Last night, a conservative visited Swarthmore to explain the rise of Donald Trump. The conservative was Henry Olsen, a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
There had been a little controversy: somebody had torn down a few of the event’s posters, which prominently featured Trump’s face.
“They thought [the posters] were supporting Donald Trump,” mused the conservative Patrick Holland ‘17, one of the event’s organizers. Another organizer, Democrat Ben Termaat ‘18, agreed with that theory and had no regrets about the Trump-centric posters.
“I think it attracted people,” he said.
Henry Olsen, the speaker, wore a striped suit, a blue tie, and rimless glasses. From a certain angle, he was a dead ringer for former British prime minister Gordon Brown.
“Do you need a microphone?” Holland asked him when he arrived.
“I project pretty well,” Olsen assured him. It was true.
Holland and Olsen continued to banter as people trickled in. Olsen noticed a Gary Johnson sticker on Holland’s laptop.
“Where’d you get the Johnson swag?” he asked pointedly.
Holland admitted he had paid five dollars for it. “The last few weeks haven’t been good for that,” he granted. Olsen later implied that the Johnson campaign was not a real campaign, and Holland comedically averted his eyes, all while live-streaming the event on his phone. This is conservatism in 2016.
Olsen had promised to explain the rise of Donald Trump without advocating for either major candidate. In doing so, he disputed few of the sociological truisms of this campaign cycle: certain disenfranchised groups are flocking to Trump, some of his most popular positions are his most divisive. He backed these up with data and history.
But when the time came for questions, the audience seemed less interested in a scholarly analysis of the past than in assuaging their own anxiety about the future. Can Trump mobilize a majority? What’s going to happen in Europe? Are his supporters going to form their own party if he loses? What will the turnout be? Will Trump damage the Republican party in the long-term? Is there a secret army of Trump voters? Olsen’s scholarly aura imbued his answers with authority. Perhaps most important was his reassuring skepticism about Trump’s chances.
“Are we going to see a shy Tory effect?” Holland asked.
“A what?” Olsen frowned. Holland clarified: A shy Tory is a British term for a closet conservative.
“Oh, shy Tory? I have a hearing issue, so I thought you said Chai Floory!”
Olsen grew more comfortable throughout his talk. Eventually, he climbed onto the table, alternately resting his hands at his sides and behind him. There, he imagined how Hillary Clinton could clinch the election by making one last appeal during the final debate. He had even planned what she should say:
“I know a lot of you don’t trust me. A lot of you don’t like me,” Olsen’s hypothetical Hillary Clinton said to a national audience. “I’m not asking you for love, I’m asking you to give me a chance. […] I’m the person with the experience for the job.”
As he acted out this imaginary speech, Olsen gazed into the eyes of one of the students in the audience. He said Hillary should say it like that, too: with eye contact.
I asked him afterwards if that moment, when he had imagined a radically honest Hillary Clinton, had been the wishful thinking of a Clinton supporter.
“I’m not gonna comment on that,” he said.
After everyone had left, Olsen conferred with a few of the organizers who had stayed behind. He said he might have trouble finding the parking lot, and Holland volunteered to guide him there.
We left the classroom and parted ways. I followed Termaat down the hall for an interview; Olsen followed Holland into the night.
Patrick Holland ’17 is the opinions editor of The Daily Gazette. He had no role in the production of this article.
Featured image by Eduard Saakashvili ’17/The Daily Gazette