My Journey from Catholic Republican to Agnostic Democrat in the Age of Trump
I remember when I registered to vote. It was during my senior year of high school, and I was so excited. The year was 1992, and George H. W. Bush was the president. I grew up as the daughter of Cuban immigrants who left their homeland shortly after the Revolution, then made South Florida their home in the 1960s. They became just one thread of the tightly knit anti-communist tapestry in conservative Republican Miami. Exercising the right to vote was not optional in our household.
I was born in 1974, and while I don’t remember anything about Jimmy Carter, I remember everything about Ronald Reagan. I remember jelly beans, the assassination attempt, Star Wars, and Reaganomics. As a child during the death throes of the Cold War, I watched him tell Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down the wall. My Cuban uncle, who lived with my aunt and her family in Miami until he died, had photographs of Reagan all over the walls of his home office. I was only marginally aware of politics at the time, but I knew I was a Republican, and that Ronald Reagan was my hero.
My very first ballot was straight-line Republican, and I was crushed when Bush lost the 1992 election to Bill Clinton. I had just started college on a full Air Force ROTC scholarship, and I was dismayed at the thought of being commissioned by and serving under a Democrat. Even though I was still in high school during Desert Storm, I watched the video footage on the news with fascination. The Balkan crisis under Clinton seemed so complicated and vague in comparison, and the Monica Lewinsky affair and impeachment proceedings left me disgusted with the Democratic party.
The prolonged election drama in 2000 was complete torture, but having a Republican back in the White House was such sweet relief. I was still on active duty during 9/11, and I knew George W. Bush was the right man to be president during one of the biggest American crises in history. My military friends and coworkers all felt this unified sense of purpose, and we trusted in Bush and his advisers.
It’s helpful to avoid politics when you’re in the military. I found the constant bickering and mudslinging annoying and childish, and I assumed that our leaders in the White House would make the right decisions for us. I found ways to minimize the Abu Ghraib scandal in my mind, as well as the mistakes and tragedies after Hurricane Katrina. I had an untouchable military disability pension during the financial crisis of 2008 and didn’t own a home, so I didn’t pay much mind.
Obama’s first term was a complete blur. All I knew was that my parents and other family members hated him, and in pure Cuban form, often referred to him as ese negro — that black man. They assured me he was a communist. However, I was married with two small children, had a military husband who deployed to Afghanistan in 2011, and I was blossoming in my career as a freelance analyst and expert on Mexico’s drug war and border security. I had no time for that. I rarely watched the news on TV because my professional research was laser-focused on these two issues. Little did I know that my politics were about to pivot sharply as a result.
Roughly around 2010, I started working as an expert witness for Mexican asylum cases. This meant that immigration attorneys representing Mexican nationals would hire me to testify that their clients would be tortured or killed by drug cartels if deported. The money was good, and the work was easy — and plentiful. However, it started putting me in a psychologically difficult situation. My parents came to the U.S. legally, so I had been against illegal immigration my whole life. Yet, here I was trying to help illegal immigrants — some of them were drug traffickers turned informants — to achieve legal status through asylum proceedings.
You can’t work over a hundred of these cases like I did and not start realizing that deportation for many migrants requesting asylum is a death sentence. I knew in great detail the levels of violence and depravity that drug traffickers and their enforcers were capable of. They were slaughtering innocent people and dismembering their bodies, raping and burning children, and terrorizing entire towns. In the cases that I accepted, I couldn’t imagine the horrors that awaited some of these migrants if they had to go back to Mexico.
Every so often, I tried to explain this to my parents, seeking some show of empathy. They sort of understood, but ultimately I think they saw themselves as being above that fray. They went through so much hardship to achieve asylum themselves, and knew that thousands of Cubans were dying in prisons and on rafts in the Florida Straits to do the same. Yet, they just couldn’t make the full connection to Mexican migrants seeking safety and economic security. I didn’t tell them that as a result of this work, combined with the GOP’s refusal to address comprehensive immigration reform, I had made the difficult decision to switch from Republican to independent.
Then came the crisis known as “the border surge” in 2014. I was writing as a freelancer when the now-famous photos of overcrowded border detention centers were leaked by a Border Patrol agent. I was writing nonstop about the tens of thousands of Central American migrants that were overwhelming facilities and Border Patrol agents alike. I had more expert witness requests than I could accept. But I started making a big “mistake”; I started showing empathy for the migrants in my articles.
The 2014 midterm elections were held in the waning days of the border surge, and anti-immigration rhetoric was louder than ever. Billions of dollars had been poured into border barriers and a “virtual fence” that had to be scrapped in 2011 because it never worked. Thousands of Border Patrol agents were being hired, and new drones were being purchased. Republicans held the House and took the Senate, and the message from Congress relevant to my work was loud and clear: get the illegals out and keep them out, no matter what.
I was already barely writing about these issues out of crisis fatigue when Donald Trump announced his candidacy in June 2015. I didn’t know much about Donald Trump’s politics before that now-famous ride down the elevator. However, the increased laudatory media coverage of the new candidate told me what I needed to know. I highly valued my reputation as an unbiased analyst and journalist, and as much as I loved working with outlets that valued my writing, I had to step away from some that supported him.
Politics and social issues were still not that important to me when Trump won the election. My professional focus was pretty narrow, and my personal life was unaffected by most policy decisions. I was turned off by the rise of the Tea Party and concerned that Trump wasn’t built to be president, but like many other Americans, I hoped he would appoint reliable advisors and tone down the incendiary rhetoric after the inauguration. We all know how that worked out.
Then a strange thing started happening in my personal life. I got divorced in 2015, and moved back to my home state of Florida to be near my family. I wanted to make new friends, but I wasn’t sure how. I had a built-in social circle when I was on active duty, then for ten years as a military wife. Almost all of my friends for the previous two decades were white conservatives. One of these friends suggested I find a local meet-up for writers, and that’s how I became part of the spoken word and slam poetry community.
It was a strange and disorienting time. I was meeting artists and musicians and poets who were incredibly talented and educated, but also culturally very different from me. They were slamming poems about systemic racism, homophobia, and mental illness. They were angry, and in mourning over the election results. I was a former military law enforcement officer, a right-leaning independent, and a practicing Catholic. I was also 15 years older, on average, than most of the people I was meeting. So, instead of making a fool of myself trying to fit in, I watched and listened.
Figuratively speaking, I started putting a face with the name. I had never met such a wide array of minorities and disadvantaged people in my life. I was no longer reading about racism or bigotry or misogyny on paper. I was learning about it from real flesh-and-blood people who were experiencing it every single day. It was disturbing and made me uncomfortable. I instinctively felt myself push back on a lot of it at first, especially anti-police language. But for some reason, I stayed. I made friends. And I started writing my own poems — because as a new full-time wheelchair user, I began to realize that I had become one of the disadvantaged.
While working on immigration issues certainly opened my eyes to the lack of compassion and empathy within the congressional GOP, being a wheelchair user definitely pushed me over the edge — or to put it more accurately, over the center line towards the left. I really started to feel what it was like to be invisible in society, and to experience genuine discrimination.
The lack of apathy, and subsequent minimal funding, towards improving accessibility and government programs for the disabled was astounding. I had close friends who were forced to live below the poverty line because the Social Security disability program punishes disabled Americans for earning too much income, and even for getting married. I realized how privileged I was to have military healthcare in a prescription plan while my disabled civilian friends we’re struggling to get functioning mobility equipment and life-saving medicine. I’ve learned through my friends what a disaster our healthcare system has become.
For the last five years, I’ve worked as an accessible travel writer, roaming around the world solo in my wheelchair to write about the accessibility of my destinations. I have visited 49 countries as a wheelchair user in the last four years, and met hundreds of people across the political spectrum. I’ve seen racist and violent oppression in the townships of South Africa, and the desperation of poverty in Guatemala. I have spoken with capitalists in Germany, socialists in Slovenia, and communists in China. I’ve seen the remnants of the devastation wrought by religious warfare in Northern Ireland and witnessed the stranglehold on human rights in the Middle East. More importantly, I’ve seen how the rest of the world sees us and how we treat our most vulnerable. It wasn’t pretty.
This experience also brought me into conflict with Christianity and my Catholic background. I was now in a personal place where I loved and cared about people often on the margins of society. I had black and Hispanic friends who feared for their lives during all encounters with law enforcement. I started fearing for the safety of my LGBTQ friends, many of whom had relationships and marriages stronger than most of the straight ones I knew.
I couldn’t understand why a religion that worships a divine being who helped the sick, the homeless, refugees, and the helpless, would turn its back on so many struggling Americans. I couldn’t understand why self-proclaimed God-fearing Christians would support a president who ordered the separation of migrant children from their parents in a cruel and misguided attempt to secure the southwest border. I couldn’t understand a religion that had so much reverence for the sanctity of unborn life, but didn’t seem to care very much about that life after leaving the womb.
More than three years into the presidency of Donald Trump, we now find ourselves amid a pandemic that’s bringing out the worst in everyone. I was already sickened by the hypocrisy and head-burying of the GOP during the impeachment hearings. However, nothing prepared me for the utter disregard of the most vulnerable in our country by both the GOP and the Christian right in the midst of COVID-19. The irony of Christian conservatives chanting “MY BODY, MY CHOICE” during lockdown protests is not lost on the liberal pro-choice movement. The blatant lack of concern for the elderly and disabled was not lost on me.
Today, I find myself in a very uncomfortable political and religious limbo. The Republican Party of the Reagan era that I once loved is dead, and I don’t think it will ever come back. I still favor some traditionally Republican ideals like military strength and fiscal conservatism. However, I find that I care too much about the welfare of other people to ever look back. How can I fight for equal rights for people with disabilities, and not for other minorities? How can I be part of a religion that views my married gay friends as an abomination?
Technically, I’m still registered as an independent and haven’t taken the leap to change my party affiliation to Democrat. However, I know I’ll be voting straight-line blue in November. I haven’t verbally admitted to my family or my friends that I’ve become a Democrat, and maybe not even to myself. However, I know if I did, it would come as no surprise.
Walking away from Catholicism has been harder. I went through first communion, confirmation, and was even married in the Church. I still wear a gold Jerusalem cross around my neck that I bought in Bethlehem, although now it’s more of a precious souvenir than any real symbol of religious belief. But when far-right Christians start saying how Trump was sent to us by God or Jesus to save America, or when I see them willing to look the other way when Trump disparages women and destroys migrant families, I know I’ve made the right choice.
I don’t know how many other Americans are or were in my position. My entire family is Republican and Christian, so I sometimes feel like an uninvited guest at family gatherings. I fight with my parents about politics all the time, but fortunately, we can still smile and laugh and love each other in the end. I know many other American families aren’t so lucky right now. I haven’t told my mother outright that I’m an agnostic searching for a spiritual home, but I think she knows — and she hides how it’s breaking her heart.
It’s devastating to split from your family’s beliefs, while desperately hoping that they’ll still accept you. Sadly, I know this is happening all over the country in the Age of Trump, often with disastrous consequences. However, I have to be true to who I am at this very moment. I was born to my parents, but I’m more than a product of their upbringing; I’m the result of my life experience. I will never apologize for caring about minorities, the invisible, and those left behind. I will continue to criticize the hypocrisy of Republicans and Christians alike, and seek to hold Democrats accountable to standards of decency and integrity as well. While the American people need to keep politicians and church leaders honest, I know I’m also doing that for myself.
About the Author: Sylvia Longmire is an award-winning accessible travel writer, a service-disabled Air Force veteran, and the former Ms. Wheelchair USA 2016. She travels around the world, usually solo, in her power wheelchair to document the accessibility of her destinations through articles, photography, and video. Sylvia is also the owner of an accessible travel agency, President of the nonprofit scholarship fund The PreJax Foundation, and a staunch advocate for accessibility in Central Florida. She is a brand ambassador for O, The Oprah Magazine, the author of three accessible travel books, and the creator of the Spin the Globe accessible travel blog.