ISU College Republicans Embrace the Nativism of Trump

In early March, a member of the student organization named Anthony Labruna was recruited for a prominent White House role; for many months before that, the group promoted the white identity politics of Steve King and others within Trump's orbit that have gone mainstream in today's GOP

Iowa State University College Republicans Noah Parks, left, Anthony Labruna, center, and Charles Klapatauskas, pictured in April 2019 after their election to the executive board of the Iowa Federation of College Republicans. Photo: @IStateCRs/Twitter

As part of an effort to fill administration positions with Trump loyalists, the White House in early March hired Anthony Labruna, who at the time was an Iowa State senior and member of the university-sanctioned College Republicans student organization, as the deputy White House liaison at the Department of Commerce.

The 22-year-old — the second college senior recently hired by the White House — had few qualifications for the influential position, which involves finding people to fill political vacancies within the department. He was reportedly chosen because the 29-year-old director of the Presidential Personnel Office, John McEntee, is family friends with Labruna’s in Orange County, California.

Before leaving ISU, Labruna was an active member of the ISU College Republicans. He was also one of three ISU students to hold an executive board position with the Iowa Federation of College Republicans, becoming its vice chairman in April 2019. During his time at the university — and since — the ISU student group has openly embraced the sort of nativist, white identity politics that have gone mainstream in the Trump-era GOP.

Last Thursday on Twitter, the organization announced its support of an “indefinite moratorium on all immigration to the United States,” claiming that the immigration system was responsible for “a resurgence of diseases that were wiped out in our country being brought back.” There is no evidence that this is true; in fact, it’s a version of a racist, nativist myth that US politicians have used as anti-immigrant propaganda dating back well over 100 years.

The tweet was promoted by Michelle Malkin, a right-wing commentator known for her defense of Japanese internment camps during World War II and the racial profiling of Muslims after 9/11.

A week earlier, the College Republicans dismissed the notion that Trump calling the coronavirus the “Chinese virus” was racist, sharing an image featuring the popular pro-Trump NPC meme and conflating criticism of the president’s xenophobic language with support for communism.

The tweets were posted after Labruna was recruited by the White House, but they were consistent with numerous other viewpoints from the account that predated the news of his new job. On February 28, for instance, the ISU College Republicans argued that an open border policy “allows contaminated persons to spread disease easily” and that “the coronavirus is the perfect example of why we need a strong border.” In reality, US citizens returning from traveling abroad appear to have been the source of much of the initial spread of the virus to the country.

For the time being, classes at the university have been moved online in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus. But long before that, the College Republicans were promoting similar ideas as an organization officially recognized by ISU, all while President Wendy Wintersteen struggled to address a campus climate of intolerance — an issue badly mishandled by her predecessor, Steven Leath, who’d been recruited to the university by an ISU Foundation board member and agribusiness magnate with his own history of social media posts that contradicted the university’s stated commitment to promoting diversity. Campus incidents in recent years have included explicitly racist, pro-Trump taunts directed at black students; “Heil Hitler” and other racist messages written in chalk on campus sidewalks; a residence hall door vandalized with a swastika; and white supremacist posters spread around campus on multiple occasions.

The ISU College Republicans repeatedly downplayed and mocked efforts to address these problems. In a July 2018 Facebook post protesting the student government’s decision to allocate money to a diversity and inclusion committee for a “Tree of Oppression” landmark on campus, the group wrote, “The only oppressed groups on campus are those who are conservative; everything else is #FakeNews!”

A month earlier, the group endorsed a press release from the Iowa Federation of College Republicans, tweeting its support for “higher education to stop wasting Iowa tax dollars on unnecessary majors, unneeded staff/departments, and university facilities that are outside of Iowan’s [sic] needs,” including “unavailing majors such as gender studies” and “overstaffed departments like ‘Diversity and Inclusion.’” This February, the ISU College Republicans retweeted images of posters in Canada that criticized reverse racism, seemingly drawing a false equivalence with the racist posters scattered across ISU’s campus.

Reverse racism has been another popular subject for the ISU College Republicans. In a since-deleted tweet last December, the group seized on a fake story about a 13-year-old attacked for supporting Trump. “The worst thing, as whites become a minority in America, this will only get worse,” they tweeted. “Schools teach kids that white people are evil, and this is the consequence of it.”

Despite endorsing one of Congressman Steve King’s primary challengers, then-Woodbury County Supervisor Jeremy Taylor, last November, the group has consistently defended King against accusations of racism. In September 2018, the group shared a tweet from the congressman claiming that leftists were racially profiling “old white men.”

In one of several tweets supporting King’s false claim that the New York Times took him out of context when it quoted him suggesting that terms like “white nationalist” and “white supremacist” were not offensive, the ISU College Republicans encouraged its Twitter followers to read an article from a fringe Minnesota-based blog called Alpha News headlined, “Detestable Character Assassination.” The website has a history of publishing racist content; as Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages summarized last fall, that’s included “painting random juvenile delinquency as anti-white racism, running a misleading op-ed about how much immigrants ‘cost’ taxpayers, and another suggesting the white nationalist terrorist bombing of the Bloomington mosque was a ‘hoax.’”

In February, the ISU College Republicans expressed support for an effort by one of King’s favorite far-right European leaders, the Hungarian autocrat Viktor Orban, to redesign government buildings in the interest of promoting nationalism and erasing the communist influence behind their bland designs. (Incidentally, the press release from the Iowa Federation of College Republicans that the ISU College Republicans endorsed in June 2018 included criticism of the state’s public universities for spending funds on “lavish buildings that are far more extravagant than any Iowan would expect or need.”)

None of the social media posts mentioned above received much attention, but another incident in March 2019 did. That month, a prominent white nationalist activist named Nick Fuentes visited ISU’s campus, claiming he’d been invited by both the ISU College Republicans and the unofficial student chapter of the conservative organization Turning Point USA. Met by protesters and ISU police at the building where he planned to speak, Fuentes relocated to the Tree of Oppression that the College Republicans had mocked on Facebook the previous year.

Although then-ISU College Republicans President Jacob Minock had promoted Fuentes’ appearance to members in an email, the group later released a statement claiming they had been “misled” about his views and had no involvement in organizing the event themselves.

The statement quoted Anthony Labruna, the ISU College Republicans member and vice chairman of the Iowa Federation of College Republicans who was recruited by the White House in early March. “Everything he said last night were views that are not held by the Republican Party,” Labruna said, despite comments made by Fuentes about the “European texture” of the US that echoed views expressed for years by Steve King and other Republicans within Trump’s orbit.

Fuentes himself responded to the statement, claiming that the ISU College Republicans were directly involved in planning his visit to campus, “knowing full well my views,” and that Labruna “shook my hand last night after the speech and complimented me.”

Gavin Aronsen
Gavin Aronsen is an editor and reporter for and founding member of the Iowa Informer. He previously worked as a city reporter for the Ames Tribune, research assistant to investigative journalist Wayne Barrett at the Village Voice, and in various roles at Mother Jones, where his work contributed to a National Magazine Award nomination for the magazine's digital media coverage of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Email: garonsen [at] iowainformer [dot] com.