NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ — As dusk settled over College Avenue, students and activists assembled outside the Rutgers University dining hall Brower Commons. They stretched a blue tarp across the road, a clean prayer space for Muslim demonstrators. Bundled up in winter coats and hats and gloves, protesters clutched signs and talked of revolution.
Plans for this #NoBanNoWall rally materialized just two days before, on a Sunday in late January. Roughly 2,000 people, including the university’s president, showed up on Tuesday.
They came to protest President Donald Trump and his travel ban on people from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Some had already been detained over the weekend in airports across the country. The last-minute Rutgers rally served as both a showing of solidarity with Muslims and minorities and a stand against the new U.S. president and his policies.
But the gathering also attracted uninvited guests.
“We better go over there and make sure nobody gets into a fight,” one woman, with a serious look on her face, said to a friend. “This is not good.”
She eyed a group of 10 or so men on the other side of the street. Some held American flags and wore pro-Trump gear and camouflage. One man’s shirt bore an image of brass knuckles.
They were here to support Trump. And they were woefully outnumbered.
At the edge of the growing protest, they engaged members of the anti-Trump left in conversation. Those on each side, at times, cracked strained smiles as they listened to their counterparts’ arguments. But no fight ever broke out.
Several in the counter-protest belonged to a simmering faction of right-wing Rutgers students. During the campaign, they called themselves Rutgers for Trump and then Make Rutgers Great Again. Just before winter break, they began to form what would become the Rutgers Conservative Union.
Nick Knight, then a junior computer science major from Mahwah, led the group. A former wrestler and Democrat, he shifted right early into college, while studying conflicts in the Middle East for an interview with the CIA. Even after the 2017 presidential election, he remained a member of the Rutgers Republican Club, a center-right organization that declined to endorse Trump.
He attended the anti-Trump protest to represent what he felt was Rutgers’ overlooked conservative community. Plus, he wanted some action.
“I just love to debate people and talk to the other side,” Knight said, “to hear what they think and offer a rebuttal.”
In the Conservative Union, which had no concrete platform outside its push for Trump, that sort of dialogue was common, members said. Some got their news from the conspiracy king Alex Jones and his right-wing news site Infowars, while others preferred more traditional sources. Some were libertarians who wanted to avoid war at all costs, while others, like Knight, supported what they considered appropriate military actions. Members argued, for example, over Trump’s decision in April to launch a missile strike against Syria.
As far as Knight was concerned, prospective members needed only to be on the right and committed to civil conversation.
But two other things could’ve barred students from joining, the club’s vice president, Dylan Marek, said. One was if you were known to be “in the enemy camp”—outspoken socialists, for instance. The other was if you were perceived to have had “malintent,” or the desire to disrupt the Conservative Union from within, he said.
The two leaders also stressed that their organization was not white-supremacist. In interviews and an online video, the union’s leadership touted its minority members, including people of Asian descent and African Americans. Still, they said, their liberal peers were quick to label them racists.
But some members have voiced ideas that might indeed jar their fellow Rutgers students.
“I think that’s one thing that multiculturalism kind of destroys—is that people feel alienated from their neighbors,” Marek said in an interview, after advocating for strong borders. He said he pined for the country’s tight-knit communities of mid-20th century. “You don’t have that anymore, especially in the Northeast. Multiculturalism is going to collapse one way or another, so that people are allowed to retain their identity and ostensibly stand up for the west.”
Yet Marek’s opinion was just that. Although he was instrumental in establishing the Rutgers Conservative Union, he and Knight aimed to create a home for the vast right, and that required a big tent, some flexibility in thinking and a willingness to butt heads with one another. Time and again, Marek refused to speak on behalf of his colleagues and their beliefs.
Even so, the conservative counter-protesters on that frigid Tuesday night on College Avenue were lumped together as one. There, they were The Other Side. And soon, when the anti-Trump protesters wrapped up their speeches and marched through downtown New Brunswick, twilight conversations with their conservative opponents gave way to nighttime chants, commuters honking their car horns in approval and newspaper headlines.