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From the Archive: The Secret Lives of Democratic Women Married to MAGA Men
As we head into another MAGA election cycle, many family relationships continue to be tense. It's instructive to look back at the interpersonal struggles many had during the Trump presidency.
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From the Archives" is an ongoing series at The Signorile Report, republishing pieces I’ve written in the past that take on renewed relevance.
“The Secret Lives of Democratic Women Married to MAGA Men” was originally published in Medium’s Gen Magazine in 2019. It grew out of calls to my SiriusXM program from distraught wives and girlfriends of Trumpers who built a community around my radio show, connecting with one another via the show.
They were among many people who called the program relaying struggles with MAGA family members and friends, including wives, parents, children, siblings, colleagues, and neighbors.
One of the women, as you’ll see, is from a Detroit union family—both she and her husband, a UAW member, and both their parents having been union workers there for decades. Obviously, her story connects with some of what we’re seeing play out regarding the current striking workers.
I’m happy to report that at least one of the women quoted here told me since the the story was published that she happily divorced her husband, though she didn’t foresee that at the time. Another told me that her husband got out of the Trump cult and voted for Joe Biden in 2020, which was great to hear.
The Secret Lives of Democratic Women Married to MAGA Men
Published in GEN Oct 15, 2019
Days before the 2018 midterm elections, a woman named Lisa was driving on a remote road in sun-baked Eastern Washington. An area that encompasses all of the state East of the Cascade Range — which is to say, most of the state — Eastern Washington over the past decade has been home to several unsuccessful movements to secede from liberal Seattle and the Pacific Coast to become the 51st U.S. state.
Not surprisingly, it is ruby red Trump country.
On this particular day, Lisa was listening to the live call-in radio show I host weekday afternoons on SiriusXM. We were talking about politics but also about a topic that would soon emerge as a recurring theme on the show: the divide inside marriages that Donald Trump and his presidency had created. A woman was on the line from her kitchen in rural Michigan, recounting her struggles as a progressive Democrat married to a Trump supporter.
Lisa, a college-educated white professional in her forties, painfully related to what she heard. She pulled over to the side of the road and phoned in.
“Wow, I’m not even sure what to say,” Lisa began. “This hit so much home. I almost wanted to cry.”
It was an early instance of what would, over the next year, become a surprising — and strong — community of Democrats married to Trump supporters reaching out to each other through my satellite radio show on SiriusXM’s Progress channel. (All callers to the radio program use only their first names and locations, and I am using that convention for the women I spoke with by phone or through Facebook, too, so they could feel free to discuss sensitive marital matters.)
Lisa’s husband, a farmer from a family that had been in the business for generations, told her he was a registered Democrat when they first met. “Back then, six years ago, we didn’t talk about politics because it really wasn’t part of our relationship at that time,” Lisa told the listeners. “Then, when we went through the election, I voted for Hillary Clinton and he voted for Trump. And our relationship has been on the rocks ever since.”
I can’t count how many people affected by the 2016 election have called my show day after day. Before and after the election, these callers recounted tensions with parents, children, extended family, co-workers, neighbors, and friends who are Trump supporters.
But it wasn’t until the very jittery days before the 2018 midterms, in the wake of the horrific October 27th mass shooting in Pittsburgh at the Tree Of Life synagogue, that the plight of women (and some men) in marriages or intimate relationships with Trump supporters began to surface regularly on my program.
Noting how isolated she felt, Lisa told listeners: “My neighbors are all Trump supporters, too.”
Yet on the call-in show, connecting to a woman 2,000 miles away from the side of the road, that isolation started to lift. Today my show has a regular segment featuring their voices, their stories, and their efforts to negotiate life in the political minority, whether in their families or communities. The women connect on my show’s Facebook page, as well, reaching out to each other and to me directly.
White men have been the core of Trump’s support, and stories about them often imply a certain level of family political cohesiveness. Yet detailed analyses of the 2016 election show a far lower percentage of women than men voted for Trump in 2016. And both the 2018 midterm election results and other recent data show that women, both college and non-college educated, have only moved further toward Democrats. We rarely, if ever, hear discussion of the distraught women navigating tense relationships with these men.
The women I’ve heard from often not only have partners who demean them for their political beliefs and choices; they face hostility from other family members, including their own children. Some have ended their relationships or are headed in that direction. Others try to make it work, either because the couples have a strong bond despite the tensions or, sadly, because they believe they have little financial choice but to stay.
These are their stories.
The first call came two days after the Pittsburgh massacre. The caller was Alison from Los Angeles. Her challenge: co-parenting her twin four-year-old girls with a devoted Trump supporter she’d once been engaged to, but who she eventually realized she couldn’t possibly marry.
I’d been talking about how the synagogue shooter who murdered 11 people had promoted racist conspiracy theories online about “invaders” in migrant “caravans” — migrants Trump had been targeting as “invaders” as well, using white supremacist terminology — and blamed Jews for helping the “invaders.” I’d offered up my own strong opinions on the dangers of the cult of Trump, as well.
“I’m Jewish and he’s Jewish and we were talking today after the shooting and he says, ‘Trump can’t be held responsible — it’s not his fault,’” Alison said, referring to her ex-fiancé. “Then he turns it around to, ‘Well, we have the best economy’” and he “goes back to ‘Crooked Hillary.’”
A 39-year-old career counselor and therapist with a master’s degree, she’d met her former fiancé, a successful businessman, in 2009 on JDate. He was a “charmer,” she said—“sweet, funny, tall, successful in his own right”—who initially treated her “like a queen.”
In 2012 they became engaged and were living together but set no wedding date. They began fertility treatments, and Alison gave birth in 2014. During her pregnancy she learned one of the twins had a metabolic condition. That’s when health care became a major issue for Alison.
“I didn’t pay attention to his politics,” she said of the time long before the election, noting he didn’t discuss political issues. She said he only registered to vote for the first time—at the age of 38 —a few months before the election, just to vote for Trump.
“He has this one photograph where his dad was at a party with Donald Trump, from the ’80s, in New York,” Alison said in describing what, at least in part, drew her former fiancé to Trump. He “liked Trump as a celebrity,” she said, and he “watched ‘The Apprentice.’”
“He would call me a ‘libtard.’ He was never like that before.”
The day following the election, “on his Facebook page, he posted that picture of his dad with Trump,” she said. “I was devastated.”
They separated and tried, unsuccessfully, to reconcile several times. As Trump took office, they argued intensely about the president’s actions, especially Trump’s assaults on Obamacare. Alison couldn’t fathom how he didn’t see the threat to the health of his own daughter, who had a pre-existing condition.
“I saw [his] language change, even towards me,” she said. “He would call me a ‘libtard.’ He was never like that before. I didn’t see racism in him [before], and homophobia, but I saw it afterward.”
She still sees him regularly because of the girls. He lauds Trump’s support of Israel, Alison said, but when her synagogue was recently vandalized in an anti-Semitic hate crime he refused to speak with her about how Trump emboldens white supremacists.
And when she dressed the twins in t-shirts that say, “She won”—because the girls saw Alison wearing one and wanted their own—he threatened to put MAGA hats on them (something Alison vowed will never happen). She’s aware the incident is likely just a taste of battles to come as the girls grow up.
Alison’s call inspired many others in the days and months that followed. Some turned to social media to connect further with one another. Others reached out to me privately online.
“I am afraid there are many of us out here with Trump-supporting husbands and living in deeply conservative communities,” Lynnette from South Dakota wrote on my show’s Facebook page in response to Alison’s call. Mary from Florida posted: “It’s so depressing to have to live like this.” Cindi from Minnesota explained how she got divorced months after the election, ending her six-year marriage, and hasn’t looked back.
“We are not alone!” Erica from Wisconsin exclaimed on the Facebook thread, suggesting a private Facebook group, as did several others. They created a new private group and also started conversations on other ones they were already active in.
Male listeners with Trump-supporting wives also posted on the thread: Jeff from Florida, Todd from Arkansas. But the men are in the minority. Unlike the diverse group of overall callers to the show, most of these particular calls and social media comments have come from white women married to white men, though some also come from women of color married to white men.
Angela from Los Angeles, an African American woman married for 20 years to a white man, called in to say that dialogue with her Trump-supporting husband had completely broken down: “We can’t even talk in our home about race or politics — It’s gotten that deep!”
“Trump came into his world and I don’t know my son anymore. This has disrupted my whole house.”
The one thing the women share most of all is the feeling of being under siege.
“Just two minutes before those calls came in, I sat here and was berated, told I was crazy,” Joanne, the woman from rural Michigan, said when she called in last year, referring to the calls from other women married to Trump backers.
Now, speaking from her kitchen while cooking and listening to the show via her phone app and headset, she detailed how her husband and 22-year-old son “don’t see anything wrong with the comments about grabbing women by the genitals — and say, ‘oh it’s just funny, he’s joking.’”
Joanne said her son, who’d ardently supported Barack Obama as a teen, had been transformed. “Trump came into his world,” she said. “And I don’t know my son anymore. This has disrupted my whole house.”
In an interview this fall, Joanne told me that both she and her husband, both 49, are lifelong Democrats from union families. Her grandmother “worked for the Teamsters [Union],” and knew the late, legendary Teamster president, Jimmy Hoffa.
“My dad has been a Teamster his whole life and I was raised in a pro-union Teamster home by hippies — pot-smoking hippies,” she said with a laugh.
Her husband is a member of the United Auto Workers union, as was his father. Joanne and her husband lived for over 25 years in Macomb County, the cluster of suburbs north of Detroit often cited by pollsters as one of the most important bellwether counties in the country. The county supported Obama twice before turning to Trump in 2016.
Then they moved to rural Michigan in 2016 and supported Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. His loss left a sour taste in their mouths. “I feel like I held my nose and voted for Clinton because I knew how dangerous Trump was,” she said.
Her husband voted for Clinton too, but later regretted it. He came to support many of Trump’s policies and ideas, she said, including on immigration, often lauding Trump and belittling Joanne’s concerns. Though he now threatens to vote for Trump in 2020, Joanne doesn’t think he will — not if she keeps working on him.
In looking at the 2020 candidates, Joanne said her husband favors Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. They’re both “not too fond of Biden” and are “worried that the same thing that happened with Hillary is going to happen with Biden, where the DNC is going to ignore the primary vote and force Grandpa Joe on us.”
That’s a scenario she doesn’t want to think about because then all bets are off regarding her husband’s vote.
“I’m just hoping that once Trump is gone, everything goes back to normal,” she said.
For other women who’ve connected with the show, even such mild hope is out of reach. For some, the Trump era’s trickle-down political divisions have led to the death of love.
Angela, a listener from western Michigan, met her boyfriend on Tinder in May of 2016, when she was 34 and he was 37. They “bonded over college football,” she said in an interview, and had a great time together. The relationship became serious quickly, and they introduced one another to their families. Angela’s boyfriend didn’t talk much about politics but did talk about “not supporting Clinton,” she said. And he voted for Trump.
“He never voted before and thought it would be funny to see Trump as president,” she explained. Like almost everyone, they both thought Clinton would win.
“My birthday is November 9,” she’d written on my show’s Facebook page. “I woke up [that morning after election night in 2016] to my boyfriend excited, telling me Trump won, knowing it would devastate me. Completely ruined my birthday.”
In March of 2017 she ended the relationship.
“Over time I would see his racism, his misogyny, slip out,” she told me. There were red flags in the past, she realized; now it all became more evident.
Cindi, a listener from Minnesota who joined some of the women in online discussions to tell them about her divorce, said in an interview that she, too, had previously noticed bigotry in her husband of six years. But in the Trump era it metastasized.
“He absolutely hated Hillary, but when I would ask him why, he could never give me a legitimate answer,” she said. “He seemed to dislike smart women who have some kind of power.”
A Native American who is a member of a tribe in Minnesota, Cindi is also an attorney. Her husband began “not only saying horrible things about my profession, but about my heritage as well,” she said.
After the election, his family visited from southwestern Wisconsin for Thanksgiving. Though she made it clear she didn’t want politics discussed, she felt ambushed by him and four of his relatives, all Trump supporters.
“I felt like I was talking to a bunch of aliens!” she exclaimed, noting it was “the last straw.” She left him, and by early 2017 their divorce was final.
After 15 years of marriage, Christy, who called into the show this past August from Columbus, Ohio, left her Republican husband as well. “He was just becoming more and more racist,” she said of the months after the election. “He got worse and I didn’t want my daughter around that.”
Christy described herself as the “breadwinner” and said leaving her husband wasn’t an economic challenge. Sue from Cleveland isn’t as fortunate: Because of her financial situation, she’s had to create a long-term strategy for leaving her Trump-supporting husband. She called the show late last year, explaining that she was 65, retired, and on Medicare and Social Security.
“He told me that he thought that the military should just mow all the people down as they came to the border.”
Sue said she’s always been a feminist, was an officer in a prominent women’s organization, and that her husband of 30 years “seemed to be totally cool with that.” But he’s radically shifted his political views over years of watching Fox News. “When I walk in the room, Fox goes off, and when he walks in the room CNN goes off,” she explained. “And that’s kind of what we do for each other.”
A shocking comment from her husband threw the untenable situation into relief.
“We were in a Mexican restaurant and, as we were eating, he told me that he thought that the military should just mow all the people down as they came to the border,” she said. Sue expressed outrage, but she said it was clear that he “enjoyed saying it.”
Sue enrolled in school for retraining so that she could come out of retirement, get a job and, when the time is right, break the news to him that she’s leaving.
“I didn’t expect to be in this position, but I won’t spend the last years of my life surrounded by hate,” she said.
While some of the women leave their husbands, others make a go of it, explaining that the connection they have with their husbands is stronger than their political differences. Still others say they want to leave, but don’t think they can do it and so have found a way of coping.
Andrea, who lives in the small city of Ottumwa, in southeastern Iowa, goes on the offensive against her husband, a former military intelligence officer.
“I try not to pick fights with him, but if Trump has done something extra-stupid I will lay into him,” she told me after reaching out recently on Twitter, describing herself as the “aggressor” in these exchanges.
Andrea is 48 and married for 11 years, in a second marriage. She was a Republican from the time she was 18 and had always voted GOP, as did her first husband. But she went back to school a few years ago, got her BA and, as she put it, “my mind opened wide!”
She became a Democrat in 2015, caucused for Sanders in 2016, and voted for Clinton in the general election. She plans to caucus for Warren in 2020.
“You suck it up and grit your teeth and every once in a while absolutely blow a gasket.”
A few months back, Andrea had her bags packed, “ready to walk out the door.” He “begged me to stay,” she explained. “We can have a good time together as long as we are not talking politics.” And when she does feel compelled to raise it, she said, “I can counterpunch anything he throws my way.”
Rae Ann, a suburban Ohio homemaker, told me after reaching out to me on Facebook: “If it were just me, I’d have thrown in the towel long ago.” But she has a daughter and a mother to care for, she explained, and believes she doesn’t have the skills to get a job.
“You suck it up and grit your teeth and every once in a while absolutely blow a gasket and accuse him of being racist,” she said. “It’s fairly miserable.”
Listening to women with similar experiences has been a lifeline for her and others. And hearing me vigorously doing battle with Trump supporters who call in at least once per show — most of them angry men who hurl insults — helps too.
“You’ve given me some ammo to use at home,” Joanne from Michigan told me. “When you get all riled up and start yelling back at them, I just love it. It sure does make the day so much better. It gives me relief and gratification. I live for those moments.”
And in the Trump era, as these women face hostility at home while working hard to change the political reality in 2020, living for the moment goes a long way.