Former GOP operatives who’ve “seen the light” in the wake of Donald Trump’s ascendance are not in short supply. In a way that’s comforting because these are people who at least have some limits as to what they will tolerate in the name of winning elections and other political battles.
In another way, it’s hard to know which of these we can trust. After all, the GOP started going full-tilt weird long before Trump. Think Newt Gingrich. Hell, think Richard Nixon.
If Trump was what it finally took for them to jump ship and fight for the good guys, their tolerance for demagoguery is way too high.
Anyway, Tim Miller is a former GOP political operative (Jeb Bush, etc.) who’s working against Trump these days. He’s often interesting enough that I follow him on Twitter.
He’s also got a book coming out. It’s called Why We Did It, and it details how he and others, who ostensibly know the difference now, managed to get into bed for so long with the forces that brought us Trump in the first place.
Miller has book excerpts in the current Vanity Fair, and an interesting part of the book is when he writes about fellow political operative Matt Boyle:
The son of a video rental store owner and deli clerk, Boyle had a middle-class upbringing. He bounced from Boise State to community college before finally landing at Flagler University in St. Augustine, Florida. He presents as a slovenly, awkward, pockmarked gamer. In a profile for the Washingtonian, his advisor at Flagler shared that in college he would mishandle basic human interactions and would often express frustration with lack of interest from women. This wasn’t much different by the time I got to know him in his mid-twenties. He had a layer of sweetness underneath, but if you were just to judge a book by its cover, Boyle was a walking, talking incel meme. Ripping a pack of Marlboro Lights a day, chugging Mountain Dews, disheveled, stained, conspiratorial. He speaks in a sort of singsongy slur that is reminiscent of a grown-up Ralph Wiggum. Boyle is such a ludicrous character that if he had emanated from the imagination of a Hollywood liberal trying to cast a conservative blog boy in a movie, a fair observer would think the result was too over-the-top.
Boyle didn’t make up for his sociability shortcomings by honing his craft and becoming a skilled writer or deft interviewer or subject matter specialist in the way that the many past awkward Washington journalists who have risen to career heights did. Instead he channeled the social rejection into a deep well of whinge that drove him to work insane hours and rely upon the special insight he did have—an understanding of the mindset of the soon-to- be-MAGA Republican base voter who shared his resentments.
This instinctive sense for the id of the conservative base separated him from his peers and was especially relevant to his time and place. He felt his readers’ rage in his bones. He saw around the corner, sensing what these voters might be aggrieved by in the years ahead.
Miller goes on to note:
[Boyle] was shameless, relentless, and unabashed when it came to horse-trading with flacks like me. He played the game well, providing carrots in the form of glowing, obsequious write-ups when a candidate hewed the Breitbart party line and delivering the stick of harsh rebukes if they broke from the desired orthodoxy. He was brazen in asking uncomfortable questions to campaigns that would force them into a political corner. Most of all, he was the one who operationalized the innovation of Steve Bannon’s that most propelled Breitbart’s success and supercharged the Republican Party’s chaotic descent into mob rule.
Matt Boyle centered the commenters.
“Centering the commenters” meant elevating the issues that most motivated core readers. Bannon would talk about the “hobbits” and later the “deplorables” who read Breitbart and how they powered the campaigns of the site’s favored anti-establishment candidates. Boyle was a deplorable-hobbit citizen king. He was of them, and he curried their favor.
Caring what one’s readers think might not seem like that brilliant an insight, but it was a vast departure from how business had been done in the past. There is this haughty truism among political operatives and media types that went generally unchallenged and was utterly contrary to the Bannon/Boyle ethos: “Never Read The Comments.”
The comments underneath a political article always contain the wheels-off views of the bridge-and- tunnel political obsessives. Conspiracy theories and verboten stances and mindless takes and fangirling and anti-Semitism and Godwin’s law and weird porn and ad hominem and all of the things that eventually turn every unmoderated web forum into the dregs of interpersonal communication. It was widely accepted that spending time worrying about this flimflammery was a fool’s errand.
However, those who challenge the unchallenged truths sometimes stumble on different or more powerful ones.
Bannon posited something so horrifying and so outlandish to the political elites that none of us dared contemplate it: What if you not only read the comments but listen to them and let their pathologies guide you? Using that principle as his north star, Bannon would enlist the hobbit army to overthrow the established order.
I’m glad a lot of these people are on the side of good now. But I wouldn’t place bets against any of them going back to the dark side if the money or prestige were just so.
Because it takes a certain kind of person to get into bed with a GOP that’s been this crazy for long before Trump became the bright line they would not cross.
The book is available now on Amazon.