When we began putting together an issue on the future of the right, it seemed like those who had conservative pasts might be a source of insight. As an ex-conservative who grew up in Trump Country, a topic I’ve written about for Dissent (“Leaving Conservatism Behind,” Summer 2016), I know my biography has figured into my own understanding of this moment. So I spoke with three others with similar backgrounds—Sarah Jones, Maximillian Alvarez, and Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins—about how we got here and where we think we’re headed, drawing on the experiences we had growing up in conservative, religious households. —Matthew Sitman
Matthew Sitman: I want to start by asking how your experiences as former conservatives have shaped your understanding of the last few years, particularly the rise of Donald Trump.
Maximillian Alvarez: There are two things I’d focus on. One is darker, the other a little more hopeful.
We’re having this conversation in the middle of the primaries, and like many other people on the left I’ve been watching the Democratic establishment lose its mind over Bernie Sanders. And I have to admit, I’ve been getting quite a high off the schadenfreude of it all. It reminds me of how as a conservative growing up in Southern California, a place that also bred ghouls like [Senior Advisor to the President] Stephen Miller, I bought into this proto-Trumpian ethos of trolling as the ultimate political good: “owning the libs” as the guiding principle of my politics, which is in effect a kind of gross political nihilism. I remember the high I got from offending the progressive sensibilities of my classmates, teachers, even members of my family. I also remember how vapid and empty it felt in the long run. The only way to sustain that kind of high is to keep trolling people. And those of us on the left today need to be very careful not to fall into the trap of trolling for its own sake.
On the lighter side, growing up conservative gave me an appreciation for political organizing and politics in general. I remember what it was like to leave the right and find a home on the left. I remember the material conditions, the cultural conditions, and especially the interpersonal conditions that had to be in place for me to change—the ways that people treated me, the ways we approached each other. And that very much inflects the way I approach politics today.
Sarah Jones: Coming from a very conservative Christian background, from a very conservative rural place, I wasn’t totally shocked that Trump won in 2016. Growing up that way didn’t bestow prophetic powers on me. I still thought Clinton was probably going to eke it out in the end. But I wasn’t shocked. And I especially wasn’t shocked that white evangelicals ended up mostly voting for Trump. He embodies a lot of tendencies that I saw in evangelicalism while I was growing up, including an implicit strain of white nationalism. Evangelicals are used to making excuses for people in power, so the fact that Trump had been married multiple times, the fact that he’d had affairs, the fact that he spoke crudely of women wasn’t necessarily going to stop them from supporting him. What mattered were the things he said and the things that he stood for. Pro-life tendencies in white evangelicalism often disguise fears of demographic replacement. Trump played on those fears brilliantly.
The joy in “owning the libs” that Max talked about was also a factor. Pundits who said the crudeness of Trump’s language would be a turn-off for born-again believers really underestimated the degree to which evangelicals—with some important exemptions—were used to speaking of the enemy in really cruel terms if they felt that was merited. You heard it most often when the topic of discussion was LGBTQ people. The terms that people would use were just heinous. The way they would talk about women who had abortions was dehumanizing. The evangelicals that were part of my circles would say that what I now see as cruelty was just the truth; God’s facts don’t care about your feelings.
Another thing I’ve been thinking about was the tendency in the 1990s for evangelicals to link God with the free market, which led to the idea that if you were following God, he would reward you. They wouldn’t necessarily say, “I believe in the prosperity gospel.” In my world, that was viewed as more of a Pentecostal thing. But there wasn’t much of a difference in the belief systems. And the result is a movement that tends to worship power and worship prosperity, which amounts to worshipping capitalism.
These tendencies in the Christian right create an opportunity for the left to have an impact that liberalism can’t. Income inequality in the United States hit a fifty-year high last year. If that keeps up, the Christian right’s subservience to profit-making is going to be as unsustainable as its dehumanizing beliefs about LGBTQ people. That was certainly a big part of why I was drawn to the left.
Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: I was at UC–Berkeley the night Trump was elected. I’ll never forget the pandemonium that broke out on campus. I had two or three roommates that entered a state of shock. I was scheduled to give a talk the next day, and it was canceled. If I recall correctly, the counseling centers at Berkeley were overbooked for weeks.
I grew up in the panhandle of Florida, with a lot of people who would go on to be Trump supporters. I was raised in a charismatic Pentecostal context. Everyone in my family voted for Trump, including my mom, who married a black man. (My father is black, my mother is white.) So backing Trump wasn’t just about race. The church that I went to was nondenominational and multi-ethnic—like many charismatic churches since the 1970s. In fact, there were a remarkable number of interracial marriages that came out of this movement.
All of this put me in a strange position. My friends at Berkeley were terrified. Books from people like Timothy Snyder were warning about a return of fascism. But the people I grew up with in the panhandle still seemed very nice to me. I had long ago rejected their politics, but I never thought of them in the terms that centrists or liberals now did. I had to do some soul-searching about how I was raised and whether I should have seen something like this coming. And I suppose it shouldn’t have been that surprising. I take Sarah’s point about the importance of white nationalism, but I also think about people like my Mom, who just voted for Trump because she’s pro-life, and she’s not going to compromise on that.
I was being told by many of my academic colleagues that people I love and cared about a lot were racists, and I knew that not all of them were. And I also knew that since the financial crisis, a lot of the churches in the panhandle had shut down.
My identity as someone on the left became much more refined. I already knew what conservatives stood for, and I had left that world. But Trump’s election made me feel that there was a real disconnect between mainstream liberalism and what’s going on in wide swathes of the country. And that disconnect has been a crucial part of the emergence of a real left in this country.
Sitman: Speaking for myself, the move from right to left helped clarify why I had never entirely embraced mainstream liberalism. Now I have better reasons for rejecting that style of politics, I hope—but there’s always been some part of me that recoiled against it. Jumping off from that point, I’d like to ask you all to talk more about what prompted your move to the left.
Jones: Gender is the first thing that I can remember having a profound disagreement with my church about. My parents were attending an independent fundamentalist Baptist church when I was born, and then moved to a nondenominational but essentially Southern Baptist congregation when I was older. It didn’t make any sense to me that I couldn’t preach or that I couldn’t teach men or that there was so much attention paid to everything that I put on my body. My brother didn’t get the same lectures. And I felt dehumanized by it.
As I grew older, the next challenge had more to do with economics. My family is not wealthy, and I come from a part of southwestern Virginia that is also mostly not wealthy. But there are pockets with doctors, lawyers, and so on. My church was a little unusual for the area, because the congregation had a lot of those people who were fairly well off. I came from one of the poorest families in the church, and we were made to feel that very keenly, especially by other kids. We needed charity from other members of the church because we couldn’t afford our medical bills. When we got new clothes, they were hand-me-downs from other people in the church. At the same time, my brother and I were really ostracized. We were seen as weirdos, and money had a lot to do with that.
It was an alienating experience, and it made me start to ask a bunch of other questions. My family was tithing 10 percent of our meager income every week. God wasn’t blessing us, and I couldn’t understand why. Nearly everyone in my community was very religious. People went to church two or three times a week. And yet the area was full of people who were really struggling. So why had God turned his back on southwestern Virginia?
When I was in my early twenties, I attended a conservative Christian college. I opposed the war in Iraq, which did not make me popular on campus. I moved quickly through what I would call a flirtation with liberalism and became a socialist feminist. I think my politics are still formed by an instinctive reaction against liberalism. I was raised to have conviction, and I am appalled by a lack of conviction. And I often see that in liberalism, even though I’m not always sure I’m being fair. A lot of liberal politics just seems performative. Back in my church days, we would have called it carnal Christianity.
Growing up, I felt like I was embroiled in a spiritual conflict with liberalism for the soul of the world. That probably helped me get on board with the idea of class warfare, because I wanted something more substantive than what liberalism could provide. Looking back at my childhood, the spiritual warfare stuff almost looks like a distraction. It was a way of not asking about class.
Sitman: That idea of spiritual warfare is also a way of reducing political problems to spiritual ones. If you’re poor, it’s because you don’t have a strong work ethic or you spend your money on booze and drugs. Among some of my family members, that’s still the reason for their resistance to universal programs like Medicare for All. It feels like people who aren’t playing by the rules are getting something they don’t deserve. But you’re right, it’s a great way to ratchet up a sense of conflict and persecution, without ever having to push for structural change.
Alvarez: Even though we grew up with different religious backgrounds—I was a Catholic in Southern California—I think there’s a lot of connective tissue here. Both sides of my family, the white side and the Mexican side, were deeply Catholic. Catholicism gave me the coordinates to define myself as an individual: what I could do, what impact I could have on the world, how far I could go in life, and what my purpose was. Everything was part of a heavenly system that I could not know or challenge. Now that I’m on the left, I tend to see the world as containing good people who are trapped in a bad system. But when I was a conservative, it was flipped. I saw a more or less good system that was under siege from bad people.
Growing up in Southern California, one of the biggest ideological influences was talk radio, because you’re sitting in the car most of the damn time. My parents listened to Laura Schlessinger, Rush Limbaugh, Dennis Prager. A really big influence for me was the black conservative Larry Elder, known as the “Sage of South Central.” He was peddling a Bill Cosby–esque, personal responsibility–focused, pull-your-damn-pants-up kind of conservatism. He acknowledged that there were barriers to us being treated as equals, but he said we had to focus on what we could do better. That was the belief that I internalized listening to people like Elder for so many hours and days and years of my young life.
This connects to what Daniel was talking about. My dad is a Mexican immigrant, grew up dirt poor, and is now driving for Uber. He voted for Trump. I know he’s not a racist. People like my dad have very complex reasons for supporting Trump. My family lost everything in the recession, including the house that I grew up in. We watched the recovery pass us by. And my dad was looking at all this with the worldview of a Catholic who spent his free time listening to people like Elder. He took it as a deeply personal failure that we lost everything in the recession. So did my mom. I think all of us did to some extent. Our immediate reaction was to blame ourselves as opposed to blaming the system. We turned our anger inward.
This bled into other realms, too. When we lost our house, we also lost our church. My parents were too ashamed to go, and eventually we just moved farther away. In the absence of that sort of community, the things that Trump was saying and the release that he was providing for people—the victims he was speaking to and the villains he was pointing to—provided a supplement for that lost community. We wanted somebody to tell us we weren’t the losers we thought we were.
I think that explains a lot about my own political conversion. The material process of my family losing everything, of getting spat out of college into a recession, of working twelve-hour days at factories and warehouses as a temp while the world seemed to be crumbling around us—that was the signal moment. My dad had worked in real estate, and my mom worked as a bank teller. They did not work in union jobs, they did not have a sense of worker community in their careers. But when my dad was driving Uber, he started to talk with the people he was driving who were his age, who were going to their second or third jobs, who had also lost their houses. He was talking to other immigrants about everything they had lost and all the dreams that had evaporated. We started to realize that we weren’t alone in this, that it wasn’t just our fault that a global recession had happened. And that paved the way for me to figure out where our anger should be directed.
Steinmetz-Jenkins: It’s interesting that we have more in common than having once been involved with conservative religious groups. It seems like we all came from trying socioeconomic conditions. I was raised primarily by my mom, and she had two other children. I didn’t know any liberals, and I wasn’t much of a reader. I was much more into sports. But when I was seventeen, through my church, I went on a missionary trip to Guyana and saw abject poverty for the first time. I recognized that whatever my church was offering the people there wasn’t enough. That’s when I recognized that the spiritual can only go so far. Those people needed more than just prayers.
The Iraq War was crucial, too. Growing up in a military town and going to a church where 95 percent of the people had something to do with the military, I still could never understand why we were over there. That was probably the main political reason I turned against the Republican Party. I was attending a Bible college, but I eventually ended up at Reed College, which was the polar opposite of everything I’d experienced in my entire life. I later found out that the admissions committee was reluctant to accept me, because they didn’t think I would be able to fit in.
I had been told my whole life that the world was dangerous. At my first college, I wasn’t allowed to be with women alone. I couldn’t watch television. No movies, no music, ten o’clock curfew. At Reed, the world no longer seemed bad to me.
Sitman: As someone who grew up a fundamentalist Baptist, I can identify with that.
Jones: I can, too.
Sitman: I wonder how all of you view the future, because it seems like the two main trajectories before us are either something like multiracial social democracy or white-nationalist authoritarianism. We’ll have to pick one or the other. Maybe I’m wrong, and liberal centrism is more durable than I think. But given our shared backgrounds—and without pretending to be the left’s working-class Trump whisperers—I wonder what you all think the future might hold.
Jones: I’ve only just come around to the idea there’s going to be a future at all. I spent so much time growing up assuming that I was going to get raptured. Now I have to think about the long run. If he wins in 2020, I see Trump being very good in the short term for white evangelicals, and by short term I mean probably over the next couple decades or so. Not just because of anything Trump has gotten through Congress or passed by executive order, but through stacking the judiciary with conservative judges. But in the long term this could backfire for white evangelicalism. Young adults are leaving both mainline Christian Protestant traditions and more conservative evangelical traditions. Some of the earliest research identified political differences as one of the key reasons for this trend. On the other hand, there’s a real risk in looking at those numbers and thinking, “Okay, so it’s going to be lousy for a while, but eventually these people will become less influential.” We could be left with a smaller minority who are even more aggressive and who view themselves as even more of a persecuted remnant than they already do. And I worry about what that could mean.
The left isn’t always good at recognizing the threat posed by people like [Missouri Senator] Josh Hawley, who can sound as though they’re allies from time to time when they talk about antitrust or Silicon Valley. These people are not your friends. Just because Tucker Carlson or Marco Rubio criticize capitalism from time to time does not mean that they’re allies in any meaningful sense. So, I would not say that I’m particularly optimistic. Maybe I’m still a creature of my background, where I don’t have much optimism about the future.
But leftists do think long term. You are working toward something the way that some Christians work toward creating communities that more closely resemble the Kingdom of God on earth. It’s not always something that you expect to see in your lifetime. You understand that if the work is ever completed, it will be completed long after you’re gone. So, whatever fears I might have when I think about what things will be like decades from now, I feel an obligation to keep up the fight and trust that, maybe someday, long after I’m gone, the world will be a better place than it was when I was born.
Alvarez: To build off what Sarah was saying, I think that we need to be prepared for “populism” to be the new terrain upon which the battle between left and right is going to be fought. We need to be vigilant about not letting grifters from the “populist right” provide a Trumpian off-ramp, because the right-wing approach to populist politics is fascism. We need to recognize fascism as an always-looming threat, and we have to approach democracy as a never-complete reality. We have to fight for democracy every day. Conservatism speaks to a real need to feel a sense of place in a system, to feel that someone out there—whether it be God or our priest—recognizes our worth. To counteract that, we need a left-wing politics that provides working-class people with a sense of belonging and dignity and value. We can’t put all our hopes in decisions that are made by some legislative body. That can be part of it, but we also need tenant unions, worker co-ops, and other institutions that let us shape our world. They show that we don’t have to accept just being part of a system that nobody can control.
Steinmetz-Jenkins: I agree that there will be a real left social democratic movement and that a Trumpist right is here to stay around for a long time. I’m inclined to follow Thomas Piketty’s argument in Capital and Ideology that the center-left and the center-right will unite as a front against these two groups. We all have to brace ourselves for that.
Matthew Sitman is associate editor of Commonweal and a frequent contributor to Dissent. He is co-host of the podcast Know Your Enemy, sponsored by Dissent.
Sarah Jones is a staff writer for New York Magazine, where she covers national politics and social inequality.
Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and editor based in Baltimore and the host of Working People, “a podcast by, for, and about the working class today” (in partnership with In These Times). His work has been featured in venues like the Nation, the Baffler, Current Affairs, the New Republic, Boston Review, and more.
Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins is the managing editor of Modern Intellectual History and a postdoctoral fellow in the history department at Dartmouth College. He is writing a book, Religion and Human Rights in a Populist Age, forthcoming from Yale University Press.