Guest post by Karla Vermeulen, SUNY New Paltz Assistant Professor of Psychology and Deputy Director of the Institute for Disaster Mental Health
Since the election in November, our students’ reactions at SUNY New Paltz have been on display in protest demonstrations, in the classroom, and in a small but disturbing number of acts of vandalism on campus. Their level of passion is evident, but what do students actually believe about the Trump administration’s likely effect on their lives? To find out, Psychology MA student Melissa Blankstein and I launched a survey at the beginning of the semester, “Election 2016: How Will the Outcome Impact You?”
We received 358 web survey responses from current New Paltz students. Obviously this group was self-selected, and is not necessarily representative of the entire student body, but the intensity of responses among those who chose to participate was remarkable, and seems important and worthwhile to share.
While we’re still completing our analysis, here are some instructive early results:
- 68% (243) were 18-21, 22% (78) were 22-25, and the rest were over 25. This means that for at least two-thirds, this was the first presidential election they were eligible to vote in.
- Most (92%) were born in the US to US-born parents, 25 (7%) said they were documented immigrants, and two said they were undocumented immigrants.
- 58% (207) voted in the primaries, and 83% (297) voted in the general election.
- Among those who voted in the general election, 70% (207) voted for Clinton, 19% (57) voted for Trump, and the rest voted for third party candidates or wrote in their own candidates.
We asked many questions, but our focus here is on several open-ended verbatim responses so our students’ voices come through regarding their beliefs about Trump’s biggest impact on their generation and future generations, as well as how his election has influenced their interest in politics, with answers ranging from one word to entire paragraphs.
For anti-Trump students, two basic themes emerged: fear and anger. For those who were pro-Trump, there was anger too, mostly about their marginalization on campus. And, irrespective of vote choice, there was some optimism that the country would take a new, more positive course, just for different reasons.
Anti-Trump fear about the new administration’s expected impact:
- “A complete strip of literally all of our rights, and probably some concentration camps.”
- “The feeling of it being okay to be racist, sexist, and homophobic again.”
- “An increase in institutionalized/systemic oppression, particularly Islamophobia/oppression of Muslims.”
- “Perpetuating stereotypes, and greatly negatively affecting civil rights, especially in the areas of women, people of Muslim descent, and people of Hispanic descent.”
- “The increase in accepted misogyny, racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia, and transgender phobia. Increase in fear all around, whether the person be a Trump supporter or not, there is an increased fear among everyone.”
Setting aside language that was largely insulting name-calling, anti-Trump anger focused upon: a political system perceived as corrupt and disenfranchising; the ills of democracy as it currently works in the United States; and the agenda for future generations:
- “An awareness of what happens when you elect a candidate based on pandering to the fears and biases of Americans rather than on facts.”
- “Hopefully after Trump is impeached our government will find it suitable to test candidates; (a) moral standards and (b) intelligence.”
- “A study on how a democracy can lead to widespread corruption and hatred.”
- “They will have to undo what he has done to this country, bring people together, and make sure fascism dies.”
- “People will wake up to the corruption that has taken control of our government over the past century.”
The pro-Trump students were, of course, pleased with the election outcome and wrote in many comments about an expectation that the newly-elected president would provide jobs and creating economic stability.
They spoke of:
- “Fixing the economy”
- “Making my family’s life better”
- “Allowing me to actually get the chance to enjoy the pleasures that come along with getting a degree and working hard.”
However, many pro-Trump students voiced intense anger at liberals in general, and at the political climate at SUNY New Paltz in particular:
- “A brilliant foundation to destroy PC culture and teach people to man the hell up and start thinking logically again. Liberals have ruined so much.”
- “Maybe my generation will realize not everyone is the same as who lives in their little bubble.”
- “Students don’t know what it’s like to work in the real world and have their hard-earned money taken away for nothing. The small guy who lives in the country has been raped by the enormous cities who suck away all of the water, resources and capital. The world is drying up because of the urban sprawl, who almost always have liberal agendas.”
- “I am disappointed with the way our SUNY schools are dealing with the election. Not everyone voted for Hillary and I think it is extremely wrong that every classroom I sit in my professors are talking about politics and how anyone who voted for Trump must be crazy. I feel disgusted that me and everyone else who voted for Trump feel unsafe speaking out against it.”
This last comment seems important for everyone on campus who interacts with students to bear in mind.
Even for anti-Trump students, things weren’t entirely bad. Many anti-Trump comments suggested this election will mobilize citizens, especially young people, to come together and protect each other while fighting for change. And one data point gives us some optimism: Two-thirds said they thought the outcome of this election would make them more interested in politics in the future, while just 4% said it would make them less interested. In one student’s words, “Realizing that this country is under severe stress and knowing that there are things that can be done and things that shouldn’t have been done to begin with has made me more interested in getting involved in conversations, sharing my strong opinions on what should and should not be done, and fighting for what is right.”
The overall level of distress this survey revealed among our students across a range of views is deeply troubling. But we do find some prospect in the results that students of all views may turn their anger and disappointment into positive engagement.