why we did it is a dark ride on the republican road to hell

‘Why We Did It’ Is a Dark Ride on the ‘Republican Road to Hell’

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The hardcore Trumpists who loved their candidate from the beginning don’t interest Miller. His subjects include colleagues who worked with him nearly a decade ago on the Growth and Opportunity Project, known as the Republican “autopsy,” organized after Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama in 2012. The report called for moderation, for outreach, for immigration reform. But one by one, the people working on the project went from abhorring Trump to embracing him.

There was “the Striver,” Elise Stefanik, the Harvard-educated representative from upstate New York who “was doing what was required to get the next buzz,” Miller writes. There was “the Little Mix,” Reince Priebus, who liked “feeling important” and tried “to stay in everyone’s good graces while the world around him unraveled.” Miller calls Trump’s former press secretary Sean Spicer “the Nerd-Revenging Team Player” who gamely thought that obtaining some status in the White House might make up for some “negative charisma.” There was a coterie of “Cartel-Cashing, Team-Playing, Tribalist Trolls,” always on the lookout for the next gravy train.

Some of these former colleagues will talk to Miller; others won’t. “Why We Did It” begins and ends with the story of his friendship with the Republican fund-raiser Caroline Wren, a fellow “socially liberal millennial,” who worked with Miller on McCain’s 2008 campaign but more recently made a star turn as a Trump adviser subpoenaed by the panel investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

Wren’s motivations don’t turn out to be particularly complex; she herself admits that her politics have always had less to do with the finer details of governing than the more cultish aspects of personality. “She had come to worship John McCain,” Miller writes, and she was soon “obsessed with Sarah Palin.” When pushed to explain what drew her to Trump, whose policies she says repulsed her, Wren rails against smug progressives driving around in their Priuses and forcing everyone to drink out of paper straws. She felt intensely annoyed by their self-satisfaction and hypocrisy. She liked Trump because of what she calls his “scorch-the-earth mode.”

This “animus,” Miller says, seems to have been the necessary condition for converting his “reluctant peers” into Trump supporters. I recommend reading “Why We Did It” alongside “It Was All a Lie” (2020), by Stuart Stevens, another “what happened” book by a former Republican operative. Stevens comes across as thoughtful, deliberative, reflective; Miller comes across as clever, a little bit mean, extremely profane. Stevens captures how the Republican Party spent decades cultivating grievances that it didn’t plan to do anything about, while Miller captures the consequent emotional valence, with its “unseriousness and cruelty.” Both books are absorbing; neither is particularly hopeful.

“AHHHHHHH,” an exasperated Miller writes, remembering how he stayed in politics because of his own thirst for fame and fortune. For all the reluctant Trump supporters’ torturous rationales, maybe the reasons for why they did it don’t get much more complicated than that.