[Part One of this “Review in Pieces” is here.]
Imagine a history of the Trump rise done not by a DC insider, but by Stephen King, who had taken a double dose of bad acid and is channeling Hunter Thompson in bed with Franz Kafka. Then you’ll begin to get the drift of Tim Miller’s book, Why we Did it.
But as I read through the ominous early chapters, another specter haunted me: as what Miller calls “the croc” (using a Churchillian metaphor about fools feeding a pet crocodile in the bathtub) began to thrash its tail outside the rightwing tub, in nearby DC neighborhoods during these same years there existed a bloated, entrenched complacent “progressive” counterpart, raking in the “liberal” billionaires’ dough, buying or building their beach houses, and still skating on the legacy of the Sixties’ good side, victories won by many of their grandparents. While increasingly preoccupied with such towering matters as microaggressions or blanco fragility, and sharpening their aim with practice circular firing squads, they were just as surely turning themselves into sitting duck targets for this monster.
Miller is not telling their story here (Ryan Grim has done that superbly, as we have noted)–except that in a way he surely is, at least critical parts of it, for those that have eyes to see and ears to hear. And this is still only the buildup:
Anti-establishment right-wingers would often argue that people like me in the pre-Trump GOP consultant class were cloistered elites who were out of touch with the base and didn’t understand what our own voters wanted.
This is one of those situations where the truth is even worse than the slander.
Yes, we tended to be more ideologically aligned with the college-educated suburban swing voters who decide general elections than we were with the base voters who are privately derided as “mouth breathers.”
But nobody with any sense in the so-called establishment was unaware of what tickled the base’s collective pickle, least of all the political consulting class. We were the ones who spent our time poring over polls, attending focus groups, recruiting volunteers, and watching the responses that our candidates got on the stump.
We knew exactly what GOP voters wanted. We understood who they were angry at, what issues riled them up, and which ones made them glaze over. We just didn’t care. Except to the extent that it helped us win elections. . . .
We might have understood the zeroes and ones, the crosstabs, the trends, but we didn’t feel the anger they felt in our bones. It wasn’t visceral.
Most of us hadn’t served on the front lines in interminable wars and those who did volunteered out of desire rather than necessity. We didn’t spend our daily lives watching our way of life be replaced by a homogenized coastal culture that we were uncomfortable with. Our communities weren’t being hollowed out and abandoned; we didn’t live in places that were crushed by the housing crisis or the 2008 financial collapse.
In fact, D.C. was a boomtown, and many of us were displacing a different hollowed-out community of color in the Chocolate City’s urban core. We weren’t aggrieved over past slights committed by the elites; we were on the same meritocratic chairlift that kept climbing no matter how much we failed. We were inhabiting pockets of prosperity in the gilded city protected from these provincial concerns.
This made it easy for us to understand and listen to the base voters’ grievance without really hearing or feeling it. As a result of this artificial awareness, our actions exacerbated the sense of alienation among many of “our” voters. Rather than trying to address their underlying concerns or channel their anger for good, which frankly may or may not have been possible, we chose instead to try to manage a raging fire, redirecting their resentment toward cheap culture war calories.
During campaign season we would make exaggerated promises that were never followed through on—in some cases because they were never possible to begin with and in others because, deep down, nobody actually wanted to do it. None of this was done unconsciously. It was all just the accepted state of play. There is even a term of art for this type of political strategery: feeding “red meat” to the base. . . .
[On election night 2012, when Mitt Romney was losing] The only reason things didn’t descend into madness in 2012 as they would in 2020 was that Romney wasn’t deranged enough to play along.
While [Karl] Rove was bellyaching on Fox, Rhoades told Romney that he didn’t want to be a sore loser like John Kerry, who had refused to concede to George W. Bush on election night in 2004. The numbers weren’t there and the responsible and dignified thing to do was accept defeat. Romney concurred.
How quaint. But consider the events of that moment.
Rove’s meltdown. Extensive discussion about “skewed polls” on the conservative blogs in the lead-up to election night, which proclaimed the pollsters were out to get the Republicans and that Romney was really winning. My colleagues’ irrational exuberance about the possibility of a victory. The base’s desire to delegitimize Obama in any way possible.
All of the ingredients for the madness to come eight years later were there that night. But it didn’t feel urgent, because the “adults” were in charge. We ignored the warning signs and played our part in the show because we trusted the process. We thought we had the croc by the tail.
This mirage of control was on display after Romney’s defeat, when I was sitting with the establishment GOP elites putting together what we thought was a way forward that blended the desires of the party base with what was best for both the country and winning swing voters. We branded it the Growth and Opportunity Project (GOP, get it?). But if you know it at all, it’s as the Republican Autopsy. . . .
Some of the suggestions made in private memos [for the post-2012 “Autopsy”] that were not included in the final report would sound utterly preposterous in the Trump Party just a few years on. Here’s a taste:
“Consider hosting the convention in a symbolic location like Puerto Rico.” (Rather than the balloon drop, it would feature a historic paper towel toss.)
“Don’t attack the media.”(The Enemy of the People shall be appeased!!!!)
“Do something unexpected. Put up ‘gay republicans’ page on RNC site, do a ‘green republicans’ event.” (Orange would have been a better suggestion.)
“Spanish lessons for all GOP staff.” (De-Baathification training would be more useful these days.)
In the report itself, [Ari] Fleischer’s recommendations were framed with a quote from Jack Kemp. “No one cares what you know until they know you care.” (In Ari’s defense, Donald Trump did prove the first part of the aphorism correct. It turns out that no one does care what you know.)
— Chapter 6