Off the Cuff With Sahgar Gupta, Chair of the Oberlin College Student Progressive Project

College second-year Sahgar Gupta is the co-chair of the Oberlin College Student Progressive Project. Gupta sat down with us to discuss why the organization changed its name — it was previously called the Oberlin College Democrats —, what the group does, and former President Donald Trump’s upcoming visit to Lorain County. Tomorrow, Trump will host his first campaign-style rally since leaving office and kick off the 2022 campaign season in the parking lot of the Lorain County Fairgrounds. Gupta speculates on why Trump chose to visit Lorain County and how students might react to the event.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Can you explain what your organization does and why you shifted away from being the Oberlin Democrats?

It’s formed out of the Oberlin College Democrats, so it’s more or less the same group. We do kind of the same thing. Voter registration is one of our main things, working with local candidates and local races, local organizing, and that kind of stuff. The name change came out of a desire to meet Oberlin students where they are at, a little more. I think we felt like there was some disenchantment with the Democratic party as an institution. So we wanted to change the name to give folks a sense that we’re not necessarily tied with the party. That’s not the focus of what we do. A lot of what we do is independent of that. 

Also going forward, some of what we’re trying to double down on — which we’ve done in small ways in the past, but what we’re trying to expand — is our local involvement. So as an example, we’ve recently been working with Lorain County Middle School. The town of Lorain borders Oberlin and is a little less economically well-off, so students there don’t have as many resources compared to the public schools here. So for example, their middle school library is short on books. They have very few books, so just as a basic thing we organized a book drive. 

Can you speak to why you think Trump decided to kick off his “Save America” campaign in Lorain County?

I think he’s aware that Ohio was recently a swing state and usually up for contention, but is gradually becoming redder. I think part of his goal with starting off in a place like this is to try and extend that trend and kind of give it a boost. I know Trump supporters will sometimes say that part of the reason they like him so much is just that he shows up or that he mentions farmers, you know, little things like that. So I think he understands that the power of him just coming to a place like this, where there might be some kind of uncertainty in the Republican party about just how strong their lead is here. It’s not like Alabama or Mississippi where it’s a place that’s consistently red. Like this is a place that’s changing. I’m not 100 percent sure of the numbers, but I think it’s a combination of white working-class voters getting disenchanted with the Democrats. Also the population changes a lot with people moving out of Ohio. So this is definitely an emerging state for the Republicans. I think he understands that just by showing up here, he’s kind of shoring up that trend.

It was kind of disheartening, because he’s been gone for a little bit, he’s been quiet. He doesn’t have social media. So there’s almost the sense of “Oh, we’re about to move on,” “Can we move on?” And now he’s back. There’s an understandable kind of frustration among Trump supporters, but as long as he’s there and appealing to their worst instincts and letting them choose hate over everything else, it feels like any kind of healing and progress is not going to happen. The fact that he’s kind of coming back — and even if he doesn’t win the Republican nomination to run for president again —  30 or 40 percent of Americans can continue to kind of claim to him and his messaging. And so hearing that he was coming was kind of disheartening.

What would you say to students who might be concerned that Trump is coming to a place that is so close by?

What’s unfortunate is that I think there are students who feel threatened, but I think some of Trump’s supporters locally also recognize that fear in students and are aware at least of Oberlin’s general reputation as a liberal place. Just the other day there were a few cars coming around with Trump flags and honking. They know. They’re coming specifically to downtown Oberlin to drive around the campus and just trying to get that reaction from students. I guess my concern is that that will probably ramp up towards the end of the week.

What I would encourage [students] to do is to understand that some of the folks that you interact with in town every day — some of them are Republican, some of them support Trump. You’re still able to have constructive interactions with them and maybe even friendly interactions with them. I mean the goal is to try and separate him from his supporters. So join us or get involved in any small way to kind of chip away at that, and then try to have a dialogue with people locally. But yeah, the fear is definitely real because it’s in your face.

The other thing I would say is that part of what we’ve found just as a club reaching out to these local communities is that there’s a kind of unspoken divide between Oberlin students and residents in Northeast Ohio. I think the politics of the residents and the students adds to that. But the people we talked to were so grateful just to have us reaching out and being willing to help that I would encourage any Oberlin student or group to just reach out. If you’re a cultural group, reach out to the parallel group of Oberlin residents and just try to make that connection. Because I think for us, that’s gone a long way in terms of just kind of opening our eyes to the fact that like, yeah, there is some animosity. But people are also pretty willing to have a conversation and accept help. I think that also might help us get closer, and feel a little less intimidated by the local politics. Most of the kids I know here are from New York and California and it can be kind of like, ‘Whoa, rural Ohio,’ but it will take some kind of going out of your comfort zone and then talking to people you wouldn’t otherwise in order to feel more comfortable and safer here.

Those interested in donating to the Progressive Project book drive can drop off middle school age appropriate books at the Oberlin IGA Foodliner, The First Church in Oberlin, United Church of Christ, and Grace Lutheran church.