Q&A: Tim Miller on How Republicans Learned to Stop Worrying and Get Behind Trump
A former GOP strategist says the banality of evil explains why many worked for a man they loathed.
Tim Miller is Writer-at-Large for The Bulwark and an MSNBC Analyst. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump, communications director for Jeb Bush 2016, and spokesman for the Republican National Committee. He is the author of a new book, Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. Miller revisits the mental contortions he made as a gay man working for GOP candidates to explain how so many Republicans ended up falling behind Donald Trump despite personally despising him. Miller also profiles several prominent Republicans, including Elise Stefanik, Reince Priebus, and Sean Spicer. We spoke last week over Zoom. Our conversation follows, condensed and edited for clarity.
Luke Johnson: Early on in the book, you describe an incident where you're soon to be working for John McCain's campaign in 2006. He says he's okay with private gay marriage ceremonies and a staffer says he should walk it back and he says it's not he's not in favor of legal gay marriage. Can you explain your reactions to his comment?
Tim Miller: I was mad at him. Which is irrational, obviously as as a gay man. But at the time, it did not seem that that was a viable position for winning the Iowa caucuses. He already had plenty of other issues that made him vulnerable to the base.
In some ways, I came to a view that it's kind of nice to know that my candidate would not want to deny me a marriage ceremony, but I'm still in the closet at the time. I don't even know that I want to be gay married. It's just a very convoluted mental maze that I was in. The easiest thing to think about was not the policy, but the game of politics, and within the game of politics, what he did was a mistake. I find this really grotesque and uncomfortable to revisit. This is not something that I'm proud of but that was what I was dealing with at the time. [In 2007, the scandal of Idaho GOP Sen. Larry Craig's lewd bathroom conduct convinced Miller to come out. Now he has a husband and child.]
LJ: You call it compartmentalization.
TM: Look, we all compartmentalize things in our lives. We confront uncomfortable situations about our jobs, our friends, our family, things that are contrary to our values. A lot of times it's easier to just put that in a box inside of your brain, and go on with your life. It's easier to comfort yourself and focus on the things that don't that don't create conflicts in your head. I was very skilled at that. I was in the closet at the time. I was compartmentalizing a lot of things. I transferred that over to my political life pretty seamlessly. I think it was very damaging.
The reason why I wrote about this is that I see this exact same behavior in my friends who went on to work for Donald Trump — and they hate it. There's an example later in the book where a guy says, I just look at the one or two things that I agree with Donald Trump on and grab on to those, because I feel like it's my only option. He has many other options -- quit, find a new line of work. That type of compartmentalization is a way that a lot of Republican strategists rationalize going along with something that was evil.
“There's this Godfather element to it, you keep getting sucked back in.”
LJ: During the 2016 campaign, you're on TV and you're doing political work against Trump. And then after he wins, you write, "Donald Trump was a snake. Everybody knew that he was a snake. He told us he was a snake. Yet when the snake offered his spoiled fruit these otherwise intelligent people took from the tree and ate it." You're intelligent. Yet you end up working for [former Trump EPA administrator] Scott Pruitt. Why did you eat the fruit?
TM: I didn't know what else to do with my life. It's making a big life-altering change to quit a full career. The parallel is to coming out of the closet. It's really hard. I'm not trying to excuse myself. I'm just trying to explain.
Why didn't I just completely make a change without any backsliding, without any caveats, just jumping in the deep end, without dipping your toe in the water, and saying "F--- this, I'm out." It's hard. It's hard for social reasons. Your whole community was going along with Trump. It's hard for career reasons. It's scary and dangerous to say I'm just going to completely leave this career. In the meantime, I was also deeply depressed and just wanted something to do to distract myself.
Again, it's an embarrassing insight, but I think it's important for people to understand why people go along. Helping Scott Pruitt allowed my mind to think about something other than the fact that my career was unraveling and that like the people I loathed the most were taking over the country. It was something I knew how to do. You just get stuck on this little conveyor belt. A lot of my old friends got stuck -- and are still on that conveyor belt even after January 6th. So eventually for me, I was so outspoken against Trump that that was in conflict with doing Scott Pruitt both within my integrity and also just as a public matter. But that was the other reason, which I think ties into what some of these other folks ended up doing is, you start to rationalize, [thinking], "Well, I'm not really working for Donald Trump, right? I'm just helping his EPA chief for an appointment." You see a lot of Republicans in Washington that got sucked in like this.
LJ: But of the characteristics you talk about in the book, were you compartmentalizing? Was this ambition or was this something else?
TM: No, it's inertia, which I think is the most boring of the categories. I wasn't compartmentalizing. I didn't think that Scott Pruitt was great. It wasn't like I hid the fact that I was helping someone that works for Donald Trump, a man that I absolutely loathed and despised. I was dealing with this conflict in my brain. I just chose to eat the spoiled fruit because I didn't know what else to do. I was a Republican political operative.
I think a lot of people got slowly corrupted by Trump, who put their toe in the same way. They went along with their life and became complicit, and this is where you get into Hannah Arendt's banality of evil.
I think now with the benefit of hindsight my lesson that I learned from that is that it's actually easier than you think and quite fulfilling to dump toxic identities. These people were privileged and skilled people that could have found another line of work, but they just succumbed to the inertia.
LJ: You mentioned the banality of evil, because I thought of that when I was reading the book that a lot of these people are just joining up for the sake of joining. But when you dip your toe in the water, what was your moment when you said, "I'm out?"
TM: It was wrapped up in two things. One, I just couldn't advise Scott Pruitt anymore. The only advice I would give is in direct conflict with his ambition. And then I supported Doug Jones that same fall [in the 2017 special election for the Senate seat in Alabama]. They all [the office] supported Roy Moore and I, as a gay man that was out, I was not going to be involved in anything that was supporting Roy Moore. Those two things were the final straws.
I want to be very honest with myself. I continued doing similar work in the corporate world for another year and a half. There was a New York Times article that was critical of the work we were doing. There's this Godfather element to it, you keep getting sucked back in. I really didn't get completely clean until well into the Trump administration. I wanted a completely different career change and just not only stop being a Republican, but stop doing this opposition research that I felt was a net drag on society and was part of a bunch of factors that were responsible for where the country was.
LJ: In your book, you profile several Republicans who, despite misgivings, end up working for Trump. Most of these people are young people with their careers ahead of them and like you they seem to compartmentalize in some way. I found it hard to come up with a big reason why they did it other than careerism. Do you think there's more to it than that?
TM: Yeah. Careerism is a huge part of it, but I think that it's a little bit more complicated than that, going along with Donald Trump was never clearly in people's career benefit. Many people that went along with Donald Trump were ruined by it. In fact, many of the Trumpers would attack me to say that what I did was careerist -- being a "never Trumper" that was a career path, because I've got my new pals, my liberal media buddies, my Substack friends, who complimented me [for coming out against Trump].
There's more money on their side and some people are driven by money, but I don't think that there was an obvious careerist path. People's motivations are complicated, but there are all these other elements that are equally important. This cozy Washington culture that made people feel comfortable, the demonization of the left, this growing hatred for the elites, for some people there's a racial element to it. I was really caught off guard when I was interviewing all my old peers by how many of them had this deep well of grievance towards the people that they perceive to be wagging their finger at them as condescending elites and media. I think that that drove a lot of people more than I realized.
LJ: But when I was reading about your characters, their motivations don't seem to be deep-seated racism. It seems their motivations are not necessarily because of Trump's policies, but to be a part of the conversation -- on the contrary, it seems that a lot of people are appalled by those policies.
TM: It's totally wrong to look at this as a policy argument. It's what a lot of Republicans tell themselves to do because it makes them feel comfortable. But you're right. That's why I said there were some people that there was obviously a racial subtext. I don't want to ignore that. But I really tried to focus on and make these like three-dimensional humans that just are flawed.
I don't think that that means that their anger wasn't real. I did a bunch of additional conversations that were on background because people refused to be characters. I wanted them to be honest with me. We'd have a couple beers. Those conversations revealed repeatedly — from people that worked for pretty moderate Republicans who were not ideological — a very deep well of disdain for the Democrats in Washington and the media, whom they think all get treated better. I felt like it was important to explore because to me it was one of the key dividing lines between people who ended up going full 'Never Trump' [and those who didn't].
LJ: It's interesting that they didn't want to go on the record with you about that.
TM: It is interesting. The revealing thing was how casual they were about it though, which showed me that in the bubble of Republican bro operatives, this was a very common view part of their dialogue, which is just -- Trump might be an idiot but I could never go along with the f---ing Lincoln Project or, these liberal scolds, the f---ing wokes.
LJ: Who's the opposite of your book? Is it someone like Liz Cheney, who's chairing the January 6 committee and seems likely to lose her primary, or is there somebody else who you have in mind who's the complete opposite of the characters you’ve profiled?
TM: No, I should have written more about my friend Sally Bradshaw [Jeb Bush's former top adviser], I mentioned her a couple times in the book, but her choice was to leave politics altogether. She started a bookstore in Tallahassee. She is privileged, and not everybody can do this. She got a tattoo on her wrist that says "Speak Truth." She didn't talk to the media. When she supports the causes, she does it with a low profile.
I admire Cheney and [Adam] Kinzinger. It took them a long time, but I'm happy that they came around to it. I think that almost shows more fortitude, because Liz got much deeper into this culture. It made it harder to break away, as opposed to [say] Jeff Flake, or somebody who fizzled out early, both did the right thing.
LJ: I don't think the Trump team is going to call you [in 2024] but if [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis or somebody like that did--
TM: God, Ron DeSantis calls? I'm finished. Well, who the f--- knows. I'm a young man. I could have a friend who's Democrat or Republican sometime, call me in 20 years and say, "Hey, we need an old wise beard to come by to help these kids." But now I'm out. And as far as Trump is concerned, I have the most severe case of Trump derangement syndrome. I'm going to be in the senior citizens home pointing at someone else going to get them to blush saying that person was for Trump. I think the party is moving away from him anyway, even if Trump died tomorrow. This is going to be more of a nationalist party that is not in line with any of my old fashioned RINOs anytime soon.
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