The Pequod Review:
The presidency of Donald Trump was just as much a symptom of our increasing political polarization as a cause, and Tim Miller's memoir Why We Did It goes a good way toward explaining the trends that were building for at least a decade before Trump took office — trends that led most Republicans to eventually get on board with the MAGA movement. As Miller puts it in his refreshingly candid prose:
Why in the fuck did the vast, vast, vast majority of seemingly normal, decent people whom I worked with go along with the most abnormal, indecent of men? And why hadn’t I seen it coming? If we are to summon even a hint of value from our manifest failures throughout this whole sordid mess, to find any guideposts for bringing people into the light — those were the questions that needed answering. Answering them required plumbing the complicated motivations of real, living humans...
What I will submit to you are the stories, the narratives, that those who are a party to this failure tell themselves to account for their actions. In all their hypocritical, oblivious, self-indulgent, resentful, and at times well-meaning glory.
Miller is a longtime Republican strategist and he begins by recounting several earlier events that should have been warning signs — the emergence of the Tea Party, John McCain's 2007 acquiescence to hard-line immigration restrictionists (“a nakedly halfhearted version" of Trump's border wall), the rather pathetic selection of Sarah Palin as a vice presidential running mate by someone who surely knew better, and even Karl Rove's 2012 election night meltdown:
As the polls closed, I recognized quickly, based on the 2008/2012 county returns comparison chart that the Huffington Post was publishing, that Romney was on the road to a clear defeat. The losing trajectory was so obvious to me, I just presumed everyone else recognized it as well and was putting on a good face.
Apparently, that was a mistaken assumption.
As the rest of the staff continued gearing up for a long night, I made my way to the bar. On my way out of the war room, I whispered to New York Times star reporter Maggie Haberman that she could start prewriting her obit: we were cooked.
Before I could order up my first double bourbon and Coke, I received an urgent request to return to the battle stations. Karl Rove was having an on-air meltdown on Fox, ripping the media for misleading the public and arguing that Romney still had a chance to win. Some on the campaign were egging him on. This tantrum was a preview of Trump’s 2020 offensive aimed at discrediting the notion that the media could call elections at all. The only reason things didn’t descend into madness in 2012 as they would in 2020 was that Romney wasn’t deranged enough to play along.
While Rove was bellyaching on Fox, Rhoades told Romney that he didn’t want to be a sore loser like John Kerry, who had refused to concede to George W. Bush on election night in 2004. The numbers weren’t there and the responsible and dignified thing to do was accept defeat. Romney concurred. How quaint.
But consider the events of that moment:
-- Rove’s meltdown.
-- Extensive discussion about “skewed polls” on the conservative blogs in the lead-up to election night, which proclaimed the pollsters were out to get the Republicans and that Romney was really winning.
-- My colleagues’ irrational exuberance about the possibility of a victory.
-- The base’s desire to delegitimize Obama in any way possible.
All of the ingredients for the madness to come eight years later were there that night. But it didn’t feel urgent, because the “adults” were in charge. We ignored the warning signs and played our part in the show because we trusted the process. We thought we had the croc by the tail.
Another root cause was the Republican elites' long-time refusal to address some of the most important concerns of their base (something that should make Democrats just as fearful for their own party's future):
Anti-establishment right-wingers would often argue that people like me in the pre-Trump GOP consultant class were cloistered elites who were out of touch with the base and didn’t understand what our own voters wanted.
This is one of those situations where the truth is even worse than the slander.
Yes, we tended to be more ideologically aligned with the college educated suburban swing voters who decide general elections than we were with the base voters who are privately derided as “mouth breathers.” But nobody with any sense in the so-called establishment was unaware of what tickled the base’s collective pickle, least of all the political consulting class. We were the ones who spent our time poring over polls, attending focus groups, recruiting volunteers, and watching the responses that our candidates got on the stump. We knew exactly what GOP voters wanted. We understood who they were angry at, what issues riled them up, and which ones made them glaze over.
We just didn’t care. Except to the extent that it helped us win elections.
Part of the reason for that is, unlike the Matt Boyles of the world, our awareness was a superficial one that papered over the source of the deep-seated worries and grievances that were driving our own voters’ radicalization. We might have understood the zeroes and ones, the crosstabs, the trends, but we didn’t feel the anger they felt in our bones. It wasn’t visceral.
Most of us hadn’t served on the front lines in interminable wars and those who did volunteered out of desire rather than necessity. We didn’t spend our daily lives watching our way of life be replaced by a homogenized coastal culture that we were uncomfortable with. Our communities weren’t being hollowed out and abandoned; we didn’t live in places that were crushed by the housing crisis or the 2008 financial collapse. In fact, D.C. was a boomtown, and many of us were displacing a different hollowed-out community of color in the Chocolate City’s urban core.
We weren’t aggrieved over past slights committed by the elites; we were on the same meritocratic chairlift that kept climbing no matter how much we failed. We were inhabiting pockets of prosperity in the gilded city protected from these provincial concerns. This made it easy for us to understand and listen to the base voters’ grievance without really hearing or feeling it.
As a result of this artificial awareness, our actions exacerbated the sense of alienation among many of “our” voters. Rather than trying to address their underlying concerns or channel their anger for good, which frankly may or may not have been possible, we chose instead to try to manage a raging fire, redirecting their resentment toward cheap culture war calories.
During campaign season we would make exaggerated promises that were never followed through on — in some cases because they were never possible to begin with and in others because, deep down, nobody actually wanted to do it.
None of this was done unconsciously. It was all just the accepted state of play. There is even a term of art for this type of political strategery: feeding “red meat” to the base.
During campaign season it was an all-you-can-eat buffet at the Sizzler, but when the whole business of governing came around, the steaks would be exsanguinated until the approval rating started to dip.
Those of us at the Republican National Committee, on the Hill, and throughout various GOP campaign high commands were under the impression that we were wise enough to be the self-imposed limit on the base voters’ excesses. We could juggle keeping them energized, while governing prudently by deploying some rare sirloin when they needed to be fed.
They are mad about nation building in Iraq? We’ve got a bloody slab of Ground Zero Mosque Mania coming right up. They are pissed their community is turning into a putrescent ghost town? We’ve got a “Build the Wall” T-bone well done with a side of A-1. They are worried that the dominant white, Christian, patriarchal ethnoculture is being discarded? We are offering dog-whistle filets of “welfare reform” or forcing uppity athletes to stand for the damn flag.
But that turned out to have a downside:
The danger inherent in this strategy should have been apparent. History is replete with examples of mollification and appeasement gone awry. In his “House of Many Mansions” address, Winston Churchill identified the problem with this approach in one of Western civilization’s most momentous mixed metaphors. “Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last. All of them hope that the storm will pass before their turn comes to be devoured. But I fear greatly that the storm will not pass,” he said. In Churchill’s telling, the crocodiles not worth appeasing were, of course, the enemy fascists, while those of us in the Republican political class were simply charged with the appeasement of our own putative allies (and future Capitol rioters). The nature of the appeasement may have been different, but the lesson from the conceit is the same. In service to the crocs’ ferocity, we would feed and fatten them, encouraging GOP candidates to make promises that they had no ability to keep, offering racially charged bromides that they were pretending to care about, and turning the Democrats from a rival party in a system that required comity to function into enemy combatants who threatened their Mayberry way of life.
Throughout it all, we felt that we were managing this fragile balance, when all we were doing was creating an increasingly rabid croc without actually satiating its appetite, hoping it’s our competitor that gets devoured.
We were handing out little key bumps of cocaine, turning our own supporters into addicts, and then telling ourselves there wasn’t a problem. They just need another bump to stay level. And another. And another.
It should be no surprise that an entire media subculture emerged to profit off of these demands. Miller's sections describing the radicalization of Fox News and the emergence of Newsmax/OANN make up some of the best parts of the book:
By late 2020, we saw just how far these sacrifices to the mob would lead and the extent to which "normal" participants in this media ecosystem would go along with their mania. After Trump had been soundly schlonged in the election but before the Capitol had been stormed, I spent two days watching Newsmax, with hosts Sean Spicer and Benny Johnson, who had gotten a television glow-up since his blog boi days at IJ Review.
At the time, the Max had supplanted its predecessors in offering the best blue meth around and I wanted to get a taste. Over the course of the two days, I watched the president’s campaign lawyer call for the execution of Chris Krebs, a Republican Trump appointee who oversaw election security at the Department of Homeland Security. I saw a host claim that if Biden were allowed to take office it would result in a war between the races. I saw repeated, hourly arguments that GOP state legislatures should overturn the election paired with fantastical stories of millions of votes being dropped off by Biden-Harris trucks in the dead of night. None of this was anywhere in the ballpark of reality, but it carried with it some vague authority since it was delivered by a guy in a suit at an anchor desk. Sometimes that’s all it takes.
During that time, I wrote a lengthy diary for The Bulwark that railed against the dangerous fraud Newsmax was perpetrating on their audience. In response, one of the network’s hosts, John Bachman, a guy around my age who I always perceived to be on the normal end of the spectrum, got a little butt hurt. He complained that I was calling him some sort of evil drug dealer.
He didn’t see the problem with what they were doing. Newsmax’s ratings were on the rise, their growth chart looking similar to the one Skatell had showed me in that back-corner cubicle seven years earlier. On Bachman’s daytime show they were doing the “just asking questions” chacha slide while the prime-time Newsmax anchors stuck the “stop the steal” needle straight in the viewers’ ocular cavity. From his perspective, they were offering a balanced diet of realish news with some of the hard stuff. It was audience service. He was taking the concerns of real Americans seriously. Centering the commenters.
Exactly one month after that complaint, the Capitol was stormed by people who were hooked on the smack his network was selling. Bachman hadn’t seen it coming at all.
The appetite for vegetables had wilted. The mob needed their rage juice. Those who understood that and played to the audience were rewarded, at least for a time. Bannon would become chief strategist to a president. Skatell spent an early retirement refurbishing his open concept kitchen.
It all happened much faster than any of us imagined.
But even this had a precedent, one that Miller and his colleagues had helped establish ten years earlier:
For example, the RNC for years has been sending out unconscionable mailers to every elderly conservative in America. These letters are made up almost exclusively of hyperbole and ad hominem and conspiracies. They add absolutely zero to the political discourse. But they “work” in the sense that they are effective at keeping the olds upset so that they continue sending in their Social Security money.
For some reason, I was tasked with “approving” these mailers during my time at the committee, so I struck any lines that I thought would be embarrassing if it fell into the hands of a reporter. My cuts were apparently much more draconian than those of my predecessors, and this pissed off the fundraising team. One day I was summoned to the chief of staff’s office, and we had a standoff over how much to cut, which the fundraisers won and I lost (of course). As long as the mailers were “working” and money was coming in, the boss figured there was no reason to rock the boat, unless I could prove that this was likely to yield bad press. I tucked my tail and rubber-stamped whatever nonsense they sent through, figuring that if it did become a controversy, I had already said my piece.
If you step back for a second, what is really alarming about this whole encounter is the fact that at no point in the dispute was there a discussion of whether we should be sending out a letter that was filled with lies and slander. Or the ethics of snaffling a few quid from the Greatest Generation. That was just the baseline. This letter was part of the Game. The only judgment call the chief of staff was asked to make was to balance whether the donations would be worth the potential embarrassment. And the answer was yes.
That was nearly a decade ago now. By all accounts, the degradation of the “service” mindset continues apace as more and more politicians cut the wonks out entirely, in favor of the performative elements of the Game.
When you’re in the thick of it, with your competitive juices flowing, with rationalizations of the hacky left-wing actors and the other industries that are doing similar things, it seems much more clever than problematic . . . at least to me it did. I felt like we were in control, and I comforted myself with the notion that we had lines we wouldn’t cross. No conspiracies or fabrications or unfair personal attacks. Having those imaginary lines was nice and all, but as it turns out, I was still selling my soul and it didn’t even work as intended. Our complicity only served to empower the more shameless operators we were dealing with.
What Skatell and I eventually learned was that the only limiting principle on our crafty tactics was policing ourselves. But when you are dealing with unsavory characters, and money, influence, and political power are at stake, self-policing is about as likely to work as self-deportation. While we were determining how to use these new outlets to our political advantage, serving a balanced meal, offering coded paeans to aggrieved audiences that only made them hunger for more, we missed the insight that Bannon and Boyle saw all along and that Donald Trump would use to seize the presidency the next fall. It was the commenters, the hobbits who had taken charge. And they were the ones dragging us along, no matter how we assured ourselves that we were in control.
Of course, individuals are responsible for their own choices, and Miller spares none of his Republican colleagues who made the decision to join Team Trump — from Elise Stefanik (who “made a conscious choice to go all-in with her own personal Voldemort because she came to recognize that her popularity, fundraising, and ability to rise within the party would benefit”) to Reince Priebus ("a classic midwestern pleaser" who rather easily became a "Trumpian throne sniffer") to Lindsey Graham (who, more than anything, just wants to be "in the mix"). Here is his profile of Chris Christie:
Consider Chris Christie: a Little Mix and Team Player and Junior Messiah all wrapped up in Costco Club packaging. Christie is a Churchill in his own mind but was turned by Trump into a sniveling church mouse.
For years Trump demeaned and diminished Christie at every turn. He threw away the transition plan he wrote after the election, passed him over for jobs, and made him into the family’s personal gimp, to be summoned from his shackles on command.
You might think that someone with Christie’s ego would eventually have walked away from this type of torment. But no. Ever the glutton for being in the mix, he kept coming back for more.
Toward the end of the 2020 campaign, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Trump unshackled him one more time, demanding he play the role of Biden in the president’s debate prep. Months later it was revealed that the president had tested positive for COVID before these sessions began, but kept it a secret, holding Christie captive in close quarters for days, brazenly spittling diseased airborne droplets all over him.
Soon after, the sub contracted his dom’s virus and spent a few harrowing days in the intensive care unit, where he genuinely feared he might die. When Trump called Christie in the hospital, as he lay on death’s door, Trump’s only concern was whether the little mouse would have the courage to publicly blame the sickness on him before election day or would keep running cover for his master.
The depraved indifference! The collaring! How does a man accept such despicable treatment and maintain even a modicum of self-respect?
Unlike the millions of others who were not so lucky, Christie managed to come out the other side. But that doesn’t change the fact that Donald Trump nearly killed him with the same abject, megalomaniacal recklessness he had subjected upon the entire country with his management of the pandemic. The president was so hell-bent on minimizing the threat of COVID-19 and demonstrating his imagined ubermensch virility that he put Christie and the hundreds of others he encountered while contagious at risk.
And yet when Christie returned from the hospital, rather than stand up for himself, rather than get angry, he waddled right back into the clutches of his patient zero, supporting his reelection campaign.
At the time of this writing he continues to maintain that he has not ruled out going back into the breach for Trump one more time should the latter run for president again in 2024.
That shows you how powerful the complexes that afflict these enablers are. They persist even in the face of a near-miss visit to St. Peter at the Pearly Gates.
As these excepts begin to show, one of the strengths of Miller's book is the specificity of his evidence — actual conversations with colleagues and detailed accounts of behind-the-scenes events — and as a result it winds up being more than just a typical work of political opinion. Miller has the both the standing and the proof, and his account rings true at every step of the way. (Of course, many of Miller's colleagues will surely feel betrayed, but we as readers are the ones who benefit.)
If you are looking to understand the current state of political polarization in America, there is probably no better guide than Why We Did It.