One of the many things we’ve learned in the Trump era is that a lot of the people in positions of power are either cynics or nihilists or both.
This is true on both sides of the political aisle, but it’s especially true on the right at the moment. That’s not a partisan statement, even if it may sound like one. The reality is that ever since Donald Trump took over the party in 2016, there are many people working in Republican politics who don’t believe in what they’re doing, who know that Trump is and was a dangerous figure, and yet they’ve plowed ahead anyway.
The question is: Why?
A new book by Tim Miller called Why We Did It gives about as good an answer as you’ll find. Miller is a former political operative who worked at various levels of Republican politics since he was 16 years old. He broke ranks with the party when Trump won the nomination and his book is a genuine attempt to grapple with his own contradictions and make sense of the people he left behind. The result is an unusually insightful glimpse behind the curtain. That’s why I invited Miller to talk about his book on the latest episode of Vox Conversations.
Below is an excerpt, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow Vox Conversations on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.
Your journey in Republican politics is the core of the book and I just wanna start there. You started working in Republican politics when you were 16. Were you just a political junkie that early in your life?
Total political junkie. I don’t know why, my parents weren’t. My grandmother was really into Republican politics, and so we would talk about politics and we gambled on the 1992 presidential race. I took Bill Clinton. She took George H.W. Bush. She had to mail me $1 with my winnings, which I was extremely proud of in fifth grade. And that was the last time I supported a Democrat until Hillary Clinton in 2016. So, you know, I kind of went full circle there.
The Republican Party has changed a lot since you were 16. But for reasons you’ve suggested it was always an awkward home for you. You’re gay, and you talk about how easily you contorted yourself to defend homophobes for years.
You call it “championship-level compartmentalization” in the book. That sounds like a really difficult pose to maintain for so many years.
Actually not really. It wasn’t that difficult and that’s the thing that makes it so gross. It makes me feel so bad about it.
I think that it’s important for me to explain that because if I could work for homophobes, when the people that I was working for were literally trying to use the law to deny me the things that are the most important things in my life right now — my husband, my child — well, then, think about how easy it is for somebody to justify working for Donald Trump when none of the impacts of his policies hurt them.
Like, they aren’t kids on the border. They’re not gonna be the ones that are punished by the new abortion laws. So that’s why I tried to make this parallel and try to make you really understand my mindset.
What was your eureka moment? When did you finally realize that you had had enough, that this whole thing had gone too far and you weren’t a Republican anymore?
I fucking knew it with [Sarah] Palin. I knew it.
And this is why the first half of the book is me in a hair shirt. I come to these interviews and they are like, “Why is it Why We Did It? You opposed Trump from Day One.” Which I did.
But it’s Why We Did It because I sat there for seven years as this beast kind of grew and grew and became more and more dangerous. And I knew it.
I leave the McCain campaign, I move to DC, I come out of the closet, and I’m working for a PR firm. I still can see what’s happening clearly. I was like, the crazies are taking this over. John McCain is a good man who’s trying to manage the crazy and making some good choices, some bad choices while he does that. But the power, the energy is with the reactionaries. And I saw it then, and yet I still just keep getting sucked back in.
And the first way I get sucked back in is kind of earnest, actually — I go to work for Jon Huntsman and I’m like, I kind of know this guy’s gonna lose, but I’m a moderate Republican, and I’m gonna go work for this moderate. But I get addicted to the competition of it again, and then kind of slowly start going down the path to working for more and more gross people.
The second half of the book is really about actors behind the scenes in the Republican Party, the functionaries, the spin doctors, the campaign hacks. These are the people who often know what they’re doing, often know they shouldn’t do it, and just do it anyway. And the reasons they do it are as banal as they are depressing.
One thing that comes across is that it really is a game for a lot of these people. And if you really push them on it, what you find is that there’s no real moral core behind it. It’s just careerist, jockeying for influence and attention.
It’s really depressing. The characters in the book, almost all of them, with one or two exceptions, in the second half about the Trump era, go along with it anyway.
So the question is, why? This is gross in a different way, but you almost want it to be because they’ve really bought the bullshit about how we need to have a secure border to help wages. Or they just are so hard line on protecting fetuses or so hard line on whatever.
And some of those people exist in real America. But in the DC class? None of ’em, and that includes the named people in the book. I also interviewed a bunch of people I didn’t name and nobody — nobody — got passionate talking about any policy issue. That’s all a feint, it’s all bullshit.
The only time I would sense any emotion in their voice when they were explaining why they went along with Trump, besides the banal careerist reasons, was that they’ve really started to really not like you, Sean. I mean, not you, but, like, your people, right? The liberal media elites — they’ve developed a very deep well of hatred and resentment and jealousy of them.
Of all the characters in the book, all the operator types, some of them you know personally, some of them you don’t — which of them sticks out to you the most in terms of just like abject nihilism or cynicism?
It’s Elise for me. Elise Stefanik.
Can you say who she is?
So just going all the way back, I worked with her on the Republican “autopsy.” People might remember, after Mitt Romney lost, we put together this document that basically had a bunch of blocking and tackling recommendations for how the party can catch up to Obama’s data nerds, but also said that we should soften our rhetoric around immigration and other issues.
Elise was the editor of that document. And I was the spokesperson at the time. So I was working with her very closely.
So Elise then runs for Congress as a very moderate Republican — climate change is a problem, gay marriage, immigration reform. You know, as moderate of a Republican as you have in Congress when she wins in 2014. 2016, she runs for reelection with Trump on the ballot, won’t say his name. Literally can’t even spit out his name.
In 2018, something happens. Trump comes to campaign in her district, huge crowd. She gets this huge applause on the stage. She starts to reassess her power trajectory. Paul Ryan, who was kind of her mentor, retires. So her little path up through the normal establishment ranks in Congress started to seem not as likely.
And she flips on a dime. And in the first impeachment becomes Trump’s most rabid defender with the most absurd defenses. She was like a foreign policy neocon Republican who would’ve been very much “arm the Ukrainians against the Russians,” flips on it, sides with Trump against Zelenskyy. And is now literally indistinguishable from a MAGA troll.
And there was no policy anything about this. I interviewed tons of mutual friends. She wouldn’t talk to me. She emailed me saying that she sees my tweets and is not interested in participating in the book. And didn’t reply to any other of my entreaties.
So to me, she is the worst because it’s just the most brazen. It also is the worst at some level because it’s paying off for her. I truly think she’ll be on a VP shortlist for Trump, ’cause he’ll want a woman if he runs in 2024. And if not that, I think she’s on a speaker of the house trajectory.
Part of me is perversely fascinated by some of the people you talk to, the ones who really, truly hate the cultural left so much, so that they pretend that there’s just two choices, right? Wokeness or fascism.
How common is that sentiment?
It’s pretty common.
So in all those drunk off-the-record conversations, people kept bringing this up. Literally this was the thing that people were volunteering, these Republican staffers.
The formulation that you just laid out is not an exaggeration. [One source] said, “My wife’s friends think I’m a racist. My kids are getting these DEI packets. There’s cancel culture everywhere. And as a white male, like, sometimes I feel like my only choice to combat the wokeness is to just think about the one or two things that I agree with Donald Trump on and ride with him.”
That’s not the direct quote, ’cause I don’t have it in front of me, but like that’s very close to his direct quote.
That’s a common sentiment. That’s how they all soothe each other, by expressing something to that same effect, maybe not quite as brazen.
That’s why I don’t have a last chapter in the book — what do you do about this? What do you do about petty, privileged, white dudes’ resentments, and willingness to go along with Donald Trump over them?
I don’t have a good answer to that question.
Who do you think’s actually steering the party now? Is it Fox News? Is it the base? I mean, the politicians themselves seem to be totally hostage to both of those things.
No, they’re totally hostage to the base. Look at Trump getting booed over the vaccine thing. I thought that was a very telling moment. It was like one time where he kind of had to back off his own — he doesn’t even get to talk about it, one of the one good things that happened while he was in there: Operation Warp Speed. He can’t even talk about it without getting booed.
I’m stealing this from my other Bulwark colleague, Sarah Longwell, credit where due. It’s a triangle of doom. The base’s grievances are underlying. Some of them are legitimate, by the way, others are illegitimate.
The conservative media is stoking the illegitimate grievances mostly. But occasionally they’re legitimate grievances about the hollowing out of certain parts of the country.
And then the Republican politicians are riding the wave of that grievance-mongering. And rather than caring at all about responsibilities of leadership or checks on excesses, have now just totally accepted it.
And so, all three are responsible and, somewhere along that, you have to break it. But where? Who? The politicians aren’t, like the conservative media isn’t. Is the Republican base gonna get less radicalized? That’s kind of hard to see.
You say something I think very true and profound at the end of the book about politics and identity. And I just wanna read it aloud here.
You say, “For gay people, coming out of the closet is hard because of this change of your identity. It’s not only how you look at yourself, but how other people look at you. People you love, your dad, your high school bestie. You’re worried that they’re going to now see you differently because your identity is changed in their eyes. And so if politics becomes like skin color, like sexuality, untangling that is a lifetime of work. And it’s therapy. And we should really think about it like that.”
This to me is absolutely one of the most challenging problems. These cultural divides have mapped neatly onto political divides. That means our political views are wrapped up with our core identity in really powerful ways. And that means people are entrenched. They’re not reachable by facts or arguments or policies because that’s not what identity is about.
And even some of the cynical careerists you write about in this book, you can see how their professional identities are bound up with their partisan politics. And the price of leaving that behind is enormous. And most aren’t willing to pay it. It’s who they are now. It’s their friends, it’s their whole lives.
I don’t know what to do about that, Tim. But that seems like a chasm that may be unbridgeable.
It’s something that I’ve thought about a lot. The fact that I had to come out of the closet and had to experience that I think in some ways helped me be more comfortable with this, right?
And it ended up being the best thing I ever did in my life. It was the best choice I ever made. My life trajectory would’ve been horrible had I decided to, like, stay in the closet and marry the one girlfriend I ever had (sorry, Stephanie).
So I knew that I could do this. For these other folks, to your point — the bars they go to. The poker night. The church. Their friend group. Their dog’s name is Reagan. Changing all that is very challenging. So that’s the DC class. And I think it explains — it doesn’t excuse, but it explains — why it’s so hard.
Last week, I was with someone who works for Liz Cheney. And I was like, how’s life? He’s like, “I still get invited to parties, but I don’t go. Because it’s really awkward.”
So that’s hard. That’s challenging for people.
That is also happening now out in America though. Which is something that is kind of relatively new and is not totally Trump era, but has gone on steroids in the Trump era — which is the voters out there see themselves as Republican partisans, the same way like political operatives do.
And so their identity — changing that is very hard, right? That’s why there’s no quick fix to this.
But the one nice lesson I have is that, well, I showed and want to show no grace to the Republican collaborators who knew better in Washington. The actual people out in America who have gotten kind of sucked into this do need grace and time to be kind of pulled away from that identity.
Because it’s very hard and it’s entangled in there in a much deeper way than I think their voting identity was in the era where we grew up.
I live in Mississippi. I grew up here. I love it here. I love the people here and I felt the instinct more and more to defend my friends, from around the country, who want to shit on this part of the country.
But there’s like a woman down the street, an older woman who has a giant ass flag in her yard that says Karens for Trump — still, still! Like, that’s not an affirmative statement about what she wants to see in the world or about tax policy, whatever. That is a giant middle finger to everyone on the other side.
There is sanity and decency underneath so much of that. But it’s now been swallowed by tribalistic bullshit. And it is very hard to engage in ways now that don’t activate these defenses.
I don’t have the answer for that.
Me neither, man. I wish I did.