Politico Tim Miller’s new book, Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell, is sharp, funny, and full of the kinds of self-reflection that endear an author to his audience.
The 40-year-old gay former opposition researcher, political strategist, and Republican National Committee spokesman takes readers on a deep dive through the underbelly of campaign politics — the operative word being campaign, because everything Miller and his political class spoke, wrote, and researched was in service of the same goal: crushing the opposition.
Add to that Trump’s rise amid Republican complicity, which Miller called out from the beginning; Miller’s own struggle reconciling his sexuality with his GOP politics; and an attempted coup that would finally bring the former president’s enablers face to face with what they had wrought, and you’ve got a great read.
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Miller came out to a gay co-worker in 2007, the first step in a process he likens to Republicans finally recognizing that they “allowed something that was so central to our identity to become so unambiguously monstrous. And why they had continued to do so once the monster became uncontrollable.”
LGBTQ Nation spoke with Miller from his home in Oakland, CA, which he shares with his husband and 4-year-old daughter.
LGBTQ Nation: In the epigraph to the book, you quote James Baldwin, who writes: “It is only when a man is able, without bitterness or self-pity, to surrender a dream he has long cherished or a privilege he has long possessed that he is set free—he has set himself free—for higher dreams, for greater privileges.” Who are you talking about there?
Miller: All of us. It’s relevant to myself and the people that I’m writing about, who want to be able to separate themselves from past expectations. I tried to have this theme throughout the book, which is related to coming out of the closet, too, that people do see their political selves as part of their identity, particularly people in Washington. Not normal people, dentists in real America, but in Washington. And during this time with Trump, you know, if Republicans, if those of us who did it are to be set free, we had to shed that. And shattering identities is hard. Letting go of past dreams is hard. This is not to attempt to engender sympathy towards people that went along with the Trump evil, but it’s just to understand, you know, why? It was more of a challenge than it might have seemed on its face to say “no” to somebody so manifestly incompetent and dangerous. And I hope this notion that, by letting that go, you know, you’re able to find new dreams, new aspirations, and that there’s a happy ending and the water’s warm for people that rejected those old identities, I think that’s true. It’s true for me. I think it would be true for other people if more people are willing to make that jump.
You describe yourself soon after graduating from George Washington University in DC: “I cleaved off my gayness from the rest of my identity in large part because I didn’t feel like the ‘gay lifestyle’ was compatible with how I saw myself and my future. Such is the power of the brain’s ability to lock away things that aren’t convenient.” How did you see your future in those days?
I always wanted to be a dad, I wanted to be a political operative. I had chosen the Republican team, maybe a mistake in retrospect, I don’t know. But there were certain elements of it that I was aligned with and believed in and was inspired by in a genuine sense, and there was another element of it that, I just enjoyed the competition. So I think that as a closeted Republican operative I saw a future of a wife and kids and a job as a top-level Republican strategist who managed to like push all the gay thoughts into a box somewhere in their brain?
Did you ever come close to a future with a wife and kids?
I got lucky in a lot of ways. I didn’t write about this in the book, but my first campaign in 2004, the Republican Governors Association sent me to Delaware to help in this race. It got surprisingly close at the end, and I dated this young woman who was the intern on the campaign. We had a pretty serious relationship. Campaigns go south. At the end, he loses a close race. I’m going to Virginia and move along with being a campaign gypsy. I keep in touch with her but, you know, we fall apart. And, I don’t know, I look back at my life and think, what if he won that race? And I got offered whatever job, as the spokesperson for the governor of Delaware. Might very well have taken that job. We might have stayed in a relationship. (Laughing) I might have knocked her up, you know? So, all I’m saying is, I don’t think that I was really contemplating the long-term ramifications of all that, somebody that was in the closet. I was just compartmentalizing it and was making choices that, like, people make in their day-to-day lives, made sense for the short term. And that was one of them. I avoided that. (Laughing) I guess I didn’t avoid it. She avoided a horrible future, of being with a very closeted guy.
How did you define the “gay lifestyle” back then?
Yeah, this is another thing. I didn’t — this is why it’s so embarrassing to write about, but I just wanted to be candid. I didn’t think about it. I just didn’t think about it that deeply. There were some people, I think, who were gay in the closet who were doing a lot of research about, you know, gay life. You know what I mean? Like reading magazines, trying to get their hands on Out or whatever, reading your website. And it just wasn’t me. I had this, like, shame and guilt that I wanted to push down and so anytime the thought popped into my brain I tried to block it out. And so what I mean about the “gay lifestyle” is, it didn’t honestly occur to me that there were gays that were not whatever the stereotypical terrible description of gays that you see, you know, in the media. Which, by the way, there’s nothing wrong with stereotypically gay in my view now, but at the time, I just thought, I don’t know, like, effeminate? Not within mainstream societal whatever? Like, these negative views you get.
You mentioned George Washington University had a lot of gays.
A million gays in my classes. And any time somebody was presenting as gay, like, I would run from them, basically because I didn’t want to have to deal with that. I didn’t want to meet that and know them as three-dimensional humans, And so what I basically did was block myself from seeing what a much more positive and fulfilling, openly gay life would be like. I didn’t even try to consider it.
You write: “I bought my first pair of gay jeans in Iowa during a mental trial run a year before I actually came out.” Gay jeans, please define.
(Laughing) Well back in 2007, gay jeans were tight jeans, you know? The straights wore baggy jeans and the gays wore tight jeans, particularly in Iowa, where I was working. I didn’t know what was happening. I think that loneliness is, frankly, what was happening in Iowa. I was there working on campaigns, living alone in an apartment. And I didn’t write about this either, but I did one night go to, like, a gay bar in Iowa. And it was about what you’d expect from a gay bar in Iowa.
Those are my favorite.
(Laughing) These days I love it. But back then it was scary. Because I was alone, right? I walked in, there’s 11 people in there. It’s like three groups of three, and two, you know, grizzled veterans at the bar. (Laughing) You know, it’s like, Who do I talk to, right?
You’re the new guy.
Yeah, yeah, the new guy walked in. And the new guy was dressed like a Republican, you know. It was horrible, so I was there for one whiskey and then sprinted out. And the gay jeans were part of it.
When you talk about coming out to your colleague in 2007, you say you’re now often in the same position as confessor.
This is part of how I rationalized staying at RNC when I was a spokesperson there, which in retrospect, I think was unbelievably naive. But I was the most visibly, openly gay Republican staffer in the country, and so I would hear from a lot of closeted gay Republicans, particularly young staffers, in their 20s, sometimes older staffers, frankly, who are dealing with it, and were trying to decide whether they should come out, and wanted to know what that was like for me, and you know, how they could get the courage to do it.
What are some examples of how you helped guide people in a better direction?
I dealt with some really horrifying scenarios. There was a state party where a young staffer got outed, and then fired. And they asked me if I could help and get with both sides on that. Help this guy rebound, find another job, and f*cking deal with a PR disaster that was potentially there for people who are running the state party at the time. In some ways, I felt like I was doing good there. And I do think I was nudging people in the right direction. And being a sounding board for people who are trying to deal with this identity conflict of being a Republican staffer and being gay.
So you were gay adult in the room?
That’s part of what I say in the book about Reince Priebus, who justifies staying with Trump saying “I wanna be the reasonable guy at the table,” I’m telling myself, “I’m the reasonable gay in the room” when gay stuff comes up, and I can be a resource for people to help kind of make the party’s language a little better. And so I do think I was doing all that. But at the same time, I was also, you know, providing cover for, like, really gross stuff and not being fully honest with myself about the darker half of that deal.
What’s an example of where you couldn’t make the language a little better?
I was at the RNC when Windsor happened (the Supreme Court case striking down the Defense of Marriage Act in 2013). And I did kind of help edit the statement. I just read it to make sure my memory is correct, and it wasn’t that great a statement. Let’s be honest. We called Obama a hypocrite, etc. It didn’t include, you know, some of the more overt homophobic statements that you might have imagined we might’ve said that day, right? And so then you tell yourself, well, this is a win. Right? (Laughing) But it’s not. Like, we should have been celebrating, I should have been celebrating Windsor. This was a Supreme Court ruling that allowed me to have this family that I have right now.
I think there are definitely some similarities between that and between somebody who’s justifying, saying, I wanna go work for Donald Trump because I can help nudge him in a better direction, make statements a little less crazy or whatever. And it made me more understanding of, but less sympathetic to, that rationalization of these folks, since it was something I had employed.
One thing you don’t talk about in the book is coming out to your family. How did that go down?
(Miller pauses) Not great. Now it’s great. Takes time. Things take time. It was kind of like a Brothers and Sisters episode? Came out at the Thanksgiving dinner — table.
Everybody had a couple drinks, uh, in them, so it wasn’t a great scene. Storming out, yelling, the whole thing. You know, my parents are really amazing. Great grandparents. And so, you know, reliving our “early days” fights was probably not, you know, I didn’t feel like it added a lot of value to the book.
Let’s talk about gay Washington. How gay is it?
So unbelievably gay. And this was what I did not understand. I come back from Iowa after buying those gay jeans and get there in 2007 and it’s just like an explosion of gayness.
For all my criticisms and loathings of Washington, one of the best things is that it’s full of people who are educated and interesting and passionate, right? About various things, because it’s a draw for people who, you know, if you’re passionate about climate, foreign policy, or whatever it is, right? You come to Washington to work on that. And then, you know, a lot of those people happen to be gay. And once I allowed myself to see that, and this was one of the big lessons of the book, once the door opens, and you can see all the different colors behind the door, my whole worldview, my whole point of view on gay culture just changed, like in a snap.
Did you ever consider yourself a Log Cabin Republican?
How would you describe them?
I felt like the Log Cabin Republicans were for an older generation, like older than me. You know, these folks are dealing with a lot of conflicting emotions. Right? And I can understand why, like a support group would be created really from people who share some of these values but, obviously, are deeply conflicted with the Republicans (laughing) on the sh*t that’s most important to them. So I kind of get it for that era. Once that door opened for me, and I realized how many flavors of gays there were in Washington, like, I went out and met real friends who were outside of politics. I didn’t need a support group inside the Republican Party.
These days, I’m pretty disturbed by it, though. I think the younger Log Cabin Republicans seem to be very troll-y. Very, in the Milo vein, in a way that I find pretty gross. I find the whole culture of young Republican politics to be very gross, and they’re just kind of one part of that. And I do think, for whatever it’s worth, I did a Snapshot on Snapchat, the target audience is mostly teens and college kids. And Trump has really changed, for the negative, the culture of young Republicans across the board, including the Log Cabin guys. The type of person that’s attracted to him, you know, is attracted to a kind of meanness, and it really, really is not appealing to me in the least.
I loved the scene with Lindsey Graham and Jeb Bush in the hotel bar. Some of the best stuff in the book, and the genre, takes place in hotel bars and drinking at parties and drinking in general. But I felt like maybe I was missing some of the other action, you know? In other words, there’s not a lot of hooking up in the book, gay or straight.
(Laughing) You want more gay sex?
Well, what did you leave out? Or is it as chaste as you depict it?
Well, I don’t know if my mother is gonna be reading LGBTQ Nation, but I wouldn’t call myself chaste. But, what’s the phrase? Don’t sh*t where you eat? I didn’t f*ck where I ate so much. If I had any juicy stories about closeted Republicans, you know, elected official hypocrites, maybe I would have included them.
But people are getting together after drinks in the bar and going up and fucking.
I think that is very true, on Republican campaigns for straights. And probably Democratic campaigns for gays (laughing).
Let’s talk about Trump.
You write toward the end of the book: “Washington was abuzz with this possibility that maybe the dam was breaking, the combination of a deadly riot and a political defeat would once and for all bring the privately concerned from out of the shadows.” Is the dam finally breaking, like Liz Cheney says?
I don’t think so. I don’t think so. There’s a chance that Donald Trump’s whining will finally repel Republican voters enough that they would rather move on to an imitator, like Ron DeSantis. Yeah. But, you know, this is a bottom-up thing. And this is what I tried to get at in the book, and particularly going back all the way to Iowa at the beginning is, like, the voters wanted this. Like, Republican voters want the culture war, cruelty, and attacks on the people that they’ve grown to hate. And, so if they can decide that they can get that through Ron DeSantis, and have him be more electable, then sure, maybe people will move on.
But you know, there’s no great awakening coming within the party, within the Republican base. The minute that Donald Trump demonstrates that he’s strong again, the minute that he turns Ron DeSantis into his bitch on the debate stage, and seems to be the likely nominee, all these assholes are going to come crawling back to him for all the same reasons that they’ve done it for the last seven years. So I’m sorry, I wish I could give some hope there, but that’s where I leave the book. My editor says, “Usually these books have a last chapter like, What are we going to do now to make things better?” No, we’re gonna leave this book on Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica with me being sad that I couldn’t convince my friend that she is not an insurrectionist.”
When Miller came out in 2007, his co-worker recommended he read Andrew Tobias and John Reid’s classic growing-up-gay memoir The Best Little Boy in the World. Miller also picked up James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room around the same time.
After we spoke, Miller forwarded some recommendations to add to that list for 2022: The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach; Speak No Evil, by Uzodinma Iweala; and Guapa, by Saleem Haddad.
“And the one thing I read back then that is still going strong,” Miller writes, “is anything from my man Dan Savage.”
Editor’s Note: This piece has been corrected. Tim Miller is 40 and not 42.