As he drives along a rural Ohio road where cellphone service can be spotty, Rylee Cupp, 21, reflects on how he overcame reservations about Donald Trump to emerge as a strong supporter of the president.
“Looking now, after everything I see that Trump has done,” he says, “and the positives that have happened to the country, with the booming economy, a great pick for the Supreme Court, and of course now, denuclearization talks with North Korea, I can confidently say that I would happily vote for Donald Trump in 2020.”
After Trump’s surprise win in the 2016 presidential election, disaffected, middle-aged, working-class white men were credited with one of the biggest political upsets in American presidential politics.
Since then, polls have found that white men remain his core supporters. Earlier this year, a national survey of young people 15 to 24, showed Trump is viewed favorably by more than 4 in 10 young white men like Cupp and Nick Long, 19, of Newport News, Virginia, who said he viewed Trump as the “lesser of two evils” in the 2016 presidential election.
When Long cast his vote for Trump, the college sophomore hoped that, as president, the political outsider candidate would rise above factionalism.
“I kind of looked at him as someone who would at least say ‘You know what, I don’t care that I’m Republican … I’m going to do what’s right for my country,’” says Long, a college sophomore who considers himself a moderate conservative.
“And I’m not saying he has done that, but at the time that I voted for him, that’s what I thought.”
Seventy-two percent of the young people surveyed have a negative view of Trump, reflecting that the president typically polls more poorly among young people than their parents.
But supporters like Oliver Lake, 20, a Cleveland, Ohio, native who attends the University of Akron with Cupp, remain committed.
“I felt that he was the voice for those on the right,” Lake says. “He was going to stick up for us — not any specific group of people in general, but those on the right and those who are conservative.”
Young white people are also more likely than others in the 15-to-24 age group to believe “reverse" discrimination is as serious a problem as discrimination against minorities, the study found.
About 36 percent of white young people — and 43 percent of young white men — say discrimination against whites is as serious as bias against minority groups. Nearly half of white young men — 48 percent — said they believe diversity efforts are harmful to white people.
The three young white men interviewed for this article say diversity is a positive for the country. They also agree that racism and discrimination exist, although Cupp said he prefers not to dwell on that.
“There’s specific things where people could be discriminated against depending on what you look at, but overall I don’t think that it’s healthy to look at that kind of thing,” Cupp says. “I think we should focus on the realistic idea that everybody’s equal, has equal opportunities, and focus on the positive side of things because that’s truly how we move on.”
His friend Oliver Lake, who says his mother is the family’s primary breadwinner, said he believes gender bias happens daily and empowering women is a good thing. However, he is ambivalent about “white privilege,” the suggestion that whites in America have advantages that people of color do not.
“There’s no scholarships for me to apply for any bit of diversity. I’m a white male — like, there’s nothing out there,” says Lake. “I’ve worked hard for the opportunities that I’ve had. I’ve spent countless hours studying in college. I try to stay focused, try to stay involved so I feel like that wasn’t given to me. It just feels like it’s not taking the full consideration, maybe, the hard work that I’ve done, just because of my skin color. Does white privilege exist? I don’t know. I would say ‘no’ right now, but it’s a complicated issue.”
To what extent do young white men reflect the same values as older white men who voted for Trump?
The president enjoys favorability among white working-class men, who seem to link shifting cultural norms and rising national diversity to their own sense of cultural dislocation, according to Carolyn Davis of the Public Religion Research Institute, a nonpartisan organization that conducted the survey.
“You look at white young men and the way Trump holds a stronger appeal to them, the way that they are feeling that white people are experiencing high levels of discrimination, that they have a resistance to diversity and efforts to increase diversity,” Davis says.
“I think you are seeing some of those same cultural anxieties bubble to the surface among that group as well, in ways that haven’t really been resolved.”
Davis says more study is needed about identity and young people as they begin to understand their place in society.
“We have different aspects of our culture right now pushing back and asking different kinds of questions about identity, about culture and what our culture should value,” she says. “And it seems that while there’s a larger narrative that young people are going to simply bring this country forward to be more progressive, the data doesn’t quite bear that out when you look at white young men.”
Although immigration is one of Trump’s signature issues, it is not a critical concern for Long, the 19-year-old from Virginia, who says climate change is the most serious issue facing the nation. He’s also concerned about racial and gender inequality.
Cupp worries about the opioid epidemic and unnecessary spending. He says using federal funds to build a wall along the southern border is a waste of money. Lake’s primary issue of concern is that working people are able to earn a living wage and not be required to have two jobs in order to meet basic living expenses.
The current divisive and partisan political climate is also a worry.
“There’s some serious hate out there,” Lake says. “I don’t think someone’s a bad person if I hear that they’re a liberal or something, because most of the people in college are. I think the political divide is a really big problem. That’s what worries me.”
Part of the problem, his friend Cupp adds, is that people misinterpret Trump’s rhetoric.
“Although he might have meant well by it," he says, "I think some people look at it in a wrong way from what he meant from it, and took it in a far direction that shouldn’t have went that way.” Cupp sees the so-called Muslim ban as an example of that. “When you title it something like the ‘Muslim ban,’ I think that’s unhealthy. People, when they see that, get the wrong idea. ... It’s not a specific Muslim ban, it’s just a ban on certain countries, and people look at it the wrong way.”
While the two Ohio college students remain firm Trump supporters, Long, from Virginia, who does not consider himself to be a die-hard Republican, is more circumspect.
“I have no clue who I will be voting for in 2020,” he says.
“I would need to see one major thing out of the president, and that is better leadership. He hasn’t done what so many other presidents have also failed at, and that is bringing the country together and providing unity.”