Just three days before the 2016 presidential election, Austyn Crites silently held up a sign at a Donald Trump rally in Reno, Nevada: “Republicans Against Trump.” Members of the crowd promptly attacked and physically beat Crites, ripping the sign from his hands. Trump was rushed off the stage by Secret Service amid false reports that Crites had a gun. Crites, who was unarmed, was later targeted by the Trump campaign, which spread unsubstantiated rumors that he had tried to assassinate the Republican nominee and falsely accused him of being a Clinton campaign plant at the rally.
Crites, a registered Republican, is an entrepreneur and University of Chicago Booth School of Business alumnus. He is the founder and CEO of Panberri, an aerospace company based in Nevada. The Gate’s co-editor-in-chief Liz Stark caught up with Crites one week after the 2016 presidential election to discuss his views on the success of president-elect Trump, concerns about the future of the Republican Party, and what it was like to be the target of Trump’s violent rhetoric first-hand.
The Gate: Given your experiences at the Donald Trump rally in Nevada, how are you feeling post-election about a Trump presidency?
Austyn Crites: I’m trying to remain optimistic, as someone who believes that this happened for a reason. And in this particular case, I respect the election result. That’s my democratic duty. Because you can’t have it both ways—you can’t say, if your candidate wins, then everyone else should respect the result. I am originally from rural America—rural Nevada—and I understand a lot of the frustrations people have with government and the way that the economic situation has treated people the last couple of decades. But at the same time, I also understand that there are people who prey on other people’s vulnerabilities and use them for their own political purposes. Even though I respect the results, first and foremost I’m an American. No matter who is in power, I am always going to try to stand up for what I think is right.
Gate: Were you expecting Trump to win the election?
Crites: Well I can tell you that if I hadn’t had a very strong hunch that he was close to winning, then I would not have gone to the rally with the sign. It would have been a waste of time to do that if I thought that it was a slam-dunk Hillary victory. I spent a lot of time in rural America, in different parts of the country. I could see how people were rallying behind, not so much a love for what he represented, but an extreme disdain for what the other people were representing. It was basically a revolution against the elitist tendencies in American government. People were looking for scapegoats.
Gate: As indicated by the sign you were holding at the rally, you are a self-proclaimed “Republican Against Trump.” How do you see yourself fitting into the Republican Party now that Trump is the president-elect?
Crites: I’m not somebody who puts party politics above the nation’s politics. So I actually agree with our Founding Fathers, who were very cautious against political parties. One of the things that I have noticed, especially with what’s going on now, is that a lot of people will box themselves into a party, even though they know deep down inside that their candidate is going against everything that their core values represent. So I don’t know what my involvement will be with the Republican Party. We need to see how it evolves. Trump is, right now, the leader of the nation and the Republican Party. We will have to see how he governs. But if he is governing irresponsibly and the party keeps supporting him in that direction, then it’s true, it will be impossible for me to continue operating with that type of system, where I don’t believe in standing for the direction that it’s going. But I don’t know yet, we’ll see what we get.
Gate: What concerns do you have about Trump’s ability to govern and his ability not only to unite the Republican Party, but also to unite the country as a whole?
Crites: My concerns are nothing new. My concerns are exactly the concerns that everybody has been talking about, both in the Republican primaries and during the general election. It’s very difficult to unite people when you pit groups against one another, and basically make some people appear more humane than other people. So that’s the difficulty—you cannot take back all of the things you have said and done over hundreds of speeches. So even if somebody changes their tone going forward, it is very difficult for people who have been lambasted in the past to believe all of a sudden that you have changed your core character. Trump is not necessarily going to become the “great uniter” of American society. But at the same time, we have to give him the ability to operate as president of the United States when it comes to certain policy issues, if those do not run counter to our core beliefs as Americans. So I think people just need to understand what is important to them and hold true to that. It doesn’t matter if it’s President Obama, or President Trump, or even George Washington. Whoever the leader is, people need to understand that you can be patriotic and you can support a person in that position, but still not agree with the way that person is doing certain things.
Gate: What sort of actions can you take as an ordinary American citizen if you disagree with president-elect Trump on certain issues or policies?
Crites: Speaking as an entrepreneur, as somebody who often learns, sometimes the hard way, about trying to go too big initially, you want to focus on one particular thing first. Pick one issue that you believe is core to being an American and freedom of democracy. Immediately today, as someone who is reading this article in the Gate, go and do that first step—whether that’s joining some type of local chapter, whether it’s someone trying to support a particular issue, donating to that issue. But you have to understand that one person can do massive things if your efforts are focused. It’s very difficult for one person to come in and change all of these different aspects of political life and American life. But with one particular person who is really outspoken—people like Martin Luther King Jr. with civil rights, or Henry Ford, who spoke on business aspects and automation—there are people who focus on one particular thing and do it really well. And all of these things are extremely patriotic in their own way. People need to not spend all their time just critiquing on Facebook or constantly marching down the street and wrecking cars. Actually pick one thing and just go straight for it.
Gate: What would you say your own main policy issue is?
Crites: Well one of my main issues over the past years has been space exploration. So one of the reasons why I have focused a lot of my time on building high-altitude balloon systems [with Panberri] is that I believe it is not only good for humanity in general, but it is extremely patriotic for Americans to be at the cutting edge of aerospace systems. And so I chose to focus a lot of my time on an area that is very improbable. But people who don’t believe that you can do something improbable are mistaken, because I had never taken an engineering course in my life. And all of a sudden, I’m now at the cutting edge of aerospace systems. And these things occur by staying focused on your particular area and meeting other people who also share that focus.
Gate: Was your passion for that particular issue what motivated you to attend the Trump rally?
Crites: It was a last-minute thing. I have been vocal, especially among my peers, on not agreeing with Trump, all throughout the election season. And I supported a lot of the Republicans going up against Trump during the primaries. Even though I supported Hillary Clinton at the end for being able to stop Trump, I was also supporting Evan McMullin, the independent candidate. I attended the rally because I got an email from the Republican Party, one day before he came to Reno, that said it was the last chance to see Donald Trump. So I got tickets immediately online. And I thought, you know, the race is coming down to the line. I live in a battleground state, the state of Nevada, and they were basically split fifty-fifty. I know a lot of people in Nevada—I was student body president in my high school, and I was the Boys State delegate for the state of Nevada when I was younger (laughs). So I took this very seriously, and a lot of people know the candidates and they know me, and they know that even if we don’t agree on particular issues, my character is not in question. So I decided to go up to show people that there are Republicans here in the state of Nevada who do not support that type of rhetoric from Trump. So I brought the sign, and things blew up and got out of hand.
Gate: What was it like being a target of Trump’s rhetoric and experiencing that type of violence first-hand at the rally?
Crites: You know, I still do not put the blame on the rally-goers. The reason why I was not supportive of Donald Trump is because he incites this kind of anger and violence. As you can see in the video, he specifically called me out with no facts whatsoever, saying that I was “a Hillary Clinton plant and was getting paid $1,500 dollars, get him out.” When he said that, I can’t even name how many people were listening, posting on social media articles about me getting paid $1,500 as a Democratic plant. Just based on the words that he spoke on the floor. So that’s the thing that hurts the most, is that somebody who claims to want to make America great again is so thin-skinned that he cannot have an 8” x 11” sign anywhere near him without going off his message. Now that is what really hurts him. Immediately, people were trying to grab the sign—that’s how it started—people were trying to rip the sign out of my hand. But I continued to hold it up because that’s my right. Nothing is going to stop me from holding up a sign. And then of course, more people piled on and I got shoved again. But the Secret Service of course came in and did their jobs. I have no beef whatsoever with the security that was there, in fact, they were doing their jobs and asking me questions.
The biggest problem, more than just the violence at the event, was the amount of slander put out there immediately on social media—stuff retweeted by Donald Trump Jr. about an assassination attempt, by the social media director of the Trump campaign, by Kellyanne Conway going on Fox News and CNN, saying I was a Democrat and a Democratic plant. I was never a Democrat. Fox News said I was tied to committing voter fraud, said that my grandmother was dead and I was stealing her ballot. But both my grandmothers are alive. So there was an onslaught of these crazy conspiracies, pushed out by the Trump campaign and friendly media outlets. That’s something that, again, shows disrespect for American democracy, for them to specifically try to target someone for standing up with a different viewpoint from them. And them trying to do everything possible to shoot down my reputation. And that will always be online. That stuff will always be online.
Gate: So with all of the misinformation and conspiracies about you out there on the Internet, what are your future plans? How do you move forward from this experience?
Crites: I am going to move forward just like I always have. Things change, some things accelerate, but first and foremost I’m an American, and I have to spend the rest of my life standing up for what I believe is right. In what manner, how this is going to happen, is still up to me on how to get involved. But nothing is going to change as to what I feel about the importance of democracy and freedom in our country. And it’s not going to change who I am as a person or make me feel more bitter. I’m going to take this like anything that has happened in people’s lives and keep moving forward. And I think most people who have had anything like this happen to them or have had anything even less drastic than this occur to them, it’s very easy to get bogged down and encumbered, and to feel like every day I’m just a victim of circumstance. But the reality is, we always have tomorrow. Exactly what is going to happen? I don’t know. But I would say that something like this has only made me stronger.
The interview has been edited for content and clarity.
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