I grew up with Eric Greitens. I know why he transformed from Democrat to MAGA star

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·4 min read
DUKE UNIVERSITY
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“Every accusation is a confession,” some Democrats like to say about Donald Trump, a former Democrat who helped turn the term RINO — Republican in Name Only — into the Republican primary lexicon’s most damning indictment.

That was also my first thought when I saw former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens’ recent web video in which he simulates a “RINO hunt” alongside several men in tactical gear who use a battering ram to barge into a vacant home before throwing a smoke bomb and entering the room, while Greitens exhorts viewers to “join the MAGA crew” and “get a RINO hunting permit.”

The irony is that the biggest trophy in this year’s U.S. Senate RINO hunt is none other than Greitens himself.

I’ve known Greitens since childhood, when we played soccer against one another, attended Boys State and went to college a few miles apart in North Carolina. We both ultimately earned doctoral degrees, started nonprofit agencies and taught on the side.

One semester while I was teaching at Washington University in St Louis, he asked me to help promote his own course to students, and soon thereafter, we bumped into each other on campus. He thanked me for “fighting for all the right things” in the Missouri Senate, where as a liberal St. Louis Democrat, I filibustered bills that would have restricted abortion, made English the state’s official language and prohibited undocumented college students from attending Missouri public universities.

Former Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Webber had a similar experience. When Webber initially ran for state representative in 2008 — the same year when Greitens and I taught university courses — he considered Greitens a friend and supporter with whom he often shared meals and conversation about public service. Greitens attended Webber’s campaign kickoff and offered to serve as a surrogate speaker. In 2017, shortly after Greitens became governor, Webber recalled Greitens’ past support for a more progressive America, and this past week, Webber told me, “I always remember that he was a really big Obama fan.”

Not only did Greitens drive to the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver with former Gov. Bob Holden to witness Obama’s historic nomination, but he appeared to come away inspired: In early 2009, he began considering a bid for Congress against one of two Republican incumbents: U.S. Rep. Todd Akin in west St. Louis County or U.S. Rep. Blaine Luetkemeyer in central and northeast Missouri. He first approached Missouri Democratic Party officials, and then traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s top lieutenant at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Rep. Steve Israel, and top DCCC staff. Ultimately, with 2010 looking like a very rough cycle for Democrats, he declined to run.

As the state of Missouri continued its rightward shift over the next few years, Greitens apparently surveyed the landscape and decided to switch parties. He penned a Fox News op-ed which essentially argued that he switched parties because Democrats spent too much money helping suffering veterans, sapping their initiative.

Many who had known him as a longtime Democrat were skeptical. “This is a guy that had a Ph.D. from Oxford and had been to war and was a grown adult,” former Democratic Party chair Webber told the Missouri Times. “He had all of these life experiences and decided he had a progressive view of the world, and then in a couple of years, with no significant events happening, he decided he’s suddenly this ultra-conservative guy.”

There is absolutely nothing wrong with changing one’s mind as you learn more about the world.

What irritates people of both parties about Greitens is not that he has evolved from mainstream Democrat to mainstream Republican to ultra-MAGA warrior in less than a decade.

It’s that he viciously and sanctimoniously attacks others for taking the exact same positions that he recently held.

And yet, based on recent polling, the approach just might work.

The question many ask: If he is indeed elected, which Eric Greitens will show up in the U.S. Senate?

For those of us who have observed him across four decades, the answer is clear: whichever one will best serve his ambition — which is, as a young Greitens told his kindergarten teacher who spoke at his 2015 gubernatorial campaign announcement, to become president.

Jeff Smith is a former Missouri state senator who now advocates for affordable housing, criminal justice reform and civil liberties. He is the author of three books and holds a Ph.D. in political science from Washington University.