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Donald Trump
This is the third cycle a group of political consultants in D.C. has run this program, with the goal of finding regular, everyday Republicans at their wits’ end with former President Trump. Alex Brandon/AP

Inside the Lonely World of America’s Most Visible Trump Apostates

Here’s what it’s like to star in a Republican Voters Against Trump ad, the $50 million project to defeat the GOP nominee.

Why would anyone agree to be a face of anti-Trump conservatism? Who in their right mind would be among the nearly 200 Republicans who have submitted their own unscripted testimonials over the last month to Republican Voters Against Trump, the $50 million project to defeat the Republican nominee and submit themselves to mountains of possible negative attention from former President Donald Trump’s faithful army of fans?

Here’s the explanation two-time Trump voter Nate Price gave his husband: “I’ve told him it’s very, very important that I speak out.” Price certainly has the experience to speak to Trump supporters. He donated to Trump, volunteered for Trump and even worked the polls in 2020 in an effort to catch feared vote-rigging.

What he’s doing now is scary.

“I was very nervous!” the 27-year-old nurse told NOTUS, sitting in the same room of his Ohio home where, just a few weeks earlier, he sat on Zoom with a political operative and riffed about why he voted for Trump but never will again. He’s told friends and members of his conservative family he feels this way and has been called “a traitor.”

If all goes according to plan, his face will soon be on a highway billboard calmly proclaiming his MAGA apostasy and reluctant support for President Joe Biden — not to mention TV ads, radio ads and digital spots.

These are the loneliest of the crop of Republicans who look at their past support for Trump with regret and as a warning to the rest of their fellow conservatives. At the highest level, former Trump aides and other powerful anti-Trump Republicans have become their own club in Washington and official politics, with podcasts, TV contracts and book deals. They are frequently celebrated for their bravery and asked to share their opinion all the time.

The apostates who find RVAT have none of that.

This is the third cycle a group of political consultants in D.C. has run this program, with the goal of finding regular, everyday Republicans at their wits’ end and offering them what they’re hungry for: someone to listen.

“We know how to find disaffected Republicans because we are disaffected Republicans,” said Gunner Ramer, political director for RVAT. Ramer and the program’s director of strategy, John Conway, offer the isolated Republican either a dream or a nightmare, depending on your perspective. They take unscripted testimonials from the people they find and turn them into a highly targeted ad campaign aimed at weakening Trump through the words of people who used to like him.

What they rely on is people who are tired of hiding.

“I’m in the middle of, God help me, Marjorie Taylor Greene country,” said James Tucker, a 57-year-old lawyer in Dalton, Georgia. He is an avowed conservative who not only voted for Trump twice but still gets excited when he thinks back to how Trump came off like a tough guy outsider who was going to shake things up.

As he told a long story of losing faith in Trump and coming to see him as a cult leader — “I didn’t realize it was a movement until Jan. 6,” he said, “and then I realized people would think I was a part of it” — he sounded winded. He was.

“I’m just pacing around my house here,” he said.

Tucker never really gets to talk about this stuff in his daily life, save for with his wife, who fully agrees with him. He’s got a lot to say, and he really wants to say it — but it’s not easy to just spark up a conversation about how much you hate Trump where Tucker lives.

“I am alone in my thoughts,” he said.

A few weeks ago, he engaged in the official pastime of the isolated: the doomscroll. And that’s how he found RVAT. As he stewed and pecked around Facebook, a survey popped up in his feed asking if he was opposed to the former president. He started to fill it out but was stopped by a moment of ennui.

“This isn’t going to do anything,” he recalled thinking. He closed the survey. But not before he entered his email address.

Tucker then got an email from RVAT staff noting that he hadn’t finished the survey and asking if he wanted to talk. He absolutely did, and so shortly thereafter, he was recording one of the same Zoom calls as Price in Ohio, sounding off unscripted about Trump. Those recordings get put on YouTube and then the participants steer the ship. RVAT staff ask: How much exposure are you comfortable with? Participants have to weigh the pros and cons.

Price had played with taking his views to a larger audience before, on social media, and been blasted with homophobic bile from some of MAGA’s more rabid supporters. This is part of the reason why this whole project has become a source of tension on the home front.

“My husband is petrified,” he said. “He’s worried that people could potentially identify where we live and harm us.”

The testimonial ad, where an American stares down the barrel of a camera and speaks to other Americans, is a time-honored part of the campaign season. Democrats are deploying them widely this cycle. During the pandemic, they got a lot grittier. As Vanity Fair reported in the homestretch of the 2020 campaign, smart consultants discovered “homemade straight-to-camera testimonials from regular people talking about the pandemic far outperformed conventional ads about policy or negative ads about Trump.”

RVAT ran those kinds of testimonial ads in 2020, but with the twist that they weren’t trying to persuade swing voters. They were giving uneasy Republicans the permission to be uneasy. Other people who look like them, talk like them and vote like them were on their phones and their TVs saying, “You’re not alone, I too think this whole situation is out of hand, and I too cannot believe I am saying this, but I think I’m going to vote for Joe Biden.” They ran these ads again in 2022 against MAGA Senate candidates.

This year, they’ve already begun chasing Trump with testimonials at campaign stops in swing states like Michigan. When former Vice President Mike Pence came out as a Republican voter against Trump, RVAT turned that into ads too.

But they’re mostly keeping their money piled up for the end of the summer and fall when they will plaster the faces of naysaying Republicans all over the places where college-educated, white Republicans (their target audience) can be found: the suburbs. If Trump does badly there like he did in 2020, it’s good news for Biden. That’s what makes these ads so powerful.

The testimonials, however, do not always have a pro-Biden message, reflecting the rich tapestry of disaffected middle-class conservatism in the MAGA age.

Thomas Pallone, a 78-year-old retired chemical engineer and corporate vice president in Wisconsin, tries to explain his particular brand of political frustration to interviewers who find him through RVAT.

“The one I just finished was really just a very, very liberal radio commentator and station that was trying to get me to persuade people to vote for Biden. And I’m not taking that position,” he told NOTUS. “I’m against Trump, but I’m certainly not for Biden.”

He plans to write someone in, but the details are still up in the air. He just hopes that very few people vote for either of the listed major party nominees and that voter turnout is extremely low to send a pox on both your houses message.

“I’m exhausted about voting for the lesser of evils,” he said.

His makeshift home broadcast studio is really the only place where he can talk about this plan. His sons are backing Trump. Stands are taken firmly. Political talk has been banned from family gatherings since Pallone turned on the former president, for whom he voted twice.

His decision to go public through an RVAT testimonial has not calmed the situation.

“It’s sparked some pretty significant debates,” he said. “My wife continues to remind me, ‘Cool it, Tom.’”

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RVAT gives him a chance to spread his gospel and damn the torpedoes.

“I think what I’m doing is encouraging, I don’t know how many people, a few, to think more independently,” he said.

The politics will shake out. The people who have signed up to be known by their Republican friends and neighbors as Trump apostates are just glad someone is listening.

George Graff, a 65-year-old CPA and veteran of 41 years as a military reservist, including a tour in Afghanistan, has thrown himself into the RVAT project wholeheartedly. He voted for Trump twice from St. George, Utah, reluctantly both times thanks to the way Trump has spoken about military service. Then he went on a vacation to Hungary, had a conversation with a local about Viktor Orbán, and started to get nervous that voting for Trump a third time might mean American democracy is in trouble.

So he’s donated to the group, given a testimonial and written newspaper editorials. He hasn’t caught too much flak, which is perhaps no surprise in Sen. Mitt Romney’s state.

He’s ready to catch more.

“I feel pretty stifled in my ability to get it out,” he said. “I’ve about had it with the whole party.”

Evan McMorris-Santoro is a reporter at NOTUS.