Tim Miller was the communications director for Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign and spokesman for the Republican National Committee during Mitt Romney’s 2012 campaign. He is now an MSNBC political analyst, writer-at-large at The Bulwark, and host of Snapchat’s Not My Party. An Independent voter, Miller lives in Oakland, California, with his husband, Tyler, and their daughter. His new book, Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell, is an autopsy on why so many “normal” people went along with the Trumpist excesses that now threaten our democratic system. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
VV: The first sentence of your book is “America never would have gotten into this mess if it weren’t for me and my friends.” Is the GOP now a cult?
Miller: I think that there are certainly cultish elements to it. Here’s what I tried to explain in the book—that I and my friends are not cult members. The people who see it for what it is and collaborate with it anyway are necessary for the cultists to take over. Doing some quick math in my head right now, but 25% to 30% of the country is okay with what’s going on. Sure, some are faking it—that 25% to 30% is just way too many, but not enough to win any elections. So, as I say, the people that we need to spend our energy on are those who are going along. We need them to consent to not go along and to eventually evolve. The change isn’t going to come from the outside.
They’re not going to accept people from the outside. It’s just not going to be that kind of dialogue. But we need to let them know that we “get it,” and acknowledge their presence out there. Acknowledge their grievances.
And not acknowledging the grievances of all those voters “going along” threatens our democracy?
Well, just think about the upcoming midterm election. We have candidates Doug Mastriano (PA) and Kari Lake (AZ) running in swing states while vowing to game the system if Trump runs in 2024. Yeah, I think the risks right now are extremely high if we don’t engage.
The twin threats to our democracy that we need to be talking about are the refusal by the Republican Party to accept election defeats and the widening gap between government policy and public opinion. How do you view these threats?
I’m of two minds about it. I don’t see it changing anytime soon. If you look at the evidence of what’s happening in Republican primaries throughout the country this year, except for Georgia and Colorado, there’s a lot of denying past election results. And—this is important—the propensity is to “not accept” election results in the future. Denying the 2020 election results, and questioning future results, was a prime position for candidates who wanted to win a Republican primary.
How will rampant denialism affect the November 8 election?
Our current situation leads me to the obvious conclusion that no matter what happens in November, no matter how good or bad it is for Democrats or Republicans in the next Congress, the situation does not improve. Factor in too that the next line of Republican governors will be much more anti-democratic than who we have today.
How does former President Trump figure into it all?
I do think that Trump himself is uniquely concerning. I wonder how anyone who has his level of psychopathy can allow themselves to maintain such a preposterous lie. And then get tens of millions of people to believe it for years on end. Now, most human brains don’t work like that, so I do think that if Trump were to be sidelined, imprisoned, or run in 2024 and lose again, his appeal wanes.
“When people don’t feel like their concerns are being addressed by our system, then it’s not surprising that they become more sympathetic to getting rid of that system.”
Basically, Trump’s message to GOP candidates moving forward is, They stole my election and they’ll steal yours too? Any way to blunt the effects of this narrative?
Yeah, well, the incentives to blunt the effects are all wrong in our current two-party primary system. There is no reason to talk to the broad Middle.
How should we address the widening gap between government policy and public opinion?
Let’s use abortion as our example. The most popular position in America on abortion is that it should be legal, particularly in the first trimester. And although many voters are supportive of legal access to abortion, many voters also believe that there should be reasonable limits on it.
Then where’s the disconnect between elected officials and public opinion?
There’s almost no politician in America who holds that position on abortion. Why? Because politicians in each party have to appeal to primary voters and to people that give small-dollar donations to their campaigns online. And those are the people that have the most radical views on political and cultural issues. They represent the extremes.
These small-dollar donors rule the roost?
That’s one reason for it. And the incentives are there in the media, right? I address in my book how few elected officials actually address voters’ legitimate grievances by working through the Congressional process. It’s all disincentivized these days. A good way to get attention on Fox News is to sabotage any attempt to meaningfully address constituent grievances. This posture definitely contributes to our democracy problem—when people don’t feel like their concerns are being addressed by our system, then it’s not surprising that they become more sympathetic to getting rid of that system.
“Open primaries create more power for voters who are overlooked in a campaign season. So I say, let’s save our democracy.”
You mention in the book that without major democratic reforms—the public wants to reform campaign finance, gerrymandering, voter suppression efforts, other aspects of how we’re governed—you’re not sure how to proceed?
I think there are certain things we can do to change the incentives that might be seen as incremental and that would have some utility. For example, there were 10 House Republicans that voted to impeach Trump. Only 2 survived Republican primary season—representatives David Valadao, of California, and Dan Newhouse, of Washington. What do they have in common? Their states have open primary systems—also called “jungle primaries”—rather than having partisan primaries in which voters can only cast ballots reflecting their party registration. Instead of partisan primaries, all the candidates are listed on all the tickets in one primary. Then the top two candidates go on to face each other.
How would that play out?
In a general election, it’s usually a Republican and a Democrat that end up on the ballot, but sometimes it might be two candidates from the same party. Sometimes a third-party candidate makes it through to the general election. Open primaries create more power for voters who are overlooked in a campaign season. So I say, let’s save our democracy. Making this one change of moving to jungle primaries would be an important incremental change. And there’s lots of evidence from this year’s primaries that candidates who did the right thing were rewarded, even though their success might upset the most rabid among us.
Let’s return to 2006, a time when you were, if not rabid, certainly a committed 25-year-old closeted gay staffer on John McCain’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. On MSNBC’s Hardball with Chris Matthews, before a live audience in Iowa, McCain said: “I think that gay marriage should be allowed … I don’t have any problem with that.” And you remember thinking, “I can’t believe he just made that mistake.” Lots of mistakes since then? Point blank—Why did you do it?
The competition involved in politics is addicting and intoxicating. The rush you get when you want to win—and then actually win—is incredible! Sure, we’d all like to think the best benefit from it all is service to your fellow countrymen. But in the heat of battle, all that gets eliminated due to your desire to win.
[Georgia Senate candidate] Herschel Walker’s situation right now is a prime example. I mean, nobody thinks this person is a qualified Senate candidate. What he’s doing to his family is horrific, with mentions of possible abuse and threats of violence, you know. No Republican genuinely thinks he will be a good senator, but they’re all standing with him because they want to win the Senate back.
“I’m not of the camp that DeSantis is more dangerous than Trump. I think Trump is a psychopath and as such he’s an existential threat. But not being an existential threat is a pretty low bar to step over.”
No one enters politics to lose?
Right, that’s a very direct parallel to my time with McCain as I described it. I gave whatever it took to win that primary. I wanted him to become president. I wanted to work in the White House. And even though I was gay, for him to be in favor of gay marriage was an untenable position within the Republican party at that time. Now I look back on it with regret, but I think it’s a telling mindset because you see people today acting the same way about all sorts of issues as I was acting back then, which is why I wanted to tell the story.
Gay men working for homophobic political opponents isn’t new. Republican campaign consultant Arthur J. Finkelstein’s Library of Congress papers, 139 boxes donated by his husband, will be available this year. He pioneered the 1980s slash-and-burn campaigns for senators Jesse Helms (NC), Bob Smith (NH), Don Nickles (OK), and Lauch Faircloth (NC), who led the opposition to gay- and lesbian-related legislation back then. When Mattachine Society of Washington, D.C., president Charles Francis asked others how Finkelstein lived with such dissonance, Francis noted this response: “Did you ever see his palatial estate?” Relatable?
That’s got to be part of it for some people, but in politics it’s also the close proximity to power. Like the popular line from the play Hamilton: You want to “be in the room where it happens.” So campaign operatives make sacrifices of their integrity in order to do that. And a lot of times in Washington, D.C., it’s more common for folks that it’s more about power than money.
Speaking of power and money, are you the 21st-century version of William F. Buckley Jr., who put the kibosh on Arizona senator Barry Goldwater and the John Birch Society, a 20th-century MAGA-like political group?
I don’t know, because I think in a lot of ways Buckley was an accommodationist. He was saying No to the Birchers, in retrospect, out of his own desire for power, which wouldn’t be viable under the Birchers.
Scientific American (July 2022) and the British Medical Journal (March 2022) have reported that from 2001 to 2020, residents of Republican counties (presumably today’s Birchers) trended toward higher death rates than Democratic county residents, suggesting that the disparity results from policy choices. From the perspective of someone who actively participated in creating messaging that encouraged our current political crisis, unpack for readers how GOP messaging consistently wins over their voter base despite that base’s actual experience. Do we have a reprise of the What’s the Matter with Kansas situation?
[My] book was purposefully not about the voters because I hate to project onto them. I didn’t do the sociological research that is required. My book is from the conversations that I’ve had with the political class. So many people, perhaps like in the Kansas book, just become consumed by their grievances. They see their problems as intractable, like communities being hollowed out, or, as globalization continues to advance, the absence of jobs for those who are not college-educated.
And misperceptions by those consumed by their anger snowball from there?
Some of this stuff is very hard to fix. It’s much easier to just say Fuck it, I hate the elites, they did this to me. So people grab onto a community of like-minded people that also want to stick it to the folks they’re angry with. I think that’s what is driving a lot of this, right? It empowers the underlying force of tragic situations like refusing Covid vaccines. It’s more important to people to give a big middle finger to Dr. Fauci and the elites rather than actually protect themselves.
Now that all the sand is out of the bag, it doesn’t matter if Trump remains viable—there are enough people unencumbered by his problems and angry enough themselves that they can keep it all going.
Which leads me to Florida governor Ron DeSantis. How dangerous is he?
Well, it’s bottom-up, right? And that’s what makes politicians dangerous today. They know voters want someone that’s going to take down their enemies, not someone that’s going to solve their problems. Now DeSantis, he’s dangerous in his own way. He certainly is wrong with the more nationalist bent he promotes within the party, and with his culture wars. He’s also not afraid to use cruelty against his political enemies, or the power of government against them. I’m not of the camp that DeSantis is more dangerous than Trump. I think Trump is a psychopath and as such he’s an existential threat. But not being an existential threat is a pretty low bar to step over.
Let’s focus on the violent rhetoric coming out of some Republicans, weeks away from the November General Election.
Well, Trump’s been encouraging violence at his rallies as far back as 2015, so he’s been at it for seven years now. It wasn’t surprising to me that we saw what we did on January 6, 2021.
Why hasn’t the GOP issued calls for restraint?
Well back in 2015, and moving forward from then, there were at least some leaders within the Republican Party, the Conservative movement, that were trying to cut against these calls for violence. They tried to say it was wrong. They wanted to turn down the temperature gauge, but that’s been lost. Everyone just completely submitted to Trump and is no longer willing to speak out when this kind of rhetoric goes overboard.
Which led to January 6?
Not being willing to speak out is dangerous, and that’s how we got into the situation on January 6. There were all these guys who asked, What’s the downside of humoring him? After all, they thought, I don’t want to be the one to take the political risk of saying this rhetoric is dangerous.
Could the stakes be any higher for the long view of democracy in America, with battles over election results expected for the November election and the 2024 presidential election?
The stakes are enormous. A second Trump term would potentially be an end-times event for our democracy. I hate to overhype it, but I do think that people need to understand the seriousness of our situation right now.
You sound ominous.
If you had said to me when I first got into politics, in 1998, that the upcoming election could bring the end of our American democracy, I would have told you that was a preposterous viewpoint, that there was no chance that could happen. So even if the chance right now is just 10%, or even 5%, that’s still unacceptably high. I mean, we don’t want any chance of that happening.
Meanwhile, has just about every elected GOP official at all levels adopted your “shoot what flies, claim what falls” ethos to make themselves look brilliant right now?
It’s a great quote but I’m not sure who to credit—I’ve been using it for 20 years. I really like the James Baldwin quote on my book’s opening page: “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it.…” ❖
Frank Pizzoli is a journalist who has been covering politics, queer issues, healthcare, and literary celebrities for the past 25 years.