MAGA Apostates (with Melissa Jo Peltier)
A new documentary film tells the stories of former Trump voters who saw the error of their ways.
Saul of Tarsus was a zealous persecutor of Christians. He was all-in on stamping out this new heresy. Then, on the road to Damascus, where he was traveling to round up members of this fledgling sect and bring them back to Jerusalem in chains, he had an epiphany. He saw the light—literally, in his case; it blinded him for three days—and realized he was playing on the wrong team. From then on, he was a Christian—arguably the most consequential Christian after Jesus Christ. After his spiritual 180, he changed his name. History knows him as St. Paul.
Joe Walsh’s conversion wasn’t as immediate. It took about a year. Walsh was a Republican Congressman from Illinois, one of the upstarts swept into office during the Tea Party movement. He was highly critical of President Obama and Secretary Clinton—a jerk, even. He was chummy with Jim Jordan. After one term on Capitol Hill, he lost his seat and turned to conservative talk radio, becoming a popular shock jock. In 2016, he was an enthusiastic Trump supporter, because Trump was the head of the GOP. Gradually, and then more quickly, he saw the error of his ways. He became one of the most outspoken “anti-Trumpers,” conservatives and Republicans who renounced the con man in the White House. On Twitter, on the campaign trail, and on his radio show—before it was cancelled for not being sufficiently MAGA to retain his core audience—Walsh lent his voice to the anti-Trump movement. He even ran for president in 2020, albeit briefly, hoping to primary the sitting president.
And he paid the price. Walsh lost his career—as a talk show host and as a politician. Many of former constituents regarded him as an apostate. And it’s not like there was much money to be made bucking the status quo. After leaving politics, members of Congress who played along with MAGA have scored cushy TV gigs (Jason Chaffetz, Trey Gowdy), jobs running Trump companies (Devin Nunes), and now, presidencies at universities (Ben Sasse). There was no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for Walsh, just opprobrium and death threats. It would have been a lot easier for him to smile and nod. To his credit, he felt the need to speak out. And like St. Paul, his conscience was clear.
“The worst thing in the world is to be excluded from your group,” says Melissa Jo Peltier, the documentary filmmaker and my guest on today’s PREVAIL podcast. “Shunning goes back to the oldest religions as the ultimate punishment, because you’re humiliated, and your family doesn’t talk to you. And that is also [true] in cults. You know, apostates always get more abuse than people that weren’t in the cult….Once you’re an apostate to the cult, you must be destroyed, because you’ve seen inside. And you’re also a threat to the people in the cult, because they knew you.” This gives apostates enormous power. They are the truth-tellers.
Walsh is one of the subjects of Peltier’s excellent new film, The Game is Up: Disillusioned Trump Voters Tell Their Stories. Also profiled are three Evangelical Christians; a party-loyal Ohio farmer; David Weissman, an army vet turned MAGA troll, who was shown the light by Sarah Silverman (you know him from Twitter, probably); and an NYC political prodigy, Batya Goldberg, who at age 16 was moderating GOP debates in Brooklyn. (It’s unsettling to watch footage of Goldberg, still a teenager in 2016, in close proximity to Republican creeps like Roger Stone, Ted Cruz, and FPOTUS himself.) The stories of these political apostates are instructive, because collectively, they show a roadmap on how to reach MAGA voters having second thoughts about their Orange Jesus.
“I always say, if you want to talk to a MAGA, just ask them questions,” Peltier says. “Just ask questions. Don’t be emotional. Just keep asking questions until you get to the bottom of the talking points, because eventually, they run out.” Her theory is that, if we do this enough, they will begin to doubt the talking points.
Who has the patience for this kind of thing? Not me. In the wake of January 6th, the obvious malevolence of his buddy Putin, and now the theft of the top secret documents, it’s so clear that Trump is a villain that I’ve pretty much written off anyone who still supports him. After all, some cult members never break free of a cult. Zombies can’t be de-zombied. And this is why Peltier’s film is so valuable. In 113 minutes, ex-MAGA cult members make the arguments, so I don’t have to.
“That was actually why I made this film,” Peltier tells me. “Because I kept thinking, there’s got to be people out there who are in MAGA circles, who are going to rallies, but who go home with a lump in their stomach. And I thought, you know, if they could see people changing their mind, and why, maybe they would allow themselves permission to change their mind.”
Seventy-four million Americans voted for Trump in 2020—after four years of watching him embarrass himself, disgrace the office, exploit his position for personal gain, and bungle a pandemic response that killed a million humans in the country he lead. Some percentage of those voters are MAGA zombies, rational brains gone, unreachable. But not all. For the United States to remain intact, for the Union to not be torn asunder, many of those 74 million need to have a Saul of Tarsus conversion. They need to recognize the threat that Trump is, and always has been. They need to realize that they’ve been lied to. They need to understand that the game is up.
We don’t need them to be saints, like Saul of Tarsus. We don’t need them to be loquacious apostates, like Joe Walsh. We just need them to accept the truth, even to themselves. When it comes to MAGA, “quiet quitting” works too.
LISTEN TO THE PODCAST
S4 E6: The MAGA Game is Up (with Melissa Jo Peltier)
After sharing his thoughts about Putin’s new atrocities in Ukraine, Kanye West, Roger Waters, Elon Musk, and the poltroonish quitter Ben Sasse, Greg Olear talks to his friend, the documentary filmmaker Melissa Peltier, about her new film, “The Game is Up: Disillusioned Trump Voters Tell Their Stories.” Plus: the clash inside the country’s richest man.
Watch “The Game is Up:”
About the film:
Photo credit: Joe Walsh, in a still shot from the film.
Being not very familiar with the word apostate, I employ different terminology. People who recover from being in a cult, or culture, are overcoming mind control.
Iranians the world over are finally rebelling, at long last, against the draconian restrictions of that woefully backward Islamic regime. The older generation of Russians still getting their news and worldview from state TV are starting to see their bubble crack.
Recovery from brainwashing is a poorly understood process. I’m with Greg when he says he’s pretty much written off everybody who still supports Trump, and that includes my dad. I have to explain to one of my sisters that he’s a dummy, because she still doesn’t get how he could be so lost.
Remember when Lindsey Graham, of all people, called Trump a racist? [“race-baiting, xenophobic religious bigot“ and “lying motherfucker,” among other things] Remember the Access Hollywood tape?
Anyone with eyes can see who this guy is. But not so bright people, or people who don’t pay attention to things like racism and sexism and homophobia, or who subconsciously approve of those values, gravitate towards this dirtbag. He actually has far less intelligence and even less integrity than Hitler did. Yet we have so many saps in this country, that they easily fall for this guy’s cons and made him President.
Recovering from brainwashing is one of the toughest things. Melissa Jo Peltier talks about being ostracized and shunned by your community, but in addition, you are questioning everything you once believed. Your rock is shaken, removed. You become adrift. You have to find new secure footing.
Our country, our society, has turned off the blender. Now the different liquids are separating. I actually think it’s a very healthy process, because the racism and sexism and homophobia that was covertly affecting things like drawing district boundaries, is now out in the open and visible. We’ve never had this level of transparency into how racism affects our democracy.
It’s going to be a rude awakening, and it already is for a lot of Trumpsters. Although you and I are anxiously and impatiently awaiting his political death knell, dragging the process out, drawing it out, gives the brainwashees more opportunity to see the light of their mistake. It gives more of them opportunity to wake up from their racist sexist old-social-order slumber.
Also, Melissa Jo Peltier says, “… apostates always get more abuse than people that weren’t in the cult….Once you’re an apostate to the cult, you must be destroyed, because you’ve seen inside. And you’re also a threat to the people in the cult, because they knew you.”
Hence the Chinese government, and Saudi and Iranian governments, operating inside the United States and elsewhere to coerce, blackmail, and harass [and murder] dissidents. Putin’s GRU thugs committing murder outside Russia. They fear their own citizens recovering from that society’s cultural programming more than anything else.
Change is such a threat. If you have education, enlightenment, that rocks the security of the people who gain their livelihood from the existing system.
Quiet quitting works for me, too!