Why did so many Republicans, who knew better, get caught up in the Trump vortex? What is the weakness in human behavior that explains this?
We live in the Age of Complicity. There were the Wall Street enablers of 2008, who knew all too well what lay ahead. The Hollywood enablers, who gave people like Harvey Weinstein a pass. And the Washington enablers, who used to be “normal,” but succumbed to the psychopathy of Donald Trump.
Why do they do it? Our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, former Republican operative Tim Miller, offers some answers. The author of the new book Why We Did It, Miller talks with us about why so many went along with and continue to support Trump and his lies.
Miller explains that, worse than the true believers are the so-called members of “team normal” who, chasing money, power, or fame, are sucked into the vortex of complicity.
Miller talks about the intoxicating drugs of power, proximity, and money, and the degree to which Trump was the ultimate pusher. He shows how the ever-more frenzied media and entertainment environment fueled it all.
Miller identifies those he sees as the real villains of the story, and explains why all the symptoms that would become full blown in 2016 were there long before Trump. He details why issues and policy no longer matter for Republicans, and argues that, counter to any hope, the younger generation of Republican leaders may be even worse in practicing trolling, nihilism, and cruelty.
Full Text Transcript:
(As a service to our readers, we provide transcripts with our podcasts. We try to ensure that these transcripts do not include errors. However, due to a constraint of resources, we are not always able to proofread them as closely as we would like and hope that you will excuse any errors that slipped through.)
Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. Sometimes attributed to Edmund Burke, one of the grandfathers of conservative thought, is the notion that the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing. I don’t know if it’s the transparency of the internet age, but it seems we see more and more of this complicity, over and over again these days. The past week we saw it with the trove of documents and stories about Uber. Ken Auletta’s book recently about Harvey Weinstein shows how it happened repeatedly in Hollywood just as Michael Lewis showed us several years ago how it happened on Wall Street in the face of the housing crisis.
In each of these cases, a lot of money was at stake. In the case of those that went along with Donald Trump, it was nothing short of the fate of the republic that has been at stake. Worse than the “team crazies” around Trump were the so-called “normals” who found reasons, rationales, excuses, and self-serving internal dialogues to go along, to look the other way. What it’s done to the Republican Party, the state of our politics, and the fate of the country is as yet incalculable. My guest, one-time Republican operative, Tim Miller takes an excellent swing at it in his new book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell.
Tim Miller is an MSNBC analyst, writer at large for The Bulwark, and he was the communications director for Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign and a spokesman for the Republican National Committee during Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential run. It is my pleasure to welcome Tim Miller to the program, to talk about Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. Tim, thanks so much for joining us here at WhoWhatWhy.
Tim Miller: Jeff, that is a great intro. Thank you so much for having me. But I’ve got a different Burke for you if you want.
Jeff: Yes, go ahead.
Tim: So it’s, “When leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents in the construction of the state will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators.” I like that Burke because I was thinking about that. A lot of my ex-colleagues became flatterers to people’s biases and conspiracy theories and grievances, rather than leaders and legislators.
Jeff: It is interesting that there seems to be more of an epidemic of this when one looks at Washington and politics and Hollywood and Wall Street. What is it about these areas? And a little bit I think maybe the revenge of the nerd thing, but these three areas seem to be the most susceptible to this.
Tim: Yes. I think it’s because they attract certain types of people, certain type of adrenaline junkies. And that is a little bit different in different industries, and I tried to get at what is distinct about the Washington creature in Why We Did It, but I think the similarities across the board are there is this rush that comes from success, from being around power, from fame. I was talking to James Carville on his podcast the other day about this, and he said that the book really captures this napalm feeling of when you’re at war and you set aside your concerns about your duties, because the adrenaline rush and the power of being in combat is so great.
And obviously, it’s not life or death in the same way in some of these other areas, but that rush is the same. I think obviously money is a driver in Wall Street and fame in Hollywood. And Washington is just this— There’s a line in the Hamilton movie, “Being in the room where it happens.” It’s this desire to be in the room where it happens, and to defeat your foes and rise up the ranks and feel powerful and feel important. That is really the driving element of this, more than the actual power itself. And I saw time and again my friends and former colleagues get caught up in this and decide that their need to feed that rush was more important than drawing red lines and determining what is appropriate.
Jeff: It is like a drug and there’s a kind of addictive quality to it. And you see it with some of the people that you profile.
Tim: Yes, Chris Christie is the most self-aware about it. He was one of the people that I wrote. But he said in an interview, I was watching this interview and I was like, “Oh, I have to use this for the book.” He said basically when he left the governor’s office, the day after, he said, “It’s like the lights just go out. The thing that sustained me throughout my time being in the governor’s office just went away.” You might think, oh, that thing that was sustaining him was the fact that he could help people and be of service and lead a state. No, he goes on to say, “The phone calls stopped.”
People stop wanting things from you, the cameras go away, and it all happens in a flash. And the way he’s describing it is very similar to a withdrawal from a drug. Somebody drops off of heroin or coke and stops using it one day, and then you go through a period where you need a fix, you need something to supplement it. And for Chris Christie it was, sadly, being around Donald Trump and helping Donald Trump win. He lost his campaign and he needed something else to feed his fix, and he went along with somebody that he knew was dangerous, that was incompetent, was not ready to lead.
Jeff: Is there a danger to this drug, to this addiction, is there a danger when somebody like Donald Trump is not around? On the one hand, it seems benign and a reality of human nature, and yet when the wrong person comes along, whether it’s Donald Trump in Washington or somebody like Harvey Weinstein in Hollywood, it all falls apart. Suddenly that aspect of human behavior takes on a whole different quality.
Tim: I think that Trump brings some unique dangers to this, and takes this already easily corruptible culture and a) he used it to his advantage. I don’t have a lot good to say about Trump, but I think the one thing that he saw is he sniffed this out. These were a lot of weak men— mostly men, but also some women in Washington who were not at the level of what he dealt with in Hollywood and Wall Street when it comes to the performance of this, and that he could use them and bend them to his will, and he said that, basically, in an interview with Mark Leibovich back in 2015.
So I think that Trump took advantage of the culture. And then I think that Trump’s unique psychopathy, his narcissism in the extreme, does create some dangers that I think would not be replicated if somebody else who maybe shared his views on policies, he might have some policy complaints or problems or concerns, they wouldn’t bring along with them this also— Just look at the post-election thing.
It takes a very special person, [laughs] I say special in the most generous way possible, to pretend that you think that the Venezuelans stole the election, and maintain this lie for years, and have tens of millions of people believe the lie, and never break. Never have a moment where you accidentally whisper to someone that you know it’s untrue, or reveal it. It’s a psychopathic behavior. I do think that that adds to the danger in a way that if you replace him with somebody else you might not like politically because they have bad policy views, they wouldn’t be able to conduct a farce to the degree that Trump has.
Jeff: What degree do you think the danger is magnified by the age in which we live, the age of 24/7 news and Twitter, et cetera. To what extent does that magnify something like this?
Tim: Massively. I just go back— A lot of what I talk about in the book is not new. There’ve been ambitious people in politics for as long as politics have existed. So, what are some things that have changed? Among them, we talked of Burke at the top, I think that people have abdicated their leadership responsibility to do what they think is right in favor of service to voters. I think there’s some reason for that. But the media environment is the other main thing that’s changed. And if you go back to even as recently as 2004, there were these gatekeepers that protected the public. There were some negative parts of that. Sometimes there were some media cover-ups that you look back.
This was not a perfect past, but the difference now with this proliferation of ideological media, of social media, what I saw up close when I was working dealing with the press, working with some of these bad actors, frankly, to be honest, in conservative media, it was manageable in 2008. By 2012 we started to lose control of the crock. And then now— I did this interview after the book for Breitbart, who if listeners don’t know, is the most extreme far right, conservative media outlet, when I was a Republican back in 2014.
I was interviewing them about this post-election “Stop the Steal” stuff, and these guys, who were the most willing to go there on nativism and bigotry and conspiracy of all the media, of all the conservative media outlets, far more than say Fox— One of the guys, their interviewers, he says to me, “You know, Tim, we didn’t go there on the craziest stuff about the election being stolen, but now we’re getting outflanked by Newsmax and OAN and the social media outlets that people, listeners wouldn’t even have heard of, that have millions and millions of viewers.”
So, you can always up the ante, and give people more and more extreme views, more and more deranged conspiracies. And that wasn’t really possible back in the time when there were only three networks and a few cable stations and some radio.
Jeff: And we got a hint of this going back to 2008, and you talk about this, going back to 2008 with Sarah Palin.
Tim: Yes. I think everything that we saw from Trump was abundantly clear in 2008. I saw it firsthand, and I just throw myself on the mercy of the court in this book, and I explained why I did it. I compartmentalized it, and I said, “John, I came to the top of the ticket,” and he’s still a good man and believes climate change is real and et cetera, et cetera. And these are just the crazies that we got to deal with in order to get good people elected. This is how I justify it to myself. I compartmentalized it.
But if you look at it with the benefit of hindsight, the Palin rallies with people yelling the most deranged, disgusting smears about Barack Obama and him being a Muslim or whatever, and being born in Africa, all this racist garbage. That McCain would correct famously on stage, but Palin wouldn’t. And she trafficked in all the anti-Jeremiah Wright stuff. And it was all there. The conspiracy, the bigotry, tapping into people’s grievances, and you could sense it in the crowds. I did. I was working for McCain at the time. I could sense it in the crowds.
And that was just like this beast that was waiting to be unleashed. And Donald Trump just came around at the right time to do it, but it was all there before Trump. I think that’s important to understand about this moment. It was a bottom-up disease that Trump glommed onto. Not a top-down thing that Trump created.
Jeff: As you look at it, who’s more dangerous in this story, the true believers or the “normals” that simply look the other way?
Tim: I guess the most extreme people in the White House are probably the most dangerous, if the word is specifically dangerous. Having Michael Flynn as the national security director, a complete lunatic who has no grasp on reality with the most sacred secrets of this country, that was extremely dangerous. Thank goodness, he ended up getting fired because he lied to the FBI. But if we’re looking at this from a moral perspective, to me, the villains of this story are the people that were, quote-unquote, “on team normal.” And in the book, I write mostly about them, because I don’t find the extremists that interesting.
We know why they’re dangerous, but it’s the people who were basically like me, who were moderate Republicans, who knew better, who in most cases said publicly that they thought Trump was crazy and bigoted back in 2015 before he won and then went along with it anyway. And Trump would not have been able to do the damage that he did if he did not have people that were running cover for him, basically. In this January 6 hearing, it was that Bill Stepien quote, he was the campaign manager. He said, “I was on ‘team normal,’ Rudy and them were on ‘team crazy,’” but “team normal” didn’t say anything. They didn’t stop this. They let Trump continue.
Bill Barr tries to spin himself a hero story now because he quit the attorney general’s office over Trump’s attempts to fabricate voter fraud. But he put out a press release saying Trump was the greatest president ever when he resigned. He didn’t go to the press and say, “This must stop.” He didn’t say, “The president that I’m working for is trying to steal the election.” He didn’t wave any flag. He went along with it all the way up until the Capitol was stormed. So, I just think that it was these supposedly responsible people who knew better that are the most important ones to understand in this story, because they’re the ones that operationalize the danger.
Jeff: And maybe even worse are those that came to it kind of post-Trump. People like Elise Stefanik, for example, who you profile in the book.
Tim: So, Elise and I worked together at the RNC, and she was, like me, a very moderate Republican. She ran in 2014 on like basically what I would’ve considered the dream platform. It was like, “We need to deal with climate change. We need to be nice to immigrants. We need to be pro-gay rights. We need to moderate on abortion. Pro-life but still, a moderate view, not these totally extreme bans that we’re seeing now. But having a strong role in the world.” This was the compassionate conservatism that Elise laid out in 2014, and everyone that worked on her campaign told me that they were so excited about it. There are a lot of younger Republican types who are more moderate on social issues.
And she won’t even say Trump’s name when he comes up in 2016. She refuses to say his name all the way until she’s in Congress. He’s in the presidency for a year before she even says his name. She can’t spit it out because she hates him so much. And then she starts to see all around her that the people gaining power in Washington, in Trump’s Washington, were people that went along with him and that she was being ostracized. And during this first impeachment, she flips on a dime and just becomes a Trump sycophant.
She ends up firing someone that worked for her — who spoke at her wedding, a close friend, someone who was with her on her very first campaign — fires this person because they suggested that she tone down all the Trump suck-up act. And this is madness the way that she flipped on this, and the really concerning thing is that it has worked for her. It’s a complete fraudulent act, but now she’s displaced Liz Cheney, who was far more conservative there. That shows you this has nothing to do with the issues. Liz Cheney was far more conservative than Elise Stefanik, but she displaces her because she’s willing to go along with this stupid lie about the election.
And now I think she’ll be on the shortlist for the vice presidency if Trump runs again in 2024. So, I just think that was the most stark example of how this desire for power can corrupt you just in a snap.
Jeff: Talk a little bit about the way issues have been subsumed by all of this. That it, as you point out, it almost doesn’t matter anymore.
Tim: What Trump has done on the Republican side, and I think that some of these dangers that I point out on the Republican side, I think there are some similarities on the Democratic side that are concerning. There are other things that are very different, and this is one of them. Democratic voters still very deeply care about the issues and want something out of government. Trump has created this monster where his voters, the MAGA voters, they don’t actually even really want anything out of government. They’re not looking for policy solutions mostly.
They are looking to stick their finger in the other side’s eye and be, as this National Review writer wrote, a big middle finger to the people they hate, immigrants and elites and media and college professors, whatever. And so, as a result, the Republican primaries aren’t even fought on issues anymore, really. It’s about loyalty to Trump. It’s about who can be harsher and more cruel in attacking the left. Who can be more performative in signaling that the people that voters hate are bad? The casual quote that they say online is “owning the libs.” Who can own the libs harder? And so issues have become completely divorced from this.
And I just think that Elise Stefanik-Liz Cheney example is the prime example of that. Back when policy mattered and I was a moderate Republican, Elise and I agreed on basically everything. I hated Liz Cheney. [chuckles] Liz Cheney was anti-gay, very hardcore on foreign policy— very hardcore across the board. Every issue, she had the most extreme right view. And I thought, to me, she was on the other side of the party for me, but now we’re in league together because she’s just willing to say the truth. And that is the dividing line now. Are you willing to say the truth or are you willing to just be a slave to Donald Trump?
Jeff: Is this reflective of a larger political trend that politics, whether it’s Donald Trump or somebody else, even somebody perhaps more benign, that it really is about cult of personality? Is it about individual personality more than any issue?
Tim: There’s something to that. Again, I don’t want to create a false equivalency, but there was a personality attraction to Obama that I think transcended issues to a certain degree. I think that his opposition to direct war, I think there were some issues also there. So it was not the same as Trump at all, but you can see this. There’s a great book in the ‘80s called Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman, that was a precursor to all this, said our media environment is creating entertainment leaders rather than policy leaders. So I do think that there is a trend to that, for sure.
Jeff: There’s also a sense of gamification of all of this. The way politics has become a form of entertainment of gamified today.
Tim: And this is what I really got into it and why we did it, because I was in the middle of this and we literally called it the game. If you’re in the politics of politics, which is campaigning, all those annoying television ads, and emails and text messages you get, working with the media, winning elections, you say colloquially that you’re a part of the game. And if you are a policy person that works on white papers or legislative issues, those people, we call them the wonks. They aren’t part of the game.
And this weird thing is happening in politics, where the people that are actually working on legitimate things that impact people’s lives are like second-class citizens, and the people who are part of the game are now stars, they’re on TV, and you get selfies with them, and all this. And that is addicting, it goes back to our original topic. It’s intoxicating. And it’s so perverse, this culture. I got into this in the book at great detail. It’s like, if you are a person who is on the campaign, and you say, “We shouldn’t do that because it’s not quite true and it’s going to inflame voters and it’s just not good for the body politic,” you get made fun of.
Particularly in Republicans, it’s a little bit different on the Democratic side. But you get mocked, and that’s a sign that you don’t get it. And I think this has now become just endemic, particularly in Republican campaigns, where the results, governance, none of that matters at all, it’s all about getting the most retweets, raising the most money, getting your candidate on TV, all the stuff about this that is ancillary to actual governance.
Jeff: And you come to this as a much younger voice compared to some of these people. To what extent is there a generational aspect to any of this? And is that something that we should look as a positive sign going forward?
Tim: I wish. So here again, like I said, I don’t want to let the Democrats off the hook because there is a campaign culture on both sides that is a little bit corrupt. Frankly, [unintelligible 00:21:51] about this in this town very well. That said, the generational divide, in my view, is very stark on both sides. And it’s almost opposite. Most of the younger Democrats who get into campaigns are exceedingly earnest and, in some ways, almost overcompensate too far the other way where they’re hurting their candidates by forcing purity on them on these issues that they care about, and social justice, which they care very deeply about, which is admirable.
But sometimes it’s letting the Republicans have an advantage because they’re playing by two different rules. On the Republican side, the younger generation there, it’s actually worse, it’s going the opposite direction, because imagine if you’re 24 years old and you’re just getting into campaigns right now, or politics, if you’re a Republican. Donald Trump’s been the leader of the party your whole adult life. It’s been seven years now since he came down the escalator. So you were 17, you were in high school when Donald Trump came on the scene.
So this Donald Trump ethos of trolling and nihilism and cruelty — the types of people who are attracted to that are now the younger ones joining Republican campaigns. And so, in my view, it’s a very different, it’s an even worse— The culture is even getting degraded more on the Republican campaign side than what I experienced coming up in the McCain-Romney era.
Jeff: So how do our politics work going forward based on this fundamental divide beyond all the other divides we know about?
Tim: Well, I think that as we discussed at the top, I think Donald Trump has some unique psychological issues and just having him disappear would really help. But I don’t really see that happening, maybe actual [unintelligible 00:23:40] tables will work in our favor, we will see. I think that any notion on a policy standpoint that the Republicans will return to anything that was familiar from the past, I think is wrong. The thing that I can hope for the best is that the Republican Party transforms into more of a European nationalist party, maybe more in the Boris Johnson mold. It’s a weird week to say that since he just got rushed out in England.
And there can be some kind of leader who is more populist but more responsible than Trump as far as not advancing extreme conspiracies. But I think that a populist Republican Party is here to stay.
Jeff: One of the things that goes along with that, and you talk a little about this, is the anger that is inherent there, and just everybody seems mad.
Tim: Yes, this was the most shocking thing to me in writing Why We Did It. So I was interviewing some people on the record. I wanted honesty. I’d rather have somebody be off the record and have three beers and then can be on the record and BS with me. So I interviewed all my old friends who still work on Republican campaigns who know Trump is bad, not the ideologues, the people who had told me privately in the past that they don’t like Trump. “Why? Why we did it? Why are you doing it? Why are you still going along with it?” And the thing that surprised me in these conversations was this anger.
Successful people, family dads who live in the suburbs and have a nice house, and they’re bitter at the Left, they’re bitter at the changing mores around race and gender and language. They’re upset at the liberal elites that they think are wagging their finger at them. And it’s a really deep anger that I didn’t realize was really there and [unintelligible 00:25:41] on me in politics. The one example in the book is the most stark. I interviewed my friend Caroline Wren, who was like me, she worked for Jon Huntsman, all these moderate candidates, and she went along with Trump. And I’m saying, “Why?”
And she says to me, “Tim, I’m just tired of these liberals driving their Prius with their ‘Coexist’ sticker, drinking their Coffee Coolatta and drinking out of paper straws and thinking they’re saving the world.” And I’m like, “Okay. I don’t like paper straws, either. I like a chocolate shake. But that leads you to vote for Donald Trump?” I was like, “This is crazy.” So I do think dialogue and trying to take down the temperature on cultural war stuff across the board is going to help, but it’s hard for me to diagnose. And I feel like you need a psychologist on the show with me. How do you moderate the anger of these people? It’s really irrational in a lot of ways.
And I understand the grievance of somebody who grew up in a hardscrabble town, that the plant shut down because of globalization and now they’re mad at the elites making all the money on the coasts. That’s at least a legitimate grievance that I get. This stuff, the cultural stuff, being mad at somebody for having a “Coexist” sticker, I don’t get that.
Jeff: But of course, one of the things that we see is that for Trump people and for the MAGAs, and people that are that angry, there’s a perpetuation of this culture war, because that gives them the electoral edge, if nothing else.
Tim: Oh, for sure. And this is what I have the most guilt about my time in Republican politics, and why this book is one part analysis, one part mea culpa, because that is just central to the cult. You have to feed the beast is the phrase that we use. Fox News, social media, conservative talk radio, conservative media, every day they have to talk about something. And they are working hand in hand with those of us who work on these campaigns to feed them stuff, “Give me something to demagogue about today.” And I was good at that, just finding little things in the news, a crazy statement that somebody made that you could blow out of proportion.
But we were talking about the drug of being in politics earlier, there’s another drug here for the viewers of this stuff. We are playing this game, and we’re getting this high off of access to power and doing well on our career and et cetera, getting media coverage, that they’re getting hooked to the rage juice that we’re feeding them with a tongue in our cheek. We’ll say we get the joke about this; the people who are viewing Fox don’t get the joke. They’re getting actually mad at “the caravan” or the “Ground Zero mosque” or whatever the outrages of the day, the transgender girl in a swimming meet. And they’re getting genuinely upset about this.
And it’s driving their anger further, and it’s pushing them to more grievance-focused candidates. And so there’s this little bit of a doom loop between the conservative media, it’s making their voters angry, and that makes them elect angrier candidates. And it’s hard to get off that cycle.
Jeff: And finally, Tim, did you come out of this project, come out of writing this book, with different attitudes about all of this than you went in with?
Tim: I think I learned more about the people who are in the gray area. In some ways, as we just talked about this— And the gray area, people who knew better and are just trying to figure out how to navigate the world. It’s easy to say that people on the other side are bad or are racist or whatever. But all of us have light and dark in us and so we’re trying to understand how we bring out more of the light.
And so I was on the negative side surprised at how much anger they have in them. But on the other side, I was surprised how many people I felt like we could nudge away from this if there really was a dialogue and if there really was a way that we could give them a vision for an alternative path that is not so filled with grievance. I hope, and I’ve already heard from a couple of people who work in various jobs that they feel icky about, who read the book and said, “This has given me the kick in the butt I needed to try to do something else.” And so that is the one small glimmer of hope that I see out of all this that was encouraging from my conversations.
Jeff: Tim Miller, the book is Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. Tim, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast.
Tim: Thank you so much. Hope to get up to Napa soon and see y’all.
Jeff: Great. Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I hope you join us next week for another radio. WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate