Ken Harbaugh: Hi everyone, it’s Ken. Before we start, I want to share some exciting news: We’ve paired with Meidas Touch, so you can now watch these interviews on YouTube. Just search for the Meidas Touch YouTube channel, or click the link in the show description. Thanks, and enjoy the episode.
Miles Taylor: America itself is an experiment. I think what we're trying to do in opening up a third lane in the American political system is an experiment and one that people are really, really desperate for.
Ken Harbaugh: I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.
My guest today is Miles Taylor, a co-founder of the Forward Party. We had Miles on last year to talk about his originally anonymous op-ed, titled I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration, and about his book, A Warning.
I brought him back on the show to talk about his decision to leave the GOP, and his vision for the Forward Party. Miles, welcome back.
Miles Taylor: Ken, it is very good to be with you as always. And if you're listening and you didn't listen to the first interview, then you need to just hang up now and go back to the first interview. No, I'm kidding, you don't need to do that.
Ken Harbaugh: Well, we’ll put it in the show notes. It was a doozy. And I want people to go back and refresh, but a heck of a lot has happened since then on the global stage in American politics and with you, personally. We'll get to that.
But before we talk about what you've been up to, we have to talk about the midterms. Do you think the ground shifted fundamentally in terms of threats to democracy and the danger posed by the extremist elements within the GOP?
Miles Taylor: Short answer is no. And I think that I'm in the minority with that view, and I hope to be proven wrong over time. I think that there was a lot in the midterms that was incredibly encouraging. We saw a lot of the bad guys lose — and by bad guys, I mean people who embraced the big lie, condoned political violence, or mainstreamed hate speech. And then we saw a lot of the good guys win and beat them. But when you actually look at the data, it's not as comforting as it looks. And I think we all had this false comfort because the expectation was that the bad guys would dominate, and they didn't completely dominate. But by no means does that mean the danger is gone. And so, let me quantify it.
At the beginning of this cycle, a foundation that I helped run, Renew America Foundation, separate from the Forward Party, is focused on tracking political extremism. And we tracked about 250 candidates (I actually think it was around 270) — but let's say 250 candidates throughout the cycle at the federal, state, and local level, not based on party, but just based on whether they embrace one of those three categories of extremist views, condoning the big lie, promoting political violence, and advocating for hate speech. And all of those were defined academically and rigorously. Those 250 that went into the primaries, half of them made it through the primaries. I had expected maybe 10% because they're such fringe candidates, half made it through the primaries. So, let's say a 125 make it through to the general election. And then in the general election, again, my expectation was maybe 10% of these fringe candidates win, and 50% of them won the races. So, to me, when we're talking about radical candidates, that's a really high success rate. Is just anyone on the fringe, if you imagine a bell curve in your mind, the far edge of a bell curve continuing to be that successful is anomalous in my view.
So, I didn't come out of it nearly as enthused. And I think the fundamental dangers are still there.
Ken Harbaugh: Well, this is a good segue into the Forward Party because the Forward Party account tweeted this out after the midterms, and these are reflective of the numbers you just cited.
“30% of the most radical candidates in our 2022 elections won. For everything else that happened in the midterms, don't lose sight of the continued success of conspiracist and denialism. The only solution is reform.”
And you think you have the reformist answer, don't you?
Miles Taylor: Maybe. I would actually say we have a healthy amount of self-doubt. And I say that confidently, as contradictory as that might sound. I think it was the scholar Learned Hand who said something like the spirit of freedom is uncertainty about whether you're right. He of course, said it much more eloquently.
America itself is an experiment. I think what we're trying to do in opening up a third lane in the American political system is an experiment and one that people are really, really desperate for. I will confess to not be doing this for you, Ken, or frankly, for anyone else. I'm doing this for myself. I'm doing this selfishly. Why? Because as a voter, as a consumer, I want the other option. I do not have a home anymore in the Republican party where I built my career and my life. It's like every single day that I went to work for 20 years was towards this tribe that I was in. And now, I don't feel like I can be in that tribe, and I don't feel like I can join the Democratic Party. And by the way, 50% of Americans report feeling the same. Half the country now says for the first time in modern history that they are political independents. They don't want to be tied to either party. But the marketplace, the political marketplace hasn't responded yet, has not responded with alternative options, which is mind blowing. Like when can you imagine any other marketplace where half of consumers say, “Yeah, I don't like any of the choices,” and no alternatives emerge in the marketplace.
So, that's what we're trying to do. But there are big obstacles to third parties becoming competitive. And namely, both the Republicans and the Democrats over the course of a century have made it very difficult for third party candidates and independents to compete by actually making the laws more difficult by making the barriers higher. And so, we're also focused on the democracy reforms needed to make the system more competitive, not just for the Forward Party, but for any alternative that would emerge to the two-party systems.
So, that's what we're trying to do. But I'd go back to, it's an experiment, but one that we think the time is ripe for. I have been a third-party skeptic my whole life in a big way. I'm on the record all over the place saying third parties are impossible in the United States. And there's a graveyard of failed third-party stretching all the way to the horizon. And that's for a reason, is because whenever they've emerged, there hasn't been the demand. People have not wanted it statistically that the majority of the country for most of modern history has either been in the Democratic or Republican Party, and they're content with that. But again, for the first time, we're seeing the majority of the country now or close to a majority say, “I'm not part of either party. I would like an alternative.”
Ken Harbaugh: I think your reading of the American electorate and their frustration with the current system is pretty accurate. My issue with your characterization though, is in your description of the Democratic Party. I think you're pretty fair in your criticism of the Republican Party. It has gone off the rails. But the Democratic Party, as centrist as it's been in a long time — and I don't think it is given enough credit for that by the founders of the Forward Party. And let me just read a quote from you in the recent Boston Globe op-ed articulating the rationale for the Forward Party.
You say that: “Progressives have no hope of luring wayward Republicans as they too, are grappling with their own fringe elements.”
But the Democratic Party as a responsible party should, has dealt with the fringe elements. I mean, you need only look at someone like Tulsi Gabbard, who's cozying up to authoritarians was rejected by the Democratic Party, and guess where she winds up? In the Republican Party. And I just want your take on whether the Democratic Party is just badly branded or if it really is an impossible home for folks like you.
Miles Taylor: Yeah, I mean, I would say this; I think there's a false presumption that any alternative in the marketplace is at war with something else in the marketplace. So, let me be more specific. The Forward Party's not at war with the Democratic Party, but people like me, I would never join the Democratic Party. But you don't need to listen to Miles Taylor, go look at the data. How many Republicans since Trump have left and joined the Democrats? They haven't. There's no significant data. It's not going to happen. Anyone who's listening right now who has any fantasy that there's going to be some mass move of disaffected Republicans to the Democratic Party is not looking at history, is not looking at the data. There's no demand indicator. But there's very obvious reasons for that. It's not about the Democrats. This isn't a criticism of the Democrats. It's tribalism. It's just pure tribalism. In any other circumstance, it's really, really hard for people to leave one tribe and go to another tribe that's been their opponent forever. It just almost never happens. It's evolutionary psychology. And so, it's really a lost cause for the Democrats to hope in the long-term.
And I'm talking decade horizons that they can form a permanent governing majority with the disaffected Republicans. At best, disaffected Republicans will swing over and coalition with the Democrats to save democracy. That's what we saw in 2020. In fact, very specifically, we saw 65,000 or so Republicans who'd voted for Trump in 2016 defect and vote for Joe Biden in 2020. And I say 65,000 in key swing states. And if it weren't for those disaffected Republicans, Biden would've lost, period, hands down. It's just a numbers game.
So, that's a really powerful example to your point, Ken, of incredible things that can happen when people coalition campaign. But what didn't happen is those 65,000 didn't go register as Democrats. In fact, what we are seeing now in the numbers, is that most of those disaffected Republicans, guess what? They're going home. They're going back to the tribe. So, they had this one moment where they were like Trump himself very bad. At the top of the ticket, they voted against him. But guess what they did? Down ballot, they voted for the rest of the GOP and they're still voting for extremist candidates and they're going back to the tribe, and they're against Joe Biden.
So, I don't think the permanent solution to save democracy is, “Dear God, let’s hope every single time the Democrats beat the MAGA Republicans,” because it won't happen. Like statistically, we're going to see the GOP win again. So, if our democracy is the most important thing in this country, then hanging our hat on the hopes that the Democrats always win, I think is an incredibly high-risk strategy.
Instead, we think it's really important to go harness all of those independents into a tribe, that in a more coordinated fashion can coalition with different groups to protect democracy.
So, let me be a lot more specific; what would this look like? This is not the Forward Party going and taking on centrist Democrats and headbutting them and trying to beat them in their races. That would be absurd. Why would I want moderate members of either party to be defeated in their races? It's in our interest to have a very principled group of public servants across the spectrum in elected positions.
So, if you look at Utah, and what our friend Evan McMullen tried to do this past race — Evan didn't go in, he's a former Republican. He knew he couldn't join the Democrats, but he wasn't going to go be a MAGA Republican. And so, he ran as an independent and he got the Democrats to coalition campaign with him and they ended up endorsing his candidacy because the Democrats knew they haven't won that race in 50 years in Utah for the U.S. Senate. And so, they teamed up with him.
Now, Evan fell short, but it was also, I think the highest turnout for any third-party candidate in the history of Utah. Almost 50% of Utahns voted for a third-party candidate in this midterm cycle. That was historic.
So, that's an example to me of how you can go in, identify an extremist who's entrenched and potentially defeat them. And what was significant about that race, as you know, Ken, is Mike Lee was one of the 10 safest U.S. senators going into the midterms. And because a third-party candidate, because an independent candidate entered that race, he became one of the 10 most vulnerable U.S. senators.
Now, again, Evan didn't win the race, but he got damn close. So, we think with Forward Party, we can go identify those entrenched extremists and make their races competitive and take them out, especially if we work with others on the political spectrum.
Ken Harbaugh: But what that takeout is likely to look like is a Democrat winning until the Forward Party has the resources to compete.
I mean, is it fair to say that in the near term you're basically blocking and tackling for Democrats by taking on extremist Republicans?
Miles Taylor: No, I mean, honestly, we're the only political party in America this past cycle that endorsed people from every single party.
We endorsed principled Republicans in the midterms. We endorsed principled Democrats, and we endorsed independents. We will be running hundreds of candidates across the country in the 2024 cycle on the forward line. And we're picking those races very strategically. They're places where there isn't a good guy in the race or where there's likely not going to be a good guy in the race. And where we need to make it competitive. And in some of those places, Ken, to your point, we'll team up with another party. And not all of those places that party can succeed. So, your example about the Democrats, it ends up not being true.
I got to go back to Utah. The solution in Utah was not support the Democrats to beat Mike Lee. In fact, the Democrats even knew that wasn't the solution. They knew they had no hope in hell of winning over Utahns. And that their best hope was let's get behind an ex-Republican who's an independent. That same model applies to lots of races around the country, but put aside competition between Democrats and Republicans and independents.
Here's the thing; you hear the word “spoiler” in third-party politics and it's very funny to me. People say, “You're going to play spoiler.” There are 500,000 elected positions in the United States, 70% of them are not competed. That's a pretty spoiled system in my view. And the reason that 70% of them are uncompetitive races with only one person in the race, is because one of the two major parties has put such an intense lock on that district or that seat that no one else runs because they think there's no point in running. And so, an independent candidacy or third parties can actually make those races more competitive again. And that's really what this is about, is more choice and competition in the country.
And it's hard. This is the Mt. Everest of political challenges. But this always blows my mind. I've got to ask you, I want get your guesses on this, Ken; what's your guess of what the average public approval is for the U.S. Congress? Like it's been about the same for the past 10 years, give or take.
Ken Harbaugh: I would guess, it's 9%.
Miles Taylor: Yeah, well, it has gone down that low before. But it usually hovers between like 18, 19, 20%, somewhere around there. So, only one in five Americans on average are actually approving of the job Congress does. What is the reelection rate for incumbent members of Congress?
Ken Harbaugh: Yeah, it's off the charts.
Miles Taylor: Like it's about 90 to 95% of incumbents win. So, if you were a Fortune 500 CEO and the overwhelming majority of consumers hated your product, but they still had to buy it anyway, there would be something wrong with that marketplace.
And that's where we're at, is people are extremely disappointed with their leaders, but they keep winning reelection. And that shows you there's market failure because they don't have a choice or an alternative. And so, those people keep winning because largely, the fringes are dictating it.
To your earlier point, no, I don't think the Democratic party is more extreme than the GOP at the moment; but I say at the moment, because the best scholars in this space that aren't me have indicated that the same social forces that are leading to extremism, the GOP, and the same electoral forces are going to be coming for the left at some point.
And so, we have to hedge against that by creating alternatives in our system. And they don't have to be the Forward Party, it's just alternatives, period. We need more people running as independents. We need more third parties to emerge. And we're trying to open up that lane, but it's going to be a multi-decade project.
Ken Harbaugh: I think you're probably right that those forces are agnostic in terms of which side of the political spectrum they prey on. But I would distinguish that from the behavior of the political parties and in the Democratic Party, you have a relatively healthy party that has dealt with most of those fringe elements.
At the top, you talked about the a hundred or so extremists that you tracked in the run up to the midterms. And I think your definition of extremism was believing in the big lie and political violence, and fomenting hate speech. Out of curiosity, as much as you tout the prioritization of endorsing on both sides, how many of those extremists were Democrats?
Miles Taylor: We didn't have in this past cycle anyone that was a Democrat that we were actively opposing. I mean, you make a powerful point, right now, the biggest threat to the democracy is from the MAGA Republican Party. Make no mistake. I mean, I'm one of the first people in this country that will be in an orange jumpsuit in Guantanamo Bay if Donald Trump wins. So, I mean, anyone who would ever say to me, you're empowering the MAGA Republicans and you're hurting the Democrats, I would look at them in the eye, I’d say, “You're fucking full of shit. You have no idea.” Like I have most literal skin in this game than anyone. So, no, we're not going to, as a party, take an action that somehow spoils races for MAGA Republicans. It's stupid.
Let me tell you about my concerns about the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party right now, I see personally — I'm not speaking for the Forward Party. I see as a temporary ally to beat extremists. I don't belong in the Democratic Party. They don't share my views ideologically, the majority of Americans say that the Democratic Party doesn't. And by the way, they say the same thing about the Republican Party. But when I look at some of these races, the Democratic Party has not been pure. In fact, I'm very concerned when I look at races like Peter Meijer in Michigan, who is a moderate Republican. And Democrats went and spent on MAGA extremists to take Peter out. Adam Kinzinger, what did they do? They drew the lines to kick him out of his district. John Katko in New York, I could just go down the list. The Democratic Party has not said, “Let's go embrace strong centrists across the spectrum.” They said “No, even if they're good guy Republicans, we're going to nuke them.” The Democratic Party is actively making the Republican party more extreme. I mean that, and I mean that fully. And I've got friends who work for Joe Biden in the White House who will concede as much. Who will say the Democratic apparatus has gone and invested in Republican primary candidates over and over that are extreme because they want to take out the people that they think are going to be more competitive against them in the general election. But the misreading of the electorate there is, they don't realize that some of those MAGA extremists who win the primaries, people actually like them, as we talked about with that data; some of them are winning.
So, the Democratic Party's not pure here. That's very concerning to me. I think it's deeply disgusting that anyone was investing in primary races of very extreme figures because they thought it would help them in the general election. Republicans have done that too in the past and in this cycle.
So, again, it's why I think we can't hang the hope of democracy on one political party. And again, it's not the reality. If we just look at the history of power and the pendulum swinging back and forth, the Democratic Party will not be in perpetual control of democracy and to protect us from MAGA extremism. It will swing back. And when it does, will we have any other hope? Will there be coalition opportunities?
And here's the thing; the Forward Party doesn't need to go be as big as the Democratic Party or as big as the Republican Party to help throw the balance of power towards the pro-democracy side. How many members of Congress, how many U.S. senators do you need to influence the direction of the Senate? One, you need one. Members of the House right now, given the slim majority, you need three to five members of the U.S. House to change the balance of power in the body. When people realize that, they're like, “Oh wait, so building a competitive third party doesn't necessitate becoming this behemoth.” It necessitates five to 10% of Americans actively getting behind an alternative. And then that forces both of the major parties to bring their positions back into the mainstream. Because if they don't, they lose that block. And right now, again, as you know, that's the Democratic Party, that's aligned with Democrats to beat MAGA extremists. But it won't always be that way because politics changes and people change and the country changes.
And so, there needs to be a third force, or several third forces in the American political system to swing that pendulum back, force the two major parties to adjust their positions to the majority view. And that's sort of the absurd thing. We all learned what majority view meant when we were in third grade. But right now, frankly, both of the two major parties on most issues don't reflect the majority view of Americans. And on the most controversial issues in the country, like there's a clear majority view. You name it, you can come at me with abortion or guns or climate change. The two major parties kind of dodge those issues when they're brought up. They don't want to touch their rails. That's not hard for us at Forward to confront because the American people in poll after poll tell you, very specifically, what their view is on some of the most hot button issues, and they're not really hot button. Again, there's a majority view, there's just not a political party that's actively trying to implement that view.
Ken Harbaugh: You said earlier that you have skin in the game. For folks who don't know you, can you talk about the slings and arrows that have come your way. And if you would, maybe share the story of where you were, I believe, it was election night 2020 which wasn't an exceptional night for you, but just sort of captured what you've endured since writing that op-ed and speaking out against Trump.
Miles Taylor: The short version of the story is I very reluctantly joined the Trump administration. Early on, I mean, as a lifelong Republican, Donald Trump was pretty horrifying to me. I worked in the Republican House when Paul Ryan was speaker and was actively involved in efforts to take Trump out, to make sure that he didn't rise in the primaries. So, anyone listening who would say he's a secret MAGA guy and a Trump enabler, please; from day one was actively working to make sure Trump didn't win.
But as we all know, Trump did win. And after he won, a mentor of mine, John Kelly, became Secretary of Homeland Security, and I was persuaded to come in and serve as his essentially, National Security Advisor, and then became eventually Chief of Staff at the Department of Homeland Security.
There was a hope, and I helped fan the flames of this false hope that a so-called access of adults could keep Trump in check. That's why I went into the administration, is it was clear really good people who frankly could have been cabinet secretaries in a Democratic or Republican administration were going in. Jim Mattis, could have been a defense secretary for a Democrat, John Kelly same thing. And a number of other folks that joined, H. R. McMaster as National Security Advisor. And I subscribed to that hope that this access of adults could help. I grew more and more alarmed as I got exposure to the president, the Oval Office, the White House situation room, Air Force One flights. He did not ease into the job and take it more seriously. It was … I could go anecdote for anecdote all day long.
Ken Harbaugh: You tweeted out this extraordinary litany of the 25 craziest things that President Trump asked you and the department to do. Can you give us top three greatest hits?
Miles Taylor: Yeah, sure. I'll give you the greatest hit in my view. It got so disgusting that Donald Trump, to our faces, wanted us to gas, electrify, and shoot innocent migrants at the border because he was so frustrated by illegal immigration. That wasn't hyperbole. Each of those, I can go chapter in verse, tell you the date, tell you the meeting in the Oval Office, and specifically, what he asked us to do. He wanted migrants to see other migrants getting maimed and attacked, and bloodied trying to get across the border so that they wouldn't do it. I mean, this is sick stuff. Really, really sick stuff. And of course, the only answer to that is no and absolutely not. And then at some point, it needs to be, “I'm resigning in protest.”
And it could just go on and on from domestic terrorism to national emergencies, I mean, when there would be hurricanes or wildfires. Look, if they affected a blue state, Donald Trump would pick up the phone and call us and say, “Do not send aid money. They don't like me there.” He didn't even disguise the motivation behind his request. It was like “Blue state, blue Governor; Gavin Newsom, California, he hates me. Don't send money to the wildfire victims.” “Mr. President, their houses are literally burning in real time.” “No, don't do it.” We all know who that Donald Trump is. You didn't have to be in the administration to see that.
And so, yeah, in 2018, I wrote an opinion piece from inside the administration because I felt like it was really important for people to know that his own cabinet felt the way they did. That his own cabinet was gathering on basically, a weekly basis to say, “This guy is totally mentally unstable, and it might be so bad that we have to invoke the 25th amendment.” That was real. Yes, those conversations happened among cabinet members. And it turns out they happened many times even after I left, they were that alarmed. I felt like anonymity is something you have to be very careful with.
And I think in most cases, when you're working for a president, you go serve that president loyally, you keep your mouth shut, and if you don't like it, you leave. This was a very unique circumstance in American history where you had a live fire exercise of a rogue president in the office, his own cabinet thinks he's rogue. And in my view was really important for Americans to know that. Here's where I was completely wrong though. My thesis was, “Don't worry, America, there's an access of adults. They're doing the best to thwart the president's worst impulses.”
Donald Trump systematically eliminated that access of adults after that op-ed dropped. And as I later found out from Stephanie Grisham, who was White House Communications Director, Stephanie actually, said she felt like the op-ed and the book that I wrote, A Warning, actually catalyzed Trump's paranoia and made him more eager to go fire that access of adults.
And I had to wrestle with that. I had to wrestle with the fact that, yeah, I was trying to call attention to that, but did I inadvertently also make him more paranoid and start carrying out these actions? And so, ultimately, when I came forward in election year, the reason I did was to say, “I'm wrong. No access of adults can save you. Unelected bureaucrats are not going to protect you from an authoritarian commander-in-chief. Only the voters can do that. It's literally up to you. And if you don't make that decision, and if disaffected Republicans don't team up with the Democrats to beat him, we'll have a second term of this, and it will be the death of American democracy.”
And we're really lucky that people made the decision they did. And no one has to play the violin for me. But to your question, Ken, it had enormous repercussions for my life. And I talk about this openly because I want people to see how volatile the political climate has gotten.
So, I watched the election returns in November 2020 from a safe house in Virginia under armed guard because there was such an avalanche of death threats. And that's not even a unique story anymore because we've seen everyone from Supreme Court justices to the Speaker of the House, down to local poll workers targeted by very, very serious political violence.
And it's not getting a whole lot better. I bring up this data a lot when I talk to student groups or talk in the media, but we're seeing probably the largest volume of threat chatter against public officials in modern history. In fact, there's no contest, there's almost no data that shows that there was a period where it was higher in modern times. And public attitudes towards political violence have spiked. I mean, one in four Americans think that violence against the government is justified now, or probably justified. That's a stunning figure.
I was talking to Fiona Hill the other day who had been a Russia advisor to Donald Trump testified in the impeachment. And she said before she was in the administration, she'd been part of a study that looked at civil unrest overseas, and found that when roughly 10 to 12% of the population believes violence is an acceptable option to express political views, is when civil unrest becomes dramatically more likely. That's where we're at. We're in that blinking red territory, unfortunately.
Ken Harbaugh: Is the Republican party setting the stage even unintentionally for the return of Trump when you don't have a clear alternative, when you have all of these characters sticking their necks out to try to compete as they observe a weakened former president and think this is their chance? I mean, in a lot of ways, it feels like 2015, 2016 all over again.
Miles Taylor: It absolutely does. I mean, you hit the nail on the head, and you said it more concisely than I can. I think that the odds of Trump being the nominee again, are very, very high. And if Joe Biden runs for reelection, I think the odds of Donald Trump being president are quite good. People have different views on that. I think that Joe Biden, it's not a crazy thesis that since he's the only person that can beat Donald Trump, therefore, he might be the only person — or the only person who has beat him, therefore, he might be the only person who can beat him again. But I think we need new blood because if we have a repeat of 2020, I do think Donald Trump wins. I think Donald Trump beats Joe Biden even if he's indicted, even if he's badly damaged.
And here's the thing, this goes back to what we talked about earlier. I was one of the people who gave folks this false hope of an access of adults. And then people had false hope that Trump would get impeached, and they had false hope that a special counsel would take him down. We can't keep hoping that someone else is going to save us from ourselves because we're the ones that are ultimately doing this. We can't hope this new special counsel is going to save us from Trump, and people in the primaries are going to save us from Trump. I mean, we have to step up and actually take the actions to decisively deliver consistent electoral defeat to extremists. And again, there was some good news in the midterms in that regard. People did defeat extremists in key races. But that's going to happen in the Republican party too, and it requires actual moral courage.
I can't tell you how genuinely upsetting it is to see former mentors and colleagues of mine who just sort of look the other way and dismiss it. I mean, they all know. We talk to them all the time, Ken, like you have the same kind of friend group. These are people who’ll be like, “Yeah, yeah, look, I mean, he's crazy, but we're moving past him. We're moving past him,” but they're not doing anything to move us past him.
I mean, the fact that it takes the majority leader, Mitch McConnell threatened with death and racist remarks about his wife, and like constantly beaten up by the ex-president to come out and finally criticize the fact that Trump had a dinner with a white supremacist, like it's a hell of a lot of work to get the Republican majority leader in the Senate or minority leader to come forward and criticize the ex-president.
Ken Harbaugh: Even then, it was hedged. I mean, he didn't say, “I won't support him if he's nominated.” I mean, it was probably the weakest most cowardly denunciation you could have written for him.
Miles Taylor: Well, and so I want to go back to your point. You said this looks like a repeat of 2015, 2016. I'm going to disagree with you. I think this looks worse than that, because in 2015 and 2016, you had people like Rick Perry calling him a cancer on conservatism. You had people like Nikki Haley saying he was unqualified for office. Mike Pompeo, who I worked with in the house saying that Donald Trump was a disgusting, carnival barker, all of these things. And guess what, those people I just listed all went and served in his administration, but they were damning in their indictments of Donald Trump.
And just a couple weeks ago, I think it was two weeks ago, you had these same figures that I just listed at a conservative conference. And the news headlines were Republicans make broad sides against Trump. If you go back and read their quotes, none of them mention Trump by name. They just said we need to look forward and we need winners. These are not clear denunciations of a twice impeached, disgraced ex-president. And if there aren't those clear denunciations, if they don't go at him head on and try to weaken him, then yeah, he'll emerge in the primary states with a plurality of the votes. He obviously doesn't need a majority of the vote if the field is split. And then he could do, as you said, exactly what he did in ‘15 and ’16, and wind up again as the nominee. It's very realistic. So much so that Vegas odds would say he's the likeliest person to be the nominee.
Ken Harbaugh: Do you have a favorite Republican who you think could rise to the top of the field of challengers? And let me put my cards on the table. This is a loaded question because I've heard Andrew Yang talk about some of his — as one of the co-founders of the Forward Party, about some of his favorite alternative candidates. And it's a disappointing list. It makes the Forward Party seem unserious when you're talking about The Rock as a presidential nominee, when you're talking about Matthew McConaughey in an incredibly dangerous world. I'd like to see a little more seriousness.
Miles Taylor: Well, I mean look, we're not going to be playing in the 24 presidential, we're not running a candidate. So, I would sort of say the unseriousness is on the Democratic and Republican side. I really hope those two parties get serious and give us some real candidates. It's not up to us to give them candidates.
But look, on the Republican side, I would say this is sort of like what you would call never Trumper porn, is I hope that a Liz Cheney can do a Donald Trump in 2015, 2016. In other words, we may have so many MAGA people in the field that there's a slim hope that a Liz could run and gather just enough votes here and just enough there to slowly rise and become that alternative candidate. Do I think it's likely? No, I think it's incredibly unlikely. But just like Donald Trump's rise was incredibly unlikely. He was number 17 of 17 in the field. I mean, he was a total loser and then shot to the front of the pack.
So, are there sensible Republicans that I think have a good shot? I don't. I do not think there are any sensible Republicans that have a good shot of winning the nomination. If it came down to a DeSantis and Donald Trump, I would ultimately have to say, DeSantis. But in the same way that Winston Churchill said, he'd say a favorable word about the devil in the House of Commons if Hitler entered hell. So, I feel similarly is that Ron DeSantis is not a man that I want to see be president of the United States, but is he degrees better than Trump? Sure, I would still vote for the Democrat against DeSantis. So, we'll see. I don't have a lot of hope.
On the Democratic side, I do think if the President decides not to run, there's a lot of really bad candidates, but there's also some sleeper great candidates, and I don't even know if he's thinking about it. But like people like Steve Bullock from Montana, I hope go run. Steve left two terms as governor in Montana, and you know what he's doing now? He's running a bar, I think in Helena in the state. That's like the type of thing that I want to see at the presidential podium. It's like, “Yeah, I've been a two-term governor, and you know what, like people are so disconnected from Americans. I went and open a bar and like I see them and talk to them every day.”
And he’s kind of a rust belt type guy. I think that's what the Democrats need to win. The coastal elites are not going to win against a Donald Trump.
Ken Harbaugh: We had Denver Riggleman on those two would get along with their whiskey and beer.
Miles Taylor: Yeah, Denver's fantastic. I mean, look, and I don't even mean this jokingly: If you could run someone as like an independent for the presidency as long as you knew it wasn't going to spoil a race for a Donald Trump, like a Denver Riggleman, I think could be president of the United States. I'm a huge fan of Denver. He is plain spoken, he's brilliant, he's straightforward. I hope people like that we can keep in public service whether we get them back to the GOP and help perform the Republican Party, whether we bring them over into the new third lane of American politics. Either way, we need to encourage good people like that to stay in the fight.
Ken Harbaugh: There are some folks in my Democratic orbit who … and I think this must be an effect of the post midterms honeymoon period that Democrats are experiencing. They'll say that, “Listen, if we just ignore Trump, like you ignore any bully, they just kind of fade away.” I don't know if you read this op-ed in the New York Times last week that argued that if we just stop talking about him, he loses his power. I guess this isn't a question, this is me editorializing, but that drives me nuts. What's your reaction?
Miles Taylor: Yeah, I mean, it's not going to happen. So, why fantasize about it? After 2020, I had this conversation with a number of folks because I was looking at ways, Ken, to start sounding the alarm about the prospect of a MAGA wave in 2022, and about the possibility of the return of Donald Trump. And time and again by news networks and other folks, I was told, “Look, 2020 happened. Donald Trump's just going to fade. No one's going to talk about him anymore. It's not a worry.” And I said, “You're completely wrong. His movement is hijacking the Republican Party.” And sure enough, every single day since I had those conversations in January of 2021, every single day, Donald Trump has been on the splash page of almost every single major news outlet in the country. So, an op-ed in The Times is not going to stop us talking about Trump.
We look at the thing that we're afraid of, and we are afraid of that, and we're rightfully afraid of that. And we shouldn't sweep it under the rug. We should talk about it. Because what that op-ed (I didn't read it by the way), I'm guessing didn't account for, is that there are tens of millions of Americans who want to see that man come back. So, if they're talking about him and organizing to support him and ginning up to bring him back into public life, we do ourselves an enormous and potentially fatal disservice by turning the other way.
We are not the ones that are empowering him anymore in the opposition. He has organic innate support across the country. But it's also not about Trump anymore. I mean, I do genuinely think the bigger concern is Trumpism.
I falsely believed as a Republican that Donald Trump was an aberration. And that's why we needed an axis of adults and that's why we needed to just get through four years because once we did, the pendulum would swing back.
I think that's been proven wrong. I think that thesis has been proven wrong. I think MAGA republicans have won across the country. The fact that the majority leader, Kevin McCarthy, just sat down with, I don't know, I think it was three hours yesterday with Marjorie Taylor Greene shows that the alt-right fringes, the MAGA fringes aren't fringes anymore. They are now the mainstream of the party, and they are in control.
So, Trumpism is really now the threat, and whether he embodies it in a Trump 2.0 in a second term or someone else picks up the mantle, that is what we're fighting against. And it's not an amorphous idea. Trumpism’s very specific. It's the weaponization of political power against your perceived enemies. And it's the defiance of democratic institutions. And those two things have defined the modern GOP that I was once a part of, is they're weaponizing government power to attack the other side. And they are defined fundamental democratic institutions. And until that is excised from the GOP, I do think my former party poses a near existential threat to our democracy.
Ken Harbaugh: I think you're probably as well-equipped as anyone to comment on this observation, which is that the dysfunction and the violence of the last months and weeks of the Trump presidency, ultimately, weren't halted by institutions, by systems of government, it was individuals. It was people who … what's the phrase? Stood athwart history and yelled “Stop!”? It was voters. Does that reality, assuming you agree with me, give you encouragement or fill you with dread that the systems, the Democratic institutions that you speak of are not as robust as we think we are, and that we cannot depend on them to save us. We have to, if necessary, take to the streets.
Miles Taylor: Yeah. The one thing about democracy that works really well is it shows you who you are, and it's a reflection of who you are. And people misunderstood when I wrote my book and I called it A Warning. It wasn't just a warning of don't reelect this man. The bigger warning was we have a civic ticking time bomb right now. And I talked a lot about how the other side was discussing coups, a civil war and revolution. And I was mocked a little bit for that. But I felt very confident in that assessment because one thing that I learned as I know you did as well, Ken, in counterterrorism, is you have to take the enemy seriously. And in doing that, you need to listen to their words.
And so, over here on my bookshelf, I've got messages to the world, the statements of Osama Bin Laden because there was this period post-9/11, where everyone was underestimating Bin Laden and misunderstanding his intent. All you needed to do was read his words. It was very clear what he wanted to do, what his goals were. And when we forgot that, we totally missed the rise of ISIS. It should have been very obvious where the Islamist militant world wanted to go. They wanted to establish a califate, they wanted to crowdsource attacks. Al-Qaeda had tactical differences. But these things were written down and we stopped paying attention to the words of our adversaries. When I wrote that, I was very, very much steeped in what the MAGA side was saying, and there was a lot of talk about coups and civil war, including all the way up to, from Donald Trump. A year before the election, he was talking about coups and civil wars. And then look what we have seen happen. So, I think we need to pay attention and diagnose the threat for what it is.
But I don't have at the moment, a lot of hope in the near term about the temperature being dialed back, regardless of what happened in the midterms. Mostly because the justifications for violence are out there now.
And I'll give you another data point to show you how bad it is. And this is again, the bias of a counterterrorism professional. But when I came into the Trump administration, there were very few domestic terrorism cases across the country. I mean, in the, maybe hundreds, couple hundred. But primarily, we had thousands of international terrorism investigations, people who wanted to commit acts of violence on behalf of groups like ISIS or Al-Qaida. Thousands, I think it was like maybe 3,000 when I came in. But we saw this worrying trend in Donald Trump's first year in office, and we really thought a lot of it was driven by his rhetoric. We saw an uptick in the number of DT cases, domestic terrorism cases. And we warned at the White House, White House had no interest. They did not want to pay attention to domestic terrorism for the obvious reasons, because it would ensnare Trump supporters, because a lot of it was coming from the far right.
So, by the end of that first year, I think we got to 1,000 domestic terrorism cases across the country. And that was the first time that the number equaled the number of cases against an international terror group. So, I think we had just as many ISIS cases in that window. There was like a thousand of each. And we were like, whoa, DT is now equal to international terror.
By the time Trump left office, that number was 2,700. It had grown almost threefold. This wasn't just coincidence. I mean, this was directly driven by the president giving air cover to domestic extremist groups and fomenting them with the justifications for violence and spreading conspiracy theories. It's exactly the pathway. We saw the radicalization pathway with other terrorist groups, is it starts with the belief that you can't affect change in the system because the system's rigged. Therefore, you have to go outside the system and use violence.
And when you use violence through revolution, you can then reinstall power and rebalance the system in your favor. And we've seen exactly that pathway followed. So, I don't see that getting a lot better right now.
And then the thing that worries me even more, and I'll get attacked for both sides as I'm on this, but I don't care; is that when you study the history of radicalization, you also find that while it begins on one side, it very quickly can spread to the other side because it becomes easy to say in a sense, let's fight fire with fire. So, right now, we're not seeing an explosion of domestic terrorism groups on the far, far left, but if we do see low-level assassinations, more civil unrest, it's very likely that we will see the emergence of another poll of extremism, of violent extremism on the other side. And I was talking to Jonathan Haidt, the social psychologist about this, and he said the same thing. He's like that's what I worry about, is the data shows that eventually, it spreads to both extremes, and they play off each other and they justify a wider increase in violence. And I think that's the big concern at the moment.
Ken Harbaugh: I think that's entirely possible. I think I have to point out an important distinction between the violence on the left and the violence on the right though, which is that the violence on the right has been sanctioned by a political party. It has been celebrated by the leader of that political party. He told the proud boys who are on trial now for seditious conspiracy to stand by in case he lost the election. You don't see an equivalency coming from the Democratic Party.
Miles Taylor: You don't, and you're right about that. I'm not saying there's currently an equivalence, but I am saying we have to be very open-minded about the reality that that could easily happen, and to police ourselves on the other side to make sure it doesn't. And there's great examples of that happening. Civil rights movement's a great example. The civil rights movement could have broken a very different direction, and in the direction of mass violence. But instead, because of Martin Luther King Jr and others, you had the notion of peaceful protest largely overtake that movement very powerfully. But that was not inevitable. If you look at other similar movements in the past, you could have had people credibly advocate that the only way we can get this done is violence. And so, the nonviolent approach — we've been talking about for a century; but the nonviolent discourse is going to have to reemerge if we see the far-right start executing some of these attacks and plots because the temptation is going to be very high. And I think that that's alarming. So, it's something for us to be vigilant about, is to keep the situation from spiraling, and history shows us that it's certainly possible to do. But that's the concern.
And I think that we live in that environment until we do see big political reforms in this country. Until people, again, start feeling like they can go express their views in the political system and that they're heard — we’ll continue to get more polarized until that happens.
So, again, the democracy reforms that we're calling for, rank choice voting, and Final Five that help good principled people win in races and in all political parties, and make it harder for extremists to win; things like that, I think, are really, really important to lower the temperature in the long run.
Ken Harbaugh: Well, we didn't get to that, so we got to have you back. Definitely want the democracy reform conversation. Miles, it's been fantastic having you.
Miles Taylor: Ken, I admire you. Thank you for what you do. You are a moral voice amidst this fog of war that is our political system. So, thank you for cutting through that fog. We really appreciate it.
Ken Harbaugh: Thanks, Miles.
Thanks again to Miles for joining me.
You can find Miles on twitter at @MilesTaylorUSA
And make sure to check out his book: A Warning.
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Burn the Boats is a production of Evergreen Podcasts. Our producer is Declan Rohrs, and Sean Rule-Hoffman is our audio engineer. Special thanks to evergreen executive producers, Joan Andrews, Michael DeAloia, and David Moss. I'm Ken Harbaugh, and this is Burn the Boats, a podcast about big decisions.