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Why Republican elites backed Trump: power, belonging ... and voter pressure

FILE - Former President Donald Trump, left, listens as Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., speaks at Fort Drum, N.Y.
Hans Pennink
FILE - Former President Donald Trump, left, listens as Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., speaks at Fort Drum, N.Y.

It can be easy to forget how many of Donald Trump's loudest allies once had nothing but insults for the man. Lindsey Graham is one. There's New York Rep. Elise Stefanik. Ohio Sen.-elect J.D. Vance and Wyoming Rep.-elect Harriet Hageman both opposed Trump before accepting his endorsements.

Despite Trump's clear power, though, there are signs of weakness: many of his endorsees lost in the midterms. A majority of Republican voters want someone else as the nominee in 2024. And then there's the fact he is the subject of multiple high-level investigations at the moment.

All of which raises a big question for the GOP: is Trump still the leader of the party?

That made this the perfect time to talk to Tim Miller, author of Why We Did It: A Travelogue On The Republican Road To Hell — our latest selection for the NPR Politics Podcast Book Club.

Tim is a former Republican operative who defected from the party over his objections to Trump. His book is a Washington insider's exploration of how the Republican elite fell in line under Trump, despite many of them privately claiming they opposed him.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Danielle Kurtzleben: Let's start with I suppose a pretty D.C. question — I'm going to ask you for 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?

Tim Miller: 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. He ends up winning a really, really close race that just kind of got me hooked on politics.

I end up getting to go to the governor's office, and my task is to read his mail and sift through all the crazy letters that get sent to the governor's office.

I [began] working on campaigns in a bunch of states, leading up to being a spokesperson on John McCain's Iowa presidential campaign. From there, I worked on a bunch of what would now be extinct, moderate RINO Republican presidential campaigns. [I was] a spokesperson for Jon Huntsman in 2012. And then after he lost, I begged my way into representing Mitt [Romney] at the RNC during the general election.

Then in 2016, I was communications director for Jeb Bush's campaign before speaking for the first kind of Republicans against Trump PAC, which was called Our Principles PAC.

And then, I don't know if you recall, but Donald Trump ends up winning, and I have a life crisis. Since then, I have been writing — I wrote for The Bulwark and other places. And I also was political director for Republican Voters Against Trump, which is a project aimed at getting Republicans to vote for Joe Biden in 2020.

DK: You write early on that you knew this book would be cathartic for some liberals to just read a dunkfest on top Trump officials. What were you hoping people would get from this book, if not just the joy of dunks?

TM: I want to caveat that that was actually the original idea for the book, was to just tomahawk dunk on everyone. An agent came to me and said, "I think you'd be really good at this book." You know, "Write 'the ten slimiest grifters in Republican Washington' or whatever, and 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.

I jumped over a couple of things, going over my resume, things that I'm less proud of: as a gay Republican, how I worked for candidates that opposed the most important thing in my life right now — my husband and child.

[I wanted to] write about the people who saw the danger and went along with it anyway and tried to explore why they did, and I tried to explore why I got as far down that path as I did, even though I peeled off.

DK: Well, let's get into that you were on the Trump payroll for a bit. You at one point advised Scott Pruitt in his bid to become EPA administrator. So in terms of answering the question of "Why We Did It," what can you say about the motivations of D.C. Republican insiders and also of yourself at the time?

TM: Of course there's a money element to this and power, but it's not just that, right? I think "power" in particular is a little bit of a misnomer. There are a handful of people that like to wield power in Washington, but power comes with responsibility. Power has downsides.

Being around power is great to [insiders]. That is, I think, really a driving force for a lot of people. They just want to be in the golf cart with Trump, in Lindsey Graham's case, or they want to be in the back row of a room where they can go home for Thanksgiving and tell their family. This is the drug in D.C.

For myself, one thing that I talked about was these two elements of inertia and identity. You get into a career, you're mid-level, and then all of a sudden you start to feel kind of icky about it. And then it's like, well, what do I do now?

The Scott Pruitt situation was that for me. Trump had won. This had been my whole life, being a Republican spokesperson or researcher. And I knew [Pruitt]. 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 in a crisis — I was like, "I don't know what I'm going to do. Am I going to have a job?"

And then I also think that there is the identity element about this, which is — particularly in Washington, but increasingly, in a concerning fashion, everybody who posts about politics on the internet — politics becomes part of people's identity.

In Washington, you have people that — Republican is who they are. 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' playgroup with other people who are Republican operatives. It's hard then to just say, "I'm not this anymore."

The thing that surprised me in a bad way was just how much resentment and interpersonal bitterness drove this.

DK: Oh, yeah. 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 reflected among the Republican ruling class.

TM: 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 of performative anger. Like, Hulk Hogan wasn't really mad at Andre the Giant — I'm showing my age with that reference. But it was fake.

When I was at the RNC as the spokesperson, my job was basically to criticize the Obama campaign. The Obama campaign spokespeople at the time — Ben LaBolt and Liz Smith — are friends of mine. Like, we'd go out and drink and trash-talk each other. To me, it was performative, and so that's how I was processing things. I was assuming that everyone was on my level.

And what I came to find out is that they really weren't, and that this bitterness towards Obama, [there was] an element of race to it for sure. But more than that, I think that for a lot of the people in the political class, it was this resentment that he got treated so well, that he was the golden child in the media and that everyone loved him and that their candidates didn't get treated as well.

And then in the Trump years, this just gets on steroids. What I thought was performative fighting between the parties, among many, many, many of my colleagues actually became a driving, motivating force.

One guy said to me directly, "Tim, I'm a white guy, and with all of this woke nonsense and with my wife's friends calling me racist for working for Republicans and all this criticism, all this heat I have to take, I'm not up for jobs. And it just leaves me no choice but to just think about the one or two things I agree with [the Trump administration] on and just focus on that."

What I came to find out is that that guy really represented the private thoughts of a lot of Republicans.

DK: There's another motivation that I want to drill into. There are two categories of Republicans you call the messiahs and the junior messiahs. And these are people who told themselves and others that they took 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. You do not buy this argument. Why not?

TM: I don't. I think it's the toughest category, because at some level, are we lucky that H.R. McMaster was national security adviser instead of Michael Flynn? Clearly. 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 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.

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. But none of them really came out and said, "no, we need to stop this person." And that would have been the logical next step of somebody that was going in really to save the country.

DK: Throughout your book, it feels like voters are always right at the edge of the picture. I'm thinking about 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 by saying, "well, I'm just doing what voters want." So my question is, you blame a lot of Republican elites for falling in with Trump do you feel similarly towards voters?

I don't. I'm of two minds about the voters. One is that I do think they are the ones that are driving this. And my book is about the cowardice of the collaborators. 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. And OK, why are voters like that? That's a different book.

I think that the voters have a lot of real reasons why they were upset. I mean, some people are bigots out there for sure. But I think the Republican ruling class didn't listen to [voters'] concerns. I write about the autopsy, which I worked on in 2012. I mean, a lot of Republican voters were mad about the Iraq war, were mad about the hollowing-out of their communities.

We didn't do anything to try to address that. 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 one of the chapters in the book is [about] the political media class — the conservative media in particular. It shouldn't 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 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. There was nobody that did that. And that is why those folks are the negative characters in my book.

DK: You mentioned the autopsy you helped write the report the RNC released after Mitt Romney lost in 2012, telling the party how to have longer-term success. A lot of it was about working harder to appeal to nonwhite and women voters. Trump certainly did not fit that bill ... and listener Rachel Gershman was wondering in our Facebook group, "Does the autopsy have any relevance now?"

TM: Not really. It has relevance as an insight into what the Republican political class, left our own devices, actually wanted. So I think that it's interesting in that regard.

I think there's a lot of reasons to think maybe an autopsy vision of the Republican Party might have worked. Hillary Clinton was a flawed candidate, partially because of that conservative media complex — the hyperbole and lies 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 someone with Elise Stefanik's 2014 platform of believing we should deal with climate change and and supporting gay marriage, could that person have beaten Hillary Clinton? I think maybe, yeah, probably.

But because Trump won, that created this mindset within the Republican Party, especially after McCain and Romney had lost, that this kind of populist, nativist, working class path is the way for Republicans to win national elections again.

DK: One other thing I wanted to ask about is being a gay Republican. You write about the mental tap dancing you did to support a party that just didn't support gay people like you. I'm wondering if you could tell us how that experience affected how you saw your fellow Republicans do their own sort of tap dancing as they tried to justify their allegiance to Trump.

TM: I spent a lot of time thinking about this because there are obviously limits to any parallel. But I think that there are a lot of parallels.

I look back with regrets on not being more vocal on gay rights matters, on not drawing a bright red line around the types of candidates that I would work for. Part of the reason why I did it when I think back about my own rationalizations was, I felt like the arc of the gay history was bending towards justice, to steal a phrase — I felt like we were already on this trajectory, and so why should I ruin my career over it?

I also used these same kind of rationalizations of, Oh, the other side's not perfect, too. I mean, in 2008, Obama won't say he's for gay marriage and everybody knows he privately is. 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?"

All of these rationalizations happened, and with the benefit of some distance and with Trump kind of shaking me out of this kind of mindset, I looked back on that and thought, "Man, I don't think I was seeing myself clearly." So when Trump came around, I saw those same machinations happening in my colleagues.

I think the other thing that happened is that whole identity question that I talked about earlier. I was probably the visible gay Republican spokesperson for a while. So I had been through this — people seeing me in a different way and having to deal with that kind of identity change. And so, I think that it made it less hard for me to do it when Trump came around. I also had those mistakes that I could look back on and say, "I'm not going to make this mistake again."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben
Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.