Tim Miller’s first taste of politics came at age 15 standing on the stage with newly elected Colorado Gov. William Owens, “a traditional mild-mannered Republican,“ Miller remembered. A heady sensation. Politics was a wonderful game.
“I looked like I was 9. I’m a high school kid, up late on a school night. The far right, anti-immigrant split put Owens over the top by a couple thousand votes,” he said. “I was hooked.”
But it didn’t prepare him for the mental contortions he went through as a Republican Party strategist and communications director for former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush battling Donald Trump for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. Miller, B.A. ’04, is now an MSNBC analyst and writer for the conservative anti-Trump website, “The Bulwark,” and author of “Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell,” in which he personally reflects on his time as a conservative apparatchik.
“If I’m really honest I became addicted to the game of politics, the sport of it,” Miller said.
In a conversation Nov. 15 with NBC News political director Chuck Todd, ATT '90 to '94, HON '22, Miller described the “compartmentalization” it took to work as a gay man on Republican campaigns that were unfriendly and at times hostile to gays. The conversation took place in the City View Room of the Elliott School of International Affairs.
The LGBT Health Policy & Practice Graduate Certificate Program at GW, along with the School of Media and Public Affairs, sponsored the event titled, “Insights of an ex-GOP Strategist.” Stephen Forssell, the founder and director of the LGBT Health Policy program, said that with so much on the line for the LGBTQ community in the upcoming presidential election, the event provided an opportunity to talk about what it means to be gay and involved in the Republican Party.
As a GW undergraduate, Miller became a paid intern at the Republican Governors Association, an ersatz spy sent to various states including Delaware, Virginia, Iowa and Colorado during political races to report back to headquarters.
“The day-to-day, it’s young people who are running things. That was all so invigorating. ’How can you work for so and so?’ Part of the answer is it’s really fun, and it’s exciting. You’re getting asked to do stuff that you have no business doing, and you feel very important. It’s just basic human narcissism.”
Todd asked Miller about the first time his work for the GOP conflicted with his being gay. “When was the first time you worked for somebody where you ended up drafting a statement in which you attacked yourself?” Todd asked.
“You rationalize it,” Miller answered. He reminded the audience that both Obama and Bush opposed gay marriage initially. There was a bipartisan political culture back then that was very different than now, Miller said, in which certain things were unspoken, implicit, off limits and understood. The then-head of the Republican National Committee, Reince Priebus, knew Miller was gay but accepted that they shared the same political values.
“In my head, I was thinking, ‘I’m good,” Miller said. “It’s good that I’m here to make sure they don’t say anything really offensive. This is what progress looks like. But, no, it’s not!”
It wasn’t just “the gay marriage stuff” that was an issue. There were times when he would review a press release and go along with calling Barack Hussain Obama by his full name but cut the clearly false statement that Obama had been born in Kenya and get complaints about watering down copy.
“Donald Trump has a million fathers,” Miller said. “The trajectory of our politics was a series of choices by people like me that rationalized and said it was OK to do this kind of demonization, to engage in these sorts of lies and hyperbole to radicalize our voters and get them all fired up.”
Such actions have a “cumulative effect,” he said. “Some little Jiminy Cricket part of my brain” [was telling me] ’This is not good.’”
When pushed by Todd about whether there was room in the Republican Party for gays, Miller said, “Even though I didn’t vote for Obama I believe that the arc of the universe moves toward justice.
“The gay issue, I do think the transgender issue was the entry into it. Using kids and the grooming thing is a tactic that goes way back to Anita Bryant,” he said. “The potency of it is really shocking to me.”
It was thoughts of his 5-year-old African American daughter, whom he adopted with his partner, that caused him to break ranks from members of the Republican Party he sometimes refers to as “the crazies.”
If Trump is the GOP nominee in 2024, Miller said, “[the country] will be in a bad place for a while.” And Miller believes that Trump will win the nomination.