Over a long, somewhat tumultuous, and at times fractious four-day stretch, the delegates at the Republican National Convention managed to release a platform for 2016, and crown Donald Trump its presidential nominee, all while party officials struggled to contain blowback from Melania Trump’s plagiarism scandal, Ted Cruz’s very public un-endorsement of Trump, and the general dystopian tone of the event.
But for two UC Berkeley students who were able to attend, the convention was the experience of a lifetime. Junior Paige McConnaughy and senior Claire Chiara are executive officers in the Berkeley College Republicans (BCR), a group for conservative students on campus.
Both women attended the convention in an official capacity—Chiara as a California delegate bound to Trump, and McConnaughy as an alternate. Interviewed by phone while they were at the convention, they said their biggest concerns this year were immigration control, national security and foreign policy.
“The state of the country is terrifying and we desperately need change,” McConnaughy said. “I’ve wanted to study abroad in college my whole life but I am truly terrified to travel; two UC Berkeley students have been killed by terrorists in the last two weeks while abroad.”
McConnaughy was referring to Nicolas Leslie, a Berkeley student who was killed last week in Nice, France, and Tarishi Jain, who was killed earlier this month in Bangladesh.
“This is a really big year, particularly for national security and foreign policy,” Chiara said. “I think that the majority of Americans care deeply about these issues, based on the uptick in global terrorism we’re witnessing.”
Donald Trump, who has claimed that he would swiftly resolve these issues by building a Mexico-funded wall along the southern border and ramping up the military campaign against ISIS, wasn’t either student’s first choice for the presidential nomination. But they both said he is far more fit for the job than the media gives him credit for.
“I don’t think that Mr. Trump’s style hurts his chances or hurts the Republican Party,” Chiara said. “He’s the most publicly pro-LGBT candidate that the GOP has ever seen on the presidential stage.”
But while Trump has given a nod to the LGBT community, both students recognize that the party has doubled-down on its opposition to same-sex marriage in its official platform. This is problematic for Millennial Republicans like Chiara and McConnaughy, who consider the rhetoric around “traditional marriage” out of date.
“I was frustrated by the components about social issues, particularly about gay marriage,” Chiara said. “It’s frustrating to me that that language still exists in our platform.”
But they agree with their party elders that the focus on ongoing culture wars distracts voters from more pressing economic and foreign policy issues.
“The Republican Party is absolutely crushing the Democrats at representing what the average American wants and needs right now,” Chiara said. “The Democrats are wasting precious hours discussing the word choice that a candidate uses or safe spaces on college campuses—issues that are total red herrings.”
Though they have strong faith in conservative values, both said they find it difficult to share their views at Berkeley. McConnaughy noted that people are sometimes openly hostile to Republicans.
“I saw an article on Cal’s Facebook page about Claire being a delegate [for Trump] and the comments were appalling,” McConnaughy said. “People saying she doesn’t deserve to be a Bear, or that there were 62,000 other students who would have been better than her.”
“It’s really disturbing that a place like Berkeley that’s supposed to be so vibrant and diverse only wants to include people who are like-minded,” she added.
McConnaughy finds it especially galling when people make negative generalizations about Republicans that aren’t true for her.
“People say Republicans are racist or don’t include women,” McConnaughy said. “I’m not white, and I am a woman. So I think people have a wrong interpretation of what being a Republican really means.” She described her heritage as “A variety of things —Filipino, Portuguese, French.”
Being at the convention—filled with confident conservatives from deep red states—gave McConnaughy and Chiara room to let their guard down and be themselves for a few days. But as politically active youth who will be voting for Trump in November, they are girding themselves for intense encounters with other activists when they return to Berkeley in the fall.
Chiara, for one, isn’t worried about it. Born and raised a Republican, she considers her politics an inherent part of her personality, and she won’t change them just to fit in.
“For me, being a Republican as a young person, as a woman, as a Californian, it all is very natural and feels appropriate,” Chiara said. “I’m not questioning that identity at all, despite other people wanting me to.”