Dear Commons Community,
I just finished reading Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell by Tim Miller, a former public relations and communications director for Jeb Bush and the Republican National Committee. Miller’s focus in this book is to study the “carcass of the party he used to love.” He reflects on his own past work and exposes the snippets of the lives of other Republicans like himself who put party before country. He criticizes those Republicans who support Trump’s big lie which Miller came to repudiate completely. He reveals Reince Priebus’s neediness to be important, Sean Spicer’s desperation, and Elise Stefanik’s raw ambition and willingness to do anything to get ahead including kowtowing to Donald Trump. I thought the chapter on Stefanik was most telling. When Trump was running for the nomination in 2016, she lambasted him for his statements about women and Muslims. After he was elected, she became his biggest supporter in Congress and came to find out “that banning Muslims and fanny snatching” was exactly who Republican voters wanted. Miller can also be quite cutting in his comments. He described Corey Lewandowski as a “miasmic cretan …with no appreciable skills outside of recognizing the popularity of unrestrained Trumpism … who represented a bottom-basement appointee.”
I recommend Miller’s book for his insider views. It is a quick read that says a lot about ambition and the loss of integrity among many Republicans.
Below is a review that appeared in The New York Times. Why We Did It has been on the Times best-sellers list for four weeks.
The New York Times
Why We Did It Is a Dark Ride on the ‘Republican Road to Hell’
The former political operative Tim Miller writes about why most of the Republican establishment learned to stop worrying and line up behind President Trump.
Too often, when straining to put some daylight between themselves and the Trump administration, regretful Republicans have reached for elaborate excuses and high-toned rhetoric. The former political operative Tim Miller knows better than to try.
The most honorable parts of “Why We Did It,” Miller’s darkly funny (if also profoundly dispiriting) post-mortem/mea culpa, are the ones that dispense with pious pretense. Miller, a millennial who started working in Republican politics when he was 16, depicts himself as someone who was so preoccupied with “the Game” that for years he gave little thought to the degraded culture that his bare-knuckle tactics helped perpetuate. He liked the excitement, the money, the mischief. There was a “bizarre type of fame” that came with “D.C. celebrification,” he writes. He got addicted to the “horse race.” He was in it to win.
His fixation on victory was so consuming that it could often override his personal interests. “Why We Did It” recalls a moment when Miller panicked after John McCain made a stray comment in 2006 that was barely, just barely, pro-gay marriage. (McCain later clarified that he was only talking about private ceremonies; he did “not believe that gay marriages should be legal.”) Miller was planning to work on McCain’s presidential campaign. Miller is also gay. He was upset that McCain might hurt his chances with Republican voters, rather than excited at the prospect of working for someone who didn’t “want to deny me the ability to have a totally chill, off-the-books, man-man ceremony.”
Miller says it’s precisely this warped response — his own “championship-level compartmentalization” — that makes him especially suited to understanding why most of the Republican establishment learned to stop worrying and line up behind Trump.
The episode with McCain was just the beginning. Miller later went on to do P.R. work for social conservatives who virulently opposed same-sex marriage. “As a gay man who contorted himself into defending homophobes,” he writes, “I am more than capable of inhabiting the mind of the enabler.”
The first half of the book describes Miller’s political coming-of-age — from closeted young Republican who grew up in a devout Catholic family to a spokesman for Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign to one of the loudest Never Trumpers during the 2016 election. The second half of “Why We Did It” is a taxonomy of the kind of Republicans who went MAGA, based on Miller’s conversations with them and his firsthand knowledge of what makes the most opportunistic D.C. creatures tick.
In between the two halves is an awkward chapter titled “Inertia,” in which Miller owns up to going from denouncing Trump before he was elected to working for Scott Pruitt, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator. (“It was a trying time and I was desperate.”) Miller later got a contract for media-monitoring services from the E.P.A. (“icky,” he concedes). Oh, and Miller also conducted opposition research for Facebook that happened to dovetail with conspiracy theories, casting the liberal financier and philanthropist George Soros as the shadowy force behind an anti-Facebook movement. (Miller insists that this newspaper’s reporting on what happened was “overheated.”)
“I was favor-trading with people who were causing real-world harm so I could get a pat on the head from some client who wanted self-serving scuttlebutt fed to the rubes,” he writes of his career. But as a self-described P.R. flack, Miller knows how to spin such ugly straw into shiny gold. Who better to identify why his fellow Republicans got sucked under than someone who kept getting pulled back in?
The hardcore Trumpists who loved their candidate from the beginning don’t interest Miller. His subjects include colleagues who worked with him nearly a decade ago on the Growth and Opportunity Project, known as the Republican “autopsy,” organized after Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama in 2012. The report called for moderation, for outreach, for immigration reform. But one by one, the people working on the project went from abhorring Trump to embracing him.
There was “the Striver,” Elise Stefanik, the Harvard-educated representative from upstate New York who “was doing what was required to get the next buzz,” Miller writes. There was “the Little Mix,” Reince Priebus, who liked “feeling important” and tried “to stay in everyone’s good graces while the world around him unraveled.” Miller calls Trump’s former press secretary Sean Spicer “the Nerd-Revenging Team Player” who gamely thought that obtaining some status in the White House might make up for some “negative charisma.” There was a coterie of “Cartel-Cashing, Team-Playing, Tribalist Trolls,” always on the lookout for the next gravy train.
Some of these former colleagues will talk to Miller; others won’t. “Why We Did It” begins and ends with the story of his friendship with the Republican fund-raiser Caroline Wren, a fellow “socially liberal millennial,” who worked with Miller on McCain’s 2008 campaign but more recently made a star turn as a Trump adviser subpoenaed by the panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.
Wren’s motivations don’t turn out to be particularly complex; she herself admits that her politics have always had less to do with the finer details of governing than the more cultish aspects of personality. “She had come to worship John McCain,” Miller writes, and she was soon “obsessed with Sarah Palin.” When pushed to explain what drew her to Trump, whose policies she says repulsed her, Wren rails against smug progressives driving around in their Priuses and forcing everyone to drink out of paper straws. She felt intensely annoyed by their self-satisfaction and hypocrisy. She liked Trump because of what she calls his “scorch-the-earth mode.”
This “animus,” Miller says, seems to have been the necessary condition for converting his “reluctant peers” into Trump supporters. I recommend reading “Why We Did It” alongside “It Was All a Lie” (2020), by Stuart Stevens, another “what happened” book by a former Republican operative. Stevens comes across as thoughtful, deliberative, reflective; Miller comes across as clever, a little bit mean, extremely profane. Stevens captures how the Republican Party spent decades cultivating grievances that it didn’t plan to do anything about, while Miller captures the consequent emotional valence, with its “unseriousness and cruelty.” Both books are absorbing; neither is particularly hopeful.
“AHHHHHHH,” an exasperated Miller writes, remembering how he stayed in politics because of his own thirst for fame and fortune. For all the reluctant Trump supporters’ torturous rationales, maybe the reasons for why they did it don’t get much more complicated than that.