While struggling to abandon the ascendant Trumpworld politics, Tim Miller ran an opposition research firm, feeding “oppo” stories to growing fringe social media outlets. It wasn’t pretty: some stories were true; some “trueish”; others not so much:
Miller: It was mostly attempts to get the populist base voters riled up about boring shit that pro-business normies cared about. For example, I sent [out] a story about a rumored candidate for U.S. attorney who had previously attacked right-wingers in hopes it would help kill the appointment. Another about a provision in Obamacare a client wanted to stir outrage about . . .
[Once] I wrote up some convoluted research about companies that Marco Rubio’s family was invested in; upon rereading it for this book I couldn’t even understand what I was arguing or why it would be scandalous. No wonder no actual journalists ran with it! I can only assume I sent it [out] because I had a boss on my ass to get this “hit” out the door and I wanted to check the box and get some empty-calorie brownie points.
This is the type of stuff you do to keep people happy as a paid hatchet man. It is the quotidian sausage-making of opposition research. We had clients who wanted to get information out to certain audiences, [others who] had a platform for reaching them, and I took advantage. In my head, this made sense. Putatively clever, but practically crooked. And something I deeply, deeply regret.
[After his final break (alas, not detailed in the book), Miller soon got back into the arena with a group of Never Trumpers assembled as “The Bulwark,” a busy Never-Trump/Stop-Trumpism/Save Democracy “comms shop.”
To complete his story, much of which is a series of profiles of archetypal sellouts to and enablers of Trump and his authoritarian mob, Miller sought out “Caroline,” a rich younger political junkie, who, like Miller, idolized John McCain and later worked for the quixotic moderate John Huntsman. Ultimately she became one of many Trump’s fanatic-operatives-who-should-have-known-better-but-didn’t. Caroline’s pilgrimage took her to the Capitol on January 6.
One night months afterward, when Miller was deep into the book, he spent many hours interviewing Caroline, trying to figure out how it happened in her case, and if there was any real chance that at long last she might be ready to, pardon the expression, repent. He excerpted his tapes, as she fumbled to recount, if not recant it:
Caroline: I think I just fall in love with politicians, the people, versus more than the weeds of their political identities.
Miller: For her the connection was more akin to rabid team fandom. . . . Her deification of McCain was such that years later she took a trip to Vietnam, solely to see the so-called Hanoi Hilton prison, where McCain was captive.
Caroline: “It’s actually a horrible place. It has all this propaganda. It shows McCain like playing basketball, basically makes it seem like he had the greatest time. It’s really upsetting when you go there.”
Miller: She was providing a connection. From the flights to Manchester [New Hampshire] for the beloved candidate [John Huntsman] who fired her, to Vietnam to see where her hero (McCain) had been tortured, all the way to the packed hangar rallies with Trump Force One.
In one sense, it tracks, I guess. But of all the people to fall for next . . . Donald Trump?
* * *
Miller asks her: “Is there something I’m missing here? I literally cannot name a single trait of Trump’s I’d want to pass on to my kid. What were you seeing positive about him that I wasn’t? Or was it you were just happy the other people were triggered?”
Caroline: “I would say probably all negative,” she replied. “I hadn’t thought through much of what a Trump presidency looked like. I couldn’t stand Clinton and the Democrats.” . . . .
Miller: What did you think was going to happen that day? [January 6th; Caroline was on the scene before sunrise, helping with logistics, setting up the staging & sound systems.] The election had been over for months—weren’t you like, this is preposterous?
Caroline: No, but because the people around Trump didn’t think it was.
Miller: Come on, I remember enough times [during the doomed John Huntsman campaign] you would say to me: Tim, why are we doing this—this is stupid? This didn’t occur to you during this entire time?
Caroline: No, but it wasn’t really my role. Plus, I was excited, it was another Trump rally. It was my two hundredth Trump rally. . . . I do remember thinking, I’m not even paid to be here, what am I even doing, but Trump rallies were always fun and exciting and I had a lot of friends who were coming in and donors and people that were excited to be there, and these things go really fast when you are there, so I didn’t have time for the grand thoughts.
Miller reflects: [Caroline] was living in a world with no repercussions. A world where all the downstream effects of Trump’s actions didn’t affect her and thus weren’t real to her. She was enlivened by the show he put on. Addicted to the drama. Keeping that high was an all-consuming end unto itself. She reveled in the chance to play her part, as one of the stagehands twisting a lug nut, ignoring that the world began to burn around her.
* * *
On the morning of the 6th there was a bitter January chill in the air. [Caroline] bundled up and went out to the Ellipse before dawn’s first light to handle logistics, as she always had. She had reserved a hotel room for herself downtown and catered a separate Trump Hotel town house so that the wealthy donors who descended on the Capitol could gather in luxury to watch their congressional serfs attempt to overturn a democratic election once the speech had concluded. On the menu was Chardonnay and chicken fingers and other light insurrection fare.
Once she got to the Mall, Caroline set up the chairs. Put down the names of the VIPs as she had hundreds of times before. . . . Made sure everything was just so. Then she watched the sun come up over the Mall.
Caroline: “I’ll never forget, it was just people as far as the eye could see, and I was like, holy crap.” . . .
As the rally got going, she shepherded a pair of “older lady donor types” back to the suite she had reserved in . . . wait for it . . . The Trump Hotel to watch the march to the Capitol and the rest of the show on C-SPAN in cozy warmth with elegant hors d’oeuvres.
Miller: But what they saw instead left them in a state of shock. Their fellow steal stoppers had not retired to opulent suites as they had. They were storming the Capitol. And it was violent. . . .
Caroline became more and more terrified as it all unfolded. She was racked with guilt hearing the reports. She couldn’t believe that “their people” would do this. She had come to believe it was only the “other side” that was violent. The Antifas and the Black Lives Matter rioters and the Prius drivers with their coffee Coolattas. Eventually, she couldn’t take it any longer. She turned off the TV. Walked the ladies back to the Willard Hotel, where they were staying. Returned to her room, alone. She took nine Xanax and went to bed before the clock reached six. . . .
Talking about it with Tim, she choked up at the retriggered memories. Miller thought he saw an opening.
Miller: I wanted to take this moment to finally break through to her.
[Spoiler alert: he failed.]
Miller: I can’t break the spell. She is in her feelings and yet undeterred. She attempts a joke. The tension breaks. My spirit deflates. Caroline says that if Trump runs again, she will be back in the saddle, assuming they’ll have her. . . . [And] there are plenty of second acts in MAGA American life. . . so there is good reason to believe she’ll be welcomed back when the time comes.
It turns out my old friend has 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. And like many of our parents and grandparents and friends, she’s become unreachable, thanks to consuming petty grievances and an impenetrable media bubble.
She is so far gone that bumbling her way into being complicit in an insurrection that caused the death of some of her fellow travelers didn’t shake her free. It should have been obvious that I couldn’t, either, despite my private wishcasting. . . .
The long interview petered out.
As I go to veer off, she has a parting request: “I hope your husband doesn’t hate me anymore. I hope we can all be friends again.”
I stutter in reply, finally spitting out, “I hope so, too,” remaining vague on what exactly those hopes are. The truth is, while I hope that the complexes that drove us apart might reverse or be mended, I have a hard time seeing how. . . .
An affecting finish, but Miller’s Why we Did It disappoints in the “Amazing Grace” department: he once was lost in GOP land, but now he’s found, but his path to salvation and reparations, which he is now running like a super-marathon, merits only a few lines in his long list of Acknowledgements:
“Thank you to Sarah Longwell, who actually got up off her ass and built The Bulwark and Republican Voters Against Trump while the rest of us were sitting around being sad.
If you had not come back into my life, I’m not sure this book would exist. To Jonathan V. Last, somehow both the best editor and newsletter writer in America. You turned me from a hack into an author (that’s still kind of weird to write), and it changed my life.”
Maybe this postscript is the teaser for a second book; it ought to be anyway. [Note to Tim: maybe you quit church long ago, but readers still love redemption stories.] But the gang of mostly ex-Republican operatives (plus a few renegade Dems) that are Miller’s colleagues at The Bulwark— a remarkable, wave-making outfit, definitely needs fleshing out between covers.
Bulwark Publisher Sarah Longwell and others say they are still mainly their old conservative selves on many issues, but they understand how to put those aside for now to focus on building a coalition that could combine to give their well-honed political fighting skills a key role in rescuing the Republic.
Tim Miller couldn’t retrieve his lost friend Caroline. Or so many of the others he portrays with grief and scorn in Why We Did It.
They shuffle through the pages in a parade that’s sad, mostly pathetic, at a few points almost tragic, but added up, to quote ultraconservative judge Michael Luttig, “a clear and present danger” to the body politic.
And in any case, lost to Miller. But if we’re lucky and he plus his new partners are steadfast, maybe they’ll have the consolation of helping save democracy instead.
It will have to do.