ITHACA, NY — The Cornell University College republicans hosted former presidential candidate, Rick Santorum, to their campus last night as the fall keynote speaker.
The Cornell Republican’s announced that Santorum would speak to “his experiences in politics and his views on America’s political future, with particular emphasis on the upcoming four years.”
Olivia Corn, president of the Cornell Republicans, said in her opening remarks that Santorum was chosen by the executive board as an ideal conservative individual to represent their organization.
“We decided on Rick Santorum because we endorsed Gary Johnson back in September, and we wanted to show our members and our community that we still do represent conservative values and the republican party,” Corn said.
Santorum’s arrival was greeted with protest, as individuals adorned with rainbow ribbons and protest signs arrived outside the Statler almost two hours before Santorum took the stage.
Barbara Regenspan, a former professor at Colgate University, helped to organize a protest of the event, where they stated in a Facebook group, “we will not allow right-wing extremism to be normalized here in Ithaca.”
As protesters gathered outside the entrance, they shouted in unison: “Racist, sexist, anti-gay – Rick Santorum, go away.”
Inside, Corn welcomed Santorum to the stage. “While we encourage people who are part of any political standing to engage in our organization, The Cornell Republicans primarily practice conservative thought,” she said. “The executive board believes that Santorum is the perfect individual to represent our organization.”
“Extremism is not conservatism,” a voice from the back shouted in response to Corn’s opening statements, setting the tone for the dynamic between the audience and Santorum for the rest of the evening.
As Santorum took his place on stage, he spoke about differentiating points of view, particularly the clash of conservative and liberal views on college campuses and overall.
“For the college republicans who are here, probably most of the people who are here don’t agree with your point of view,” he said. “But that’s actually a great gift – you get to hone your skills and hear the best arguments the other side has, and hopefully we have an opportunity to do that here tonight.”
Santorum spoke about the general current atmosphere in the U.S., which he described as “angst” – a theme which carried on throughout his speech as he discussed his beliefs on issues such as wages, immigration, LGBT rights and climate change.
“Things are happening in society which are making people feel uncomfortable – that they’re not doing well, that things aren’t good for them,” he said. “They don’t feel like they’re getting ahead.”
He used this definition of angst in the western world to transition into his discussion of Donald Trump and his upcoming term.
“What (Trump) did was identify these anxieties, then identified a need in the market, and used his business sense to discover what the consumer wants and then delivered it,” he said. “He identified the angst that was out there in America. Trump had a message.”
Santorum’s discussion of his support of Trump and his message sparked outbursts from protesters sitting in the crowd, then beginning to chant, “shame, shame, shame,” over Santorum’s argument.
A Q&A session followed the speech, where participants were allowed to direct a brief question to Santorum. One question from an audience member posed a hypothetical question to Santorum. “I’m wondering what your reaction would be if a loved member of your family faced instances of discrimination for being gay – not being able to get the job they wanted or the healthcare they needed,” he asked.
“I look at the teachings of my church, and I will love my child, but my responsibility is to try and guide them back,” Santorum responded.
Sarah Regenspan, an Ithaca community member who was protesting the event, said after the event that she thought extending an invitation to a politician like Santorum was potentially dangerous amidst the current political climate.
“In the post-Trump climate where there’s such a rise in hate crimes, where women, minorities, immigrants and people of color are literally in fear of being attacked, to invite someone that stands up and says that homosexuality isn’t real, that conversion therapy isn’t abuse, and who denies that climate change is real, under this guise of respectability is just disgraceful,” Regenspan said.
Katryn Evinson, a graduate student at Cornell, was one of the lead organizers in the protest and shared a similar sentiment to Regenspan.
“We’re trying to protect students who are vulnerable at this time, and that a student association would think that this is something that benefits the student body is incredible,” she said. “I think that what I’m most horrified by is that undergraduate Cornell students are supporting these ideas, I cannot believe this is what they believe in – these are the people I’m devoted to to educate.”
As Santorum exited the stage after his final question, equal parts of applause and “boo’s” echoed throughout the auditorium, reflecting the clash of the atmosphere for the evening’s audience.