Josh Shapiro with health care and service industry workers outside the Smithfield United Church of Christ in Downtown Pittsburgh on Mon., Sept. 19, 2022. (Pittsburgh City Paper photo by Jamie Wiggan).
In his new book, Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell, former GOP strategist Tim Miller gives us his autopsy on why so many “normal” people went along with the Trumpist excesses that now threaten our Democratic system.
His bona fides include serving on former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign as communications director and as the Republican National Committee’s spokesman for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Now he’s an Independent voter, an MSNBC political analyst, writer-at-large at The Bulwark, and host of Snapchat’s Not My Party.Miller lives in Oakland, Calif., with his husband, Tyler, and their daughter.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Capital-Star: Your book was written with two distinct sections: First, the journey you took “walking right up to the ledge” and the “red flags you saw and ignored.” What happened to you that you walked right up to the ledge? What did you ignore?
Miller: Well, I think that I was doing a lot of the same rationalizations that people who know better and who are in the Republican Party right now are still doing. That is, deciding that you know you liked the candidates that you worked for, and that they were good people with good intentions. I thought that I didn’t need to worry myself about the crazies over there in the corner, the more extreme candidates. I didn’t worry that my candidates, at times, had to pander to the more extreme voters because I knew in my heart of hearts that they were good people.
Capital-Star: A basic, human reaction?
Miller: I think that this is a natural human rationalization, to want to look at the best examples when judging yourself and your intentions … But it’s important not to ignore the actions that reflect poorly on your own side.
Capital-Star: What did you, others ignore?
Miller: The crowds that started showing up when [former Alaska Gov.] Sarah Palin was selected as John McCain’s vice presidential running mate [in 2008]. The people showing up at all the rallies were all just prototype examples of what we later saw with [former President Donald] Trump.
A serious political party does not have someone like Herman Cain leading a presidential primary and that doesn’t even include all the Tea Party candidates who went into Congress with their extreme views.
Capital-Star: Is the GOP now a cult?
Miller: I think that there are cultish elements. I also think there are people that are voting for Republicans that are not in a cult. If I look at the Republican Party, I basically see about 40 percent of the party that is, pretty much, completely in service to Donald Trump and they carry a lot of cult-like behaviors. Another 40 percent of the party is very much in line with Trump’s positions. And then I think there’s a group within the party that would like to move on from Trump. So, I don’t think the entire party is a cult but a significant portion of the party is driving that cultish behavior.
Capital-Star: All the signs were there but unacknowledged?
Miller: There was plenty of evidence that the GOP had a very extreme underbelly that evolved into a controlling factor. Pushing the establishment to more extreme places. But up until something as insane as Donald Trump winning the primary, I didn’t I didn’t feel like the situation required any action. I was just one cog in the machine but that’s something I regret.
Capital-Star: Your book’s second section is a more complex “psychological journey” of what to make of those “who saw his [Trump’s] defects clearly and went along anyway.” Why did Trump supporters go long?
Miller: Well, not everybody was doing it with the best of intentions. As I analyzed people that went along with Trump, I came up with a variety of rationalizations. There were some people who thought that it … was important to have good people around Trump, that they were involved in public service. They thought the country required that they go in to make sure the ship of state stayed afloat.
Capital-Star: They saw themselves as front and center to a larger endeavor?
Miller: I think some of those people were maybe pumping themselves up by saying that they were important and it was important to have good people in there advising Trump. Some had purely ideological reasons regarding why they remained in the party. But I also found that a lot of people’s rationalizations were more than just that. Lots of people were simply addicted to being in the mix, to being around power. Like the play “Hamilton,” you want to be in the room where it happens. Consider too, that a lot of people just really didn’t want to take the personal and career risk that stepping away would require. Their involvement was part of their identity, something essential to their career, to their finances.
Capital-Star: And it metastasized from there?
Miller: Oh, lots of people came up with elaborate constructions in their brain about how extreme the Left is. They really convinced themselves that it was the Left that was crazy and not the person that they were working for. I cover the different reasons in my book but they ranged from defensible to extremely self-serving postures.
Capital-Star: Would it be fair to say at this point our political dialogue is officially unhinged at every level, including school boards, city councils?
Miller: Yeah, look, the craziest have taken over the GOP and the people that I write about in this book, the people who know better, have been totally subsumed by folks that are actively arguing for ending our democracy. The people that know better are somehow justifying the fact that they think that the right thing to do is to be normal and quiet. To me that’s crazy! That is the ultimate self-serving choice.
We need people like U.S. Reps. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo, and Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., who are willing to speak up, speak back to them because it starts with the school board, city councils, all the way up through secretaries of state, gubernatorial and U.S. Senate races. There are so few examples of Republicans who have been willing to speak truth to power about what really happened in 2020. Not many are willing to push back.
Capital-Star: No one out there?
Miller: I can list … on one hand the [number of] people who are willing to just speak the truth about Donald Trump’s actions. The rest of them are either actively excited about putting this man back in power or are sleepwalking their way back into another Trump nomination.
Capital-Star: Do you fear violence approaching the Nov. 8 general election?
Miller: I am definitely concerned about election workers. I don’t know why you would have confidence right now that there’s not going to be violence especially given the type of rhetoric out there. But I’m hopeful and grateful for everybody that serves in that capacity. I’m not an expert on extremism. I think Jan. 6 is unique in the way it provided a location at a time for that sort of mob mentality to form. Will there be another thing like that this year? I don’t know, probably not. But random acts of violence are something I’m concerned about.
Capital-Star: Things are different for you now that you’re speaking truth to power through your book and your commentator work?
Miller: Well yeah, the nice thing is, and this is not me patting myself on the back, I could have found myself being the rationalizer and could have protested a bit less. But because Donald Trump thrust me into this position with his manifest dangerousness, I do feel like now I have the benefit of being able to just be honest, I’m never going to get hired by a Republican again. I don’t think the Democrats are going to hire me after reading in my book about my past.
Capital-Star: The new Tim Miller?
Miller: I’m now a rare, former political operative who can just say out loud the truth of the moment and not angle for something. The truth as I see it is that nearly all the Republican Party’s politicians right now are complicit in a very dangerous line. That is the existential threat to our Democracy. I don’t mean to say that the Democrats are perfect. I’m happy to criticize them when they deserve it but they are not the prime threat that I see. A lot of my old friends and colleagues don’t like it. Still, I’m going to keep talking about it all.
Capital-Star: Ever worked on a Pennsylvania campaign?
Miller: In 2020, I was very active with a Republicans Against Trump effort in Pennsylvania.
We had a couple of people on the ground. We had billboards and TV ads featuring real people from Pennsylvania who told their stories about why they were former Republicans who would be voting against Trump. We ran a bunch of ads in the Harrisburg region which we saw as our main market with the effort. I’m on the board of the Republican Accountability Project which has similar billboards up right now for this election cycle. When I was involved with America Rising, we did some research on Pennsylvania races but I never actually worked on a campaign in your state.
Capital-Star: Regarding Pennsylvania and the Nov. 8 general election, FiveThirtyEight reports that on election day 60 percent of voters will have an election denier on the ballot. For Pennsylvania, that’s 10 Republicans and most of our congressional delegates denying the validity of the 2020 election. What do you think we’re in for nationwide and in Pennsylvania with that many deniers on the ballot?
Miller: Obviously Pennsylvania is in the middle of contested races, as has been reported to me by people on the ground. [Republican governor nominee] Doug Mastriano against Josh Shapiro [the Democratic nominee] is one of the three most important races in the country when it comes to protecting our democracy.
I say the stakes are high because Mastriano can appoint his own secretary of state who would have ample opportunity to mess with 2022 and 2024 results by not certifying results. I’m deeply concerned about 2024, when for example, one state like Pennsylvania or Arizona could surface as the deciding state in who wins.
Capital-Star: Your impressions of our governor’s race?
Miller: Mastriano is running against a totally mainstream Democrat, Shapiro, who is running, I think, a good campaign. He’s not an extremist like his opponent or a far left progressive. I really hope that Pennsylvania voters, swing voters and Republicans like myself can just accept who Shapiro is. He will not be a wild card like Mastriano when it comes to what he might do in 2024. .
Capital-Star: The U.S, Senate race between [Democrat] John Fetterman and [Republican] Mehmet Oz is in a statistical tie. And polls show Shapiro ahead of Mastriano by more comfortable margins. Why the difference?
Miller: I’m not surprised since in some ways the campaign has evolved into ‘the better man question.’ Factor this in too: People act like there are no swing voters anymore, but that is wrong. Maybe there aren’t as many as there used to be but two categories remain persuadable.
Capital-Star: The two categories are?
Miller: The college-educated voter and suburban women and their daughters, especially after Roe’s reversal. Many of these voters are former Republicans. It is surprising to me that Oz would appeal to them, given how extreme he can be. And it’s not surprising to me that some swing voters would look at Fetterman deciding he’s too progressive for them. Fetterman is not gaining working-class swing voters which can explain the difference in the Senate and gubernatorial polls. Let me be clear – I’m not endorsing that to you, but I can easily imagine there will be a significant number of swing voters on both sides particularly in the kind of suburbs and exurbs heading out towards Harrisburg.
Capital-Star: Your take on Trump versus Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2024?
Miller: I don’t think that there’s a 0 percent chance of DeSantis being the GOP candidate. Question is: Are there enough voters willing to move on from Trump in a primary setting? Exactly how do you run a campaign against Trump and not alienate the many people who still like him? Who knows what DeSantis might do the first time Trump throws a punch at him? Will DeSantis be able to resist the Trump Show in a Republican primary?
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