And I wasn’t any ol’ garden-variety Republican: I was a Reagan-worshiping, supply-side, family values, welfare-queen-myth-believing, anti-gay rights, anti-choice, anti-feminist, pro-beer/anti-weed, vegetarian-mocking, religious conservative Republican.
In 1984—before my skull had completely hardened—I’d planned to cast my first-ever vote for Ronald Reagan. But the line was really long, and I was late for that day’s showing of Love Connection. Maybe, somewhere in the inky black depths of my subconscious, I was thinking, “Wait, what? I’m going to inconvenience myself just to be an asshole?” So I went back to my dorm room and never contemplated voting for a Republican again.
And to this day, I never have. But believe me when I tell you I was hard-core. Except for the voting part, of course—because, you know, right after Love Connection, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe came on. (Kids, don’t be like me. Unless you’re, um, a Republican, of course.)
Now I point at least 178 degrees in the other direction—trending toward 179. So what was my road-to-Damascus moment, when the scales suddenly fell from my eyes and I saw the light? What was my epiphany?
Well, there wasn’t one. I guess it helped that I went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a hotbed of progressivism where naïve assumptions about the world go to die, but I can’t point to any single moment or event that toppled my worldview and turned me away from the GOP for good.
I’m not the only convert, of course. None other than progressive stalwart Elizabeth Warren once hewed to conservative ideals, and that hasn’t stopped her from attracting a dedicated following with her own passionate brand of liberalism. I’ll wager there are lots of regretful ex-Republicans in our midst. Scratch a lefty and you may find that underneath there’s a history there—and it won’t always be entirely pleasant. I know that as well as anyone. That’s why I want to make an appeal, especially in the age of Trump, when it comes to accepting converts: people who may have recently left the GOP or abandoned conservative values, even if they haven’t yet done so entirely.
While Donald Trump and his unruly horde have made this an awful time to be a liberal, his misrule has also opened narrow but distinct windows of opportunity. As the GOP has slowly devolved into a cult of personality, some Republican loyalists who remain members in good standing of the sane community are finding themselves without a candidate.
Former John McCain campaign manager Steve Schmidt, Washington Post columnists Jennifer Rubin and Max Boot, Republican strategists Ana Navarro and Rick Wilson, and attorney (and Kellyanne Conway’s domestic foil) George Conway are among the high-profile figures who have drifted from the GOP’s ever-shrinking tent in the wake of the party’s grotesque Trumpification.
While many MAGA hat-wearing Trump acolytes are clearly too far gone to be reached, there’s plenty of evidence that suburban Republicans, who are utterly repulsed by the ocher abomination currently squatting in the White House, can be nudged leftward.
During the 2018 midterms, which were largely seen as a referendum on Trump, Republicans got crushed in the suburbs, and the more densely populated the suburb, the worse it went for them. In a 2018 midterm post-mortem, Washington Post chief correspondent Dan Balz detailed the GOP’s newly found suburban woes. Going into 2018, he noted, 30 districts were categorized as “suburban-sparse,” and Republicans held them all. During the election, Democrats took 16 of those. Meanwhile, of the “suburban-dense” districts, Republicans went from holding all 15 to holding only three. Similarly, Republicans went from holding seven of nine “urban-suburban” districts to retaining just one.
Perhaps more telling is what suburbanites, mostly women, think about Trump and, by extension, the newly renovated GOP. “They view this literally as a crisis. The Trump presidency is a crisis to democracy, our values, our morality,” Christine Matthews, a Republican pollster, told Vox for a December 2018 story. “It is making women physically sick. That is the word they use all the time—the word is ‘nauseous.’”
I was once a conservative who shared a lot of the same values and demographic characteristics of today’s suburban Republicans, and eventually I became disgusted with the homophobia, warmongering, greed, and theocratic impulses of the GOP. And this was back in the ’80s, before George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump made the party that much more unpalatable.
But even though there was no defining moment when I went from Reagan conservative to bleeding-heart liberal, there were plenty of holes poked in the dam as I tried to defend my long-held values. Those holes eventually created a deluge: Reagan’s cruelty with regard to cutting social programs, and the joy I witnessed in his followers when he did so; the cynical, dog-wagging invasion of Grenada; the administration’s blasé response to the AIDS crisis, and the systematic dehumanizing of its victims; the rise of an increasingly unhinged and aggressive religious right. All of that contributed to my distaste, and eventually, like a wobbly Jenga tower, my cocksure conservatism collapsed in on itself.
The point is, I didn’t become “woke” in one fell swoop, and I have to admit those old scripts still pop into my mind from time to time, though I refuse to give them oxygen.
Despite everything that’s happened over the past three years—and it’s been crushing and demoralizing, to say the least—I remain optimistic. Society may evolve slower than individuals do, but it nevertheless evolves. Look at how we went from heterosexual marriage as the “traditional” default (even among many Democratic politicians) to a widespread acceptance of marriage equality.
So imagine you’re a young ex-Republican, like I once was: You know Donald Trump is full of shit but aren’t quite sure what you believe in yet. Or imagine you’re an older fiscal conservative who likes what Joe Biden and Amy Klobuchar are selling but isn’t grokking Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders just yet.
What do we do with such people? It’s right to challenge them on their prejudices and their false assumptions (e.g., their wrongheaded belief that Republican presidents are better stewards of the economy), but I hope we can do so with an eye toward embracing, rather than rebuking, them—whether we meet them in real life or in an online comments section.
Unfortunately, I sometimes see scorched-earth attitudes prevailing among many of us. Steve Schmidt may be one of the most forceful anti-Trump voices out there, but he almost singlehandedly molded Sarah Palin out of moose brisket, Mary Kay, and bad ideas, so—the thinking goes—fuck that guy. Fine, but we do need a strong pro-democracy, anti-fascist coalition going into November, so it’s all hands on deck. The U.S. joined forces with the U.S.S.R. to defeat the Nazis, after all. Surely we can hold hands with the smattering of Republicans who want to save the country from almost certain ruin.
Who knows when a hole or two poked in the dam (and Trumpism is a gaping hole if there ever was one) will create enough daylight to lead to a complete conversion? It happened to me, and it happened to Elizabeth Warren and Arianna Huffington, who both left the Republican Party as older adults, long after their own skulls had unsoftened.
Also, look at what the Republican Party has become. They can fumigate all they want, but that Trump stank will linger for decades. Trump is a Chernobyl-level event for the GOP. No one who’s not a mutant—or resigned to become one—can survive therein. There’s a fair chance that Republicans of good conscience, rare as they often seem, won’t be able to reconcile with those barking-mad proto-fascists after all this is over. Only one viable party exists, and it’s ours.
Maybe they’ll never pass our purity tests, but they can certainly vote for decency—and against Trump. Given time, they could even be valuable allies. And who knows? If they turn away from the Dark Side long enough, they might even become die-hard liberals.
Let them in. They can change. After all, I did—and I (nearly) voted for Reagan.