WASHINGTON — Monica Robinson thought she was “good” identifying as a Republican — right up until President Donald Trump’s election.
Now, nearly a year since his inauguration, she’s wary. She called herself a “weaker Republican,” skirting a full embrace of the GOP after dizzying months of Trump tweets, feuds and scandals. Robinson doesn’t think the president’s intentions are bad, but his “delivery” puts her off.
“The policies and the things that they (the GOP) want to do, I feel like are on the right track,” said the 30-year-old African-American who lives in Georgia and was one of several millennials interviewed by NBC News about Trump. “The people they’re having to use to get there, maybe not so much.”
Robinson is hardly alone. A recent NBC News/GenForward poll found that, overall, young Americans don’t like what Trump has done as president so far. Half think he’ll go down in history as a poor president, and his bad marks only get worse when it comes to millennials of color.
But all hope may not be lost for the GOP. Conversations with a half dozen young Americans between 18 and 34 from across the United States, all participants in the NBC News/GenForward surveys found that while most aren’t fans of Trump, they like or are open to some of the conservative policies he and the GOP are putting forward. They just want to see some things change first.
But what and how to change is up for debate among Republican strategists. Some think embracing Trump — and his “drain the swamp” mantra — is the best way to earn young voters’ support, while others look to elections in 2017 in Virginia and Alabama as signs that replicating Trump’s 2016 success through imitation won’t work for anyone — except him.
Julio Carmona is a Democrat, but wouldn’t call himself a “strong” one. To him, both parties care more about their own political interests rather than the people they’re serving. That’s why he’s among the 71 percent of millennials who support the idea of a third party.
The 32-year-old father of two is no fan of Trump — “When he was caught on camera talking about grabbing women’s genitals and these things, I mean what type of example does that really give to my daughter?” Carmona asked — but he hasn’t closed the door on the Republican Party entirely.
“I would (vote Republican)” in the future, he said, pointing to lawmakers like Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who have stood up to Trump. “Things can change.”
Earning Carmona’s vote would necessitate more of a focus on education incentives as well as job creation. Carmona, a nursing student, said his “biggest fear when I graduate is that even with having a good career, I’m still going to be in debt for next 10, 15 years.”
Trump has made “jobs, jobs, jobs” a centerpiece of his administration, but student debt has not been something he’s spent much time talking about. And his administration has rolled back Obama-era guidance aimed at protecting student borrowers.
Voters split on Trump’s tone
Banty Patel, a 32-year-old lawyer and mother from New Jersey, told NBC News that she takes the president’s rhetoric on the economy and immigration as a sign that the GOP is moving in a “positive direction.” While other conservative-leaning millennials hesitated when asked if they identified as a Republican or Democrat, Patel affirmed her GOP affiliation without qualification.
In an interview, she praisedTrump’s commitment to “buying American products, not products made in China” and repeated the need for politicians to focus on American workers.
But while Patel appreciates Trump’s tough talk and policy agenda, others wish he would moderate his tone — a desire expressed by skeptical lawmakers, Washington insiders and Trump supporters alike.
“I’m not a Trump fan, but I like some of the stuff he’s doing,” said Taylor Smith, a 23-year-old Republican from Georgia. “I just don’t like the way he’s going about it.”
Smith said he supports Trump’s advocacy for tighter immigration laws, as well as curbing the flow of drugs into the U.S.
But Smith, who works while going to school for his masters in music performance, worries about Trump’s persona on the international stage.
“He has what it takes to actually turn the country around, give us jobs…but what he really needs to do is just stop calling other leaders ‘little rocket men,'” Smith said, referring to the nickname Trump gave North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.
Given the choice, Smith said, he would have voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in 2016, sold on the idea that both Sanders and Trump promoted about the Democratic and Republican parties: They’re rigged against outsiders.
An opportunity for the GOP — but which way to go?
Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, a group focused on organizing young conservatives, said the idea of a “rigged” system is one that will continue to resonate going into the midterm elections this year.
“I think there’s a lot of agreement among young people that the system is rigged and it’s not working for the American people,” Kirk told NBC News, adding that the president’s attacks against “corruption” in Washington are an opportunity for Trump and other candidates in his mold to harness the “widespread disdain among our generation towards politicians.”
NBC News/GenForward polling found that millennials are generally mistrustful and disdainful of both parties and government. Sixty percent of poll respondents said they disapprove of the way Congress is handling its job, and on the whole millennials don’t think either party cares about people like them. Fifty-nine percent have a negative view of the GOP, while 42 percent have an unfavorable view of the Democratic Party.
“If the 2017 Virginia election is any indication, millennials are paying attention, and the Republicans have a lot of work to do to get ready for that,” said GOP strategist and MSNBC contributor Susan Del Percio.
Millennials want to see inclusive policies, Del Percio said, and that’s “the opposite of the Trump brand right now in the GOP.”
Another GOP strategist, Evan Siegfried, said millennials have proven elusive for Republicans — even before Trump.
“However, Trump has taken those preexisting problems and put them on steroids,” Siegfried said, pointing to Trump’s response to a neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which the president blamed “both sides” for violence, his handling of DACA, and his call to ban transgender individuals from serving in the military.
Those things “reinforce the caricature of Republicans as out of touch, old, crusty white guys…that only look out for old, sad, crusty white guys,” Siegfried said.
One thing Trump could do, personally, to make the party more palatable? Quit Twitter.
“If he just cancelled his whole Twitter account that’d be great,” Robinson, the millennial on the fence, said with a big laugh.
If that happened, she added, “You know what? I think I’m gonna start listening to him now.”