When former White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham dropped multiple bombshells about her former boss while promoting her new book, it got me thinking about a question posed by a colleague recently. What happened to Republican political operatives?
Specifically, my fellow writer wanted to know why so many center-right Republican operatives fell in line with the path set by former President Donald Trump?
These are not the true-believers or local activists we were talking about. Many denounced Trump as a charlatan and danger to the democracy during the 2016 presidential primary. They worked for mainstream candidates like Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio or John Kasich. Within Colorado they regularly lined up against the most extreme elements of the state GOP, desperately trying to present more palatable solutions and electable candidates.
So how did they end up fully embracing Trumpism? What happened over the course of the past five years that led many of the professional “establishment” Republicans to begin parroting the Big Lie and spewing the violent rhetoric of insurrectionists?
Money. Cash. Moolah. The all-mighty dollar.
It sounds like a glib, stock answer, but it is nonetheless true. It is also more complex than a straight swap of money for principle. But as with many choices, money is the root cause.
Campaign consultants and electoral strategists need to earn a living just like the rest of us. Generally, that means dedicating years to being overworked and underpaid. In context, young staff often earn far less than minimum wage salaries.
Their lives may be nomadic, moving from city to city chasing elections. I had a good friend who refused to purchase anything that could not be packed into her SUV for more than a decade, lived in extended stay hotels more often than an apartment, and used a UPS box as her permanent mailing address.
They also get used to accepting imperfect candidates who do not always reflect their personal political philosophies on every issue.
By the time most political operatives attain the status necessary to earn more than a subsistence-level salary, they dumped blood, sweat and years into their profession.
In that context, the prospect of losing their career and livelihood presents too great a risk.
I know from experience. Not only did I lose half my law practice clientele when I went against GOP orthodoxy to advocate for civil unions and marriage equality, but I effectively torched any chance to work with Republicans again when I joined The Lincoln Project last year. Writing columns critical of the party’s direction in The Colorado Sun and other publications probably did not help, either.
And it is not as though political operatives can simply switch sides. The hyper-polarized partisan environment stands as an impervious barrier. The aspirational virtue of a team of rivals succumbs to political paranoia in modern politics. For example, despite a decade lambasting Republican policies and five years as an unaffiliated voter, I have yet to have a single Democratic elected official take me up on any offer to join their team of advisers.
In contrast, blind loyalty can pay off in spades. Previously unaccomplished consultants like Kellyanne Conway and Corey Lewandowski rode Trump to the top of their profession. People I have worked with — Jason Miller, Bill Stepien and Michael Roman — all ended up with career-making positions.
Such contrast makes the choice that much harder.
At least in my situation I have a law degree. I can earn a living outside the political sphere. Most political staff are not so lucky. Consequently, when the sea changes beneath them, they either sail with the current or sink.
When two-thirds of the party’s members want Trump to retain power, Republican operatives must either go along or exit altogether. Those are the only viable options. When mortgages must be paid, food put on the table and college funds created for children, the choice usually shrinks by one.
So many swallowed hard and threw themselves into the maw. It would be too expensive to make a new choice now.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq
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