Shifting Political Loyalties: Understanding Betrayal and Evolution

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In The New York Times Monday morning, David French revisits a familiar theme: betrayal. A once staunch conservative and evangelical Presbyterian, French gained attention several years ago for his strong disapproval of Donald Trump. The aggressive attacks he and his family faced from others on the right understandably shook him profoundly. This path led him to The Times, where he regularly writes columns about how the Christian right got ensnared in Trumpian ideology and how he, along with a few other faithful remnants, steered clear of it.

French frequently articulates why pro-life conservatives should favor Joe Biden over Donald Trump. The typical New York Times reader isn’t an anti-abortion evangelical and likely makes efforts to avoid such individuals. David French, understandably angry at the treatment he and his family endured, addresses these grievances weekly. His audience absorbs it, hoping French signals a shift. They speculate that other “decent” evangelicals might grow so repulsed by Trumpian crudeness that they, too, will become reliable Democratic voters. One can only wish, Mildred!

I am quite intrigued by how people discuss the groups and institutions they depart from. Years back, The Telegraph dubbed me “America’s most infamous ‘male feminist’.” Whether I deserved that title is debatable, but my notoriety in that specific context seems unmatched among American men. I built a reputation as a fervent advocate for gender equality, only to dismantle that world.

Despite my misconduct, one can be both a sinner and sinned against. Many former allies and colleagues made some extremely harsh, and often undeserved, remarks about me. Like David French, I received death threats and was permanently ostracized from the feminist community.

Over the years, I rebuilt my life and career, openly distancing myself from once-held beliefs. My convictions no longer align with what I vehemently supported in places like Jezebel and The Atlantic. However, I generally refrain from attacking my former friends and allies. I don’t spite the hand that once fed me, even if it occasionally slapped me.

When individuals shift their politics, they often attribute that change to one of two causes. The first is betrayal, a narrative David French explores extensively. They might claim, “I didn’t leave evangelicalism; evangelicalism left me.” Many former Democrats and Republicans frame their departure similarly, asserting that their personal values remained unchanged while the party’s values shifted.

The other explanation is personal awakening. An enlightening book, a compelling lecture, or an insightful YouTube channel can trigger the realization that one no longer believes in past ideologies. Though feelings of betrayal might linger, they are often directed at what is perceived as longstanding deception rather than a sudden external takeover.

I enjoy asking those who change their political or religious affiliations if the primary catalyst was external betrayal or internal evolution. Often, both factors play a role, but one typically precedes the other. I find it fascinating how they perceive those who remain loyal to the group they’ve left. Are they seen as fools, oblivious, or perhaps pod people?

My great-uncle, Stanley Williams Moore, was a reputed political philosopher. My grandfather’s younger brother, Stanley, obtained his degrees from Cal and served as a major in the Army Air Force during World War II. He eventually secured a tenured teaching position at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

Uncle Stanley was dedicated to the Communist Party, joining in the 1930s soon after his teens. He remained a member through the war and for many years afterward. In 1954, at the height of McCarthyism, Stanley was summoned by the House Un-American Activities Commission (HUAC). He invoked the Fifth Amendment, refusing to answer their questions.

Reed College, though a left-leaning institution today, was different in 1954. Despite his tenure and full professorship, the trustees dismissed my great-uncle for professional misconduct due to his non-cooperation with HUAC. However, in 1993, the college issued an apology and invited Stanley back for a lecture. He lived long enough to witness the pendulum swing, where what was once regarded as subversion was later celebrated as heroism. (I doubt his great-nephew, who also lost his tenured teaching job in a scandal, will share such fortune, and rightly so.)

Uncle Stanley had actually left the Communist Party 18 months before his Congressional hearing. Disillusioned by the “doctors’ plot,” a Soviet conspiracy theory propagated during Stalin’s last years, he was appalled by the cruel treatment of Jewish physicians. When the American Communist Party continued to support Stalin, Uncle Stanley quit the party he had belonged to his entire adult life.

Importantly, despite leaving the party, my uncle never incriminated others, even though doing so might have salvaged his tenure at Reed. He refrained from criticizing or exposing former colleagues, aligning with his ethical principles and upbringing. For years, many misunderstood him as an active party member at the time of his firing. It wasn’t until 1978 that he set the record straight, choosing integrity over convenience.

Uncle Stanley exemplified how to treat former allies with respect, teaching me the importance of not condemning past friends and affiliations.

An anecdote: Ninety years ago, Stanley, then 19 and a sophomore at Cal, was already a committed Communist and member of Delta Kappa Epsilon, like other relatives. In May 1934, violent strikes erupted along West Coast ports, leading to numerous fatalities. One day, Uncle Stanley left campus to support dockworkers at the Port of Oakland. Returning to his mother’s home in Piedmont, a stark cultural and economic contrast from the port, he encountered police and armed volunteers enforcing roadblocks.

Driving his jalopy and wearing his usual Brooks Brothers suit, Stanley identified himself as “John Reed,” a prominent American Communist, claiming he was off to visit the Trotskys. Unfazed by the names, the police allowed the charming fraternity man to pass.

Stanley’s legacy serves as a poignant reminder of the grace in refraining from disparaging former comrades in today’s contentious climate.

Hugo Schwyzer
Hugo Schwyzer
Contributor. Hugo Schwyzer was a professor of history and gender studies at Pasadena City College from 1993-2013. He is now a ghostwriter living in Los Angeles.

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