Episode Summary

We’ve talked a lot on this program about the growing threat of political extremism and how far-right activists are leveraging religion and business connections to build power over the minds of millions of Americans.

And yet, despite all of that, it’s also the case that people can change. No matter how strong they hold their viewpoints today, no one was born with their opinions. Having been born and raised in fundamentalist Mormonism, I personally can attest that people can change their opinions when exposed to the facts. The process usually is a gradual one, but it’s real.

The results of the 2022 elections in the United States are also proof of this as well. Almost everywhere, Republicans who actively put forward Donald Trump’s election lies lost their races. And interestingly enough, many of those losses seem to have been caused in part by people who supported Republicans who didn’t promote Trump’s election lies.

In Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and lots of places in-between, millions of Republican-leaning voters couldn’t bring themselves to support Trump’s dangerous sore-loser campaign.

Joining me to discuss what’s going on here is Melissa Peltier, she’s the director and writer of a documentary called The Game Is Up: Disillusioned Trump Voters Tell Their Stories. It’s a film that closely profiles several people who supported Donald Trump in 2016 and then decided to change their minds—and why they did so.

The video and transcript of our December 9, 2022 conversation is below.  Please note that you will need to be a member of Flux’s Patreon in order to read the full transcript. Thank you for your support!



(Timestamps are based on the audio)

MATTHEW SHEFFIELD: Thanks for being here, Melissa.

MELISSA PELTIER: You’re very welcome. I’m really happy to be here.

SHEFFIELD: All right, we’re going to play the trailer in a little bit here, but just give us a, a little quick overview of the film and what you were trying to do with it.

PELTIER: Well, I was inspired in 2017 to, to the middle of 2018 by watching a former Republican Tea Party congressman and former, well at the time he was current very right-wing shock jock radio guy with a very successful show, Joe Walsh. I didn’t have the highest opinion of him before this, and I started watching him and I remember reading something about “woke Joe Walsh.”

And so, I started following him and all he was really doing was just asking questions about Trump. He was trying to support him, but he was asking questions. And as time went on, his questions got more and more pointed and he more and more critical of Trump until finally after Helsinki in July 2018, he just said, ‘I can’t do this anymore. I cannot do this.’

And that was great to watch in real time because to me, all the things he was pointing out were absolutely factual and logical. And I thought naively that the whole Republican Congress would follow suit and they didn’t at all. So that inspired me to look for more people like Joe.

And I was just always curious about what was it that changed your mind? Why did you vote for Trump? And we definitely found that not everybody was a crazy racist or a crazy white supremacist or whatever. Everybody had their own reasons in 2016, they had personal reasons, and generally when they changed it was because of something that touched them personally.

And so, I just wanted to give people permission to change their minds about Trump by seeing others who had done so.

SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm. Okay. All right. Well, I’m going to roll the trailer here and [00:06:00] then we’ll get into talking about some of the other people as well that you show in the trailer.

(Begin video)

JOE WALSH: When you’re in the conservative media world like I was in, you are told to say every day that Donald Trump walks on water.

I was told by my bosses to only say good things about Donald Trump. I told them to go to (censored).

CYNDI HAWTHORN: Most of our opinions about Donald Trump do not come from CNN, or from MSNBC, or from facts. Most of our opinions about Donald Trump come from Donald Trump himself.

DAVID WEISSMAN: People say, oh, I should get over it. I should move on. And then I’m saying: How can you? I mean, they lied about liberals, lied about Democrats, lied about Trump. It’s kind of hard to just move on.

BATYA GOLDBERG: I know quite a few people my age who are in the Republican party, who they’re thinking about leaving the Republican party. They’re thinking about leaving this Trumpism, this phenomenon.

CHRIS GIBBS: I threw up the red flag. I threw up the white flag. I threw up whatever I can throw up as a warning that this was bad agricultural policy, and it was going to hurt us for a long time.

RON HAWTHORN: I was reading the Bible and reading some scripture and in the Bible and some verses jumped out at me, and I had to repent for that. I, I, I said, God, I am sorry for voting for him.

JACQUELINE LEWIS: What does Jesus say? Love God with everything you have and love your neighbor as yourself. Where is that? Love God, love neighbor, love self.

It, that’s the kingdom of God. And what we’re living with right now is Christianity that is about empire, and not the kingdom of God.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: This is not a political issue. This virus does not care. It doesn’t care the color of your skin. It doesn’t care about the God to whom you pray. It infects, it spreads like wildfire, and it can kill you. Game [00:08:00] over.

(End video clip)

SHEFFIELD: So, this was a pandemic film as well. How much did that affect things for you?

PELTIER: Quite a bit. We started filming in January and February 2020, and we were trying to raise money at the same time. We really didn’t have any, we just sort of, ‘you make it, and they will come’ attitude toward it.

And we went to New Hampshire with Joe Walsh. He had just done Iowa and probably two weeks after we came back from New Hampshire, we were getting ready to go out again. And everything locked down and nobody knew anything then there was no vaccine. It was the real lockdown, like, don’t leave your house, order everything in.

And that was really challenging. I’m an old school filmmaker and part of what I like to do is to go into people’s lives and really observe and then follow up on what I observe. And I realized I couldn’t do that. So, after a few weeks of just being paralyzed, we devised a production method, which I guess is kind of common now, where I was directing literally through Zoom. I mean, somebody would have an iPhone or an iPad or a laptop. And because there was so little work, we were able to get one man, or two-man manned production crews in all the local places, very, very affordably.

And we saved all the money we would’ve spent on travel and hotels and all that stuff by having me interview people long distance. And it worked great. I was afraid it would look like different. I was afraid that it wouldn’t have the intimacy and that really, really bothered me. But it actually does. I don’t think you can really tell that.

Most of the interviews I’m miles and miles away, not all of them. We did do some of the local New York stuff ourselves and. There was, there were a couple, but basically what we’d do is we’d ask people, how comfortable are you with having a camera crew? Do you, would you be comfortable having them shoot you on your [00:10:00] for front porch?

Would you be comfortable having them shoot you in your house? And everyone had a different answer. And so, we respected all of them. And nobody got covid. And it went, it went really, really well and saved us, hundreds of thousands of dollars, which we never would’ve raised. So, in a way, it made the film.

SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm. All right. Well, yeah, I’m glad that that worked out for you in that regard.


So, so some of the, the people that you, you profiled, so you, you mentioned Joe Walsh, the, the former Republican congressman slash radio host. Tell us about some of the other people that you spoke with.

PELTIER: Yes, yes, Joe. I never thought I would say this, but I’m very good friends with Joe now and I really, he and his wife are wonderful, wonderful people. And it just reminded me of how I grew up, which is that no one, when I was growing up, no one vilified Republicans, my mother used to have fights with the doctor, neighbor up the street when she came over for cocktails.

But they weren’t insulting fights. They were actually fights over policy, and then everyone, hugged each other and kissed each other and went home. And that has changed so much. So anyway, Joe is a great guy, and it just shows you that, and one of the things I wanted to do with this film is to show Trumpers as human, because they’re not all evil people.

I don’t know about, proud Boys or those guys, but the ordinary Trump voter in 2016 was an ordinary person who was not knee deep in policy or not paying attention or just seeing what they wanted to see and hearing what they wanted to hear. One of those people was Bacha Goldberg.

She was, at the time of Trump’s election. She was 17, but she was already a huge rising star in the sort of the Charlie Kirk kind of Republican turning Point, kind of young Republican. Set. And she was Republican all the way. She started the Brooklyn Young Republicans Club. She, she ran a bunch of campaigns as like a 15, 16, 17-year-old a bunch of actual, real [00:12:00] big campaigns in New York.

And she was just looked at as a rising star because she was so smart and so clear and so articulate. And she was all for Trump. In fact, she was so for Trump she went to a bunch of rallies, stood in line for hours, and she went to the inauguration. She was working on a campaign of a guy who was running for mayor of New York, and he got tickets to really good seats to the inauguration and to the best inaugural ball, with, there’s a photo of her there with Kellyanne Conway.

And she said it was the best time of her life. She felt so important and wonderful, and she remembers seeing the people in the crowd who were saying, not my president. And she, she said, I really thought they were just mentally unstable. I, I, I didn’t know what they were talking about, but ultimately, she said they saw what I couldn’t see then.

So, she came all the way around and the reason she came around was Charlottesville. That was her reason, because she’s Jewish from a family with a lot of Holocaust deaths in the background, and her parents were Refuseniks from Russia. They were Jewish refugees who had come over in the eighties or just before the wall fell, fell.

And she was born here. They weren’t going to have kids in Russia. That’s how badly they felt the authoritarian move. The communist culture was, they didn’t want to raise a child in that culture. Culture. So, they got here, they both became citizens and then they raised her, and they had been telling her their whole lives.

They didn’t try to interfere with any of her beliefs or, her father was pretty right wing. Her mother was, I would say she was independent, but maybe very human rights leaning. But her mother didn’t try to interview, interfere with her very far right kind of belief system. And [00:14:00] she just, told her everything that had happened to them and what signs to look out for when you’re looking out for fascism and when, again, when Putin when Trump agreed with Putin and Helsinki in 2018, she was stunned.

So, it was between that, the Charlottesville thing and Putin that she realized this, this guy is really bad for the country, and she didn’t want to tell anyone for the longest time. And in fact, there’s a nice tie in because it was actually her seeing Joe Walsh come out and lose his TV show and lose his radio show and be pillared.

But he still had the bravery and went on to speak out against Trump. And she said, if he can do it, I can do it because I don’t have as much to lose. But she did lose a lot actually. But she is a brilliant young woman and her first election that she voted in was 2020 and she voted for Joe Biden.

She’s, right now she’s in college. And In Israel. But she’s a really wonderful, brave, strong, and very smart woman. And as she says in the documentary, once you start seeing the holes in Trump’s myth, you can’t unsee them anymore. And then you see more, and you see more, and that’s what happened to her.

When we first formulated what we wanted to do with the film, the producer, Mary Craven, and I we decided to look, set up some ideals of people we wanted. And one of the things we wanted was a farmer, a Midwestern farmer who changed their mind.

And in the beginning, it sounded impossible, but we found Chris Gibbs. Was a salt of the earth. Ohio farmer, very successful farm is quite large at the moment. But he started with nothing. And he is in his sixties, and he was a Reagan Republican all the way. He was very diplomacy, open up the world human rights, all the things Republicans once said they were.

And he actually was the head [00:16:00] of his local central committee. And what happened to him was he saw, he was excited when Trump got elected. He didn’t really want to vote for him at first, but then he saw, he did some things early on that that got him really excited, and he thought, hey, we’re going to shake this up.

This is going to be really interesting. This guy might not be bad at all. And then he saw what Trump was doing to trade and the trade, the tariffs, and all the messing around he did by picking fights with our trading partners. It’s not spoken about that much, but it really destroyed the agricultural markets and business.

And a lot of farmers went bankrupt. Suicides among farmers were huge because they, you can’t really hang on that long as a farmer if you have all these bad seasons, and when you can’t sell your stuff, that’s bad. So, he got very angry about that, and he felt that the subsidies that Trump and men was, was giving to farmers, kind of to make up for it, were, it was like hush money to him.

So, he became very outspoken, and he was disavowed by the Ohio Republicans, which he’d been a part of for like 30 years. And that was, that was it for him. He, he decided to speak up and he’s just a wonderful, incredibly intelligent, articulate salt of the earth guy who. Who knows how to speak in metaphors and in stories.

And he was a real find. And he’s just a lovely, lovely man. He came to our, a couple of our festivals in LA with us and he was like a celebrity to all the people in the audience because he’s very tall and very distinctive looking. And let’s see, after Chris there was David there was sorry, David Weisman after Chris.

There was David Weisman, who you might know from Twitter if you’re on Twitter. David was not only pro-Trump, he was a Trump troll. I mean, he was a real behind the scenes organized, [00:18:00] harassed people troll, nasty as all get out. And he believed he was a veteran, and he believed a thousand percent that Democrats were evil and that, that Barack Obama was evil and.

Hillary smell like sulfur and the whole, all the, the lies, he believed them. And he harassed people, especially celebrities who were anti-Trump. And they would, the, the goal was to harass them till they block you. And then that sort of like a, like a, like a, oh, bad head over your mantel, you know

And so he did that until he went after Sarah Silverman, the comedian and actress. And she was nice to him. She didn’t say anything bad back. She didn’t block him. She just very cordially explained the facts of what she was saying and asked him if he was more interested in being right or the truth.

And that really got him because he thought he was seeing the truth. So, he asked more questions and then people in her follower. Brigade started to contact him and give him things to read. And especially one woman, Sarah O’Connell, who is a person he never, ever would’ve been friends with before this.

But they really created a, like an almost a two-year friendship, long distance obviously during lo lockdown. And also, she’s in, she lives in England now, but she started to send him multi sources and very well sourced. Not, not liberal source, but deep facts, primary sources, statistics that would basically prove Trump was lying.

And to his credit, he read. And the more he saw, the worse it got for him, and the more he, he felt he’d been lied to and. [00:20:00] He may have been targeted because he was a member of the military. We don’t know that. But that was sort of where his political views formed, which is scary. But he came all the way around until, I mean, he’s just, he’s so strongly anti-Trump now, and he’s like a super Democrat, which is really interesting.

I don’t think Batya really became a Democrat. Chris Gibbs did actually become a Democrat. I think probably in 2021, I think he became a Democrat sometime in there. And then we also have three evangelicals, which I’m sure you could identify with. And they talk about how basically they were told who to vote for from the pulpit, even if they weren’t told directly that it, there was no mistaking what their pastors were telling them.

And, and one of them was at Liberty University and he said, there was no question he was afraid not to vote for Trump because he was afraid he’d be ostracized.

SHEFFIELD: So what is Liberty University for those who don’t know what that is?

PELTIER: Liberty University is one of the biggest Christian evangelical universities in the United States. Very much like Bob Jones or some of the other ones that you might have heard of. It was founded by Jerry Falwell Sr.

Who in the eighties was the founder of the Moral Majority Moral Majority. And he passed it on basically to his son who was not a minister and is not a minister, but he started running it and his son really upped the ante. He raised so much money for it, and it became like a country club, practically

And a lot of evangelicals go there. I don’t know what kind of an education you get there; I really don’t know. But one of our, our evangelical people that we talked to was a young man named Na, Nathan Munson. And he, 2016 was his first election that he voted in because he was just turned 18.

And he told us that the university was pretty much pushing them in the [00:22:00] direction of voting for Trump

SHEFFIELD: The reality for a lot of people who are raised in these fundamentalist religions that the leaders may not explicitly tell you who to vote for, but they tell you which party is evil and which party serves Satan. And so that’s, it’s a pretty clear instruction as to who you should be supporting.

PELTIER: It’s very clear. Our other couple that we had they ended up after they, they were basic, they were directly told by their pastor to vote for Trump and, for reasons of, of abortion and, and they said Hillary Clinton was going to try to destroy the church the minute she got in, which is insane because she’s actually quite a religious person.

And that was, it scared them, and the husband really felt bad after he voted for Trump, and he didn’t know why. He just felt a gut feeling. He was a new Christian. Only four years he had he been, saved and he just felt bad about it. And someone at his work challenged him about that.

And because he was a guy who talked a lot about Christianity, how it changed his life and that sort of woke him up, snapped him out of it. And then he did his own research with the Bible, with scripture. And he basically, what he dug up was that Trump is everything that Christ was not. He’s the opposite.

And they ended up leaving their church after 2020. Their preacher from the pulpit was preaching about the stolen election, and they just were, they knew it was a lie and they just walked. They said, we’re sorry, we can’t stay. And they’re still evangelical. But they couldn’t stay in that particular parish anymore.

SHEFFIELD: Yeah. Well, and what about some of the, that you, there was, I guess, so those were the three that you profiled?

PELTIER: Yeah. Nathan and Ron and Cindy Hawthorne, who were their names, the couple. Yeah. Well, and one of our film festivals too, which is [00:24:00] great. Ocean City, Maryland.

SHEFFIELD: Mm-hmm. Yeah. And, and I guess for a lot of, pretty much everybody that you talk about in the film that it was a gradual process.

That it was something that didn’t happen overnight and I’m sure was frustrating to people that they knew who disagreed with them, but they didn’t give up on them basically.

PELTIER: No. And I think again, there was no, there was no one reason everyone had something affect them personally that woke them up.

And I don’t know, your situation with getting out of Mormonism, but I know that in cults that usually there’s that moment where somehow your cognitive dissonance sort of snaps. And what happens there is either you let in new information, or you shut down even more, and these people let in new information and that’s the key to change and, literally to living an honest life, in my opinion.

Yeah. To be able to change when faced with new information that proves your old information was wrong.

To view this content, you must be a member of Flux's Patreon at $3 or more
Already a qualifying Patreon member? Refresh to access this content.