Students

Meet the Young Republicans Who Founded ‘Students for Trump’

August 02, 2016

Gabe Johnson
Ryan Fournier (left) and John Lambert formed "Students for Trump" last fall. Since Donald Trump won the Republican presidential nomination, the two Campbell U. students have been deluged with interest from other supporters.

Last October, when Ryan A. Fournier was about a month into his first semester at Campbell University, he identified a weakness in Donald J. Trump’s candidacy for president: a lack of social-media outreach to college-age voters.

An ambitious young conservative, Mr. Fournier is a staunch supporter of Mr. Trump. The student sees the real-estate mogul as a "man of the people" who knows how to create jobs and stem illegal immigration.

So Mr. Fournier decided to fill the gap himself by creating a Twitter account called "Students for Trump."

John Lambert, then a sophomore, soon joined forces with Mr. Fournier. The two had met at an event hosted by Campbell’s College Republicans. Both had backed Mr. Trump’s campaign since late summer.

That put them in a position of conflict with some of their classmates. Campbell, a private institution affiliated with the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, is a largely conservative campus, Mr. Fournier said, so it’s the sort of place where Mr. Trump enjoys significant support. Still, for some students — particularly those with strong religious ties — Mr. Trump was a tough sell.

Campbell’s College Republicans "were so for Marco Rubio," Mr. Fournier said. "They actually changed their platform to make it so that they wouldn’t have to support Donald Trump." Many others backed Ted Cruz, who was strong among evangelical Christian voters during the primary campaign.

But online the student duo found fellow Trump diehards. At first, Mr. Fournier's tweets from his phone were pretty much all there was to Students for Trump. Then college students nationwide began sending Mr. Fournier photographs of themselves and their friends decked out in pro-Trump gear and posing with American flags, which he shared through Twitter. Eventually an intern in Mr. Trump’s official campaign got in touch and helped them expand their reach online and on campuses.

Less than a year later, Mr. Fournier and Mr. Lambert are heading up an organization that boasts nearly 300 campus chapters and a bevy of social-media followers — 29,000 on Twitter, 59,000 on Instagram, thousands more on Facebook. Students for Trump also has a six-member leadership team and a handful of regional field directors, each responsible for campus chapters in several states.

"We’ve been told that we’re more organized than the actual Trump campaign," Mr. Lambert said with a laugh.

The two students at a relatively little-known religious university are surprised at their newfound fame. They say they receive more than a hundred photos a day from pro-Trump students who want to be featured on the Students for Trump accounts. They’ve been interviewed by National Public Radio and Fox News, as well as by journalists in China and Japan.

The national attention has come with consequences, in part because Students for Trump has courted controversy, as it did with #TheChalkening, one of its most successful social-media campaigns.

Earlier this year the students used that Twitter hashtag to encourage Trump supporters to write messages in chalk on their campuses supporting the Republican candidate. Students for Trump helped coordinate the effort with Daniel Scavino Jr., Mr. Trump’s social-media director.

Minority students at several colleges, including Emory University and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, spoke out against the campaign. They said the pervasive scrawling of "Trump 2016" and "Build the Wall" messages, invoking a candidate whose name had become synonymous with racially tinged attacks, represented a threat to their safety.

The fact that people were getting angry about it was funny, Mr. Fournier said. "If they’re afraid of chalk, something that can be washed away with water — I really don’t know what they’re doing on a university campus in the first place."

Mr. Fournier said he had received death threats; Mr. Lambert said he had been compared to Hitler. Another Students for Trump leader recently had to call the police, Mr. Lambert added, because someone followed her in a car, pointed a finger at her, gunlike, and pretended to pull a trigger.

"The thing that really makes me lose a little bit of sleep at night is the fact that people don’t feel like they can wear a Trump 2016 shirt without getting shot or stabbed," Mr. Lambert said. "It’s horrible."

Ghoulish Images and Bikinis

Mr. Fournier’s primary roles with Students for Trump are handling social media and coordinating the national leadership team. Mr. Lambert oversees the field directors and answers questions from campus-chapter leaders.

The two men believe Students for Trump is the largest student-run group backing a specific candidate during the 2016 campaign. (Similar student-run Twitter accounts supporting the Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, and her primary challenger, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, have a fraction of the following.)

Scroll through the Students for Trump Twitter and Instagram accounts, and you’ll find a stream of anti-Hillary memes — a recent one proclaims "Hillary Rotten Clinton," accompanied by a ghoulish image of the candidate — along with many photos of young women in bikinis sporting "Make America Great Again" hats. There’s also some typical political rhetoric and a smattering of news articles about Mr. Trump.

During a two-hour phone interview last Friday, the two students were poised and articulate, speaking confidently and at length about Mr. Trump’s positions — a contrast to Mr. Trump’s own style, which tends to be focused on broad ideas and light on policy. They said they’re often complimented for their demeanor. "We’ve been credited as some of the most informed Trump supporters on policy," Mr. Lambert said.

Their conversations with journalists and others tend to start with a simple question: Why Mr. Trump? So they can easily rattle off a laundry list of what they see as his most presidential qualities: Pro-American. Confident. Unfiltered. Realist. Experienced at creating private-sector jobs.

"If we can create a healthy job market," Mr. Lambert said, "a lot of these issues that face us" — such as skyrocketing student debt — "are going to solve themselves." Mr. Fournier said he’s tired of seeing the United States lose jobs to countries like China, Mexico, and Vietnam, and he’s excited that Mr. Trump "is committed to bringing jobs back to America."

But what of the fact that many of the luxury products that bear the Trump name — including suits, ties, and glassware — are made overseas? "To be honest with you, business-wise, I agree with him," Mr. Fournier responded. High taxes and tangles of regulation mean that there are few incentives for companies to manufacture products in the United States, he said.

Building a wall along the Mexican border, Mr. Lambert said, is "common sense." Neither student was a fan of Mr. Trump’s proposal to temporarily bar Muslims from entering the United States. But both support the candidate’s apparent revision of that plan. During last month’s Republican National Convention, Mr. Trump said he would suspend immigration from nations "compromised by terrorism."

"You’ve got to turn the water off to fix the leak," Mr. Fournier said.

'No More Smoke and Mirrors'

Mr. Fournier didn’t shy away from condemning some remarks that Mr. Trump has made — for instance, the candidate's statement, after the Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly threw a series of tough questions at him during a primary debate, that Ms. Kelly must have had "blood coming out of her wherever."

"We should respect and treat women correctly," Mr. Fournier said. "Sometimes, I guess, he’s made a slip-up." But while many critics have described Mr. Trump’s remarks about a Hispanic judge and about initially refusing to disavow the white supremacist David Duke as racist, Mr. Fournier didn’t agree. "There’s always going to be somebody in both political parties who might say something racist, or joke around, and it might hit the public eye," he said. "But I’ve never heard Donald Trump say anything that’s racist."

And a President Trump would understand how to moderate his unfiltered style, he said. "I highly doubt Donald Trump is going to go into a boardroom of world leaders and call them out or use profanity at them," he said.

On several occasions, when asked about Mr. Trump’s controversial statements, both students pointed out that the billionaire began his foray into politics just a little over a year ago. "He was an entertainer," Mr. Fournier said. "I don’t think he really knew that he was going to be running for president, so it didn’t really matter to him what he said."

"He’s made a pretty good effort to clean himself up over the last couple of months," Mr. Fournier added.

That lack of a filter, Mr. Lambert said, is refreshing in an environment where political candidates often seem robotic and artificially polished. If Mr. Trump is elected, "we can actually know the politician who is running the country," Mr. Lambert said. "It’s no more smoke and mirrors."

When the fall semester begins, a potential item on the students’ agenda is a reprise of #TheChalkening. Beyond that, social-media outreach is the primary way Mr. Fournier and Mr. Lambert hope to encourage college students to proclaim their support for Mr. Trump, despite the backlash that it arouses on many campuses. The two plan to document their fellow supporters' doing voter-registration drives and passing out campaign literature at campus events.

"A lot of people who support Donald Trump aren’t even Republican at this point," Mr. Fournier said. "They have to register with the party, and when the time comes, get out there and vote."

Students for Trump is more than a résumé-builder for Mr. Fournier, Mr. Lambert, and other members of the tight-knit leadership team, who have become fast friends. Though they attend colleges on the East and West Coasts, they try to get together several times a month. Mr. Lambert met his girlfriend — Sarah Hagmayer, a student at Rowan College at Burlington County and the national spokeswoman — through the organization.

Like the unconvinced College Republicans at Campbell, scores of voters nationwide remain unsure of whether Mr. Trump is a true conservative. Many worry about the candidate's unpredictable tendencies.

But Mr. Fournier expects the vast majority of right-leaning students at Campbell and other colleges to fall in line behind the christened candidate before the November election.

"If they know what’s best for them," he said, "they’re going to vote for Donald Trump."

Sarah Brown writes about a range of higher-education topics, including sexual assault, race on campus, and Greek life. Follow her on Twitter @Brown_e_Points, or email her at sarah.brown@chronicle.com.