.
Their mission is simple: to train and educate young black men to go out and serve as leaders in their communities. You can imagine my surprise then, when I get a message from a guy called Donnie, a young Republican at the college, offering to meet.
Donnie Pulliam is a senior economics major from Savannah, Georgia, who hopes to head to law school when he completes his final year.
He’s also a Republican, an active member of the party’s student chapter at the college. They campaign for and support the party at a local and national level. On paper they have 12-15 members, but active people on campus he says number closer to eight. The Young Democrat chapter is somewhat larger.
It’s late afternoon when we meet outside on the campus, in the shadow of a large statue of civil rights hero Martin Luther King. Since being in the city I haven’t spoken to many Republicans, certainly none who look like this young black man. In many ways I hadn’t found this surprising; the percentage of black people voting Trump was in single figures.
For the record, Donnie did not vote for Donald. But his support for the Republican Party didn’t waiver in the run up to the elections, no matter how absurd things got. I had to understand why. If there’s one lesson to be taken from the shock of Trump’s rise it’s that it’s time to start talking outside the echo chamber that reinforces our own worldview. No matter how awkward it gets.
So, at a time when we, the media, are being rightfully scrutinised for bending towards bias, I’ve decided to recount that conversation verbatim – uncomfortable silences and all.
Tell me something about yourself, where are you from?
I grew up in Savannah, Georgia, my family are conservative, faith-based Democrats. When I came to college I did some research, some reading, and realised I didn’t agree with many of the views and values that the Democrats held. A member of the Republican Party here got me involved, we rechartered the organisation. It’s here I began to identify as a Republican.
You started to realise you had different values?
I’m fiscally conservative, in terms of taxes; entitlement programmes; discretionary spending; the national debt. Learning these things I started to think that the Democrats weren’t doing anything, but the Republicans were putting up a fight.
There’s an economic side to Republican politics, but there’s a social side too.
Yeah, for me it depends on the issue, I do tend to be more socially liberal than some members of my party. There are some issues, like Second Amendment right, where I do believe in the right to bare arms. When it comes to civil rights, for say the LGBT community, I’m definitely on the liberal side.
Let’s drill down a bit, let’s talk about immigration.
For me it’s in terms of job security. I was an intern at the Heritage Foundation [a conservative think tank] a few years ago, and learnt about immigration, both legal and illegal. Say if we granted citizenship to the 11 million undocumented workers, I learnt how our welfare state would fail and crumble, how it would hit those already living in America. Jobs that illegal immigrants perform take away jobs from Americans. Americans have a right to those jobs.
What about guns? The second amendment…
This, I find, is a rural-versus-urban issue. For me it’s going hunting, protecting my family, not walking out my house and being scared of getting shot. Those who disagree often come from a very urban perspective, but I don’t have that. In the country we all have guns, there’s no gun wars.
Do you have a gun?
No, not on campus, but my family members do at home.
Let’s talk about the election. Did your chapter here at Morehouse endorse Trump?
Right, so this election cycle, when it came to the presidential race, the Georgia College of Republicans put out a statement that didn’t endorse Donald Trump. Some schools did, and they campaigned on their own, including some students here at Morehouse.
And what about you, did you support him and his policies?
Well, he didn’t really put out a lot of policies. It was hard to give a critical analysis.
Well let’s go through some of what he did say. The wall with Mexico?
No, I’m not in favour of that.
Banning Muslims from…
No, not that either. We have first amendment, freedom of religion. Yeah, I guess there are things I didn’t agree with.
And on LGBT people…?
No, like I said, I’m pretty supportive of LGBTQ rights in this country. I guess overall a lot of what Trump said I wouldn’t have supported, no.
Well is there anything else he said you didn’t support?
Um, it’s difficult because he wasn’t giving many policies, more about how he was going to defeat ISIS, and when he does it’s going to be great, because I’m the best. He wasn’t giving anything substantial. I wish he’d have put his 100-day plan out before he was elected.
I guess it’s odd to me, because you’ve talked about why you see yourself as fiscally conservative, but that just isn’t what Trump was talking about.
Right, yeah. He did have cutting taxes and creating jobs, however vague. I’m for those things. I do support those parts. For the most part, like, the social statements he made about Muslims, women, Latinos I don’t agree with.
Are you uncomfortable with the fact that he’s now the man in the highest position of authority in the party you’re an active member of?
There’s definitely a level of uncertainty coming with this President, I don’t think anyone would disagree. He’s beginning to surround himself now, though, with Republicans who’ve been in the game a long time, who do hold conservative values. I’m hoping those people will advise him, so he doesn’t just say random things.
Didn’t he once say all Republicans are stupid?
He did, and he also said how he once supported LGBT rights, and now he says he’s against them. A lot of people think he just did that to appeal to the base off the Republican Party, to try and get those votes. It was an election, that’s what people do. Maybe the talk and rhetoric was just to get votes and support.
If he was a Democrat, do you think you’d be defending him in the same way? I mean, you haven’t actually defended him, you’re saying hopefully he didn’t mean it, but part of me wonders if you’re just saying that because you’re in the same party…
If it was Hillary Clinton, would you say the same?
That may have something to do with it. Party lines, hoping for the best. If he was a Democrat I probably wouldn’t be saying this stuff, no.
Does that worry you?
Maybe, kinda, yeah. I guess it does.
I wasn’t in the US for the elections, but I watched his rallies, I saw the way that black people were mistreated, attacked and thumped. I watched the confederate flags, the booing, make America great again, the demonisation of Obama because of his race. It scares me.
Like I said, I didn’t support or vote for him, but now I’m hopeful and thinking positively about the future. What’s the best route from here? How do we deal with it? I’m trying to remain positive. He is the President elect.
What about the Republican Party as a whole? You said a lot of what he said, even if you disagree with it, was said to appeal to the base of the party. People in your party. These people are racist. They’re homophobic, they’re Islamophobic, and they clearly make up a large proportion of your party because they voted him in.
We had 17 candidates running, each had a faction. Trump’s faction was a minority-majority, that’s why he’s President now. If there were less people running I don’t think he would be.
Does it worry you?
There are worries with any President. Even four or eight years ago with Obama there were worries about what to expect.
What would have worried you about Obama before his Presidency?
I live in America, this was a new kind of President, a black man. There was a fear of how other Americans, white Americans, would react. Would they come together to make it work? Would they retaliate? Being from the south I’ve seen racism first hand. Will it be safe for me to walk down the streets? Would it be safe for me to go to school?
But those people would have been Republicans…
That’s true, that’s true.
This is what I don’t understand.
The thing is, if you look at the Republican platform and what it stands for it doesn’t stand for racism and xenophobia.
Have you seen or heard Donald Trump?
I mean yeah, it’s true, but I’m talking about the social, fiscal conservatism. It’s what I and most minority Republicans go to. I think these values can help in my community, as a black person. I believe fiscally and socially conservative values could really help us. I as a Republican, hold ideas dear to benefit my community.
Do you think America is racist? Not just racist individuals, but structurally, institutionally racist?
Like systemic racism? I do, it’s there.
Do you think many Republicans agree?
Some do, but they’re ignorant to much of what happens. They don’t want to believe it, they want to believe that America is changing and progressing.
I’m not sure I agree with that. I think they don’t give a shit because white Republicans do well out of it, they have privilege.
If they’re naive it’s because they want to be. Why start questioning their own systems and institutions if they’re set to lose out?
You do have some of that. You do have outright racist Republicans, but Democrats are too, they’ll just be smiling. Both parties have structural racism.
You didn’t support Trump or vote for him, but you didn’t walk out the party or denounce him. Let’s imagine something, for a second. Imagine if Donald Trump has said the same things he’s said about Mexicans, LGBT people, women or Muslims, about black people. If he’d supported cops shooting black people, the school-to-prison pipeline. Would you have said it’s too far?
Do you think that because he wasn’t talking as much about black people in this campaign that you’ve given him more space. Maybe it’s not just because you’re a Republican, but because he wasn’t targeting your community.
Um. I mean, yeah. You know, if he had said those things about the black community I probably would have denounced him a lot more. Probably. That’s interesting, yeah I guess I haven’t really thought about that much.
I think I’ve seen that a lot. We make allowances when people are on your side, or when they’re not attacking our own community. Maybe we defend them because they’re on our side.
I guess so.
This is a black campus. Are people here, especially now, hostile towards you knowing your active in the Republican Party?
Now they know I didn’t support Trump, they give me a break. You know, I do get attacked on a lot of issues. One thing I want to say is that as Republicans we’re often generalised, told we believe the same things, but we had 17 candidates running! Just because one Republican says something, we don’t all believe it.
Have you stopped and thought, at any point since Trump’s campaign got moving, that maybe you’re in the wrong party? Even if you’re fiscally conservative, that right now it’s not what they’re about?
Ever since I became a Republican I’ve had to. I know there are racist Republicans, some even have high positions. The President, for example. But fiscal conservatism is why I stay with it. There are faults, it’s not perfect, but for me what the party stands for, I guess some might say racism, but there are policies that make me a Republican.
If Trump keeps his promises, would you then need to reconsider? If he builds a wall, if he continues to grab women by the pussy?
Of course. Even when he was becoming the nominee I had to sit and think. A lot of people said the Republican Party is dead now, a new one forming in its name. To some degree it’s true, but as a millennial, college Republicans, we see it differently. We’re the future leaders of the party, if it’s still around. That gives me hope. I see where it’s heading. The old party is in play, but we’re taking over.
Are you? I thought Trump just took over… The fact that so few African Americans voted for Trump, does it make you feel that maybe you’ve made a mistake? Maybe you should have spoken out against Trump? Even now. America is divided and divisive. Race, gender, sexuality are the main points of clash. Trump supporters seem to be saying we as white people, as WASPS, are losing our grip on this country. Take this city, it’s a majority black. People with privilege don’t want to let it slip!
Yet here’s you, sat on a college campus, trying to recruit people to the party. Trying to recruit other young black men.
I’m not going to lie, this election has been a setback. Before the election I saw where the party was going: more blacks, Hispanics, LGBT people. Trump’s win I suppose is a slap in the face to my kind of Republicanism. And so like I say we’re trying to remain hopeful, we hope he won’t see it through.
And what if he doesn’t? If he doesn’t see his promises through, won’t much of America be angry? The political disenfranchisement that we’re seeing that’s led to Trump, it’s happening because establishment politicians and political parties are making promises they never fulfil. If Trump doesn’t deliver, won’t someone come along and say: “See, once again the elite are ignoring you, we need to shift even further to the right.” That’s what I fear. He either builds the wall and bans Muslims, or Trump’s supporters get angry.
I don’t know if I should say this, but I’d rather he goes along with the idea that he was just saying these things, and it not be true, and in 2020 we have a new candidate. I hope he’s just one of those candidates that says things to get elected but doesn’t see it through. That’s the hopeful me. If he does them, I’ll have to ask myself if it’s a party I want to be part of.
Deep down, do you wish Clinton had won between the two of them? Be honest with me.
We’d have known what to expect from a Clinton presidency.
Would you have rather she’d won?
Um, I wouldn’t say that.
Would you rather Trump had won?
I wouldn’t say that either. I wish someone else had won.
That wasn’t going to happen.
I was expecting Hillary to win.
Who would you rather though? You knew one would.
I guess all I’ll say is that from Hillary I’d have known what to expect, I would have felt safer knowing what to expect from Hilary. Trump I don’t know, there’s a fear from not knowing.
Michael Segalov is the News Editor at Huck and will be on the ground in Atlanta over the coming days. Keep track of his progress as he asks where America goes from here. And if you’re in Atlanta and want to share your story, please reach out.