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Donald Trump Captures the Hearts of Young Republicans

At a GOP debate-watching party, even skeptics became fans by the end of the night

Mandel Ngan/Getty Images

Donald Trump says he hates our “stupid” political establishment. But even in the heart of Washington, DC, among the Beltway’s young urban professionals, there was a genuine outpouring of love for The Donald as he took the stage for the first GOP primary debate Thursday night.

“Go Donald!” a man shouted as he was introduced at the beginning of Fox News' broadcast. The debate-watching party was sponsored by the DC Young Republicans, the Log Cabin Republicans, a women’s GOP group, and the District’s own Republican Party—hardly the contingent of the party hungry for red-meat.

But the crowd that packed into the bar in Adams Morgan, not far from downtown, liked Trump for the same reasons that every other Trump fan seems to like him: for being himself. “He is—in colloquial terms—a real person, he’s not bullshitting you,” said Micah Serrant, 24, a black gay Republican who supports Trump, though he’s leaving the door open for Ted Cruz. “I want to feel proud of America.”

Facing tough questions from the Fox News moderators about his businesses that went bankrupt, Trump retorted: “These lenders are not sweet little babies—these lenders are total killers!”

Serrant turned to me, impressed. “You see what I mean? He says what he thinks—he resonates!”

Trump wasn't always their first choice for a candidate; Scott Walker and Rand Paul fans seemed to dominate. But The Donald still tugged at their hearts. Jared Russell, a 30 year-old real-estate agent, is a Rand Paul guy. But he too was excited about Trump’s candidacy—and loves his business background.  Mark Vargas, 34, loved his plainspokenness. “He’s speaking for the majority of Americans, and I’m certainly excited about the energy—positive or negative—that he’s bringing to this race.” Vargas then introduced me to Tareq Salahi—of White House state dinner-crashing fame—who’s another big Trump fan, the biggest party-crasher of them all. “It’s the most energy of a first debate that I’ve seen,” said Salahi. “I love Trump’s positions calling all the old-school politicians out.” 

On immigration, the debate-watchers told me, Trump was totally vindicated: Just listen to John Kasich acknowledging that Trump had a point. “It wouldn’t have been an issue if Trump hadn’t brought it up. There is a hunger across this country to talk about it,” said Brad Tidwell, 28, a web developer who sees The Donald as the antidote to “eight years of political correctness” under President Barack Obama.

When I asked Serrant what he made of Trump’s call for a wall at the border, he responded that Trump would actually turn his promises into action—unlike nearly every other candidate. “The difference is who can make the actual change. I believe Trump actually has the tenacity to do it,” said Serrant, who works in political consulting and polling. By contrast, he hated the way Jeb Bush talked about education, trying to spin his support for Common Core as a question of local control. “It seems like he’s pandering to the crowd,” Serrant said. In a town built on spin, Trump felt like liberation.

Not everyone was sold on The Donald from the start. Before the debate began, Rebecca Downs, 24, couldn’t imagine Trump, say, conducting diplomatic talks. Tidwell, a Scott Walker supporter, believes that Trump’s self-interest will be his undoing. “He’s not about the party, he’s about himself,” he said of Trump, who began the debate by saying he couldn’t rule out a third-party run if he didn’t win the GOP nomination. 

But the young Republicans I spoke to weren’t worried about Trump being a spoiler. “He’s very helpful for the party—he’s an iconoclast, he’s breaking the mold of what you’re supposed to do,” said Chris Gardner, 27, pointing out that Republican voters are never guaranteed to support their party’s nominee in the general election. Tidwell similarly believes that Trump’s disruptive influence on the party is a net positive. And he marveled as Trump delivered one retort after another. “He’s going to rewrite the campaign rulebook, which is amazing, and necessary,” he concluded.

Even Downs warmed to him by the end of the debate, pleased with his explanation of his pro-life stance. “I wouldn’t say say he won my vote completely,” she said. “But I think he could get me there.”