Kai Wright: Flippers, that's what former Republican strategist, Sarah Longwell calls voters who switched from Trump to Biden. She's running focus groups to figure them out. Coming up on the United States of Anxiety, what Sarah's learned about how these voters might show up in the upcoming Republican primaries. Then we open the mailbag and get an assignment from one of you. A follow-up to our episode on the relationship between our names and our identities.
Sarah Longwell: I want people to start to understand that we are the masters of our identity. We spend so much time living inside of boxes, whether those be socioeconomic boxes, cultural boxes, gendered boxes, and I want to make space for people to feel safe pushing back against those forces that keep them fixed within a particular identity space.
Kai Wright: That's all coming up
Speaker: No more bypartisan insanity.
Regina de Heer: I'm not sure if you can hear these demonstrations, but democracy is on the line and people have a lot of opinions on things that are going on in politics right now. Where are you from?
Ken: Oklahoma City.
Danielle: California Bay Area, Oakland.
Regina de Heer: Do you know when your next congressional election is?
Ken: No, I don't.
Regina de Heer firstname.lastname@example.org: What characteristics are important to you when it comes to choosing a person you want to vote for?
Ken: Transparency, integrity, a clear understanding of what their platform is.
Danielle: I look for just being diligent and sticking to what they said they were going to do. [chuckles]
Joe: I think the Democrats are on the right path. I think they just need to be a little more aggressive in what they're doing. I think that we're done with Biden thinking that he can make a path between Republicans and Democrats. He has to start really using his authority to pass laws or else there's going to be real problems in the future.
Kai Wright: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright. A lot of people are about to start voting in yet another pivotal election. Political professionals from a wide swath of ideologies believe democracy itself is on the ballot in these midterm elections, particularly in the Republican primary elections, which are going to move into high gear over the next couple of weeks. My first guest tonight is trying to get into the heads of those primary voters. Sarah Longwell is the publisher of The Bulwark and host of its podcast.
The focus group, she's been a player in Republican politics for some time, but these days she is perhaps most known for helping to create the Republican voters against Trump coalition. That group later became the Republican accountability project, which is what it sounds like. They want to see accountability for what happened on January 6th. Sarah, welcome to the show.
Sarah Longwell: Thanks so much for having me.
Kai Wright: I have to say that I've invited you here tonight, basically because I want to hijack your podcast idea.
[chuckles] For Sarah's podcast, she's conducting a rolling series of focus groups with three groups of voters. There's the super Trumpy voters, there's the democratic voters, and probably most interesting, at least to me, there's the voters who switched from Trump to Biden in 2020. On the podcast, Sarah plays recordings from her focus groups and asks both Republican and Democratic strategists to react to them. I'll say I've become quite addicted to this, Sarah it's kind of catnip for people who are into politics and we're going to listen in on some of those focus groups tonight, but first off, just why are you such a huge proponent of focus groups in the first place? What insight that's unique is it that you get about our political culture from focus groups?
Sarah Longwell: Yes, there's two reasons I really like focus groups. One is people love polling, everybody loves to see a good horse race poll. The polling can tell you the what, although only so accurately, but the focus groups can tell you the why. It can tell you why somebody thinks something. The reason I started doing focus groups actually was as you noted, I was a longtime Republican operative strategist, I did a lot of policy work. When Trump won in 2016, it occurred to me that I had perhaps been spending too much time in Think Tanks because I did not understand what was going on with the Republican party. I wanted to hear from voters and especially voters I didn't know personally because that's just too fraught I wanted to hear from strangers why they have voted for Donald Trump.
When I started doing them, it helped me, and then I moved into the process of, how do we defeat Donald Trump learning what we know now? I spent a lot of time with Trump voters who rated Donald Trump as very bad, which is when we built Republican voters against Trump. It was with a lot of information that we had gleaned from these voters that we felt like we're on the bubble with Trump and could be pushed over.
Then like you, I became totally addicted. I've wanted to track things like, why do voters believe the big lie? Why do they believe that it was Antifa or black lives matter that attacked the capital on January 6th? There's just nothing better than getting people into a group where they feel really comfortable because they're with other people like them who also voted for Donald Trump and just hear them tell their real reasons. It helps me formulate political strategies for how you beat back some of these really pernicious effects on the Republican party.
Kai Wright: Let's talk about what you're hearing in these focus groups. We have to start with the culture wars because that seems to be the top line of at least Republican politics right now, Florida is of course, this week's frontline in that war. Listeners, in case you have somehow drowned out this news, here is the recap. Governor Ron DeSantis and the Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill back in March I believe that bans classroom instruction about sexual orientation and gender identity before the fourth grade.
Now there are similar bills circulating in more than a dozen Republican-controlled states around the country, but in Florida Disney criticized this bill so now Ron DeSantis and the legislature have passed another la, stripping Disney of a special tax status it held. It's open retaliation for this speech. Now, Sarah, I have to say that I'm not even really sure where to start with this, but you have written op-eds in more than one outlet criticizing the initial don't say gay law itself. That's before we get to the irony of a Republican-controlled legislature punishing the political speech of a corporation. Have you asked any of your focus groups about this particular style of legislation? If so, how do they react to it?
Sarah Longwell: Oh yes. This is what's interesting. We should never take for granted-- People like us who follow politics really closely, you should never take for granted the amount of information that the average voter has. When you look at a bill like this, I wrote an op-ed in The Washington Post talking about why I opposed this bill and it was a complicated argument about what does the term instruction mean? Would that mean that if my kids, somebody asked the teacher why do my kids have two moms, would the teacher get in trouble if they were in Florida for answering that question in an age-appropriate way? Is that instruction? I was playing out the legal part of this.
That is not how voters are thinking about this. Voters think that the bill is, why would you teach transgenderism to a kindergartner? That's what they hear. When you hear it in that frame, you can see why it's a 60/40 issue where voters are like, "Yes, I think I support this bill because I don't think that kindergartners they should be telling them about gay people or gay sex." It's like, "Okay, sure. What about families where they have two parents? Can they talk about that?" It's just more complicated now, but for the nuance.
Kai Wright: When you say 60/40 issue, you mean 60/40, 60% of people are like, "Yes, I like that," and 40% of the people are like, "No?"
Sarah Longwell: Yes, that's right. That's the polling on it in Florida. In Florida, it polls very well, Ron DeSantis-- Just to get to the focus groups, one thing that I ask in every single focus group of Trump voters, the first thing I say is, "Who do you want to see run in 2024?" Majority of them say, Trump. If you say, "Okay, but if Trump doesn't run, who do you want to see run?" Number one answer is Ron DeSantis. The reason that it's Ron DeSantis is that people-- There's this Russian expression the appetite increases while you're eating. What Trump did was it took people from a place where they held their nose and voted for Donald Trump and they would tell me in the focus groups, "Hey, I didn't vote for Donald Trump, I voted against Hillary Clinton."
Now, they crave the chaos, they crave the anger, they crave the aggressive, "I'm going to go punch my enemies in the face." They don't say gay bills are interesting because they're like a side door to the hate. Because even for people-- I actually, maybe naively thought a lot of this was settled, but you could find plenty of people who think it's fine for gay people to get married and they're supportive of that, or they've come around on that or they don't care that much about it, but they can get really amped up over the idea I think falsely framed that sex is being taught to kindergartners.
Kai Wright: Is there a distinction when you talk about it in your focus groups between the people who are getting hungry while they're-- You get hungry while you eat, the people who are really in the MAGA Movement versus those flipper category people who have went from Trump to Biden in 2020, is there a distinction in how they react to this?
Sarah Longwell: Yes, for sure. What's interesting about when I call them flippers, the Trump to Biden voters, they were like our persuadable bucket going into the 2020 election. They're a pretty interesting group because they're actually Republicans. If you ask them how they identify, they're generally moderate Republicans, but they're moderate Republicans who hate Trump and hate the Trumpy elements of the Republican party.
The stuff that is super culture worry-- Though it depends on what the war is because these are people who were really angry at the way Democrats were handling COVID, for example. If you just look, we did a bunch of focus grouping in Virginia around the Youngkin-McAuliffe race and we talked to a ton of Biden voters, moms, suburban moms who were just furious that their kids weren't regularly in school, that they were still having to wear masks. In every political season, they name suburban moms something like security moms or whatever.
Kai Wright: Going back like 30 years at this point.
Sarah Longwell: That's right. I guess I would just say I would go with COVID parents potentially for this cycle because it's both men and women, but where a lot of these swing voters were really upset about the way COVID was being handled and really wanted to move past it. On issues like this, the Trumpy aggressive calling Disney groomers and things like that, that's a turnoff to these swing voters. They're a complicated group, the swing voters.
Kai Wright: On the COVID question, are they upset about the individual liberty part of it, or they're upset about the disruption to society and their kids' education part of it?
Sarah Longwell: The latter. They're not particularly ideological about it. It's more about-- This happened, this was particular to Virginia, but the teachers got vaccinated and then the teacher's union said that the teachers didn't have to go back. They got to go to the front of the line to get vaccinated and parents had just I think been trying to talk to the school board. They were just so frustrated and it was wrapped in. I try to explain this to people because reporters and others are always trying to suss out individual issues and how that might impact things, and I try to explain to them that the CRT issue and the COVID issue and--
Kai Wright: Critical Race Theory. CRT being Critical Race Theory.
Sarah Longwell: Yes. Critical Race Theory that got brought up in Virginia. It's not actually about critical race theory, it's all wrapped together in a cultural conversation where you get a certain group of voters who think that things are just going too far, they are getting too weird. Oftentimes, I listen to these swing voters or even Trump voters and they think the way progressives talk, they think they sound like aliens.
With the terms that they use and things that people don't understand, and I think I try to be pretty-- I think that there's a lot of people who they're 65 years old and they don't understand or have never thought about-- They would find like the trans swimmer or the trans athlete totally disorienting. They're not bad people or they're not trying to be bigoted they're just like, it's totally like this thing that's, they're like, "What are you even talking about to me right now?"
Kai Wright: If you demonize that enough, it's like, "Yes, that's weird. I don't know how to think about that." I have to ask you, with all of these culture wars in general, I remember early in 2016 when Trump first started winning in the Republican primary, at the time I was an editor at the Nation Magazine, like Bastion of the left, and we joked, I remember being in an editorial meeting joking thinking, "If Trump wins, at least all of this fights over morality and culture will stop, that's going to be the end of that."
Obviously, we were foolish, but back then you used to lead the Log Cabin Republicans which is the LGBT Republican group and you quit when they endorsed Trump and protested. I just wondered, did you see this turn coming? Because when you said you thought some of this stuff was settled, did you see that, "Oh yes, with this Trump Movement, there's going to be a resurgence of the culture war, particularly around gay issues, but culture wars period?"
Sarah Longwell: Yes, culture wars, no to the gay culture wars. They weren't. I left Log Cabin. It's true. They really wanted to endorse Trump, I said over my dead body. There was enough of us who were against the endorsement, but ultimately once he was elected, people really wanted to endorse him. One of the arguments that they had for why Log Cabin should endorse him was that he was the most pro-gay Republican president we had ever seen. That was sort of true.
He waved one of those rainbow flags at a protest and he didn't really make the social issues, he didn't put them at the center of what he was doing. It was more, he hated different people. He had a different set of people. To me, that was just as alarming. Just because he had moved on from gay people didn't mean that we're going to say Mexicans are rapists and thieves and we're going to ban Muslims like the entire religion.
To me, I was like, "This is preposterous." I saw him stirring up the most nefarious passions of people and using grievance politics and wedge politics and our politics of hatred. All of that, it just didn't seem like the gay people specifically were on the menu, but quickly hear what's happened. This is pretty interesting to me as a socio, I don't know, a mass hysteria phenomenon.
What you've got is this QAnon crazy thing that exists on the dark web fringes that's getting slightly more mainstream-ish, coupled with the idea that all Democrats are pedophiles and groomers, and everybody's got to protect children that wrapped itself-- It's congealed into a, not quite coherent, but you can see what's happening where Republicans almost got code, but they've made this idea that they're the ones protecting children.
It layers up to all the QAnon crazy stuff, but it is potent and it is working and I think that Democrats are going to have to do something to contend with it. Because like I said, it's a 60/40 issue and a lot of these swing voters are center-right and do find some of these issues, they do light them up.
Kai Wright: I'm talking with Sarah Longwell, publisher of The Bulwark and Executive Director of the Republican Accountability Project. We're talking about the focus groups she's conducting with voters as the midterm primaries begin. She's been talking with both Republicans and Democrats and with voters who switched from Trump to Biden in 2020, the flippers as she calls them. If you've got a question for Sarah about these focus groups, call us up, we'll take your calls after the break, stay with us.
Welcome back. I'm Kai Wright and I'm joined by Sarah Longwell publisher of The Bulwark and Executive Director of the Republican Accountability Project. Let's go straight to Jim in Brick Township, New Jersey. Jim, welcome to the show.
Jim: Yes. Hi. I'm wondering if the recent bad news about Putin will cause any serious drop-off among support for Trump given their close association or him being a lapdog. I'm not seeing it so much or is this still too early in the game for people to start seeing Trump in a more tarnished light by virtue of Putin zoning.
Kai Wright: Thanks for that Jim. Sarah, is this coming up in your focus groups?
Sarah Longwell: It is. It's a great question. Unfortunately, you're not seeing-- Look, people who voted for Trump in 2020, they're pretty dug in. What I hear in the focus groups-- I've done a number on Ukraine, I actually did a great episode of the Focus Group Podcast with Alexander Vindman about this, and what you hear from Trump voters is that the media is distorting what Trump said about Vladimir Putin.
They believe that if Trump were president, Vladimir Putin would've never invaded Ukraine because Trump is so strong and so tough that he would've really taken him head-on. It speaks to the alternative universe that Republicans have built for themselves where the voters-- It's funny because they're very pro-Ukraine, that was completely clear. They loved Ukraine. They even at the time, I think this is not something that sticks with them, but at the time they were saying, "If gas prices go up and that's what it takes to hurt Putin and help Ukraine, we're for it." Not a sticky sentiment, but something they wanted to say to show that they were with Ukraine.
If you bring up Trump, they just do not at all think that they-- When you say Trump called Putin smart and was close to him, they say, "He is smart. He's a dictator, but he's smart." Listen, if Trump is more popular today, which he is, then he was I believe almost at any point in his presidency after January 6th, nothing is prying these people away and it is one of the--
Kai Wright: It's really hard to wrap your head around.
Sarah Longwell: It is. I understand that, but I got to tell some of my friends who constantly gather their microscopes out trying to tell you that Trump is losing his grip on the Republican party and I do not see any evidence that that is true.
Kai Wright: What about again, for those flippers, how do they think about Ukraine and how that relates to either Trump or Biden?
Sarah Longwell: It's interesting. The flippers hate Trump. This is people who are constitutionally Republican, they are mad at Biden. They were especially Mad at Biden about Afghanistan. They don't think he's doing a particularly great job. They think he's too old. They think he's on the weak side, but not a single-- I don't think a single flipper I talk to all the time has ever said they regret not voting for Donald Trump.
Kai Wright: There you go. There you go. Speaking to Biden, I want to hear a little bit about what your focus groups are saying about Democrats and Biden in general and particularly what the Democrats and flippers are saying about where the country sits now under democratic leadership. I'm going to play a bit of little bit of this and I should say, Sarah, we cut some of your original audio in this.
Speaker: They're definitely better than they were under Trump. They barely were a couple of years ago. I've got some real serious concerns about the future. I don't think our country's going in the right direction.
Speaker: It's stable, more stable than it has been and that's nice, but I still think there's a lot of issues that are falling through the cracks.
Speaker: I feel like we are really headed in a bad direction and I'm not going to necessarily blame Joe Biden for that. I think things are just not going great. I think we could be doing a lot more.
Speaker: I feel more insecure at this time in my life than I ever have.
Kai Wright: I agree with that last person. I kind of feel the same thing, but in your podcast, Sarah, you played these cuts for Robert Gibbs who was, of course, President Obama's press secretary during his first term. He seemed to share your feeling that all of this is very bad news for Joe Biden and the Democrats. Talk about what you're hearing, particularly again from those flippers about Biden now.
Sarah Longwell: It's striking listening to those clips because the word that has come to mind for me listening to voters and this goes across the political spectrum is the precariousness that people feel. It's not even like right track, wrong track. It's just people feel like world war 3 could break out at any minute, runaway inflation, COVID comes back and shuts everything down. People are freaked out.
I think that Joe Biden had one really big important thing to do and that was to beat Donald Trump and people are happy that he did that, but I think in terms of people's having at least some expectation that when Joe Biden came in normality would resettle things. That not happening has left people really feeling cold toward Biden. Certainly, with the flippers, they all say the same thing.
They're like, "It's better than under Trump, but marginally." I do think it's funny as people layer into 2024 and they start to say, "Boy, Trump versus Biden, that's what it's looking like again." I can't tell you how-- At least on the Dem side, how little Democratic voters seem to want Biden to run again.
Kai Wright: Wow.
Sarah Longwell: Which doesn't mean they want a more progressive candidate. They are really afraid he's too old and they are really worried he wouldn't beat Trump in a head-to-head matchup again.
Kai Wright: Really, but it's not about a dislike for Biden, they just don't think he can win?
Sarah Longwell: Actually, people like Biden as the human certainly the swing voters and the Democrats, they think he's a nice guy. They just think, "Yes man, he's too old." He's too old, he's not strong. They don't understand why they don't hear from him very much. If there's something coming from the Democratic focus groups that I would say is just totally a theme that you hear at every group is people are actually befuddled as to why Biden is not more present, not more visible.
They say, "Hey, we're lurching from crisis to crisis here and he doesn't come out and give a lot of speeches. Talk to us." I think there's something to be said for Donald Trump blaring in people's ears like a car alarm for so long that when he was turned off, it was a real relief, but there is an absence now where people, at least they want to hear more, they want to get more direction.
Kai Wright: It's almost like you get more hungry while you eat things. For all of us, we just got used to this presidency that was a bullhorn constantly.
Sarah Longwell: I think that's right.
Kai Wright: We're running short on time here, but I want to get to two more things. Keep that in mind, but one thing is that somebody tweeted at me asking I think a genuine question about the Republican voters you're hearing in the focus groups who are believing these things that sound like they're crazy from another planet. Are these otherwise they say "intelligent and thoughtful people"?
Sarah Longwell: I'm certainly not going to label anybody as crazy or stupid. I think that they're-- You certainly get people like that. You get people saying crazy things, you get people saying horrible things sometimes, but not for the most part. For the most part, you get normal people who come from an incredibly different culture than people who live in cities, have very different backgrounds, and they swim in a cultural soup of Trumpism.
They don't watch a ton of Tucker Carlson, but the smartest person that they work with at the office they watch a lot of Tucker Carlson. They hear things, or Facebook and social media, not even watching the news. Imagine your entire social network believes that the election was stolen and is constantly sharing articles about why the election was stolen and proof that the election was stolen.
You're just a normal person living in your life you don't think that much about politics, but when someone says, "Do you think the election was stolen?" You're like, "Yes, I don't know. I've seen a lot of my friends say that it is."
Kai Wright: It just keeps coming up. Related to that is you had Representative Adam Kinzinger on your show. He's one of a couple of Republicans who were on the house committee. You asked him about his colleagues, his Republican colleagues. He responded saying, "They can't turn on Trump now, because that would mean turning on themselves." I'm just wondering what you think about that as we let you go here because that's a depressing thought in terms of what could actually happen. If the point is that Republicans, whether they're voters or elect-eds, can't turn on the MAGA Movement because it would mean turning on themselves. It's hard to imagine how we ever turned the coin.
Sarah Longwell: Yes. That was a really trenching point by Adam that I hadn't quite thought about before, but there is a reason that people are primed not to just self-reflect and say, "I've been given new information, I've now changed my mind." They are deeply invested in the narrative that they have convinced themselves of-- Imagine you are somebody who hated Trump or thought he was really gross but talked yourself into voting for him. Over time, you've now talked yourself into a lot.
Those compromises they add up. That being said, I don't think that it means we can't get out of this. I actually think leadership matters a great deal. It's the reason I think Ron DeSantis, he is a bleak person for the Republican party to lead it, but if there was better leadership in this country or even a more centrist figure, a third party if you have to rerun the 2020, but leadership's going to matter a ton and it could change things.
Kai Wright: We got to leave it there. Sarah Longwell is a publisher of The Bulwark and Executive Director of the Republican Accountability Project. Her podcast is called The Focus Group. I urge you to check it out. Coming up, a follow-up to our episode on the relationship between our names and our identities. That's next.
Kousha Navidar: Hey everyone. This is Kousha, I'm a producer. If you like this episode, let me suggest another one you might enjoy too. It's called A Conservative View of Vigilante Right. Back in January, Kai talked to Mona Charen who coincidentally works with our guest this week at The Bulwark. Kai talked to Mona about the true meaning of the term conservative and the radical shift we're seeing right now in the GOP.
If you'd like to learn more about the state of the right ahead of the midterm elections, be sure to check that out. As always, if you have a response, a question, or an idea, send us a message. You can record yourself or write and email it to email@example.com, that's firstname.lastname@example.org. Or you can always talk to us on Twitter, just use the #USofAnxiety. All right. Thanks. Talk to you soon.
Kai Wright: Welcome back. For the past few months, this show has been in conversation with you, our listeners, about your identities. Most recently we explored our names and how they connect to our racial and ethnic identities. A whole lot of you wanted to join that conversation. I want to share what some of you sent us. As always, when we open our listener mailbag, I'm joined by our senior digital producer, Kousha Navidar. Hey Kousha?
Kousha Navidar: Hey, Kai. I have made so many new friends.
Kai Wright: Okay.
Kousha Navidar: People are actually still sending us messages. We got a lot of stories about people's relationships with their own names. Here are some highlights.
Lauren: Hi Kai. This is Lauren from Inwood, Manhattan. I'm a black woman. I am met with surprise by people of all races when they finally meet me. I have found that in white settings, I feel the need to prove that the person who has been talking with those people, either over the phone or in writing, using the name Lauren is the person that they are now speaking to in person with my blackness, with my locks. My name and the way that I speak might put me in a different cast but as soon as I'm seen, I go back down and then have to reprove myself.
Gerryal: Hi, my name is Gerryal. It is a combination of my mother and father's names, my mother is named Geraldine but people call her Gerry. My father was named Albert, but people called him Al. Gerry plus Al equals Gerryal. My mother was always really nervous about this name, I think. She gave me the middle name, Marie. She would always tell me, "I wanted you to have a simple middle name in case you didn't like your first name and you could go by Marie." I never felt compelled to do that.
I probably only in the past five to seven years, that, because my name is exotic and sometimes people don't know that I am white when they see my name, I didn't have any clue that I might have actually experienced discrimination when sending my resume to people. I have had the white privilege that goes along with being a white person with this name, but I can imagine before people see me, I may have been excluded from opportunities and I had no idea.
Kousha Navidar: Kai, I think it's super interesting how both Lauren and Gerryal we're talking about the same thing, but from different sides of the table.
Kai Wright: Yes, we're just all so twisted up when it comes to our names and race and I wonder do we get a lot of that? Is that what everybody wanted to call in and talk about?
Kousha Navidar: It's a good question because we did get a lot of stories, but not all of them were of race or ethnic identity. Some of them were just sweet stories.
Nicole: I'm Nicole from Q Gardens, Queens. I never really liked my name, but the story behind it is that my mom named me something different and my dad said, "You got to name the last one just 14 months ago so I want to name this one." He named me, Nicole. Having found out a year ago that my dad is not my biological father it became much more special to know that my name was chosen by him who may have subconsciously felt that maybe I wasn't his and he needed a deeper connection. As much as I haven't loved my name, my name will always have a connection to my dad who raised me, who might not share my blood, but I'm so thankful for. I will gladly say, my name is Nicole.
Brady: My name is Brady Pelson. I think you may have overlooked or missed an opportunity to discuss a very interesting side of people's relationship to their names. Having had a few friends who come out as transgender, I've seen how the selection of a new name and the public transfer or transition to that name, how it's a struggle and an experience in and of itself. Personally, I find a follow-up or spin-off addressing your issue very interesting, and very informative.
Kai Wright: Okay. Brady gives us some homework there. I like it. Kousha, I have to say it makes me happy when listeners engage in this way, take what we gave you and then point out what we can do next.
Kousha Navidar: Yes. Brady, if you're listening, thanks for sending us this, and we took you up on the suggestion. I went out to find someone who could talk to us about the transgender experience with names.
Theresa Jean Tanenbaum: I am Theresa Jean Tanenbaum. You can call me Tess. I'm an associate professor at UC Irvine in the Department of Informatics. I run a group called the transformative play lab.
Kousha Navidar: I love all of the wonderful instruments I see in the back, can you take me around your studio a little bit?
Theresa Jean Tanenbaum: I have the 12-string guitars where I started, the violin is actually my father's old violin which I recently restored because one of my girlfriends is a violin teacher.
Kousha Navidar: That's awesome. I wish we could show you our studio right now. It's actually like comparable in a flattering way to what you've got going on. We're a radio station so that compliment to you.
Theresa Jean Tanenbaum: I'm an amateur, who's just been tinkering.
Kousha Navidar: You listened to Brady's voicemail. What did listening to that voicemail bring up for you?
Theresa Jean Tanenbaum: I've spent a lot of time dealing with my name over the last, almost three years since I came out. I've been on a journey from indifference to deep investment to trauma, to coming to peace with the names that I have now, and that I had when I was born. He's absolutely right that as a case study for what a name does for somebody as an identity, the transgender experience is this little microcosm of so many issues around name and identity that I've actually spent quite a few years digging into pretty deeply.
Kousha Navidar: Tell me the story of how you chose the name, Tess.
Theresa Jean Tanenbaum: Yes. When I came out in mid-2019, I started with a list of names that I was interested in. I didn't really know what I wanted my name to be. I knew that I didn't want it to be the very male-gendered dead name that I had had. I actually ended up picking a name that we had given to my daughter where my wife and I when we were choosing names for her, wanted her to have a useful practical normal name and a weird name, a fun, cool name. We made her first name a fairly normal one. Her first name was Abigail and we debated a lot on the middle name, but we ended up with Tesla after the Serbian inventor. Not after the car company.
In particular, we found ourselves doodling names one day in a birthing class and Abigail Tesla Tanenbaum it was just fun to doodle. There were a lot of good letters. Tesla offered a lot of fun doodling opportunities, and we realized Tess Tanenbaum sounded like a great name. I would love to meet a Tess Tanenbaum. She'd be like this plucky girl reporter from a pulp serial story or like the secret identity of a superhero.
Then our daughter was born and insisted on being Abigail. She has been very insistent since she was born, that she only wants to be called Abigail. We had this really cool name we had given her that wasn't being used. At one point my wife said, "What if you were Tess Tanenbaum?" I thought, "No, that'd be really funny." Oh, wait, I had this moment of like, "That's it, that's exactly right. That feels so good." It ended up being short for Theresa. It was a character of a book that I read as a child.
I ended up being Theresa. I wanted a middle name that was a family name that was connected to my past. As I have been in transition, one of the things that I have really loved about discovering myself as a woman and discovering what it means to inhabit the world as a woman is the ways in which I've been able to aspire to things about my mother and my grandmother that I've always admired, that I've always wanted to see reflected in myself, that I've always struggled to embody before coming out.
I approached my mother and my sister and asked if it was okay if I took my grandmother's first name, if they were comfortable with me reclaiming that name as my middle name, and they agreed. I became Theresa Jean Tanenbaum. I'm named for my daughter and for my grandmother.
Kousha Navidar: Oh, I love that. You used a term that I could use help with understanding, dead name, can you explain that to me, please?
Theresa Jean Tanenbaum: I can, not every transgender person uses this for the name that they were given when they were born, but for many of us, it's a good way to describe it. It's a term that we used to describe our previous name. When I first changed my name, I was pretty insistent on the idea that my previous name wouldn't be a dead name, that I didn't have any unhappy feelings associated with it but the deeper I got into this, especially the first few years of my transition, the more that name started to harm me, and the more I started to experience pretty profound trauma around it to the point where encountering it in my daily life was enough to just ruin my day or even my week, depending on the context. Especially if it was somebody who purported to care about me using it for me.
There's this thing that people do that even I do when I encounter somebody's previous name, which is that there's a part of our brain that doesn't want to let go of the knowledge of that name. It sticks around in your head. I think of it as this little trauma landmine that people step on, and then it just blows up your conversation. It blows up your day. It sometimes blows up your relationship. The other thing that's important to mention when talking about dead names is the ways in which people weaponize them against transgender people. This idea that we can't really change who we were, and that who we are is always going to be in some way overshadowed by where we started.
Kousha Navidar: Your own journey included trying to navigate the world of changing your name while also, already being published as an academic under your dead name, right?
Theresa Jean Tanenbaum: Yes, it's one of those things where I knew I wanted to transition for years before I finally actually did so. There was a variety of reasons why I tried to not transition until I couldn't really stand living as or being seen as a man anymore. Part of it was that I was pre-tenured at UC Irvine and I had a publication record in my previous name, and I didn't want my tenure case to be a conversation about my gender identity. I wanted it to be a conversation about my scholarship and my ideas and my contributions and my work.
There was a period of time when I had committed to trying to hold out on transitioning, not because I didn't want to start living and affirming life, but because I was afraid of the professional consequences of the name change that I wanted to make. Ultimately, I decided that the challenge of changing my name was worth it. I reached out to publishers thinking that plenty of people change their names at marriage, at divorce, upon religious conversion, just for fun, lots of people change their names in the world. There surely must be some provision for this in the policies of the global publishing organizations and very naively thinking this, and was either rejected or ignored by every publisher I reached out to.
Kousha Navidar: What did they say?
Theresa Jean Tanenbaum: They couldn't really justify why they wouldn't change the name, except that they never really had before. It had never been part of their practice. I'm a stubborn person and I started to look into the legal issues around name changes, and I saw that there was no real legal barrier to preventing retroactive name changes on previously published work.
It started to seem like the only reason there wasn't already provisions for it is because the publishing industry was built by and for men. Typically, it's women who changed their names in our society.
I was very fortunate in that I was at a conference, the first conference I was out at and a colleague Elizabeth Churchill was one of the Vice Presidents of the Association of Computing Machinery at that time, which is the largest archive of published work on computation going back to 1976. She mentioned the ACM had seen an increased number of cases of name change requests.
There had been a committee assembled to discuss the possibility of this in the ACM digital library. She asked if I wanted to get involved in the committee. Another trans colleague Sarafina Toups, and another trans colleague Katta Spiel, the three of us sat down over the Russia show on the weekend in September of 2019. We had gotten a shared document and we started writing a policy.
The policy we ended up with was a bit of a compromise, but it was the first and it gave us a reality proof that I then took to Springer and El Sevier and Sage and Wiley, and a number of other publishers. Ultimately, what it did was it led to an article in nature, which is how you found me, where I made a case for a need to allow authors to change their names and in particular, allowing transgender authors to change our names because of the risks we face when outed as trans by our publishing record.
Kousha Navidar: Speaking of that article in nature, one of the lines that really struck me in there was when you wrote, why should cis-scholars? For one thing, people are most creative and productive when they can be their true selves. That struck me because it's a pretty intuitive explanation, but I can only imagine the nuance and import that has had in your own life and your own career.
Theresa Jean Tanenbaum: For one thing, it's forced me to reevaluate all the work that I did prior to coming out. Before I came out, I had this thing that didn't make sense in my life that I couldn't make sense of. I knew that there was something missing and all of my work for years was me trying to fill that void and I couldn't, and it was exhausting. It was exhausting trying to be this person that the world expected me to be, that my body was tell me I was supposed to be, that my family, friends and colleagues were expecting me to be.
I had this anxiety when I started my transition that I wouldn't know how to act like a woman, whatever that means, how to be a woman. What I discovered was actually, when I transitioned, I got to stop acting, I got to stop performing, I got to stop putting in all of this effort to try to look like this thing that I thought I was supposed to be and instead I got to just relax into myself and suddenly I had access to creative resources, and cognitive resources that had been denied to me because I had been devoting so much of my brainpower to trying to hide and mask and fit in the world in the box that I had been assigned.
Kousha Navidar: It's great to think about that in the context of what you're doing. Now, one of the projects that I found very, very interesting, Alt?
Theresa Jean Tanenbaum: The website is Alt-History.
Kousha Navidar: It grabbed my attention because of its tagline on the website, it uses augmented reality to- This is from the website. -discover a different past and imagine a different future. Now, I tried to install this on a phone I found today, an android phone. [crosstalk]
Theresa Jean Tanenbaum: Oh, I'm sorry.
Kousha Navidar: I tried. I was not successful. I got like to step--
Theresa Jean Tanenbaum: It's not very functional.
Kousha Navidar: [laughs] All good. I was excited to try it out.
Tess and I talked about the app and it got pretty technical, but what's fascinating is that this app lets you collect virtual relics in specific physical spaces all through your phone. Those artifacts you collect, encourage you to reimagine the past and maybe redefine your future.
Theresa Jean Tanenbaum: It's like the Pokemon Go of alternate histories for social justice.
Kousha Navidar: Got it.
Theresa Jean Tanenbaum: Maybe that's how we should describe ourselves.
Kousha Navidar: For sure.
All of this is to say. Tess has really opened her mind to how technology can empower someone to engage with their story. Meanwhile, she continues to engage with her own story too.
Theresa Jean Tanenbaum: I'm on sabbatical right now. I got tenured last year and then immediately took a sabbatical because I was burned out at that point and needed some time to work. I talked earlier about getting all of this energy back when I came out and transitioned. What that energy did was it allowed me to do something which I've been wanting to do my whole life, which was actually write songs that I found beautiful and meaningful, and visceral.
I wrote a song about coming out. I wrote a song specifically about the moment where I started my transition, where I called Kaiser Permanente and asked to meet with an assessment counselor to begin hormone replacement therapy. Then I wrote a song called Making it Real. That's about the moments after that phone call where you suddenly realize this thing that used to be just in your head is now in the world. You've said the words, you can't unsay them. What does that mean for your life?
I thought that's cool. I've always wanted to write a musical. Could I write another song? I did and I thought, "Wow, I wrote another song. I've written two songs. What are the odds? Maybe I'll write a third." I now have 14 songs just for this show and two other shows in the works. I've found myself in this extraordinary, prolific, passionate period in my career where I've created something that I think is probably the best thing I have ever or will ever make in my life.
Those little nagging feelings buried deep inside
Oh, how did I miss this?
I want people to start to understand that we are the masters of our identity, that we spend so much time living inside of boxes, whether those be socioeconomic boxes, cultural boxes, gendered boxes and I want to make space for people to feel safe pushing back against those forces that keep them fixed within a particular identity space. I want to create spaces for emancipation. I want to create spaces for identity emancipation, where we don't simply accept the role that we've been forced into, but instead are able to say, "No, you know what? This isn't serving me right now. I want more, I need more." I have to take responsibility for that myself.
Kousha Navidar: Tess, thank you so much.
Theresa Jean Tanenbaum: Thank you for having me.
Kai Wright: That was Dr. Tess Tanenbaum at the University of California in Irvine talking with our producer Kousha Navidar. Hey, you can be like Brady, if you hear something and think we ought to dig deeper or follow up, let us know. Email me at email@example.com. That's firstname.lastname@example.org.
The United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Sound designed by Jared Paul. Milton Ruiz was at the boards for the live show. Special thanks to Liora Noam-Kravitz who mixed the podcast version this week. Our team also includes Emily Botein, Regina de Heer, Karen Frillman, and Kousha Navidar. I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter at Kai_Wright. Of course, you can find me live every Sunday at 6:00 PM Eastern. Stream the show @wnyc.org or tell your smart speaker to play WNYC.
I'll talk to you then, take care of yourselves.
[00:50:26] [END OF AUDIO]
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.