Goodbye To All That
Leaving the GOP.
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1. TimoGOP 1995-2020
In 1992 as a puckish elementary school student I bet my lifelong Republican, FDR-hating, Washington Times subscribing grandmother $1 that Bill Clinton would beat George H.W. Bush. After Clinton won I can still remember the smug pleasure I took in opening up the letter she sent with the payment. It was the last time I would support a Democrat for any office for over two decades.
A few years later I was sitting in the back corner of a Catholic school classroom, ignoring the teacher, and instead poring over the candidate profiles in the “We The People” scholastic magazine for kids. (Aside: You can begin to sense how edgy and cool I was through these childhood anecdotes.)
I don’t exactly recall what in the descriptions drew me to Bob Dole, Lamar Alexander, and Pat Buchanan (shudder), but I do know that was the moment I affirmatively decided that I was a Republican and would be supporting one of those candidates for president. A few months later I was in the basement of my childhood home, getting goosebumps listening to Bob Dole’s convention speech. His patriotic paeans to our unique American experiment. How he served and sacrificed for it. How he wanted its blessings to be available to all.
Here’s a line from that speech that may not sound familiar if you are much younger than me:
If there's anyone who has mistakenly attached themselves to our party in the belief that we are not open to citizens of every race and religion, then let me remind you, tonight this hall belongs to the Party of Lincoln. And the exits which are clearly marked are for you to walk out of as I stand this ground without compromise.
That was then.
This year the Republican party elected officials, with one Willardian exception, were united behind a birther who tried to ban people from travel based on their religion, told American black women to “go back” where they came from, and put a white nationalist collaborator in charge of our immigration regime.
So today it’s me who is heading for the exits. They have been clearly marked.
2. It’s Not You, It’s Me. (Okay, It’s Also You.)
Ronald Reagan famously said “I didn’t leave the Democratic Party, the party left me.” With respect to the Gipper, this is the kind of thing people like to say because it makes them feel like they are principled and stalwart while it’s the world around them that’s gone mad. But that shit ain’t the truth.
It wasn’t really true for Reagan, who supported the New Deal and moved to the right as he became a media star. And it’s not true for me, either.
Yes, some things have changed with the Republican party between the day I signed up and now. In 2008 on my first presidential campaign I worked for a candidate who believed in climate science and had sponsored a cap-and-trade bill with Joe Lieberman, campaigned on a bipartisan immigration reform bill with Ted Kennedy, was a free trader, had backed some modest gun control legislation, and vociferously opposed the Bush administration’s torture regime. He did not send any love letters to Kim Jong-Un or argue that our elections are rigged by Venezuela. That was the Republican party, then.
Funnily enough, at the time I thought that John McCain might be a bit liberal for my taste. After listening to a moving plea invoking his time in Vietnam, he had won me over on “enhanced interrogation.” But I still didn’t much care for his opposition to the Bush tax cuts or the disastrous McCain-Feingold campaign-finance legislation. Nor did I agree with his stance on gay marriage.
But on balance, we were pretty much on the same squishy, classically liberal, Republican page. Had someone from the future told me at the time that I might never be more ideologically aligned with a major party presidential nominee again then well, maybe I would have appreciated that campaign more. Youth is wasted on the young and all that.
But while Donald Trump and John McCain are polar opposites as men, the forces driving the illiberal and nativist elements of the Republican party were there the whole time. McCain did eventually tape this danged ad, after-all. The thing is, in 2008 I had convinced myself these forces were just the nuts out on the margins while I was one of the good ones.
What I didn’t realize—but probably should have—was that these forces weren’t as marginal as I thought. That I was enabling them. And that they were increasing in power within the party throughout the entire time I was a professional operative. Stuart Stevens covered what it’s like coming to this disturbing realization much better than I could here in his recent book, It Was All A Lie. I highly recommend it.
Anyway, when Donald Trump rode those forces to victory in 2016, it put me into a transitional period and made me rethink some things. It woke me to some pretty gnarly stuff I was wrapped up in.
In fact I can’t really relate to people for whom Trump didn’t change anything. I find it kind of incomprehensible when people say that their views of our democracy and our political parties and the nature of our country weren’t impacted when an overtly bigoted and farcically ill-prepared buffoon with authoritarian aspirations was voted into the White House.
If that changed nothing for you then you either already had a pretty debased view of your fellow man or your thinking is so monkish as to be downright Bendectine.
So yeah, I changed. Trump’s win forced me to get outside of my bubble a bit and try to understand his appeal outside the urban pockets of fabulousness I inhabited. It opened my eyes to the lasting structural racism and resentments that still plague our polity. It made me recognize that a lot of the oppo research drops I had specialized in and that I thought were just part of “the game” contributed to a toxic media disinformation stew that was driving parts of the country off the deep end.
It made me prioritize a bunch of issues that I never really saw as being up for debate between the parties—free and fair elections, pluralism, freedom of religion, the rule of law, welcoming immigrants, basic competence, governing for all Americans regardless of whether they voted for you. As it turns out, my old party was on the wrong side of basically all of those. Meanwhile I deprioritized a bunch of things I used to really care about.
I’m just being real here: Who gives a fuck about the top marginal tax rate and WOTUS regulations when our actual democracy is under threat by a sitting president who is simultaneously trying to overturn an election and actively exacerbating a pandemic that has killed 250,000 Americans on his watch by holding insane superspreader rallies and peddling anti-science nonsense? Not me.
Throughout the last five years, my alienation from the party has been apparent to anyone who suffers through my tweets. But getting out of a toxic relationship is hard. You take one step. Then there’s backsliding. Then you take another step. So while I’ve known where this was going for a while—I voted for Hillary, for godsakes—I still held out some hope that the relationship was salvageable. That it was worth fighting for.
Sitting here today watching these Republican assholes sit silently while the president trashes our democracy with preposterous conspiracies and becomes the first modern president to refuse to concede an election, it’s clear that any hopes for reconciliation were folly.
In short: It’s me. But it’s also you. It’s over.
And to be honest for all the non-Mitt and non-Larry pols who stuck around, I don’t think we’re ever going to be able to make up.
Our identities are complicated and evolving, but recognizing and accepting that change is often hard. Nobody understands this more than the gays. The elements that make up our identity are how we define ourselves to the world.
Race. Gender. Sexuality. Religion. Job. Personality. Interests. Hair styles. Likes. Hates. We become emotionally attached to the things that define us. Over time you get wrapped up in this way of viewing yourself and an amalgam of nostalgia/inertia/social pressure makes people reluctant to change it.
All of us have people in our lives for whom we are preserved in amber as the person we were when they “knew” us—so even if we have accepted a change in ourselves, we’re still trapped in their random access memory perceptions. This makes giving up on the things that defined us when we were coming of age somewhat challenging. And the older we get the harder it becomes. Everyone has Uncle Ricos in their life.
All these elements made removing being a “republican operative” from my identity pretty hard. GOP is in my damned LinkedIn profile name! (Don’t friend me, I can’t take the email reminders.) Throughout the Republican Voters Against Trump experience I would find myself tearing up watching videos from people who talked about how being Republican was a central part of their identity and how hard it was for them to admit they were voting for a Democrat and losing this part of it. These people named their kids Reagan and had elephant tchotchkes scattered about the house. No longer being a Republican in good standing was a real loss. It’s how some Catholics felt after the sexual abuse scandal. How fans of indie bands feel when they go mainstream.
But while such a loss can be melancholy it can also be liberating. Uncle Rico is sad AF! Coming out of the closet was the best thing I ever did!
Getting rid of the shackles of toxic identities give you new perspectives and the freedom to be honest. You don’t have to make excuses for stuff you know is wrong. You don’t have to come up with the best possible interpretation for your side and the worst possible interpretation for the other side. This is true for me and many of my colleagues at The Bulwark.
(Which is why, by the way, our product is so uninhibited and honest and I really hope if you made it this far that you will sign up for Bulwark+ and support what we are doing here.)
So I am embracing this change. I’m shedding the GOP label for good. And while I’m at it, I’m also shedding the PR flak and strategist parts of my identity too. (Making the cable chyron writers life difficult). After RVAT, I’m going out on top like Jordan. (It’s unclear at this stage if this is just my Birmingham Barons phase or something more permanent.)
I’ll be sticking around The Bulwark and possibly dabbling in some other writing and/or media ventures. Maybe after the pandemic has abated, I’ll just walk the earth, meet people...get into adventures. Like Caine in Kung Fu. Who knows.
I guess that makes me a “journalist” now (new identities sound weird). Maybe “writer“ or “content man,” I’m not sure.
We don’t have to put labels on it just yet, let’s just enjoy.
In the meantime send scoops and ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll be seeing you around these pages.
(Phew. I gotta tell ya. This feels great. You should try it.)