This former GOP hatchet man didn't support Trump — but still enabled him
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. Our guest today, Tim Miller, is a former Republican political operative whose new bestselling book takes a hard look at the Republican Party's embrace of Donald Trump and his own role in events that took the party down that road. Miller never supported Trump and actively worked against him after his own candidate in 2016, Jeb Bush, fell out of the race. But Miller writes that, on reflection, his own work as a hatchet man for the Republican National Committee and other candidates helped to create the climate that enabled Trump's rise.
His book offers a revealing look at how the conservative media world has evolved in some disturbing ways, and he takes a harshly critical look at Republicans who privately regard Trump as unhinged and dangerous but still found reasons to support him politically or work in his administration. That section of the book is based on interviews he conducted with many Republicans including friends and former colleagues. Tim Miller is currently an on-air analyst for MSNBC and a writer at large for The Bulwark, a website launched in 2018 which features news and opinion from a center-right perspective. His new book is titled "Why We Did It: A Travelogue From The Republican Road To Hell."
Tim Miller, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, a lot of Republicans who have denounced Donald Trump eventually came around to embrace him. The title of your book is "Why We Did It." Who's the we in that sentence?
TIM MILLER: Dave, well, thank you so much for having me. The we is the Republican political class basically, which includes donors, conservative media, candidates - political candidates - and political operatives, of which I was one. And I think that we includes basically everyone who was involved in Republican campaigns during the time in which I came of age politically. I focused the book on essentially 2007, the pre-McCain-Palin campaign era through the present day. I'm sure that somebody writing a history book could push this back even further.
But for me, I felt like everyone within the Republican ecosystem, starting around the time of Sarah Palin, you know, got very comfortable with playing this game of politics where we enabled people that were increasingly radical, where we riled up the Republican base and fed them a daily dose of grievance about things that maybe didn't really impact their lives as much as we made it seem like it did. And I think that all of this set the stage for Trump's rise. And with the benefit of hindsight, I look back on it and see pretty clearly that it shouldn't have been surprising that somebody like Trump would have been able to take over a party and a political system that was, you know, the way that we had - you know, that we'd been playing it.
DAVIES: You know, I kind of want to say early in this interview - this is me answering a question rather than asking it. But I think a lot of our listeners...
DAVIES: ...Will wonder, well, why are you having this guy on who, you know, debased American political discourse and weakened democracy? And now, he's making money on your book, and you're helping him. And, you know, after you - you never supported Trump. And even after 2016, you had a PR firm while you were in transition that helped - you did some work for Scott Pruitt - or your firm did some work for Scott Pruitt...
DAVIES: ...Who was Trump's EPA director, and for Facebook. There's a lot there. And I just want to say that, to me, I mean, whether you have sufficiently, you know, atoned for past misdeeds is between you and your conscience. And people can look at the record and form their own opinions. I found when I read this book, I learned things I didn't know about how the system work and especially about how the Republican media world evolved. And that's why I want to get you on here and share this story with us.
You worked mostly for moderate Republicans. You worked for John McCain in 2008, Jeb Bush in 2016, and for a time in the 2012 cycle, for Jon Huntsman. People may not remember him. He was a Republican governor of Utah, but he served actually as President Obama's ambassador to China. And he was a guy that you were in sync with. But a lot of your job involved taking down other moderates who would have been rivals to your candidates. This was pretty rough stuff at times, wasn't it?
MILLER: Indeed. And, you know, for the listeners who are concerned about me, you can get the book at the library. It's OK.
MILLER: That's not going to hurt my feelings, you know? Or borrow it from a friend. I understand people's reservations. I tried to be as honest as possible in this book and honest about myself, about my own failings. And I felt like that gave me, hopefully, the credibility, to be honest, about the corrupt system that I was part of and honest about really some of the deranged and debased choices that some of my former colleagues and friends made in the future.
And so to answer this question as part of that being honest is looking back on my own actions as a Republican hit man. And I really was. This was what I specialized in, was opposition research and working the media to deliver a negative message about our opponents. In the 2012 campaign where I was working for Jon Huntsman, we went after Mitch Daniels. We saw Mitch Daniels as a threat. He had some, you know, I think, kind of an interesting, strange personal life in the way that his marriage had went, and...
DAVIES: He was a governor of Indiana. Do I have that right? Yeah.
MILLER: Yeah. He was governor of Indiana at the time. You know, he had been - had divorced and then reconnected with his wife. It had left some hard feelings in its wake. And so some of the people who were upset with him had reached out to intermediaries, to say, hey; I'm willing to talk to the press. And so I kind of briefed some members of the media about this just so they knew that this might be a scandal that would come up during his campaign. He ends up deciding not to run because of that.
I look back on things like that. I look back on things like me dealing with Steve Bannon and the Bretibarts of the world, to have them attack the other more mainstream candidates, you know, on my candidate's behalf. That was something that I did regularly. And I think - I mean, this was all technically within the rules of politics, right? I wasn't doing anything illegal. But, you know, stepping back from everything, I was actually kind of harming the candidates that I thought were better suited to run and, in a lot of ways, helping the more extreme candidates. I was participating with people that were spreading very toxic, at times racist, material on their website. And I was, you know, kind of favor-trading with them.
DAVIES: Right. You know, after the 2012 presidential cycle, you formed a thing called America Rising, which was...
DAVIES: You describe it as a chop shop that would mercilessly investigate and then eviscerate Democratic candidates and causes. You know, you would hire trackers, you know, low-paid people who would follow Democrats around with video cameras hoping to catch a gaffe or something that would embarrass them. And then, you would use this material against them. I wanted to hear a little more about what was appealing about this...
DAVIES: ...How the game worked, what was psychologically reinforcing about doing stuff which hurt people who, you know, you probably would have had a lot of - a lot in common with.
MILLER: Here's the strange part about our two-party system, right? I had much more in common with, say, a conservative Democrat than, like, a Tea Party Republican in my politics, right? But the Republicans were on my team, right? And this is the way that D.C. is structured. The Democrats have created a group like this already called American Bridge. And so I saw kind of this entrepreneurial opportunity to work with two other people and create a Republican version that could compete with that. And what that entails was, you know, basically always focusing the research, the opposition research, and the tracking on Democrats even, like you said at times, when the candidate was more appealing.
In the very first race, I give as an example that we had a client. The race was between Terry McAuliffe, kind of a centrist Democrat, and Ken Cuccinelli, a far-right, bigoted, anti-gay, anti-immigrant Republican. Had I been a voter in Virginia in that election, I would have preferred McAuliffe. But because of the nature of this group I had created, you know, I was actually attacking McAuliffe on behalf of Cuccinelli. And, you know, I look back at that and I say, OK, well, if I was able to do that, that explains quite a bit about how a lot of my colleagues ended up justifying going along with Donald Trump even though they found him, you know, repugnant.
DAVIES: You know, it's interesting that, I think - you know, I've covered politics for a long time in Pennsylvania. And, you know, years ago, people - only insiders knew the names of political consultants. But with the growth of cable TV and social media, you know, you guys are a little more public, so you can kind of get to be Washington famous. And if you're somebody in your 20s coming up, that's pretty heady stuff, isn't it?
MILLER: There is this minor level of fame that comes now with being a political strategist. If you're on TV, you can get Twitter famous. People stop you on the street sometimes and say, hey; they really like your material. Interns that are coming into Washington get a little starstruck. And a lot of people - Washington is a town filled with people who were very high achieving, you know, young college, high school students, but who probably weren't very cool, probably were not very popular. They get to Washington. It's a town that is also run by young people, you know? Most offices have maybe one graybeard or two graybeards. But then, you know, these really pretty important positions - spokesperson, things like that - are run by people in their mid-20s.
And all of a sudden, you know, you have access to the congressman or access to the Senate. Or, you know, people want to follow your thoughts on social media. You're getting invited to these parties with celebrities the weekend of the correspondents' dinner. All of a sudden, you know, people like Sean Spicer, who I write about, are getting asked for selfies all the time on the street by Trump supporters. You know, they're getting recognized. Their parents' friends see them. And, you know, they hear from mom that, you know, Joni (ph) from the club said that their boy is doing great. All of that stuff is really, really appealing, especially to people who kind of didn't get that as - when they were growing up. And so it's - so really, it's this kind of banal kind of desire to be seen, to be recognized for affirmation that drove a lot of people to do things that are pretty evil.
DAVIES: We need to take a break here. Let me reintroduce you. We are speaking with Tim Miller. He's a former Republican communications staffer. His new book is "Why We Did It: A Travelogue From The Republican Road To Hell." We'll continue our conversation in just a moment. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And we're speaking with Tim Miller. He's a former Republican communications operative. He's written a book about the Republican Party's embrace of Donald Trump and his own role in events that may have enabled Trump's rise. The name of the book is "Why We Did It."
You know, we were talking about the work of political consultants. And, you know, in my work as a political reporter, it was interesting because I would talk to political consultants a lot. And I would realize how, like, other people, other professionals, they appreciate someone on the other side even who knows the craft. And, you know, they wouldn't get personal about it. They would just say, all right. Yeah. That was a tough shot against my guy or my candidate. And good for you, but I'm going to give you the best, give it back to you. You write in the book how there's this mentality among this world and some people get it and don't get it, and one case where somebody came up and really got in your grill at a party about what you were doing. Share that with us.
MILLER: Yeah. When I was first at the Republican campaign school, the person that was teaching the class said the nicest thing you can say about a political operative is that they get it. And what they get it means is, they want to compete as hard as possible on behalf of their candidate. They get that the point of the game is to win. Complaining that, oh, if we put out this crazy email or text message or ad that's not quite true, and saying that, oh, I don't know if we should do that, what might - this might inflame voters a little bit or this isn't quite right. Like, that's a sign in a meeting that you don't get it - right? - that you are, you know, too concerned about the details and not concerned enough about winning. And that is a really debase culture.
And I give an example about this is, in 20 - I guess it was the 2012 campaign. Hunter had lost. I went on to work for Mitt Romney. And I'm at a bar for a friend's birthday party. They were a Democrat. I don't think I've mentioned it yet, but I'm a gay man. I have a daughter now. And someone that works for Obama comes up to me at the bar and says, I just don't get it. How could you work for somebody that does not want to support gay marriage? How do you sleep at night? And I - you know, he's kind of a little aggressive about it. And I looked at him. And I was like, this is - what are you talking about? This is crazy. Obama used to not be for gay marriage, like, 2 minutes ago. And now you're asking me how I can sleep at night? Like, screw you.
And I relayed the story to several friends at the bar, including Democrats. And the consensus was that that guy was the jerk. And I look back at this now 10 years later. And I say, wait a minute. No. That guy was right. I didn't have anybody in my life saying that to me, and I had more - I should have. More people should have said, Tim, why are you working against the most important thing in your life? But to say that would be against the rules of the game. It'd be a sign that you didn't get it. And I just thought that was a very telling anecdote about how corruptible D.C. culture is.
DAVIES: Right. You know, you brought this up. I was going to bring it up anyway, I mean, the fact that you were gay and closeted for a long time while you were Republican operative.
DAVIES: And you describe a moment in 2006 where John McCain, who you were working for, suggested in an interview with Chris Matthews that, you know, gay marriage could be OK if we're talking about a private ceremony, not something legally recognized. And your reaction was, you can't say that.
MILLER: Yeah. I mean, this is - you're asking me just all of these things that make me feel horrible. But that's OK. That's the point of the book, expressing this. I remember watching this and thinking - you might imagine someone watching that and saying, oh, cool. I'm going to go work for this guy that wants to allow me to have this kind of imaginary future, totally fabulous, gay garden party that I'm not even ready to admit that I want because, at the time, I'm still in the closet. But instead, my reaction was totally warped by the fact that I knew I wanted John McCain to win. I wanted to work in the White House. In 2006, being for gay marriage was not a tenable position in a Republican primary. And so I find myself getting upset at him. Like, why are you screwing this up? And I just look back on that mindset and think, wow. I mean, how warped can you be?
DAVIES: You talked about when you were working at the Republican National Committee and for America Rising. And these pitches would go out for - you know, for money. You know, I'm used to the fact that, you know, almost any political message is distorted in some way. I mean, it's not journalism. But I'm wondering, in this period, was the stuff simply factually wrong? I mean, did it matter if it was true?
MILLER: Of course, things were factually wrong. In fundraising mail? Have you read - or do any of your listeners get texts or emails from fundraising...
DAVIES: Well, that's now. We're talking about, like, 2012, you know?
MILLER: Yeah. No, trust me. There was less oversight 'cause it was in the mail. So us at the RNC - I would have to approve it. And I would make edits that were much stronger, I guess, with my predecessor. I didn't realize this because things were either not true or just unfair, bad faith. And I'd take out Hussein in Barack Hussein Obama, you know, because obviously - you know, stoking racist sentiment against him. And then, the fundraising people would get mad at me.
And so we had to have this summit where we discussed whether or not they were going to take my edits. And the question that the RNC's chief of staff had was, well - to me, as the communications person, was, well, do you think we'll get bad press over this? And I said, well, no, probably not. It's in the mail. You know, maybe by bad luck, some reporter will come across one of them. And he said, OK, well, then what are we - then what are you doing? What's the point of editing this? So let's just move forward. And that was the mindset. At no point during that meeting did anybody say, should we be doing this, right? Like, is it worth the extra five bucks to use the word Hussein in Barack's middle name? Do we need to do this?
And I think that now, you know, if you just fast-forward it, you see the same thing. I'm still on all the RNC lists, so I get the emails and the texts. And it's nonsense about the election, stop the steal, the fraud. And, you know, the 23-year-olds who are writing these texts don't really believe that the election was stolen, but they are now in an even, you know, exaggerated version of that same culture where speaking up and saying, I don't know if we should send this text, is a sign you don't get it. It's a sign that gets you in trouble.
DAVIES: You know, this book notably does not have a last chapter which says, how we get out of this...
DAVIES: ...What to do. That said, what do we do?
MILLER: You know, well, here's what I - just before we did this interview, Dave, my old organization - we've been talking about America Rising - they fired their chairman because he had the gall to help Liz Cheney's campaign. I mean, this is how sick and cultish the right has gotten. An organization that I started as a moderate Republican can't even welcome somebody who works for Liz Cheney to work for them because they are so concerned about the backlash, you know, within their own team. And so if that is where we are - right? - if Liz Cheney is not even welcome in Republican circles - right? - if we cannot, you know, at all break bread across party lines because we've decided that the other side is evil, you know, what recommendation could I offer in the last chapter of this book that would be up to that challenge?
I mean, this - our political discourse has been contaminated, and I was one of the ones contaminating it for generations now. It's going to take generations to get out of it. And I think starting it, I think that we can make some changes to the electoral system. I've noticed that the only Republicans who voted to impeach Trump that survived live in states that have these jungle primaries. They don't have partisan primaries. It's where Democrats and Republicans are all together in the same pot. That seems like a useful change. And I think we need some responsible donors and wealthy individuals to fund more particularly center-right media outlets that are responsible.
But, you know, those are all some rather small-ball changes to some very large challenges. And so when my editor said, give me a final chapter that tells us - you know, that lifts people up a little bit, I just - I didn't feel like I had one to write that met the challenge. And I wanted to end the book in reality. And where reality is, is that we are still very divided, that this road has been a long time coming, and that it's not - you know, that we're not on a path to reconciling any time soon.
DAVIES: Let's take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Tim Miller, a former Republican communications staffer. His new book is "Why We Did It: A Travelogue From The Republican Road To Hell." He'll be back to talk more after this short break. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross, who's off this week. We're speaking with Tim Miller, a former Republican communications operative who's written a new book about the Republican Party's embrace of Donald Trump and his own role in creating the climate that enabled Trump's rise. He also writes about his interviews with Republicans who find Trump's conduct disturbing or even dangerous, but who found reasons to support him or work in his administration. Miller's book is "Why We Did It: A Travelogue From The Republican Road To Hell."
I think one of the most interesting parts of the book is sort of looking into how conservative media worked and evolved over the time that you were interacting with it. You were a press guy, so you dealt with them a lot. When you were part of America Rising, this Republican sort of attack force that would investigate Democrats and people around a video, their every comment and all that, you got to know Steve Bannon and cultivated contacts in, you know, the alt-right media world. I mean, first of all, at the time, what did you think of their agenda, their messages?
MILLER: I hated it. They were the ones who were out to topple, you know, the more moderate Republicans that I liked. I found it racist at worst, or certainly race baiting is maybe the most sensitive thing you could say about it. And, no, I would not have supported any of their candidates. And like I said before, I was much more aligned with, like, a centrist Democrat than I would have been with Steve Bannon. But Steve Bannon was on the Republican team, right? And there were ways for me to use them. And, you know, despite the fact that they pretend to hate the establishment, they would often host us for parties at what's called the Breitbart Embassy on Capitol Hill, which is - Breitbart offices being said to have lived there for a time. And so I would go to those to cultivate that relationship to be able to use those websites to push information that was harmful to my political opponents, which were sometimes Republicans, other times Democrats.
DAVIES: You also say that America Rising, the organization that you founded to research and attack Democrats, would host parties for people at Breitbart and other far-right, you know, publications, bloggers. Tell us a little bit about how you made that relationship work for you. What did you trade? What did you get from it?
MILLER: Sure. Well, we would give them information about candidates, things that would get them clicks. We had built a relationship with the Drudge Report as well. And so we could get their articles on the Drudge Report and which, you know, would skyrocket their traffic and make them want to deal with us more. And in exchange, our clients, the candidates that we worked on behalf, would see that we were getting results for them - right? - by getting information out sometimes positive about them, but mostly negative.
DAVIES: Like, one of your trackers might find something, some embarrassing thing a Democrat would say. You would get to decide who you would leak that to. That would help them get an exclusive, so favors built up over time.
MILLER: Yeah, exactly, you know? There was - the famous one was we had a tracker that found a Democratic candidate in Iowa at a fundraiser that - he was making fun of farmers and attacking Charles Grassley and saying that a farmer shouldn't, you know, be in charge of these important Senate committees, which is obviously not a popular thing to say in Iowa. And so, you know, we'd take that little clip and send it out there. That was, you know, one of the more legitimate pieces of information we spread. But, you know, it was little things like that that would build up over time and give us this kind of cachet with the right-wing media outlets. The thing that I worry about is now the people that were consuming this information, right? And that's the evolution over time, right?
Back in the '90s, you know, they might listen to Rush, but they'd see, you know, Tom Brokaw at night. But now, like, we'd created an entire ecosystem - from talk radio to Rush, to all these conservative media outlets - where we were constantly needing to feed that, you know, with negative information about Democrats. So they were desperate for things that would make Democrats look bad, that would make their viewers, readers want to come to the site. We would provide that to them. And in the meantime, I think, exacerbated the grievance that the readers were feeling.
DAVIES: Right. And at times, if an article appeared about your moderate candidate in Breitbart, you would have actually written it, right?
MILLER: Basically, yeah. And - or, you know, they would email questions. And I would send them back. At times, that were - not Breitbart. I just - there are plenty of things terrible at Breitbart, but I just want to be honest about who I'm spreading the tea about. But there were other right-wing websites that I'd send them an idea for a tip. And they'd say, could you just write it for me, right? And I would literally write the blog post. And then, you know, they might tinker with it a little bit, but they would put it up on their site. This was much more common than people realized.
And again, internally, when you think about this from a career standpoint as a PR person, it gave me a sense of, like, you know, people are impressed with that, right? Like, your bosses would be impressed. Clients would be impressed. They'd say, oh, man. You could just ghostwrite me the perfect article, you know, on this website that Republican primary readers read? That's valuable. So I was incentivized to do that even though a lot of times, I was working with people that were kind of unsavory, where the other material on the website - maybe not what I had sent, but the other material on the website was outrageous.
DAVIES: Right. And there were times that you would have an interview with your candidate, which would really be an email exchange with you speaking in the candidate's voice, right? But - so the right-wing website...
MILLER: Yeah. Breitbart did a banner headline one time. Breitbart speaks with Jeb Bush, exclamation point. And it was, you know - the "reporter," quote, unquote, sent me three emails. And I just replied to them. I don't even remember if I showed them to Jeb or not because I replied with just our kind of approved boilerplate language that we use for anything. And they would put it up. But they would see that as this huge win. Like, look. Even Jeb Bush is dealing with Breitbart. We're giving them a little bit more credibility, you know? And then I would see that as a win because the Breitbart readers would finally see something nice about Jeb Bush for the first time in ever. And, you know, in retrospect, it's clear that that was, you know, just one small part of kind of mainstreaming what - you know, this radical, nationalist, anti-immigrant ideology into the party.
DAVIES: Right. So you kind of felt like you were taking advantage of them to give your moderate candidate...
DAVIES: ...Some exposure to voters that wouldn't otherwise know it. In a way, they were taking advantage of you to gain respectability, right?
MILLER: Yes. And to drag other - the more moderate Republican candidates over to their ideology, right? Like, they only did that on issues, you know, that they wanted to advance, you know, anti-immigrant issues, right? They'd say, if you do an interview with us where you say you want to build the wall or whatever, you know, we'll give you glowing coverage. It slowly is co-opting us, moving the party to the right. They won in this. I received a phone call after the book came out from one of the Breitbart reporters who I had very harsh words for. I think I called him a grown-up Ralph Wiggum that you wouldn't even believe was real. If a liberal, you know, kind of Hollywood movie had written about him, it would have - it would seem too cliche, you know, for them - for him to be a real person.
And so you would think that he would be mad at me, but no. He called and said, you are the one who gets it. He's like, these Republican establishment guys that work for Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy still think they own us. But that is not true. We own them. Like, we can - we slowly but surely are co-opting them and dragging them to the right. And, you know, they are - we are the puppet masters. They are the puppets. And I think that's right. It's very clearly true. And yet somehow these Republicans in the establishment still are deluding themselves that they're in control despite the fact that Donald Trump has completely taken over the party and that their voters are demanding that they, you know, increasingly endorse these far-right or conspiratorial views.
DAVIES: We need to take another break here. Let me reintroduce you. We're speaking with Tim Miller. He is a former Republican communications staffer. His new book is "Why We Did It." We'll continue our conversation after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Tim Miller. He's a former Republican communications operative who's written a book about the Republican Party's embrace of Donald Trump and his own role in creating the climate that enabled Trump's rise. It's called "Why We Did It: A Travelogue From The Republican Road To Hell."
You know, you write - and I'll just quote this 'cause I think it's put very well. You know, putting everything together, you realize we had created a full-service outrage generation machine right at the moment that the right-wing media ecosystem had become a surround sound of grievance peddling that instructed the audience on how to love hating the right people. Everything was outrage. Everything was grievance. And over time, that has an effect on real voters, right? I guess the other question is, did you have something to offer those voters? I mean, you write, you know, these are folks who, in a lot of cases, lived in, you know, towns hollowed out by the - you know, the deindustrialization of the United States. They had real problems. Were you offering real things or just grievance because it worked?
MILLER: Let's just be honest. We weren't even thinking about the real problems of these white, working-class voters. And this is my biggest self-criticism that I think overlaps with MAGA. And Donald Trump is a phony and a charlatan, but he had this right - you know, is that the Republican establishment was fake. OK? Like, we didn't actually care about what the voters cared about. And so the fact that somebody could come in and actually offer them a message that resonated with their lives and their grievances and their resentments shouldn't have been surprising. You know, I read about the 2012 autopsy. And, you know, I think we were well-intentioned. You know, this is the Republican National Committee autopsy that I worked on.
DAVIES: After the defeat of 2012, you assembled great minds, yours among them, to figure out how the Republican Party can change and start winning, right? Yeah, go ahead.
MILLER: Exactly. And we thought we needed to appeal to a more diverse America, right? This is - like, it was well-intentioned, right? We should, you know, moderate on immigration and criminal justice reform to appeal to voters of color. You know, we should soften the language around gay marriage, maybe even abortion to appeal to women in the suburbs and younger voters. And this was the recommendations, which would flatten our biases. That was the kind of party I wish I could have worked for.
But what we didn't even think about, what we didn't even talk about - I went back and read all of the emails. What wasn't even suggested was actually, maybe we should challenge some of the other shibboleths of the Republican Party. Maybe we should respond to the legitimate grievances of people who - working-class people who are upset about the forever wars, people who the communities have been hollowed out by globalization. Maybe we should be more responsive to their needs. Those - that was the reason Mitt Romney lost Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, not, you know, because of the self-deportation. But we didn't even think about it and talk about that because that went against what kind of the donor class wanted, what our own instincts and biases were. And so I think that there are legitimate grievances that these communities have that we didn't even try to address.
And I think if you look back on this, that is, I think, the main mistake of the establishment part of the party in letting this kind of fake phony take over where he pretended to want to address their grievances in a way that was much more authentic, which is why they think that he's a truth teller, much more authentic than the ways in which we tried to address their grievances. And so, you know, some of those grievances are illegitimate, race-based or cultural. But I think they have very legitimate concerns about how they're - about things that are happening in their lives that we didn't even try to deal with. Instead, we just said, oh, be mad about the Ground Zero mosque. Be mad that there's a caravan coming across the border, you know, rather than addressing what was happening in their lives.
DAVIES: You have an interesting section about how conservative media have evolved over the last 20 years, and it's instructive to look at an online publication, which I honestly don't remember, founded around 2011 called The Independent Journal Review. Tell us about this site, what it hoped to do.
MILLER: Basically, they were trying to create a Buzzfeed for the right - right? - kind of these - a site that mixed little bit of news with memes and, you know, joyful, puckish material, a little bit of pop culture, you know, talking about conservative pop culture, not just, you know, the more liberal parts of Hollywood and just put it all together in one site with material that was easy to share on Facebook, easy to share on social media. And I thought it was a good idea at the time. The people that were running it were younger, 20-something Republicans. They had my sensibility - more center-right in the party, not these culturally, you know, far-right ideologues.
And they started this website, and it skyrocketed. For a while - I'm not surprised that you don't recognize it because this was really just in this conservative ecosystem. But for a while, it had more traffic than all of the conservative sites you've ever heard of, right? The National Review - and it was crushing these sites. It ended up having more than Breitbart for a while because the material was so viral on Facebook. And I interviewed the founders for the book, and they said that at the beginning, we thought of our material as kind of like the FDA guidelines, you know, where, you know, we give people a little bit of red meat and maybe a little bit of the hard stuff for desserts. But we'd also give them some vegetables and some fruits, right? And so hopefully some real news and some, you know, kind of harmless, funny material could live in harmony with this, you know, kind of race-baiting, red-meat kind of conservative news that you see on Breitbart.
DAVIES: So that was the idea, a balanced diet and some real journalism in there - right? - people that would check facts and do real journalism.
DAVIES: How did it work out?
MILLER: Well, shouldn't be surprising - the readers didn't want the veggies, Dave. They wanted the heroin. They wanted the dessert. They wanted the red meat. And so slowly over time, you know that's what the site started to give them. Then Donald Trump comes and takes over the party, and they really didn't want veggies anymore, right? Like, the only writers at the site who got any clicks were the ones who were just writing effusively praise or the articles about Donald Trump and, you know, really nasty memes and, you know, short social media posts about the left. And so eventually, you know, the credible part of the site crumbles. And the only thing that is left is - you know, what we all see now is now widespread in the conservative media because they were copied, which is, you know, the really conspiratorial, kind of cruel material that you see on, like, Libs of TikTok these days or the Daily Caller or any other conservative media site.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Tim Miller. He's a former Republican communications staffer. His new book is "Why We Did It: A Travelogue From The Republican Road To Hell." We'll continue our conversation after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
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DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And our guest is Tim Miller. He's a former Republican communications staffer. His new book is about how the Republican Party came to embrace Donald Trump and, to some extent, his own role - that is to say, Tim Miller's own role - in creating the climate that enabled Trump's rise. His book is called "Why We Did It: A Travelogue From The Republican Road To Hell."
You know, the second half of your book is based on interviews that you did with people who worked in the Trump administration or supported him - in a lot of cases, people that you knew - and you wanted to figure out what - you know, why did they do this, people who by and large didn't really believe in Donald Trump. And a lot of the reasons that you give are things that we would expect - I mean, power, ambition, access to the game, fame, all that stuff. But one of the things you said that surprised you in terms of feeding people's willingness to support Trump was hostility and hatred of the left. What surprised you here?
MILLER: I started doing these interviews with only people who I knew knew better - right? - friends of mine who had told me they didn't like Trump at some point over history. And so I thought they were much more interesting than - you know, we know that Stephen Miller hates the left, right? You know that there are all these - that there's a handful of sociopaths, a handful of bigots, a handful of idiots that work for Donald Trump. I didn't find any of those people interesting. This book is about the people who knew better but went along anyway.
And so that's why I was surprised when, repeatedly, kind of otherwise gentle people, people that I knew to be, you know, volunteers in their community and, you know, people who I did not think of as jerks - right? - would get a couple of beers in them, and then they would start ranting to me about how mad they are at us Never Trumpers and The Lincoln Project and The Bulwark and the media and how the media is out to get them and how woke culture is out to get them and how their wife's friend called them a racist at a dinner party. And this was repetitive and many of the conversations that were on background.
And then my friend Caroline, who I end the book with, said this to me on the record. I asked her, you know, at the end, what was it she liked about Trump? And she literally said, I actually think it's all negative. I'm just so sick of the people with their Priuses and their coexist stickers drinking their coffee coladas and wagging their finger at me. And I was like, this is preposterous. I don't - you know, she mentioned plastic - or paper straws. I was like, I don't like paper straws, either, but voting for Donald Trump over it?
But what I realized was, in this D.C. culture that I'm now separate from, having been cast out of the party, that is - at dinner parties, that is what they do to comfort themselves, right? They talk about all the things that have made them mad about the left, and they have this deep-seated anger and hatred towards the left and towards Obama and towards the media that I never really had. I was playing this game the whole time, which has its own problems, as we've been discussing. But they were developing a real-life anger that allowed them to justify working for somebody they knew was dangerous.
DAVIES: You know, one rationalization for going to work for Donald Trump that you are pretty dismissive of is the argument of a lot of people who took jobs in the Trump administration that, look; it's the government. Somebody needs to run it competently. We need grown-ups in the room, somebody who can, you know, prevent some of the worst stuff from happening. And, you know, people look at the January 6 committee hearings, and you see, you know, some of these lawyers like, you know, Eric Herschmann and even Pat Cipollone who, in critical moments when Trump wanted to seize voting machines and appoint, you know, Jeffrey Clark attorney general, put their feet down. What about that argument? I mean, would it sound like, in some cases, people there made a difference?
MILLER: Yeah. We could do a whole two hours about this, and if people want to hear this debate back and forth, I have a whole chapter with Alyssa Farah, who was the communications director for Trump in the end who kind of took that job reluctantly and now has gone full anti-Trump based on his behavior after the election. And we debate this question back and forth. But in short, my view is that anybody who really thought they went in to, quote-unquote, "save the country" - there was this group called the Committee to Save America, you know, which was, you know, John Kelly et al. who said they were - you know, we need responsible people in here. We don't like this guy, but we need good people. None of the members of the, quote, unquote, "Committee to Save America" tried to save America when there were only two choices on the ballot, Joe Biden and Donald Trump. None of them endorsed Joe Biden.
I worked for a group called Republican Voters Against Trump, where we recruited people to make videos opposing Donald Trump. And we recruited a couple from the Trump administration. You might remember Olivia Troye, Elizabeth Neumann. And we made ads with them. But these were mid-level operatives - not to degrade them. I thought they showed great courage. But none of the top-level people did. And so my point is if you really - if that was really your reason to go in, that you cared about this country so much, that we needed good public servants, then then you would have spoken truth about what you saw before the election when we had a chance.
You know, we had a very close election last - not as close as the Trumpers want to make you think - but we had a close election, and we needed every voice possible to speak out in order to try to stop him. And I think what was revealing is that all of these people who said that they went in, you know, because they were going to be the ones that protected the country, you know, that was actually just - they were flattering themselves, right? Like that was the story that they told themselves to justify going in. But in the end, you know, they really were attracted to some of these more base reasons for going in, you know, the access to power, ambition, etc.
DAVIES: You know, I agree that the discussion with Alyssa Farah Griffin is is interesting. And in the book, she gives you a list of things that she said she did inside which made a difference - directly talk the president out of firing Mark Esper twice, convinced him not to use racist birther attack on Kamala Harris when others pushed for it, pushed him not to replace Dr. Birx with Scott Atlas on the COVID task force. What about that? I mean, you know...
MILLER: Yeah, she said she saved Stars and Stripes, even. She convinced him to send a tweet that wouldn't shut down Stars and Stripes magazine.
DAVIES: And what she says...
DAVIES: Sorry to interrupt you. What she says, Tim, is, you know, your argument that you should that - the responsible people should not have gone in is essentially a let it burn argument, that, you know, if that's what people voted for, then let's get the worst government that Donald Trump can give us, and people will see what it's really made of, and we'll come to a reckoning sooner. Is she right?
MILLER: Yeah, it is kind of my argument. There's something to be said for that. Is there not? And we're still dealing with Donald Trump in 2022, right? Had people like Alyssa not been protecting him from his worst impulses, might there have been 17 Republicans who've had the courage to vote to impeach him the second time so we would've been done with him? You know, might the election in 2020 not have been quite as close because they would've - because voters would've seen what they - you know, what they voted in a little more clearly? I don't know. These are counterfactuals. I don't think it's a clear question.
But I just - I do reject this notion that it's up to some mid-level staffer to be the one to save the country from itself. I think that there are responsible career people who should've gone in and did their jobs. I think in national security, obviously, I give H.R. McMaster, people keeping Trump from pushing the button a pass. But I think that this justification was, like I said, flattering to a lot of people in Washington who had a lot of other reasons for going in. And, you know, I just - I don't know that Saving Stars and Stripes magazine was worth risking, you know, Donald Trump getting a second term over.
Really quickly on Alyssa, I just do want to say that that if there's any hope in this story, it's her. And we go very deep, and it gets very emotional on why she decided to, at the end, say no, finally speak out and say, I cannot do this any longer and stick with it, which is committed to doing, different than Bill Barr. And it was that she started telling herself a different story. She started saying, OK, well, as much as I thought I could save the country, clearly, I can't anymore, given his behavior after the election. And now I start thinking, what are my kids going to think if I am complicit in this in this riot at the Capitol? What are my - what are my in-laws going to think about me?
And I think that's interesting. Like, she does offer a way out for those people who had these rationalizations that became no longer operative after January 6. And I think that in a lot of ways, she's similar to a lot of people who are acting a lot worse than her right now. And I'm hoping that her story can maybe be a little bit of an offramp for certain folks as we unfortunately look ahead to maybe having to deal with this monster one more time.
DAVIES: Well, Tim Miller, thank you so much for speaking with us.
MILLER: Thank you, Dave.
DAVIES: Tim Miller is a former Republican communications staffer who's now an analyst for MSNBC and a writer-at-large for thebulwark.com. His new book is "Why We Did It: A Travelogue From The Republican Road To Hell." On tomorrow's show, we talk with comedian Mo Amer. He's a Palestinian whose family fled the first Gulf War, so he grew up in Houston from age 9. He speaks Arabic, Spanish and the kind of English that puts Texans at ease. He's done two Netflix comedy specials, and he stars in a new Netflix series based on his life called "Mo." I hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. We had additional engineering help from Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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