LYNCHBURG, Va.—The soda and cookies were arranged on the folding table, the projector was warming up. The cardboard cutout of Hillary Clinton had been draped in an orange jumpsuit and placed to stage left. The school’s curfew had been extended to 11:00 pm to accommodate the live screening of Wednesday night’s presidential debate. But before the stream started, Josh Rosene, a 19-year-old field officer for Donald Trump for President, clasped his hands and led the 80-odd Liberty University students in folding chairs to pray.
He thanked the Lord for the country we were born into, a country where we have the privilege to make informed decisions about our leaders; he asked Him to help us maintain our composure during the debate. And then he led us in the Pledge of Allegiance, suggesting dryly that it would be best not to kneel.
In any election year, the students at Liberty University, by far the nation’s largest and most influential Christian college, have the unfortunate luck to be considered tokens of either the fracturing or resurgence of the religious right. Founded as a small Bible school in 1971 by the televangelist and Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell to “train champions for Christ,” it has under the junior Falwell’s leadership expanded to occupy 7,000 acres and host a sizeable online matriculation.
The school holds mandatory convocations in which renowned pastors, Christian comedians, and sports stars often speak. In the course of this election cycle, perhaps hoping to win the favor of disillusioned young conservatives and recapture some of the political certainty of the elder Falwell’s time, Donald Trump, Gary Johnson, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Mike Pence, and even Bernie Sanders have taken the stage. (A tour guide for the school tells me he’s asked warily about the Sanders speech by prospective students almost daily.)
Not every student at Liberty is a co-ed embodiment of the religious right’s future, or wants to be. The morning I visit, former Backstreet Boy Brian Litrell shared his testimony and performed at the school. One student tells me, by way of a temperature check, that they saw infinitely more Snapchats of Litrell’s “As Long as You Love Me” medley than of, say, Mike Pence’s forgiveness speech.
But in the past few weeks the campus has again become a symbolic battleground, as nearly 3,200 students and alumni signed an open letter disagreeing with the school’s president for endorsing, and therefore associating them, with Donald Trump—a man who “maligns others” and is found “bragging about his sins.”
A slim boy in a baggy suit is engulfed in a plastic hard hat on which someone has Sharpied: “Build the Wall.”
The first debate watch party at Liberty was sponsored by the Student Government Association; last night’s was officially affiliated with Trump, organized by a handful of close-knit students raffling off hats stamped “I’m deplorable.” Handwritten signs tagged #IStandWithJerry were stuck to the auditorium’s walls.
Corey Stewart, gubernatorial hopeful and former Trump Virginia co-chair, took the stage in a light blue jacket and khaki pants. Not last week Stewart was dismissed from the campaign for being overzealous in a moment requiring tact. He’d been fired for participating in a rally in front of the district’s RNC, referring to members of his party as “establishment pukes” for distancing themselves from the official nominee.
The episode hasn’t stopped him from stumping, though: “Your generation is in a very special position,” he said from the stage. “A moral revival is coming in the United States.”
“This is gonna be lit,” I hear someone say to my left, as the Trump Club connects the A/V.
There’s a smattering of applause when Clinton and Trump take the stage, their faces massive, twice an average person’s height. Phone screens bop around in the crowd, but the Twitter feeds aren’t synched up: we waited for Wednesday night prayer group to get out before pressing play. A slim boy in a baggy suit is engulfed in a plastic hard hat on which someone has Sharpied: “Build the Wall.”
Over by the snack table I find Alexis Rucker, 22. Her outfit matches the American flag cake and her “make America great again” hat: red dress, red lipstick, red-and-white striped shoes. She volunteered early in Trump’s campaign, gets up most Saturdays to knock on Virginia’s front doors. Her voice is thick and she’s ready to forgive, like others I speak to who cite cycles of sin and repentance when it comes to the Republican nominee’s less savory comments, much like Pence when he spoke here in September, appealing to the evangelical vote.
“If all of us had our lives videotaped every day, every hour,” she says, we’d be showing things we didn’t want the public to know, too. “We don’t think he did commit sexual assault,” she says. “Unfortunately, it’s very bad, but it’s an allegation.” Besides, conceal-carry is important to her and domestic terrorism is a major concern. She likes when Trump calls people out.
“Trump is putting his brand on the line, his money, family time. The White House is a downgrade to his house.” She respects that.
“Most other political clubs [at Liberty] are people going into politics,” she tells me. “They want to work in DC. But we’re education majors, psych majors. None of the Trump Club are going into politics.”
We’re cut off when Trump interrupts Clinton to remind her she voted for the wall. The crowd whoops like someone just scored a goal.
Liberty University’s welcome center, built just a few years ago, is a tidy architectural summary of the worlds it straddles. Jeffersonian columns and wide steps lead up to a geometric black-and-white tiled atrium where a passage from the Second Corinthians (mangled by Trump, in a speech at Liberty in January, as “Two Corinthians”) stretches just above eye level. Four large HD touch screens, embedded in the walls, run loops of testimony to the power and academic acumen of its ever-expanding program.
Outside, a porch lined with rocking chairs looks out across a baseball field and to the Blue Ridge Mountains. A handful of boys in crisp, colorful dress shirts sit rocking. Dustin Wahl, the official spokesperson for the Liberty University Students Against Trump coalition, leans against a column. Like many of Liberty’s students, he’ll be watching the debate off-campus.
Since he started appearing in the news to argue with the university’s privileging of “populist politics over principles,” there’s been some tension with the Trump Club. Though Wahl doesn’t mention it, Josh Rosene, the guy who’s running the watch party, posted a nasty (since deleted) public letter on his Facebook page last week defending Falwell’s position and threatening Wahl, by name, calling him an “absolute joke.”
Wahl was at one point president of his class, and he still speaks fondly of the Student Government Association, a large presence on campus. He and some buddies worked on the Rubio campaign until its dying day. Clean cut, ruddy, and aggressively pleasant, he makes sure I write down that the letter came out of nothing more than a love for Liberty and the message of Christ. He cracks a joke about a senator who could never be president; his hair is awful. Wahl’s hair is great. I can see why he’s the spokesman.
I ask him, if he doesn’t believe in Trump, what he’s looking for in the Republican Party. “I believe in Nixon. I believe in Kennedy.” He pauses. “Mostly.” The Founding Fathers existed, he assures me. Lincoln was a real guy. There are leaders still out there with good moral compasses who’ll take care of their Christian base. They just aren’t Donald Trump.
Clots of Liberty students sit in groups of twos or threes, spookily backlit by the auditorium’s purple stage lights. The Trump Club sits at a control center vaguely resembling a pulpit, glancing at their phones and grinning. The room erupts every time Trump interjects and goes bonkers when the candidate hits the pro-life angle. When the national debt’s mentioned in the debate’s last minutes the Libertarian table in the corner, until that moment essentially invisible, jumps up as if it’s a single person and screams.
Eighteen-year-old Madison Cole is actually telling me she’s always known Trump was a womanizer (“What’s that have to do with running country?”) when the gigantic Trump head onscreen throws his hands up and tells us how much he loves women. There’s an audible, if faint, groan.
“You can call me a conservative scumbag. I can call you a liberal scumbag.”- Josh Rosene
I meet Jessica Devivio, 22, from Long Island. She’s voting Trump, but basically for Pence and the Supreme Court. When Devivio announced her voting plan on Facebook, her cousin commented with one word: vomit. She’s still a little hurt about it. I meet Tevin Allen, wearing a seersucker suit and pointed leather shoes and a white “make America great again” hat. I ask him how many times he’s been asked about being a Trump supporter who is also black. He looks at me, confused. “Oh, Trump’s been taken out of context,” he says.
I meet Tanner Henvey, 19, whose red Trump hat actually makes sense given the rest of the hyphy thing he’s got going—neon sneakers, electric skateboard, puffy jacket. He went to government camp when he was 11 and had to write a fake bill for a class. He proposed a wall. He feels like Trump gets him.
Nicholas Hamilton, a 21-year-old with a deep North Carolina drawl, is studying political PR. He grabs and rearranges his suit jacket around his broad chest as he explains his first amendment student group and tells me of their plan to scale back government aid and augment it with community service in the name of Christ. Hamilton told me he wasn’t personally a fan of Donald Trump’s; he’s just here to watch the debate. “I’m in a persuasion class, so I’m looking at the candidates, their non-verbal actions,” he tells me. Pressed on the candidates, he shrugs. “How’s the two-party system working out for us?” It’s not really a question.
At the close of the debate I finally side up to Rosene, the organizer, and find he’s twice as tall as I am, the kind of guy who has to stoop down to hear. He’s got a wry smile that occupies one side of his face, particularly when he’s laying down what he considers a hard truth. He likes Trump’s directness, doesn’t think it makes sense to tip-toe around the issues.
“You can call me a conservative scumbag,” he says, “I can call you a liberal scumbag. I really liked it when Donald Trump would just be like, excuse me, bomb the shit out of ISIS.” Until four weeks ago Rosene was actively trying to campaign for Trump, but the “Republican establishment hacks” started telling him congressional appointments were more pressing. They sent no help. He quit.