Why They Did It or What's the price for a soul these days in American politics?
Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell
Tim Miller 2022
In 2012 Barack Obama was re-elected to the presidency over a moderate (by today's standards) Republican candidate. After that election, the Republican party conducted what they called an "autopsy" to look at where their brand had lost popularity with normal Americans and what could be done about it. Tim Miller, who took part in that autopsy, lays out some of the recommendations that they came up with including paying more attention to the need of marginalized groups and people of color, while avoiding racist and sexist content that turned people off. Needless to say, the recommendations of that autopsy went unheeded and by 2016 the party went full MAGA, emphasizing white grievance as its path back to power. What happened? How did the "adults" in the room who had formed the backbone of the party for generations give way to the extremist, conspiracy-minded candidates that dominate today? Why We Did It is the story of how it happened.
Tim Miller is a former Republican operative who worked on many Republican political campaigns including Mitt Romney's 2012 run and Jeb Bush's 2016 run. He broke with the Republican party in 2016 over its nomination of Donald Trump and became dismayed at how so many friends and former colleagues rationalized their support of a man many saw as unfit for the presidency. In this book he describes his own journey and interviews several others who are still wrapped up in the MAGA story.
Many people treat their work and personal lives separately, compartmentalizing the ugly parts of their work into a series of rationalizations that allow them to sleep at night. Miller, who is gay, had to compartmentalize his sexual identity while working for a party that routinely bashed gay and lesbian people. His political leanings were admittedly "squishy", as he calls them, but he felt most at home with Republican politicians and campaign workers. Miller had no trouble latching up with moderate Republicans until the party went full MAGA, and now he spends his time lamenting on what went wrong.
The Republican autopsy of 2012 went against many of the sacred cows that the party had built up. Rather than moderate their positions to gain votes, Donald Trump arrived on the scene to make that adjustment seem unnecessary. He supercharged white grievance with coded messages against Mexicans, Muslims, Blacks, Gays, and any other out group that he could use to enrage his base. It worked. This book isn't so much about Trump or his failings, but more about how the people who knew better went along with it anyway. We all have to make similar accommodations to unpleasantness and unfairness in our everyday lives given the imperfect world that surrounds us. The fascinating question that we all have to confront is- how much moral hazard are we willing to go along with to get what we want?
So here is a list of some of the types of enablers that Miller encountered. He names names like Reince Priebus, Lindsay Graham, and Elise Stefanik, but the stories of the mental gymnastics involved are bigger than any one group of people.
1- Messiahs. These were the people who saw themselves as counterweights to Trump's craziness. They worked in the administration hoping to temper some of Trump's worst excesses, and had some success in that. But they never publicly opposed Trump, and their presence only made Trump look more normal.
2- Demonizers. Democrats and Liberals are bad, evil, and out to destroy America. For those who take these beliefs to heart, any behavior, no matter how reprehensible, is justified.
3- LOL nothing matters Republicans. Fatalistic and cynical, these people went about their business believing that everybody is screwed already and nothing they do will change that. Politics is meaningless, so what the hell?
4- Tribalist Trolls. Tribal identity is everything with these people. Anything your tribe does is inherently good, and anything competing tribes do is inherently bad.
5- Strivers. Blind ambition was nothing new during the Trump years, but those who wanted to reach higher office, fame, and power knew they had to cater to the MAGA crowd, Fox News, and the Trump administration.
6- Compartmentalizers. These folks went about their business with blinders on, avoiding the news and tucking bad Trump thoughts deep down in a box in the corner of their brain.
Miller goes into great detail about people that he knew who fell into these strategies and more to get through the Trump years with a clear conscience. Many of the rationales above could apply to any party at any time, including Democrats, but the author focuses on his own disturbing experiences with the Republican party of 2020, which seems to have thrown out many of its previous principles to accommodate a new way of doing things.
I've always hoped that government employees kept the notion of public service as primary, and that politicians in a democracy would remain accountable to the people who vote them in. I'm not so sure this is true anymore. Books like this confirm my suspicions that the entire system has been corrupted by money, extremism, religious dogma, power, fame, and bucketloads of money.
Miller talks about "The Game", an inside joke among political types everywhere that nothing matters except winning. Here is a quote that stuck with me:
"Something you didn't hear much from players in the Game was self-doubt over whether the political tactics they were employing might hurt the people they were purporting to serve. So, the practitioners of politics could easily dismiss moralistic or technical concerns by throwing down their trump card: "It's all part of the Game."
- Policy doesn't actually add up? Who cares, part of the Game
- Attack on your opponent not in good faith? Part of the Game: make them defend it.
- Getting an endorsement from someone popular but repugnant? Game
- Raising money from people you suspect to be corrupt? Game.
- Spam emailing supporters with hysterical messages about how their five dollars are needed to prevent the evildoers from stealing everything that mattered to them? That's how the Game is played."
Normally I don't like books about politics or politicians as they are depressingly predictable and rarely insightful. This one seemed different, as it spills open the culture of winning at any price that consumes our media and political worlds.
I strongly believe that any healthy society needs to look at both the conservative and liberal sides of things. It's basic Yin and Yang, and any nation that drifts too far to the left or right risks losing its grip with reality. Liberals are supposed to point out unfairness while putting forth new ideas, while conservatives are supposed to defend the status quo and reinforce rules and order. In today's America, money, religion, conservative media, and racism have supercharged those on the right to believe that they are under siege and that the other side is pure evil. The left has its issues too, but they pale in comparison.
For those who follow politics this book will have juicy stories about recognizable names and how hypocritical and shameless they were. After the events of January 6th, where for a brief few moments it looked like we were all coming back together to renounce this kind of insanity. But by February, things were back to the way they were and America could be facing something even worse in future election cycles.
But in my mind the best value of this book goes beyond the Republican mess of 2020. It exposes a culture that's devoid of values, and if we ever want to return to the noble intentions of the Founding Fathers and the many great people who followed, we need to see this ugliness for exactly what it is and call it out whenever we can.