Up From Conservatism

Conventional wisdom holds that one cannot change his political stripes, therefore it is a waste of time to try to convince a Trump voter to cast his ballot for a Democrat, or vice versa.

But while defections are rare, they are not unprecedented. Both Ronald Reagan and Elizabeth Warren, for example, famously switched sides.

So it seems I’m in good company. I was born a working class conservative Republican. By the age of ten I was canvassing the neighborhood for local GOP candidates who, in our Democratic stronghold, didn’t have a snowflake’s chance in hell of getting elected. I didn’t care. I was earning a dollar a day.

Home — Southwestern Illinois — was a land of coal mines and factories populated by working class Catholics at a time when Catholics voted the straight Democratic ticket. That was okay. It was morning in America. Reagan was in the White House. The ideologically bankrupt Democrats and other America haters were on borrowed time.

Despite its heavy influence, I wasn’t much interested in politics. Not till college, at any rate. That’s when I began studying the conservative journals. There was a certain pleasant smugness in being part of a reactionary movement, a small, elite, saving remnant of traditionalists headed by New York intellectuals like William F. Buckley, Jr. and Albert Jay Nock and Irving Kristol. Days were spent listening to the burgeoning right-wing talk radio and I soon grew convinced that liberals were the reason for America’s cultural, spiritual and economic decline.

As a would-be author, my dream was to some day write for the conservative magazine The American Spectator. In 2002, that dream came true, sort of. For a decade, I wrote a weekly column on the Spectator’s website.

I wish I could take back every word. Those columns will be floating in cyberspace, haunting me till the day I die.

As a political columnist, I was a lukewarm conservative, at best. I lacked the passion and zeal (not to mention paranoia) of my colleagues. Much of conservative ideology innately rubbed me the wrong way. Phony patriotism, deregulation, the gun lobby, climate denial, dog-whistle politics, environmental destruction, rampant consumerism, military adventurism, and above all, the anti-intellectualism of the right left me uneasy to my core. I even preferred NPR to FOX News and had several pieces published in left-wing organs like Salon and Utne Reader.

I was dismayed that all the smart and creative people I knew (as well as the famous ones I didn’t know) were liberals, while all the racist rednecks and dull business people who drove expensive cars and lived in the suburbs and glanced around the room before using the N-word belonged to the so-called Stupid Party. My party. As the decades passed, conservatism resembled less Nock’s  saving remnant and more a herd of frightened white guys trying to hang onto their privilege.

Still, I persisted, writing Spectator pieces, and struggling to find topics that didn’t offend my editor, that didn’t stray from the party line. If I opposed the War in Iraq I had to keep it to myself. If I thought FOX News was little more than right-wing propaganda I kept it to myself.

Increasingly I would get into depressing, futile arguments with my barely literate readers in the comments section. I implored them to stop listening to Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity and begin reading intellectual conservatives like Nock, Russell Kirk, Robert Nesbitt and Richard Weaver. (Stuffy, dead white male writers who mostly bored the shit out of me.) They chastised me for disrespecting Rush and Ann and Sean, and accused me of not being a real conservative.

Another dream was to someday appear on NPR, perhaps on Fresh Air, to discuss, say, my latest prize-winning novel. (Remember, I said dream.) Then a few years ago I was asked to appear on New York City’s NPR station, ostensibly to defend a Spectator column in which I’d argued that affirmative action or quotas should play no role in choosing musicians for a symphony orchestra. Here was my hour in the limelight, only instead of appearing as a prize-winning novelist, I would be the evil bastard who didn’t want to give minorities a hand up after centuries of systematically keeping them down.Millions of listeners would hate me. I was so afraid I’d say something racist, I could barely speak. I ended up making an ass of myself.

After that fiasco, my break with conservatism picked up steam. The book that really set me on the path away from conservatism was Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons. Dreher made the case that many of those things associated with liberalism (recycling, Birkenstocks, organics, being anti-war) could be legitimately adopted by conservatives, too. For me, Dreher’s book broke down an important barrier. Who knew other conservatives felt the way I did? Conservatives, naturally, hated the book and labeled Dreher a cino, a “conservative in name only.”

As a conservative, I had studiously avoided reading non-conservative books. National Review would publish, from time to time, an approved reading list of conservative books, and I had been studiously checking off titles from that list (God and Man at Yale, The Road to Serfdom). Now I felt free to read mainstream authors, and, yes, even liberal magazines. I read Thomas Frank and Barbara Ehrenreich and Naomi Klein and Wendell Berry and Dee Brown. I read books about Jim Crow and the New Jim Crow. I read Pulitzer and National Book Award-winning histories. I was, by then, in my late forties, but better late than never.

And oh, the things I learned.

I learned that the white middle class we know today was mostly built in the 1950s and 60s by strong unions and government handouts like the GI Bill which allowed whites to go to college and trade schools and purchase homes in the suburbs and automobiles, while people of colorwere systematically denied these same handouts by racist local governments and federal redlining policies that kept blacks and Hispanics out of good neighborhoods with good schools, not to mention racist unions that kept people of color out of good paying union jobs.

And I learned that what motivated modern conservatives more than anything was fear. Fear of losing their place at the top of the food chain, fear of becoming irrelevant, and every thought and vote and Internet post was a consequence of this fear. And I learned that pretty much everything I had been told by conservatives – that the U.S. has the best healthcare in the world, that immigrants commit more crime than U.S. citizens, etc., – were lies.

At the same time the conservative movement was becoming more and more of an embarrassment to me. Sarah Palin had been nominated for vice president. And Trump and Betsy DeVos and Scott Pruitt were only a few years away from their reign of error.

The final straw came as I listened to my Crunchy Con hero Dreher defend his opposition to legal marriage between gay adults. The one moderate, enlightened conservative I thought I could rely on to do the morally right thing said supporting the right for gay people to marry would go against his religion. So screw them.

That was it. I was done.

Today, I find it hard to believe that I was ever part of a political movement that elected Donald Trump president or created policies that tore the babies of asylum seekers from their mothers’ arms and shipped said infants halfway across the country for months or years on end, with no guarantee that those mothers would ever see their babies again.

Leaving conservatism has driven a wedge between me and my family and friends. That is not something I feel good about. But I do feel a great sense of relief that in the Age of Trump, I am no longer expected to defend the indefensible and to excuse the inexcusable, and that I am no longer abetting racism and ignorance and backwardness.

Words cannot express how happy I am to be part of the resistance.

Chris Orlet is the author of the crime book A Taste of Shotgun (All Due Respect).