News Our Way

Confessions of Republican Campaign Hit Man

The post-Trump era has produced a library’s worth of books from people who had access to the rooms where decisions were made but kept quiet about the rotten things they witnessed. The volumes mostly read as after-the-fact justifications for morally debatable behavior spiced up with a few damning anecdotes that feel too-little-too-late.

Tim Miller’s Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell is not one of those books.

Before he became a committed Never Trump contributor to The Bulwark and MSNBC, before he was even a top aide to Jeb Bush during the 2016 presidential campaign, Miller was a self-described GOP “hit man” for the Republican National Committee and an opposition research firm he helped start. Along the way he got quite comfortable operating within the trollish zero-sum norms of “the Game,” inflaming voters who weren’t in on the joke.

What distinguishes Miller’s book from many other insider accounts is his willingness to put his own behavior under the microscope, specifically how as a closeted gay man he was able to ignore the sometimes-explicit homophobia of his clients to help push the parts of their agenda he found more palatable. It made him, he says, a “championship-level” compartmentalizer. But this confessional tone gives the book its distinctive oomph and affords Miller the license to dissect with mordant wit the many varieties of rationalization that his colleagues in the GOP employed to justify their fealty, even servility, to Trump.

The dish he doles out about Lindsey Graham, Reince Priebus, Sean Spicer, Josh Holmes, Elise Stefanik and more feels less like drive-by scuttlebutt and more face-to-face personal. Because in several cases he did get face-to-face personal. Miller is both confessor and priest, albeit one with an open bar tab. The meeting in Georgetown with Alyssa Farah — where the daughter of a longtime boss of a far-right website attempts to explain her evolution from not voting for Trump in 2016 to working in his administration to now vowing to do everything she can to make sure he doesn’t return to the White House — makes the book worth the read. So, definitely, does the tequila-fueled coda in Santa Monica with Caroline Wren, his good friend turned Trump fundraiser turned “VIP Advisor” for the rally on Jan. 6, 2021, that led to the ransacking at the Capitol.

“Caroline was one of me,” Miller told me. “I felt like we were the same. And for her to go full Trump to such a degree that she was organizing the rally on January 6, and for me to go where I went, I had to understand what happened.”

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Michael Kruse: “America never would’ve gotten into this mess if it weren’t for me and my friends.” That’s the first sentence. It’s a great first sentence. For those who have not yet read this book, what do you mean by that?

Tim Miller: I meant that the people in the Republican consulting class, the Republican establishment in the conservative media ecosystem were necessary if not sufficient for Donald Trump to take over the party, for the degradation of our political discourse, and for this very tumultuous political world that we live in. I do not mean it like inflation is our fault, or that any discrete policy outcome was our fault, but the political environment that Donald Trump rose from wouldn’t have happened had we not behaved the way we did.

Kruse: So, because of that, did you have to write this book?

Miller: I felt like I had to write the first part of the book, which was: What was my responsibility? There was a temptation to write the kind of book that was … the 10 douchiest MAGA grifters, you know? Just a jeremiad against the party. Obviously, I’ve had various degrees of distance with the party for five years, six years now, so I just really felt like that would not have addressed the real desire within me to fully account for what my role was, and what my friends’ roles were, and where we parted ways, and what might have been a counterfactual history where I would’ve been as complicit as them.

As I say in the book, the first half is really kind of a look back at what I did and what people I worked with did to lay the groundwork for Trump, and then kind of the second half is my explanation of why I think most of the people that I worked with stuck around when I bailed. And so I guess in short that’s why I had to do a full accounting of my own actions to feel good about writing a book that judged other people’s actions.

Kruse: When did you know you had to engage in this sort of full accounting? As far back as early 2016? After November of 2016?

Miller: It was closer to 2020, honestly. To use a sports cliche, I felt like I left it all on the field in 2016 — I did my part, a lot of people I looked up to let me down, the country let me down, and that I fought the good fight. And I kind of pivoted from that into basically a depression after the 2016 election where I didn’t know what to do with myself. And that period went on for a little while where I was still kind of doing some [anti-Trump] stuff — but also still kind of getting up to my old skullduggery ways and also trying to maybe think about separating from the party. And I moved to California and I started a family. So, after the election, I was really kind of searching for what I felt like I should do in response to what happened in 2016. It wasn’t really until we got close to the re-elect in 2020 when I felt like I had this deep need for atonement — that the view that I had in 2016 was wrong, that I hadn’t left it all on the field, that I needed to do my part to atone for how we had gotten here. And that it wasn’t just my obligation to fight Trump politically. It was also my obligation to myself to be honest about how I contributed to his rise.

Kruse: You quote Tara Westover, the author of the memoir Educated — “vindication has no power over guilt.” And you say: “That is something that resonated with me while I was writing this. I don’t know that I’ll ever fully shake my guilt, but I have to admit that little vindications do bring me some pleasure.” We can talk about the vindications, but honestly I’m more interested in the guilt. What in your estimation is the extent of your guilt for what happened in 2015 and ‘16? What are you most ashamed about with respect to your role in working to create the toxic sociopolitical environment which we’re all in right now?

Miller: There’s a lot of therapy themes in here, so I’ll define our words. Guilt is feeling bad about something that you did, and shame is feeling like you’re bad at the core, right? And navigating through all of that has been something that I have been spending a lot of time thinking about over the last five years. The guilt — which I think is the precise word here — I feel is not, “Oh, there was this one opposition research pitch that I sent out that was a lie or unfair or an exaggeration,” or “There was this one kind of dog whistle that kind of contributed to the racial inflammation of the country.” The thing I feel most guilty about is that my life’s work, frankly, was a net drag on the country and on our society. This whole notion that there should be someone who is a specialist in defaming their political foes in the media is not something I look back on with any pride.

A guy that I barely even know wrote on my Facebook page about how I was degrading the discourse, and all my friends were talking about how big of a jerk he was. This was when I started America Rising, which is an opposition research firm. And I sit here now and look at it, and that guy was exactly right. You can’t look at America Rising or any of the affiliated organizations that just specialize in trashing political foes and think that it’s anything but degrading the discourse. Donald Trump really just supercharged this game of smearing people and bad-faith attacks on opponents and tongue-in-cheek attacks on opponents where the voters and the readers aren’t in on the joke. I was doing all of that. Just not to the same degree as he was.

My other main guilt I try to deal with in this book is that I dealt with a lot of very unsavory people. And this book is about kind of the gray areas, the humans that are making choices in the gray. This book is not about the sociopaths and the bigots who love the cruel part of Trumpism. There are other people — who see the cruel part of Trumpism and go along with it anyway. I look back at my dealings with the Steve Bannons, the Chuck Johnsons of the world, and how I was favor-trading, with a lot of guilt. Because at the time I felt like I was leveraging them. It came to be very obvious that they were leveraging me and that they were corrupting me. And I think that that happened in various degrees to a lot of people over the last six years.

Kruse: Let me play devil’s advocate. What is actually wrong with “oppo” [research]? You are working to educate voters about political aspirants who happen to be opponents of the person you’re working for.

Miller: Sure, there’s nothing inherently wrong with public relations. There’s nothing inherently wrong with doing research about political foes, particularly ones you have genuine disagreements with. But when your whole career and your whole job is centered on smearing people and creating negative news that inflames the passions of the voters, how can you then be surprised when people become very inflamed and come to think of the other side as evil?

Let’s say I got a call from one of Andrew Cuomo’s victims of abuse and I worked with a newspaper to write a story about that. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong about that. But creating an entire organization that is dedicated to smearing Andrew Cuomo for all crimes, real, imagined and exaggerated, without any care or consideration for context or basic fairness or decency — I just think that that’s a different thing. I don’t think that every oppo researcher that reads this interview should say, “I’m a bad person inside.” I just think we should be thinking consciously about the structure of the political game we’ve created and what the incentives are. I created a lot of incentives that were net harmful and not net educational.

Kruse: You cite This Town by Mark Leibovich. It came out in hardcover in 2013 and paperback in 2014, and Trump, of course, came down the escalator in 2015. You told me the other day in a text that you reread Mark’s book before writing your book because there are “some relevant themes.” But you also said, “It seemed less amusing on reread.” What are those relevant themes? And why was the reread less amusing?

Miller: The notion of politics as this “game” — that the two sides are playing, but they’re really at some level on the same team, because they all are continuing to succeed and rise the meritocratic ladder, and they’re just kind of participating in this sort of blood sport for people’s amusement —was a theme of Mark’s book. I think another theme was how this was getting out of control, and how people were becoming enamored with the celebrity associated with it. I think this really came during my time.

There have always been a handful of political svengalis who are famous, but the kind of fame that came from the movie “Game Change” to Steve Schmidt and folks, the kind of fame that the Obama staffers got even — there’s a category difference from that old kind of fame. These people are getting stopped at airports asking for selfies. And that can become intoxicating. I think these two elements were working in concert with each other — that the participants were obsessed with winning and the gamesmanship more than they were obsessed with: “Is this outcome going to actually help the people that we’re here to serve?” They became caught up in their own niche version of fame — not real fame, but Twitter fame. I think it led to a lot of choices that created a disconnect from voters that inflamed voters, that rewarded behavior that was not in service of what people actually wanted. Should we be surprised that a game show host was able to manipulate a system such as this?

Kruse: Right.

Miller: Obviously Donald Trump was going to be better at this than “insert dorky political strategist here.” Obviously, there are other elements that caused Trump’s rise. Nationalism, globalism — there have been other books about this — but I think we’d be kidding ourselves if we did not admit that there was a direct line between kind of the stuff that we mocked, that was mocked in This Town, and Trump. I think Mark did a wonderful job with his book, but I think it’s telling that a sequel, which he’s writing, is going to be very different.

To write that book now would not make any sense because of what has been wrought by it. And so some of the stuff that felt very frivolous and maybe worthy of mockery but also kind of funny and enlightening and invigorating when I first read it when I read it this time was cringe-inducing at best. I kind of wanted to be in This Town. I was kind of sad I wasn’t, despite the fact that he was mocking people, and that goes to show you how warped my mindset was in 2013. To be mentioned, to be talked about, was an end unto itself, even if there was a hint of mockery to it. That is a very corrupting culture.

Kruse: I actually went back and looked at how the publisher publicized it. “Washington D.C. might be loathed from every corner of the nation, yet these are fun and buzzy days at this nexus of big politics, big money, big media, and big vanity. There are no Democrats and Republicans anymore in the nation’s capital, just millionaires …” I mean, that’s not even 10 years ago.

Miller: And, by the way, that was how I felt then. I mean, I look at that with judgment on myself, not on that publicist. They were “fun and buzzy days.” I loved the White House Correspondents Dinner parties in 2013, you know? You’re seeing kind of quasi-celebrities and I’m the RNC’s hit man and so I’m joking with the Obama people and we’re having kind of this friendly repartee that was all kayfabe. It was all bullshit. It was all just a show. There are plenty of people who care about their specific niche issues, but the campaign set, the people who became famous, there was no deep sense of like, “We’re doing this in service to some greater good that’s going to help people.” There was some earnestness about that on the Democratic side. But among the Republican consultant class? Come on.

Kruse: You also mentioned to me that Losers, the lesser-known book by Michael Lewis about presidential candidates in 1996 who didn’t win, was maybe even more of an inspiration for you than This Town. How so?

Miller: Losers is a really harsh critique of the political class, in a very Michael Lewis jocular style, of the people who are working these campaigns, who really don’t actually care about the impact on voters. And he was critiquing both the Clinton and Dole staffs and how, like, they’re practically interchangeable as far as their beliefs. He called us “rented strangers,” and talked about these rented strangers who are more impressed with their putative strategies and clever tactics than they are with what’s going to actually help the American people. I just thought that he, not being a political reporter, had a clarity of just how debased that culture was that political reporters sometimes give a pass to — because they’re a part of it at a certain level.

And if you’re not concerned in the least about what your own voters think, you’re only concerned about tearing down the other guy, the voters are going to sense that, right? And two things are going to happen. One, they’re going to grow to really hate the other guy, and negative partisanship’s going to rise, which we’ve seen, more than they actually care about what positive changes they’re delivering to you; and two, eventually, they’re going to overthrow you.

It was inevitable that this political class was going to get overthrown by a mad electorate whose needs weren’t being responded to. It’s the one area where I’m the most sympathetic to the genuine MAGAs—there aren’t that many of them—but, like, they were right about us. Trump had our number on that. He knew how weak the Republican establishment was as evidenced by how much they ended up going along with him. And they, and he, knew how phony we were. Could there have been a less painful political disruption had, like, the Republican political class actually been responsive to what the voters were saying about Iraq, about globalism, about all these other things, rather than feeding them Ground Zero mosque bullshit and the Clinton death list or whatever?

Kruse: The people who come off the worst in your book are not “the genuine MAGAs,” as you put it. It’s not the red hats. It’s not even actually Trump. It’s the political class that birthed him. The political class that enabled him.

Miller: My favorite anecdote? The guy and I were on background when he said it to me, so he was anonymous, but the Republican staffer who said he had never voted for a Republican for president in his life.

Kruse: Amazing.

Miller: That’s how phony it is. This is a person that’s my age and voted for Obama and Clinton and Biden and is still prominent in the party.

Kruse: In what way did being gay, and specifically having been closeted for as long as you were, make you perhaps particularly able to see and to diagnose what Trump was doing to the Republican Party as he was doing it—and why people, your friends and ex-friends, were letting him do it?

Miller: I really tried to get into my own mindset because I’m trying to understand their mindset, and so I wanted to look back on my own flaws, and I think being gay impacted my perspective on this in two ways.

This is maybe going to sound self-aggrandizing — it’s not meant to — but I think you gain a sense of empathy for other people when you go through something as traumatic as being rejected because of your sexuality or fear that you’re going to be rejected by your loved ones because of your sexuality. And so I felt like it gave me a level of empathy, looking towards the people that Trump was being cruel to that maybe some of my peers dismissed, because they’d never been on the receiving end of that. I was an obnoxious, all-boys-school, high-school-Republican, contrarian son-of-a-bitch before I came to terms with my sexuality. And I think it’s really easy to look back at 20-year-old me and think that guy kind of would’ve liked the skill with which Trump tears people down, you know? And so I kind of understand that there are people who separate the impact of him from, like, enjoying the show. And there are some characters in the book that fit that description.

Then the other thing that I think that being gay gave me perspective on is I had to really look back and reckon with: Why did I work for people who wanted to deny me the most important things in my life? Like my husband and my daughter. I had multiple candidates, multiple clients, that I worked for that were explicitly in favor of banning gay marriage, banning gay adoption. The most extreme example, Ken Cuccinelli, had said just hateful, derisive things about gays. How did I convince myself that it was OK to work for those people? I knew what I would say to people, which was like, “Well, it’s just one issue, right? And I like him more on taxes and abortion and foreign policy.” That was kind of the story I was telling myself to make myself comfortable keeping the job.

If I was able to compartmentalize, like, the most important things in my life, in a little box in this corner of my brain, to work for somebody, then all of a sudden it’s really easy to imagine how somebody could compartmentalize, you know, evil that does not impact them, or that Trump’s policies aren’t that bad.

Kruse: Is it possible though, that you would’ve gone on with it, you would not have seen Trump for what he was, you would not have responded the way you started to respond, had you not gone through that process of having to stop basically lying to yourself?

Miller: Yeah. Thank God I’m gay. I don’t have to know the answer to that, but I’m really scared that the answer is: It’s possible. And this is the part that’s always a challenge for me. Trump was so far away from the line. But I might have gotten there for Cruz. The Cruz people knew me. They liked me because I was Never Trump. I was helping him, essentially, in the primary. I would’ve been a diversity hire to a certain degree. Had Cruz become the president, they might have asked me to be White House communications director. I don’t think that’s totally crazy to imagine that that could have happened.

Kruse: And you might very well have taken that call and you might very well have worked in the Ted Cruz White House.

Miller: I might have. I don’t know. I think that my husband might have divorced me. So being gay might have saved me on that. I certainly could imagine the situation where I would’ve done it. And that helps me understand why they did it.

Kruse: Not everybody is faced with these decisions quite so starkly, but everybody’s faced with some version of these decisions all the time: What am I willing to put up with, what am I willing to do to get ahead?

Miller: I felt like if this book turned out well that there would be an element of universality to it. I was trying to get at that, that some of these calls were kind of gray, and that we all have this ability to rationalize going along with bad things — because, you know, we might be the good one, or because we could nudge it the right direction, or just purely financial. Maybe it will help somebody who’s dealing with that kind of decision to re-wire their brain a little bit and think: “Well, why am I doing this?” And I think that a lot of my colleagues didn’t do that self-reflection.

Kruse: Before we even get to that place where people had to actually make those decisions, you essentially described yourself, and many others like you, as basically drug dealers, and the base of the Republican Party as addicts. What’s the drug, and how were you pushing it?

Miller: Rage juice is the drug — hate of your perceived enemies and people that aren’t like you. I think that it is very similar to drug use, especially in the digital age. I talked a lot about like how I was very central in the conservative media ecosystem kind of feeding little doses of rage juice to my friends at various conservative media outlets. Any reader of this who has a family member or friend who has gotten hooked on conservative media will know what I’m talking about. You want the latest fix. Every time you open your computer on Facebook, you want to get mad at what those other guys are doing to you, you want to be outraged at how they’re trying to take something away from you that you want. You want to feel righteous about the fact that your evil fellow countrymen are doing something that goes against your worldview, your moral framework.

The incestuous relationship between Republican campaigns, right-wing media sites, Fox news, the emails and texts that get sent to people — there’s just no way to look at it as a news environment. This is not like, “Oh, we’re trying to provide people with news but just from a more conservative vantage point.” That’s the pitch, but that’s not what it is. It is a completely interconnected delivery device of rage juice. I wanted to kind of pull back the curtain for people on how that works, to also help explain why I felt complicit in it. It’s not just this one little item that I look back on and say, “Oh, I shouldn’t have sent that to IJ Review, this thing that is a little bigoted or whatever.” It’s not that. It’s that this whole culture was turning people crazy. And I was a central cog in it.

Kruse: Is there any comparable way in which voters on the left also are addicts? They’re just going to a different set of dealers?

Miller: I hope that Democrats who read this book, and I think there’ll be a lot of Democrats who read it, see some maybe diet-version parallels. I don’t think that there is anything on the left that is an exact replica or even really close, but I think that there’s some elements to the culture that got corrupted on the right that have parallels on the left. Anybody who is plugged into “resistance Twitter” can certainly see this sort of addiction element to it, this fix of wanting to be reminded of their righteousness, to be reminded the other side’s evil, not wanting to get information that conflicts with their priors. Over time that can build and create this rage that bubbles over, especially in individuals. A couple weeks ago, there was a guy with a gun at [Justice Brett] Kavanaugh’s house. But especially now that we’ve sorted by education, there are a variety of reasons why the Democratic base is fundamentally different from the Republican base. There are some other flaws with liberal media, but if you looked at, for example, liberal magazines, they are much more policy focused and much less clickbait-y. There are obviously examples of bad actors, but if you look at Mother Jones and Slate and the New Republic’s Twitter feed compared to Breitbart’s Twitter feed, there are some clear differences.

Kruse: How do we overcome this tribal trap we seem to be stuck in right now?

Miller: You sound like a publisher. Usually, these books have a last chapter, which is recommendations for going forward. I was, like, “That chapter’s not going to be in this book. That’s not what this book is.”

Kruse: Because that chapter can’t be written, or because you don’t know, or what?

Miller: The solutions offered would seem very minor in the face of the problems that were presented in the previous 17 chapters. It’s hard to rewire. Just to beat our drug analogy to death here, rehab’s hard. There’s not, like a magic fix or silver bullet for unwiring decades of a brain that has become addicted to something.

I think trying to untangle identity from “blue team” and “red team” is really important, because identity is so powerful. This is the other thing that I try to talk about. For gay people, coming out of the closet is hard because of this change of your identity. It’s not only how you look at yourself, but how other people look at you. People you love — your dad, your high school bestie — you’re worried that they’re going to now see you differently because your identity is changed in their eyes. And so if the red team becomes like skin color, like sexuality, untangling that is a lifetime of work, and it’s therapy. And we really should think about it like that. It’s not like there’s this switch that we can turn that’s going to get people to shed something that has become so central to how they view themselves. Untangling that is going to also take decades. It’s not going to be 2024.

Kruse: But you are a person who’s now done this in some sense twice. You were in the closet and you came out. And then you essentially shifted your identity from a certain kind of Republican operative affiliated with people like Jeb Bush to now Tim Miller of MSNBC and the Bulwark.

Miller: The two best things I ever did in my life were changing those identities — coming out of the closet and quitting being a Republican hatchet man are the two best decisions. They allowed me the freedom to be much more honest with myself, to see the world in different ways, in the former instance to meet my husband, to have a child. My message to people is that we don’t need to be scared of this, right?

We should embrace the nuance. We should embrace having the old ways we view things being challenged because what comes of it can be good. And I know that a lot of times we feel that we’re in a time of entropy where everything’s getting worse and worse. That’s not really true. There are a lot of ways in which society’s changed for the better, and there’s some very discrete ways in which they changed for the worse, sort of tied to the very issues that we’re talking about. I hope more people can embrace that. And I hope that this book in a way will let people see themselves in some of these characters who I think are less happy than me. The Republican consultant types who stayed the course, they’re richer, they have a boat and a beach house, but they seem less happy than me.

Kruse: Even Elise Stefanik?

Miller: No. Maybe not Elise.

One thing I’ve learned throughout this process is that there will always be some bad people who get rewarded for doing bad things. That doesn’t mean that you should do bad things too. So Elise seems pretty happy, even though she wouldn’t talk to me for the book, which was sad because of our former collegiality. She represents the most kind of base justification that politicians have for doing any bad thing, which is just striving for power. The shamelessness with which Elise did it has paid off for her to a level that I truly believe that she will be one of the most likely people to be named vice president if Donald Trump runs again.

Kruse: As we toggle back and forth between notes of optimism and notes of pessimism, this book is an effort to answer a question. You write: “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 the answer based on my read, boiled down, is we tell ourselves stories, which is a nice way of saying we’re fucking liars. We lie to others. But more importantly, we lie to ourselves, to make ourselves OK with the stuff that we do. And so my question is: How are we still lying to ourselves as a country in 2022?

Miller: Boy, that’s a huge question. I would say, for starters, it’s really hard to not lie to yourself, in little ways and big ways, right? We all lie to ourselves. This is not something that is unique to the Republican consulting class of 1996 to 2016.

Kruse: Totally.

Miller: And I acknowledge that some people will probably read it and say, “Well, you’re still lying yourself to justify just being on a different team.” I think about that and grapple with that every day.

Kruse: I’m glad you brought that up. Aren’t you still in the game? You’re just wearing the Bulwark and the MSNBC ball cap now?

Miller: My answer to that question is that the best we can do is look at our choices and ask: Is what I’m doing in service of my integrity? Am I being honest with why I’m making the choices that I make? At times, you know, politics is still a sport. At times, people are going to answer those questions and say, “Yeah, I’m acting with my integrity. And I think that the best thing to do is, uh, run this smear ad against my opponent.” This is not a book that says, “All politics is bad.” But I think a lot of people in the Republican consulting class, in positions of power in elite institutions throughout the country, are not even asking themselves those questions. And I think that if they did the world would look a lot different. I don’t think that’s going to happen overnight.

Kruse: It won’t happen overnight, but will it happen before our democracy turns into … not a democracy?

Miller: It’s hard to say yes. By the way, all of these guys are all doing the same things that I wrote about in this book. Nothing, literally nothing, has changed since 2016, or since Michael Lewis for that matter. Since Trump came down the escalator, nothing has changed. They’re all doing the exact same things, even after the Capitol was stormed. I knew on January 7, when there was all this “hopium” about how, “Oh, this will be the moment that Mitch McConnell sees the light.” I knew that they wouldn’t that day. And I said on the Bulwark podcast, I was like, Lindsey Graham will be back at Mar-a-Lago golfing by Valentine’s Day. And I was too optimistic. He was down there by mid-January.

Kruse: What happens if 2024 is a Trump-Biden rematch? What does the country do to itself?

Miller: Are you ready for this?

Kruse: Hit me.

Miller: I actually think it’s worse than what people imagine. For one, it’s impossible to imagine a situation where the loser of that election would accept the result. Joe Biden is a man of decency, and so he would accept the result. But the Democratic base? And in this case, you know, for good reason, right? This man had been impeached twice and tried a coup. And obviously we know the Trump base wouldn’t accept a loss and that Donald Trump himself wouldn’t accept a loss. 2024 is a powder keg.