Q&A with Republican operative turned never-Trumper Tim Miller

By: - September 16, 2022 6:00 am

Author Tim Miller. Courtesy photo.

Tim Miller was a top aide to Jeb Bush during the former Florida governor’s 2016 presidential campaign. A Republican insider in the heart of the D.C. political sphere, Miller spent countless hours doing opposition research to smear Democrats.

Miller also worked for Sen. John McCain and was a spokesperson for the National Republican Party. After working for numerous Republican campaigns, Miller separated himself from other conservatives after the rise of Donald Trump. He was also a senior advisor for the anti-Trump group Our Principles PAC.

Nowadays, Miller spends his time as a writer for The Bulwark, a center-right leaning publication, and as a contributor to MSNBC. Miller has burned many of the bridges he once had with other Republican operatives, but he was able to get enough out of his former friends and colleagues to write his new book, Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell.

Miller, who recently visited St. Paul as part of a national book tour, wrote Why We Did It as a form of self-described atonement for his complicity in allowing Republican extremism — particularly support for Trump —  to grow. The subjects of his book are mostly Republican political staffers, candidates and conservative members of the media — what Miller describes as the “political class.” 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Why did you write Why We Did It?

What I wanted to do was to get at why people who knew better collaborated even when they knew Trump was dangerous. Why did they continue to enable him? We all kind of think we know, with certain things like power and money, but just understanding the psyche of the Republican political class in Washington.

I thought it was important as we move forward, unfortunately, because he might run again. Since I was one of them and knew all these people personally and was at some level also complicit in the things that led to Trump, I thought I could maybe have a unique ability to analyze that so folks could better understand the motivations — how people went along with this crazy nonsense.

Through your interviews with Washington insiders, what were the conclusions of your analysis?

Well the saddest conclusion, actually, is that a lot of people went along with Trump for reasons that are much more banal than your worst expectations. In some ways that’s nice. To think that not everybody is a sociopath and a bigot, but it just makes you feel like, “Man, we could have prevented this. We could have stopped this if people just had a little bit of courage in their convictions and more gumption.”

A lot of these people went along with Trump for very basic reasons. Inertia. They compartmentalize the bad things and ignore them so they don’t have to deal with it. The fact that people go along with someone like Trump is just because they didn’t want to take a career risk. Or they were annoyed that the media was nicer to the Democrats. I mean, that’s pretty pathetic, and I think that was kind of a revelation for a lot of my interviews with my former colleagues.

You also explained your complicity, which was similar to your former colleagues. How do you feel about it now?

I was always a moderate Republican, but this is why I feel like I’m partially complicit. A lot of those of us who would want to encourage Republicans to channel their better angels just went right along with it when we were channeling the darker angels as well. I was a communications person and a lot of times my job was to stir up animus against the left. Some of the times it was legitimate. Other times it was hyperbole.

That kind of hypocrisy, that kind of behavior in service to wanting to win and serve only to advance my career — I look back on that with a lot of regret and I think that’s part of the culture in Washington. This is politics. Everybody has to do what they gotta do, and that was wrong. Sometimes you need to be more of a turd in the punchbowl when people or an organization are doing the wrong thing. In Republican politics in particular, there’s just nobody who does that. When you understand that culture, you kind of understand why they went along with Donald Trump. People have gotten very used to making arguments and advancing arguments that they didn’t really believe but that they knew would stir up the base vote.

Was there a particular moment where you started to change your thinking and became more disillusioned with Republicans?

I saw it all. I saw that the party was appealing to these really dark elements. But it’s like the old (Godfather) line: Every time you think you’re out, they just pull you back in. I kept getting sucked back in. Sometimes for earnest reasons, sometimes for bad reasons, like career ambition. I don’t know that there was one moment, but obviously Trump getting in kind of shook me. I was opposed to Trump. Probably by the end of Trump’s first year I was like, “This is it for me. I can’t be a part of this at all.” Then I felt like I have a responsibility to try to have a little bit of atonement here and do some advocacy and journalism about the state of affairs.

How does the Jan. 6 insurrection fit into your book and your analysis?

I’ve been wrong about a lot, but I was right about one thing. Very disturbingly right, which was that almost everybody who had gone along with Trump up to Jan. 6 would get back on board with him. I know a lot of people thought that was going to be a big breaking point, but most of them went and got back on board. The reason why I felt I knew that was gonna happen was because I understood their motivations for why they were there in the first place. They had gotten on board with Trump, not because they liked Trump or believed that he was ethical or even good, but because they wanted to keep moving up the career ladder. They wanted access to power.

What message do you want people to get from reading your book?

My goal is just for people to understand all these people as humans. That isn’t my way of trying to make people empathize with them, because I really think they’re the villains of the book, honestly. But if we’re ever going to stop this continuing complicity with evil things, we need to figure out how to get people to walk away from the darkness. You can’t get people to walk away until you figure out why they’re there in the first place.

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Michelle Griffith
Michelle Griffith

Michelle Griffith covers Minnesota politics and policy for the Reformer, with a focus on marginalized communities. Most recently she was a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead in North Dakota where she covered state and local government and Indigenous issues. For two years she was also a corps member with Report for America, a national nonprofit that places journalists in local newsrooms and news deserts. She lives in St. Paul and likes to knit and watch documentaries in her free time.