Belonging, Money, Duty? Inside Account Of Why GOP Pros Backed Trump
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:
Hey there. It is the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. I cover politics. And once again, we're here with a special book club episode. Every couple of months, we read a book along with you, our listeners. And not only do I get to ask my burning questions, but I also bring in the questions that you want answers to. Our latest pick is "Why We Did It: A Travelogue From The Republican Road to Hell," by Tim Miller. And from that title alone, if you're an observant listener, you might guess that Tim Miller...
TIM MILLER: It's a little timely.
KURTZLEBEN: Yes (laughter). You really pulled your punches there. Tim Miller isn't exactly enamored with how the Republican Party has reshaped itself in the last few years. Miller worked for years on GOP campaigns and projects before leaving that line of work in disgust during the Trump era. His book is his insider's retelling of how and why the party became so thoroughly Trumpified. We're going to ask him all about that today. So, Tim, it's really good to have you.
MILLER: Hey, thanks for doing this. I didn't realize that everybody was already reading it along with you. That's so exciting. Hopefully...
KURTZLEBEN: Oh, yeah.
MILLER: ...They enjoyed it. I hope - well, hopefully there's at least one mean question, but hopefully most people enjoy it.
KURTZLEBEN: Honestly, there weren't. But let's start with the basics, and, I suppose, a pretty D.C. question. I'm going to ask you to essentially give us your resume. Tell us about your background in Republican politics. What were you doing up until Trump's election, and what are you doing now?
MILLER: Sure. So I grew up in Colorado, and I started, as a young high school kid, being a political nerd. And I just had the privilege and the luck to have a neighbor that was friends with a guy that was running for governor. His name was Bill Owens. And so in the summer when other kids had to flip burgers or whatever, I went and interned on his campaign. You know, he comes back from behind and wins the race, and I end up getting to go to the governor's office. So he ends up running the RGA. I go to college in Washington, D.C., at George Washington, worked on campaigns in a bunch of states leading up to John McCain's Iowa spokesperson, being his spokesperson on his Iowa presidential campaign. From there, I worked on a bunch of, you know, what you would now be the kind of extinct, moderate, RINO Republican presidential campaigns. I was spokesperson for Jon Huntsman in 2012. And then, after he lost, I begged my way into representing Mitt at the RNC during the general election. Some people still had hard feelings about the Huntsman-Romney rivalry, so I didn't get to go to Boston, but they did let me be his spokesperson at the RNC. And then, in 2016, as communications director for Jeb's campaign, before - I'm sure we'll get into this - speaking for the, you know, Republican at the time, was the first kind of Republicans Against Trump PAC, which was called Our Principles PAC. And then, you know, I don't know if you recall, but Donald Trump ends up winning, and I have a life crisis.
KURTZLEBEN: Well, your book is pretty savage to a lot of powerful Republicans. And one of the things - one of the memorable things that you write early on is that you know this book would be cathartic for some liberals to read to...
KURTZLEBEN: ...Just to read a dunk fest, essentially, on people like Sean Spicer, other Republicans. What were you hoping people would get from this book, though, if not just the joy of dunks?
MILLER: Yeah. I want to caveat that 'cause that was actually the original idea for the book - right? - was to just...
KURTZLEBEN: Oh, OK.
MILLER: ...Dunk at everyone. It was what - an agent came to me and said, I think you'd be really good at this book. You know, write the 10, you know, the 10 slimiest grifters in Republican Washington or whatever, and you'll, you know, we'll sell a million copies. That didn't feel like that was going to be satisfying for me on the writing side of things. And so while there is a little bit of that for sure, what I really wanted to do was focus more on the gray areas, you know, looking back at myself during that, you know, career - I jumped over a couple things, by the way, which we can talk about in my career, you know, going over my resume, things that I'm less proud of than some of the things I just mentioned - reflecting on that, reflecting on why I, as a gay Republican, you know, worked how I worked for candidates that opposed the most important thing in my life right now, my husband and child, and just grow - exploring that mindset, the mindset of the people in the political class, why we go along with things that we, you know, know at some level are harmful.
KURTZLEBEN: Right. Yeah. I mean, let's get right into that because you talk a lot in this book about friends, colleagues, people you respect who went along with a man that you saw as morally abhorrent. And you yourself, you were part of the push to get Scott Pruitt to be the EPA administrator. So I'm curious, as far as answering the question that the title of the book poses, "Why We Did It," you...
KURTZLEBEN: ...Get at, you know, there's money, there's power. Those things are obvious.
KURTZLEBEN: What else can you say about the motivations of these D.C. insiders and even of yourself at the time?
MILLER: Yeah. I really do try to get into the psychological element of it, you know? And, of course, there's the money element to this and power. But it's not just that, right? I think power, in particular, it's a little bit of a misnomer. There are a handful of people that like to wield power in Washington, but power comes with responsibility, right? Power has downsides. Being around power is great. For myself, one thing that I talked about was, you know, these two elements of - have inertia and identity, right? Like, you get into a career - and I hoped that these lessons would be relevant for people even outside of politics reading the book. And I've heard from some people who said that - right? - where it's like you get into a career, you're mid-level, and then all of a sudden you start to feel kind of icky about it, right? I - and this - you could see people at Facebook feeling this way or people that worked for Elon Musk maybe or, you know, people - bankers during the financial crisis, right? And then it's like, what do I do now, right? And the Scott Pruitt situation, like, that was it for me. Like, Trump had won. This had been my whole life, being a Republican spokesperson and a Republican researcher. And I knew this guy. I didn't know him that well. But he called me, and he's like, hey, will you prep me for this job? And I took it just because I was like, you know, in a crisis, this inertia. And I - and a lot of my friends and former friends kind of did that, too, right? They just get, you know, sucked in in a "Godfather" sense.
And then, I also think that there is the identity element about this, which I write a lot, which is, particularly in Washington, but increasingly in a concerning fashion, kind of everybody who posts about politics on the internet. Like, politics becomes part of people's identity. And in Washington, you have people that are like - they are - Republican is who they are, right? I mean, my LinkedIn bio is Tim Miller GOP. Please don't friend me on LinkedIn. I don't like the emails. But, you know, like, that was my name - right? - on LinkedIn because I was a GOP staffer, right? You know, you can think about people in D.C. - their friends, the people that went to their wedding are all Republican operatives. The bar they go to is the Republican bar, their poker night is Republican poker night, they have a kids' play group of other people who are Republican operatives' kids, they named their daughter Reagan or their dog, you know, Jack Kemp or whatever, right? Like...
MILLER: ...It's hard, then, to just say, OK; well, I'm not this anymore, right?
KURTZLEBEN: Yeah. There's one other motivation you write about that I want to drill into. There is a category that you call the messiahs or, I suppose, two categories, the messiahs and the junior messiahs in Washington. And these are people who told themselves and others that they took high-level Trump administration jobs because they were afraid of who would do it otherwise, that, hey, at least I can be the adult in the room. I can have a steady hand at the wheel. You do not buy this argument. Why not?
MILLER: I don't. I try to be as fair to it as possible. I think it's the toughest category - right? ...
MILLER: ...Because at some level, sure - are we lucky that H.R. McMaster was national security advisor instead of Michael Flynn - clearly, right? So, OK. So it's hard to kind of begrudge H.R. McMaster on the one hand. On the other hand, their actions after they took the job - all of these folks that were on the so-called Committee to Save America and all those people who said that they went into the White House because it was better them than someone else - their actions kind of betrayed that they really had other motivations, right? Like, this access to power, the self kind of flattery career reasons was the real reason that they did. And I say that because if it was true that these people went in because they just felt like they had this duty to country and that it was better them in public service than someone else, then they would have supported Joe Biden in 2020, right (laughter)? I mean, all these people say in private - in my interviews and in reporting from other reporters who interviewed these folks - they all say in private that Trump is very dangerous, and yet none - and then I, like I said at the beginning, I was working for Republican voters against Trump. I tried to recruit all these people to make ads for us. And we found a couple - there were a couple of mid-level people, Olivia Troye and Elizabeth Neumann - God love them, and I appreciate that they spoke out - but none of the named people did. None of them really came out and said, no, we need to stop this person.
KURTZLEBEN: All right. We're going to take a quick break, but we will be back with more from Tim Miller after this.
All right. We are back. You write about all these motivations in the book, but, I mean, I talk a lot more to voters than D.C. insiders in my job, and the animosity among Republican voters towards Democrats and among many Democrats towards Republicans is just huge. And you're saying that that negative partisanship is very reflected among the upper echelons of the...
KURTZLEBEN: ...Republican ruling class, right?
MILLER: For sure - I say this not as a compliment to myself, by the way, this is a self-criticism. But I saw this as a little bit of kayfabe, which is this wrestling term...
MILLER: ...Of just like, you know, performative...
MILLER: ...Anger, right? Like, Hulk Hogan wasn't really mad at Andre the Giant, right? I'm showing my age with that reference - wrestling reference. But it was fake, right? And that was it for me, kind of. When I was at the RNC as the spokesperson, my job was basically to criticize the Obama campaign. And the Obama campaign spokespeople at the time, Ben LaBolt and Lis Smith, are friends of mine. Like, we go out and drink and trash-talk each other. I mean, maybe not, like, the one, two weeks right before the election - right? - but generally. And I - you know, I agreed with Obama on certain things. I disagreed with him on - like I said, I'm a moderate Republican. There were plenty of things where I was more in line with Obama than I was, certainly, like, Tea Party Republicans, but even Mitt on a few issues.
And so, you know, to me, it was performative. And to some of my friends it was - right? - on both sides of the aisle, but particularly on the Republican side. I interviewed one guy for this book who said that he'd never actually voted for a Republican for president, and this is a high-level spokesperson in Republican politics. That's how I was processing things. And I was kind of assuming, I think, that everyone was on my level. And what I came to find out is that they really weren't. And then, in the Trump years, this just gets on steroids. And so the - what I thought was kind of fake - this performative fighting between the parties - among many, many, many of my colleagues actually became very, like, a driving, motivating force, and that they mirrored these - the voters' hatreds.
KURTZLEBEN: I'm thinking about some of your accounts - like, Iowa voters pushing John McCain in 2008 to be tougher on immigration. Or you talk about the formerly moderate New York representative, Elise Stefanik, who justified becoming Trumpier (ph) by saying, well, I'm just doing what voters want. So my question is - you do blame and judge a lot of Republican elites for falling in with Trump. Do you feel similarly towards voters?
MILLER: I don't.
MILLER: I have two - I am of two minds about the voters. One is that I do think that they are the ones that are driving this, right? And so this is a - you know, my book is about the cowardice of the collaborators. But these collaborators - they would've been happy to go along with - to name-check Charlie Baker, again - like a president Charlie Baker for the most part, the people I'm writing about in the book. You know, you have your Stephen Millers and your ideologues, but the Republican ruling class would have been happy to go along with a more benevolent person to just continue their access to power. But they went along with the more dangerous and bigoted nativist route because that's what the voters wanted, right? And so the voters are the - you know, this isn't really a chicken-and-egg thing. Like, the voters are the chicken that lays the egg. Like, they're the ones that are driving this. So in some ways - right? - you have to grapple with that. And, OK, why are voters like that? That's a different book, right? Like, what can be done to nudge the voters a different direction? That's a different book.
When it comes to the judgment - to the rendering judgment on people, I just - I think that the voters have a lot of real reasons why they were upset, right? I mean, some - there are bigots out there for sure, but I think the Republican ruling class didn't listen to their concerns. I write about the autopsy, which I worked on in 2012. I mean, a lot of our Republican voters were mad about the Iraq war, were mad about the hollowing out of their communities in these smaller towns or, you know, industrial towns. We didn't do anything to try to address that, right? Like, we didn't we didn't challenge Republican orthodoxies on any issues, and Trump did. So I think it makes sense that those voters were attracted to Trump. He was offering them something different.
And these voters also are - one of the chapters in the book that I write about is the political media class - right? - the conservative media, in particular. And they're being fed a daily, hourly, minute-ly (ph), now, dosage of lies and conspiracies, and they're being inflamed. And so should it be that surprising that, if someone is, every minute, getting a text message or an email or a tweet or a Facebook post about how their country is being stolen from them, that they would want to support radical ends to fix that? I don't think that's that surprising. And so I try to have - you know, I'm also weak, but I try to have grace towards voters and people in my life that have gotten swept up in this. And I think that we have, in a representative democracy, an obligation of the people at the top of the funnel to resist people's worst impulses. And nobody - and there was nobody that did that, and that is why those are the folks that are the negative characters in my book.
KURTZLEBEN: Well, you mentioned the autopsy, and that brings us to a reader question because you helped craft that autopsy.
KURTZLEBEN: Our listeners may remember that came out after Mitt Romney lost in 2012. It instructed the party on how to have longer-term success, and a lot of it was about working harder to appeal to non-white and women voters. And Trump certainly did not fit the autopsy. So I'll just say Rachel Gershman (ph) was wondering in our Facebook group - does the autopsy have any relevance now? So what would you say to that, about 10 years on?
MILLER: Yeah, not really. It has relevance as an insight into what, like, this group of people - like, the Republican political class, left our own devices - actually wanted. So I think that it's interesting in that regard. I don't - I think that, you know, history is contingent. I think there's a lot of reasons to think maybe an autopsy vision of the Republican Party might have worked, right? Some people say, oh, that obviously wouldn't have worked now based on what happened.
But Hillary Clinton, for a lot of different reasons, was a flawed candidate, partially because of that conservative media complex that I was talking about before and the hyperbole and lies that were - that she was targeted with. But she also had some flaws that she brought upon herself. Could a candidate that was more moderate on immigration and believed in climate change - could Elise Stefanik's - you know, someone of Elise Stefanik's 2014 platform of, you know, believing we should deal with climate change and supporting gay marriage. And could that person have beaten Hillary Clinton? I think maybe. Yeah, probably. So I don't think that the Trump way was the only way for Republicans to win in 2016.
I'd also just note, looking globally, to argue against myself, that maybe the autopsy version of the party is possible. Conservative parties all over the globe, such as in America, have moved in a MAGA nationalist direction. And it's just not MAGA there. It's make Brazil great again. It's MIGA in India and France and Italy and the U.K., right? Everywhere.
KURTZLEBEN: Germany, yeah.
MILLER: Yeah, Germany. Right. So there's something about kind of the global, you know, liberal order, small liberal order, that is creating these incentives, you know, across the globe. And so that leads me to believe that eventually, the Republican Party is going to move that direction, you know, no matter what the elites wanted.
KURTZLEBEN: One other thing I wanted to make sure I asked you about - and you brought this up earlier - is about being a gay Republican.
KURTZLEBEN: And more specifically, you write about the sort of mental tap dancing you did to support a party that just didn't support gay people like you. So I'm wondering if you could tell us how that experience affected you later and how you saw your fellow Republicans do their own tap dancing, I guess, as they tried to justify their allegiance to Trump?
MILLER: Yeah. I spent a lot of time thinking about this because, you know, there are obviously limits to any parallel. But I think that there are a lot of parallels. And I just - I, like, look back with just regret on not being more vocal on gay rights matters of not drawing a brighter red line around the types of candidates that I would work for. And, you know, part of the reason why I did it when I think back about my own rationalizations was, you know, I felt like we were - you know, the arc of the gay history was bending towards justice, right? - to steal a phrase. Like, I felt like we were already on this trajectory. And so why should I ruin my career over it, right? That was one thing in my mind.
I also use these same kind of rationalizations of, oh, the other side's not perfect, too. I mean, in 20 - or '08, Obama - you know, McCain kind of gives a slip into these for civil unions, and Obama won't say he's for gay marriage, even though everybody knows he privately is. And, you know, you justify in your head that isn't really that big of a difference. Obviously, there was. But, you know, you can talk yourself into the fact that, you know, the other side is not perfect on this, either. And so why should I worry about it? You think about the other issues. You're like, oh, this isn't the only issue that - in my life, there are other issues that I care about. All these rationalizations happen.
And with, like, the benefit of some distance and with Trump kind of shaking me out of this kind of mindset where I'm just so career-focused and so intent on caring about the game of politics and winning in my - in the game of my career, I looked back on that and thought, man, I don't think I was seeing myself this clearly. And I was really doing a lot of machinations in my brain to rationalize this.
And so I think that then when Trump came around, I, you know, saw those same machinations happening in my colleagues, right? And because I had been through them. And the other thing that happened is, you know, that whole identity question that I talked about earlier - you know, I had been through this, right? I'd been in the closet. I'd been a closeted Republican. And I came out of the closet, and then people knew I was a gay Republican spokesperson, for a while was probably the most visible gay Republican spokesperson for a while.
And so, you know, I had been through this, like, of people seeing me in a different way and having to deal with that kind of identity change. And so, you know, I think that it made it less hard for me to do it when Trump came around. And I also had kind of those mistakes that I could look back on and say, like, I'm not going to make this mistake again. So, again, obviously, there are some limits to that parallel, but I think that there were definitely some lessons that I drew on.
KURTZLEBEN: Well, I'm sure we could go on. I know I could for hours more, but we're going to leave it here.
KURTZLEBEN: So, Tim Miller, it has been an absolute pleasure talking to you and a pleasure reading your book.
MILLER: Oh, thanks. I hope folks enjoyed it. And I can take negative feedback, you know, too. I'm a big boy. I made some mistakes in my life. So, you know, tweet me or email firstname.lastname@example.org. And I'm happy to hear from listeners, people that read the book, observations. And I really appreciate you having me.
KURTZLEBEN: All right. Well, everyone go have at Tim online.
KURTZLEBEN: And in the meantime, join our Facebook group at n.pr/politicsgroup so you can be there and ready when we announce our next book club pick. And then you can submit questions for it, as well. Until then, I'm Danielle Kurtzleben. And thank you very much for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
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