"Changing your politics is usually traumatic": Why Republican converts like Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump are so influential — and complicated

Converts show how inseparable our personalities and our politics really are, author Daniel Oppenheimer tells Salon

By Elias Isquith
Published February 4, 2016 12:13AM (UTC)
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Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump (AP/Scott Heppell/Photo montage by Salon)

More than any president since perhaps FDR, Ronald Reagan is remembered as much for his quips and his one-liners as for his policies. There's the one about the "nine most terrifying words in the English language"; there's "trust, but verify"; there's "tear down this wall"; there's "... government is the problem." It goes on.

Most of these bons mots have been repeated so frequently that they are now clichés. But there's one that still resonates  and that you can expect to hear ad nauseam if another ex-Democrat turned Republican hero, Donald Trump, is the GOP's 2016 nominee. It goes: "I didn't leave the Democratic Party; the party left me."


Like many of Reagan's zingers, the line was clever, albeit glib. But one of the reasons it connected with so many of the so-called Reagan Democrats is because it spoke to a profound truth about people and politics. Namely, that few among us consciously jettison our principles; if we change our minds, it's only because circumstances demanded it. That's what we tell ourselves, at least.

The complicated and fraught relationship between our politics, our identities and our values is worth understanding. Not simply because it's enlightening or interesting on its own terms, but also because converts can play such an influential role in their new political families — and on our country's politics in general. Reagan may be the most prominent example from our recent history; but he's hardly alone.

This is just one of the reasons why "Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century," a new book of political history from author and filmmaker Daniel Oppenheimer, is so compelling. By focusing on the stories of six influential leftists who became conservatives (or at least non-leftist) — Whittaker Chambers, James Burnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz and Christopher Hitchens — Oppenheimer not only helps explain American politics, but touches on some of the most profound questions in politics itself.


Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with Oppenheimer about his book, his own political evolution, and why the line between politics and psychology is much thinner — and much more dependent on random, contingent forces — than many of us are willing to admit. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

"You note that a lot of these people experienced trauma of one kind or another — a friend of Horowitz, for example, was murdered — and that these experiences had an understandable influence on their politics. So, what traumatic event compelled you to write this book?

[Laughs] I'd say it was kind of a slow-motion trauma. One is that I grew up in a left-wing household. My grandparents on my mother's side were communists. My parents are very political. It was kind of the air that I breathed. To my parents' credit, they actually were not the type of people who gave off the sense that if we didn't believe everything they believed, we wouldn't be loved anymore. But that was the world in which I lived, and I wrestled both with the explicit orthodoxies of the left and the way that leftist belief can be an expression of — and a veil for — various personal issues or dysfunctions. So that was not a trauma; that was just an experience.


On the more traumatic end of things, I grew up in a household with a lot of very bright people who were very good arguers and very good at framing things as matters of principle. One of the coping mechanisms I developed was [learning to] see what the emotions were beneath this very articulate phrasing of principle. All of that combined to produce in me an interest in the way that principle and politics are connected to who we are, sometimes in admirable ways and sometimes in not so admirable ways. For me there's no separation of the two.

You describe the feeling of doubt that people experience as their long-held ideological structure is collapsing as a moment of "contingency and complexity." What does that mean?


What I mean by that is that there's a lot of different directions that it could go at that point when someone's belief system has collapsed for any number of reasons. Some of them are external to who the person is.

I tell the story of Norman Podhoretz in the book, where he's still on the left and he's written this memoir called "Making It" and had enormous ambitions for it. He thought it would maybe establish him as, if not a great writer, an exceptional writer. He already had a pretty good status in the literary and political world, but it would knock him up another notch. But he totally got reamed. The critical response was the worst-case scenario possible, his worst nightmare.

That went on for a few months, and Podhoretz knew that his close friend Norman Mailer was going to write a review of it. Mailer had told him that he liked the book and he was resting a lot of hope for redemption on Mailer's review. When it came out, Mailer's review was critical too. It was critical in complicated ways, but you can play the game—What if Mailer had written a positive review? What if Mailer had decided not to write the review because he couldn't write a positive one? I think there was real contingency there. Norman Podhoretz could have gone a different way. He was not, at that moment when he was down, destined to go the particular route that he did. External forces interceded and what happened, happened.


It seems like converts to the right tend to have an outsize influence. Do you agree? Or do you think that might just be a consequence of a handful of them being so prominent?

I feel like they have had an outsize influence. I'm not sure if I could document it. I think that one thing they bring to the right is deep insight into the left. The right, I think, has been very embracing of these people. So when they show up, the welcome mat is laid out for them and they're given a platform and celebrated for having seen the light. They have more influence than they otherwise would have because they're given that recognition of their discovery of the true faith.

But I think they have a genuine insight into the left that the right has incorporated and has influenced the right. Somebody like Ronald Reagan was profoundly influenced by Whittaker Chambers' book and his discussion of the ways in which communism was a kind of false faith. Whittaker Chambers would not have had that insight into the ways that some people experienced communism if he had not experienced that himself very deeply. That had a profound influence on Ronald Reagan and it had an influence on William F. Buckley, who hired him as an editor at National Review when he created the magazine.


David Horowitz has been incredibly effective at provoking the left, particularly the campus left, to mistakes and idiocy, I think, because of his own experience on the left and his understanding of certain aspects of how the left-wing mind works. So, yeah, I think they have had an outsize influence.

Is there a similar dynamic at work in the opposite direction?

I'm not sure why the reverse doesn't seem to be true. I think in the last few years, particularly in reaction to the most recent Bush administration, there have been some people from the right who moved to the left who have had some influence, but I don't think that they've had outsize influence. People like Andrew Sullivan, David Frum, Bruce Bartlett, there clearly has been a cohort of people who have moved in that direction. Some of the same dynamic is at work, but they also haven't moved as far. They haven't become leftists; they just become maybe center-left or centrists or something like that.

I sometimes jokingly tell my friends to "never trust a convert." My theory was that it was more about a mind-set than a specific politics. Going from the hard right to the hard left, in a sense, is easier than going from being a doctrinaire follower of the party line to a more ecumenical attitude. Did you see that dynamic play out when doing research on these people's lives?


I think the answer to that is complicated. There are certain characteristics and structures to our personality that don't change, barring some truly traumatic event. In a lot of ways, they're very similar on the right as they were on the left. I'm wary of that argument not because I don't think there's some truth to it, but because people use it as a means of dismissing these people and their politics. It's not that there's not some truth to it, but I think it can obscure more than it illuminates.

It is absolutely true that somebody like Whittaker Chambers had; I don't know if I'd say he had an ideological personality, but he had a very eschatological personality, or an apocalyptic or religious personality. He thought the world was coming to an end; he saw portents of doom everywhere; and that was as true [when he was] on the left as it was [when he was] on the right. But I actually think he was a better balanced person on the right than he was on the left. That may have just been age, but I think it was a little more than that. The conservatism that he adopted was a more philosophically flexible or capacious paradigm than his Marxism was, and it gave him some more space to be idiosyncratic and subtle. So it's not like he was a totally different kind of person, but I actually think he was probably a fuller and more integrated person as a conservative.

What about, say, Horowtiz?

David Horowitz is maybe less of those things, ultimately, on the right than he was on the left. Some of that had to do with the trauma he experienced with a friend of his being killed, probably by the Black Panthers. That may have changed him. I think the most distinctive change in somebody's real personality structure, at least as seen through their writing, was Norman Podhoretz, who, in general, has been much more rigid and ideological on the right than he was on the left. So it's true, and you can trace these things through as somebody moves from the left to the right, but I would just want to be careful with that critique.


It goes back to your point about the contingency and complexity that's inherent to being human. 

I would also say that it depends how deeply political someone is, and how deeply entrenched it is in their sense of identity and personality. The people I was writing about are exceptional in the sense that these are deeply, full-bore political people. For people like that, changing your politics is usually traumatic. It's usually a hard thing to do. If you look at Reagan, it was not traumatic, but it was also stretched out over 10 or 20 years; so that was kind of how he managed it.

If we're talking about people whose politics are a little less articulated and less fixed in their identity, then I think that notion of somebody who has extreme politics that can kind of flip is probably much more true. If you look at pre-Hitler Germany where there were large groups of people flipping from the communist party to the fascist party, or [supporters of] Donald Trump or more populist movements and how easily they can shade left and right, I think you're talking about people whose politics are sunk a little bit less deeply into their identity. When you're talking from that perspective, then I think that notion becomes much more salient.

You argue that when people on the left dismiss these apostates as being driven by emotion — instead of by pure reason or principle, I suppose — that it's a bit of a cop-out. Why do you say that?


It's all personal. One of the insights I derived from my childhood is that this idea so many people have — that our political, rational brain is separate from our emotional, animal brain — is, on the face of it, totally nuts. We're all an expression of where we came from, of what our biology is, of how our brains work, of the time in which we live. You can illustrate this really clearly if you want to start playing thought experiments. If we were gentiles in Nazi Germany, what are the odds that we would have been complicit with the Nazis? The odds are really good. We just know this.

If you were born, as I was, into a highly left-wing Jewish family in 1976 in Springfield, Massachusetts, and then went to Yale University and Columbia University and lived your whole life in these deep blue places, what are the odds that I was gonna be conservative? Not high. That doesn't mean that I dismiss my own beliefs; but if you really start subjecting our politics to those kinds of thought experiments or analyses, it becomes really clear that it's all personal. That doesn't mean that the notion — "it's all personal" — doesn't mean anything.

Did any part of you feel in the course of writing this book that maybe all politics is at some level driven by emotional, psychological responses, which, after the fact, we then rationalize as stemming from reason or principle?

[Laughs] Or you could go even further and say it's all subatomic particles bouncing off of each other and free will is an illusion!

It occurred to me. I didn't worry about it too much. At the same time, I feel like that's a fair critique to point out in my work. I was just thinking about this because I'm working on something about Donald Trump and his various movements from Democrat to Republican and back again. I realized as I was reading about Trump that I was coming to sort of empathize with him. That's just something about my personality. I'm vulnerable to the charge of a certain kind of relativism. I want to empathize with these guys; I want to understand what they're going through; I want to present it from their perspective.

Right. You don't have to endorse or excuse their point-of-view in order to understand it. It's just acknowledging, basically, that nobody imagines themselves as the villain of their own life story.

That's absolutely right. I think about that sometimes when I'm writing about or interviewing people on the opposite side of what seems like an intractable issue. I wrote something once on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and I'm working on something now about cop-watchers and interviewing police and people who feel like they've been victimized by the police. When you really get down into that, what you realize is, from one side's perspective, they've been so victimized or traumatized in ways you almost can't deny—what do you do at that point?

You can criticize the political movement. You can decide in an objective sense that they're bad actors in the world. Certainly we should do that and we shouldn't feel inhibited from doing that, but there's so much pain and trauma in the world, and it's sort of endemic to being human, that when you get into it, people feel their own narrative incredibly deeply and they do not feel like the villain in it. If you open yourself up to it, you can be sympathetic. Optimally, that doesn't then lead to some sort of political paralysis and it doesn't prevent you from making judgments about which side you want to advocate for.

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Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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