Tim Miller. Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. New York: HarperCollins, 2022.
Dana Milbank. The Destructionists: The Twenty-Five-Year Crack-Up of the Republican Party. New York: Doubleday, 2022.
These two books are recent additions to the growing literature on the transformation of the Republican Party into the Party of Trump. One author is a Republican operative and the other a journalist, but both are alarmed by the implications of this development for American democracy.
Tim Miller’s book has a more psychological focus, exploring the personal motivations of Republicans who went along with the MAGA movement. Dana Milbank’s book is more historical, documenting key events in the party over recent decades. Both books agree that the party was already behaving badly well before 2016, and that Donald Trump benefited from a political environment that he couldn’t have created singlehandedly.
Although both books suggest some larger reasons for what they describe, such as the rise of new media platforms for disinformation, neither devotes as much space as I would like to the social trends and conditions that led a major party—and the Republican Party in particular—to stray so far from conventional democratic norms. I will have more to say about that in my final post on this topic.
Why We Did It
Miller’s Why We Did It is mainly about the “army of consultants, politicians, and media figures” who changed the character of their party just before and after Donald Trump rose to its leadership. His book has a confessional aspect, since he includes himself in his own critique, despite the fact that he ultimately drew the line at supporting Trump. He describes his work for America Rising, an organization he started in 2012 to conduct opposition research. In Miller’s typically colorful language, it was a “chop shop that would specialize in mercilessly investigating and then eviscerating Democratic candidates and causes.” He soon came to realize that some of the candidates he worked for were far worse than their opponents, but he rationalized it as “all ‘part of the Game’ or the ‘price of doing business’ or whatever else I needed to tell myself to justify doing terrible shit like working to elect racist, homophobic assholes…”
However, Miller also participated in the Republican “Autopsy” following Mitt Romney’s defeat in 2012. He supported its conclusions that the party ought to reject bigoted candidates, reach out to previously marginalized groups, and compromise on issues like immigration and criminal justice reform to appeal to more voters of color. He was not amused to see the rise of Donald Trump, who seemed to want to take the party in the opposite direction. He assumed leadership of a super Pac that tried but failed to stop Trump from getting the 2016 nomination. To his dismay, most of his friends and colleagues then got on the MAGA bandwagon.
Miller’s book is largely a typology of personal motivations and rationalizations people adopt to justify their political behavior. Here are some of his types:
- Compartmentalizers, which include Miller himself until he refused to support Trump, separate their political work from issues of personal integrity and principle.
- Gamers treat politics as a game, concentrating on “strategy, tactics, messaging, advertising, opposition research,” in short, winning. They give little thought to actually governing.
- Messiahs tell themselves that their good work can save the party and the nation from the worst impulses of the leader they work for.
- LOL Nothing Matters Republicans think that “if someone like Trump could win, than everything that everyone does in politics is meaningless,” so who cares?
- Little Mixes enjoy the self-importance of being close to the action, regardless of what is actually being accomplished.
- Demonizers and Tribalist Trolls believe that anything they can do for their side is justified by the evil of the other side.
- Strivers are motivated by blind ambition, doing whatever they have to do to rise in the party.
These motivations are hardly mutually exclusive. Miller describes how one of his personal friends had “almost the full package of Trump rationalizations”:
She has compartmentalized the bad, even when it comes to those she cares about. She has demonized the left and wants revenge against the cultural elite. She’s caught up in this big imaginary game and enjoys the LOLs. She’s wearing the orange crush team jersey. She loves being in the mix at Trump events. She has succumbed to inertia and doesn’t know what she would do if not Republican politics, so she can’t envision what a different, more fulfilling life for herself would look like.
But in her case, it is even more than all that. Caroline has been sucked in by the cult. She is obsessed with Trump and adores him, as incommodious as that may seem. She’s the masochistic follower who feels a compulsion to be tested, abused, and forced to prove they are deserving of the leader’s love over and over and over again.
Miller’s account has the advantage of relying on firsthand observation and interviews, so that he does a good job getting into the mindset of his subjects. One limitation of this approach is that the motivations he uncovers could apply to individuals under many different social and political circumstances. No doubt such types could be observed in just about any political party at any time. We still need to ask, why the Republican Party, and why in our particular era?