‘It was just a show’: Confessions of a Republican campaign hitman
Miller: There are a lot of therapeutic themes here, so I’ll define our words. Guilt is feeling bad about something you did, and shame is feeling bad inside, right? And navigating through it all is something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about over the past five years. The guilt – which I think is the precise word here – that I feel is not, « Oh, there was this one opposition research pitch I sent that was a lie or unfair or an exaggeration « , or « There was this kind of a dog whistle that kind of contributed to the racial inflammation of the country. The thing I feel most guilty about is that my life’s work, frankly, has been a definite drag on the country and on our society. This whole idea that there should be someone who is an expert in defaming their political enemies in the media is not something I look back on with pride.
Some guy I barely know wrote on my Facebook page about how I degrade speech, and all my friends were saying how stupid he was. That’s when I started America Rising, an opposition research company. And I’m sitting here now and watching this, and this guy was absolutely right. You can’t look at America Rising or any of the affiliated organizations that just specialize in bashing political enemies and thinking that’s anything but degrading speech. Donald Trump has really supercharged this game of vilifying people and bad faith attacks on naysayers and ironic attacks on naysayers where voters and readers aren’t in on the joke. I was doing all of that. But not to the same degree as him.
My other main guilt that I try to address in this book is that I dealt with a lot of very unsavory people. And this book is about kind of gray areas, humans making choices in the gray. This book is not about sociopaths and fanatics who like the cruel part of Trumpism. There are other people – who see the cruel part of Trumpism and accept it anyway. I think back to my relationships with the Steve Bannons, the Chuck Johnsons of the world, and how I traded favors, with a lot of guilt. Because at the time, I felt like I was using them. It became very evident that they were taking advantage me and they corrupted me. And I think that’s happened to varying degrees for a lot of people over the last six years.
Kruse: Let me play devil’s advocate. What’s really wrong with « oppo » [research]? You work to educate voters about political aspirants who happen to be opponents of the person you work for.
Miller: Of course, there’s nothing inherently wrong with public relations. There’s nothing inherently wrong with researching political enemies, especially ones you have genuine disagreements with. But when your whole career and all your work is centered around defaming people and creating negative news that inflames voters’ passions, then how can you be surprised when people get very inflamed and come to think that the other side is bad?
Let’s say I got a call from one of Andrew Cuomo’s abuse victims and worked with a newspaper to write an article about it. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with that. But creating an entire organization dedicated to smearing Andrew Cuomo for all crimes, real, imagined, and exaggerated, without any regard or regard for context or basic fairness or decency — I just think that’s one thing different. I don’t think every opposing researcher who reads this interview should say, “I’m a bad person on the inside. I just think we should consciously think about the structure of the political game that we have created and the incentives. I created a lot of incentives that were net harmful and not net educational.
Kruse: you quote This city by Mark Leibovich. It came out in hardcover in 2013 and in paperback in 2014, and Trump, of course, came down the escalator in 2015. You told me the other day in a text that you re-read Mark’s book before writing your book because there are “relevant themes.” But you also said, “I found it less fun on replay. What are these relevant themes? And why was proofreading less fun?
Miller: The notion of politics as this « game » — that both sides are playing, but they’re really on some level on the same team, because they’re all still succeeding and moving up the meritocratic ladder, and they’re just somehow so participate in this kind of blood sport for people’s amusement – was a theme of Mark’s book. I think another theme was how it got out of control and how people fell in love with the fame associated with it. I think that really came during my time.
There’s always been a handful of famous political svengalis, but the kind of fame that came from the movie « Game Change » to Steve Schmidt and people, the kind of fame that even Obama staffers got – he there’s a category difference from that old kind of fame. These people get stopped at airports asking for selfies. And it can get intoxicating. I think those two things worked together – that the participants were obsessed with winning and the spirit of the game more than they were obsessed with: « Will this result actually help the people we are here to serve ? » They got caught up in their own niche version of fame — not real fame, but Twitter fame. I think that led to a lot of choices that created a disconnect with voters that inflamed voters, that rewarded behavior that wasn’t in service of what people actually wanted. Is it any wonder that a game show host could manipulate such a system?
Miller: Clearly, Donald Trump was going to be better at this than « insert some dumb political strategist here ». Of course, there are other elements that caused Trump’s rise. Nationalism, globalism – there have been other books on this – but I think we’d be lying to ourselves if we didn’t admit there was a direct link between the kind of things we made fun of, who were mocked in This city, and Trump. I think Mark did a terrific job with his book, but I think it’s telling that a sequel, which he’s writing, is going to be very different.
Writing this book now would make no sense because of what it produced. And so some of the things that seemed very frivolous and perhaps worthy of mockery but also quite funny and enlightening and invigorating when I first read them when I read them this time around were gritty at best. I wanted somehow be in This city. I was kinda sad that he wasn’t, despite him making fun of people, and that just shows you how warped my mindset was in 2013. Being mentioned, being talked about, was a end in itself, even if there was a hint of mockery. It is a very corrupting culture.
Kruse: I actually went back and looked at how the publisher announced it. “Washington DC may be hated by all corners of the country, but these are fun, bustling days in this nexus of big politics, big money, big media and big vanity. There are no more Democrats and Republicans in the nation’s capital, just millionaires…” I mean, that wasn’t even 10 years ago.
Miller: And, by the way, that was how I felt then. I mean, I look at this with judgment on myself, not this publicist. They were « fun and lively days. » I loved the White House Correspondents’ Dinners in 2013, you know? You see kind of quasi-celebrities and I’m the RNC hitman and so I joke around with the Obama people and we have kind of a friendly repartee that was totally kayfabe. It was bullshit. It was just a show. There are a lot of people who care about their specific niche issues, but the whole campaign, the people who became famous, there wasn’t a deep sense of like, « We’re doing this in the service of a greater good that will help people. “There was some seriousness about it on the Democratic side. But among the class of Republican consultants? Go on.
Kruse: You also mentioned to me that losersMichael Lewis’s lesser-known book about unsuccessful 1996 presidential candidates may have inspired you even more than This city. How?
Miller: losers is a very harsh criticism of the political class, in a very pleasant Michael Lewis style, of the people who work on these campaigns, who really don’t care about the impact on voters. And he was critical of both the Clinton and Dole staffs and how, like, they’re virtually interchangeable when it comes to their beliefs. He called us “hired aliens” and talked about those hired aliens who are more impressed with their putative strategies and clever tactics than what will actually help the American people. I just thought he, not being a political reporter, knew how degraded this culture was that political reporters sometimes give a pass to — because they are part of it on some level.
And if you’re not at all concerned about what your own constituents think, you’re only concerned about tearing down the other guy, the voters are going to feel that, right? And two things will happen. First, they’ll grow to really hate the other guy, and negative partisanship will increase, as we’ve seen, more than they actually care about the positive changes they’re making to you; and two, eventually they will knock you down.