Matilda Kreider, a freshman double-majoring in political communication and environmental studies, is a Hatchet opinions writer.
I wrote a Facebook status supporting Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton last week before the first presidential debate. Soon after, a freshman GW student and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump supporter named Tom Crean left comments on the post. Rather than avoid or ignore his beliefs, I decided I should hear him out and consider his point of view.
I’ve always believed there’s an unspoken rule in politically charged spaces: Conflicting ideas should be dissected, debated and even fought over, but the conflict shouldn’t devolve into personal attacks. It’s easy to think that maintaining this respect is easy, but it becomes harder when we feel threatened by others’ views. I thought back to that rule and decided I needed to follow it when dealing with classmates and acquaintances, like Crean, who support Trump.
I reached out to Crean after I attended the presidential debate watch party last week co-hosted by the School of Media and Public Affairs, the College Democrats and the College Republicans. According to my online friend, while in line to be enter the watch party, a group of female students criticized him for wearing a hat bearing the slogan “Make America Great Again.”
Crean told me he acknowledges some people may have legitimate issues with the Republican presidential nominee. However, he said people don’t always present those disagreements in a constructive way.
“Screaming profanities at me isn’t advancing any meaningful political dialogue,” Crean said.
If I had been the one to see Crean’s hat, I may have acted the same way that the women at the watch party did. In the moment, I wouldn’t have considered myself a barrier to civil discourse – I would have justified my actions with my belief that Trump isn’t worthy of political debate.
On the most politically active campus in the nation during one of the most polarized elections in recent history, it’s reasonable – even expected – that students would have opposing views. Still, we need to be able to talk to people respectfully, but that doesn’t always mean finding consensus: It means listening, questioning and debating, even if you don’t think you can find common ground.
While newspapers and other institutions often take a stance during elections, they don’t usually treat a candidate’s ideas as lesser or ignorant. That is exactly what has happened during this election. Even if we find Trump’s ideas completely at odds with our own, we should still debate and discuss them. His supporters aren’t going to go away because we’ve ignored and invalidated them.
GW College Republicans decided to stay neutral in this election, but I experienced firsthand the tension between the students in that organization and the mostly left-leaning students who attended the debate viewing last week. During a panel discussion, SMPA Director Frank Sesno goaded the College Republican’s public relations chair Allison Coukos to make a decision about Trump. Coukos, who was appearing on the panel as a representative of the College Republicans, said she didn’t want to give an answer. She said she felt that “whether or not [she] personally felt more inclined to vote for Trump was not really relevant.”
Because I was in the majority as a Clinton supporter at the debate event, I didn’t think about how laughing at Trump’s comments might have made Trump supporters in the room feel. It didn’t occur to me that, for some members of the College Republicans, going to the watch party didn’t feel like an option because they knew other students would mock the candidate they support.
And Coukos confirmed that some members of College Republicans did not want to attend the event.
“They did not feel comfortable going to the debate watch party because of how they anticipated they would be treated,” Coukos wrote in an email.
At a university like GW – and probably at most universities across the country – left-leaning students just write off Trump and his supporters altogether. But the tension at the debate watch party hints at a deeper problem: Even moderate Republicans don’t always feel comfortable among their peers in a political environment. While I struggle to find common ground with Trump supporters, I realize that the distance between us will only grow if I, and other Democrats, continue to treat some opinions as more valid than others.
I know that the rest of my experience at GW, and maybe even my life after GW, will be shaped by the outcome of this presidential election. And closing the divide on our campus torn open a divisive campaign won’t be easy. Even in the event that Trump loses the election, he has ignited a movement of dissatisfied voters who are tired of the “political status quo” in the U.S. Though these voters may be a minority at GW, they are a significant part of our country, and we need to learn to incorporate their perspectives into American politics in the future.
Political debate often becomes a war zone. Argument can be synonymous with anger in our society, and we debate on impulse. But though we may disagree greatly on some things, we still need to work on developing an atmosphere of respect.
Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.