"Fifth-tier people": Ex-Trump official Miles Taylor on who would want to work for the next regime

"I was completely, if not catastrophically wrong," the author of the famous "Anonymous" op-ed tells Salon

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published July 24, 2023 5:45AM (EDT)

Miles Taylor (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Miles Taylor (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

In the Age of Trump, complicity has been a common thread holding together the Republican coalition. Conservative detractors have been few and far between — but the small cadre has been vocal. One of the earliest voices, "Anonymous," revealed in a 2018 New York Times editorial that Donald Trump's own cabinet members had concluded that he was dangerously unfit for office.

Predictably, Trump became obsessed with discovering the identity of "Anonymous," who he attacked as a "traitor" and "leaker" who should be punished severely. In his new book "Blowback", Miles Taylor, a national security expert who served under the Trump administration as chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security, continues sounding the alarm about how Trump, his MAGA followers and a corrupted Republican Party are an imminent existential threat to American society.  

In this conversation, Taylor warns that the American people are risking "civic suicide" if they reelect Trump to the White House in 2024. He also explains how revenge-driven, unrestrained, and even more maniacal Trump is now and how he will turn the United States into a de facto dictatorship if returned to power. 

Taylor implores Democrats, liberals, progressives, and centrists (especially in the mainstream news media) to escape their own echo chambers so that they can properly understand and respond to the danger embodied by Trump and the MAGA movement. 

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity

You rose to public attention as "Anonymous." You were forced to go public in order to continue sounding the alarm about the dangers to the country posed by Donald Trump and his regime. Who are you now as opposed to who you were seven years ago? 

I was absolutely the optimistic, idealistic, young staffer who believed that people under pressure, especially in government, would ultimately end up doing the right thing. Seven years ago, I was also a firm believer in this notion of an axis of adults in Washington DC. I was one of the big progenitors of the idea of an "axis of adults" those "adults in the room" early in the administration. I kept sharing that phrase with journalists, I would tell them that "yes, Donald Trump is a disaster. I didn't vote for him. I didn't support him. I'm a Republican, but I went to work for the Trump administration because the adults in the room were going to protect us from his worst impulses."

"I have realized that I was completely, if not catastrophically wrong, in that assessment. I was naive."

Why am I different seven years later? I have realized that I was completely, if not catastrophically wrong, in that assessment. I was naive. Given my upbringing, I loved superheroes as a kid. The government looked like a place where you could be a real-life superhero. I was deeply rocked by the fact that during the Trump years, I met my heroes and a lot of them disappointed me. In moments of decision when it mattered, many of them didn't step up. That experience left me very jaded for quite a while. That experience was one of the things that forced me to come forward and reveal I was "Anonymous."

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Ultimately, as much as I've been disappointed time and time and time again in Washington about these so-called leaders not living up to the expectations and responsibilities it has at least given me a chance to see what their shortcomings are — and to try my damnedest not to repeat those mistakes. I am trying and have tried to sound the alarm about the crisis we are in with Donald Trump. I am trying to do better than those "leaders" in government who failed the nation so badly under Trump.

Who were we, "the Americans," seven years ago? Who are we today?

Before Donald Trump took office, we were a really restless and really divided country, frustrated that the system wasn't representing us the way we want it to. That is true across the political spectrum. Thinking about a casino, many Americans who supported and continue to support Trump took a gamble. America was a group of gamblers who were really hoping they would hit the jackpot if we pulled the lever. We were ignorant of the reality that usually the house wins in the end. We pulled that lever, and we lost big time.

What worries me is that many Americans are not just casual gamblers. When we look at the prospect of Donald Trump, potentially returning to the White House or a MAGA copycat, the fact that tens of millions of Americans would pull that lever again for Trump in that metaphorical casino tells me they are now gambling addicts. We don't see how severe of a problem we have. We didn't learn the lesson from losing the first go around. The continuing support for Trump and that he stands a very good chance of returning to the White House feels a little bit like civic suicidal ideation. America is on a path to self-destruction if Trump or a MAGA imitator or successor were to win the presidency.

"I was deeply rocked by the fact that during the Trump years, I met my heroes and a lot of them disappointed me."

To use another example of therapeutic language, Trumpism and the MAGA movement and what it represents is a type of addiction that is pushing the country towards disaster. I know from experience that the very first step toward recovery is just admitting the truth. The American people and their leaders are not there yet.

I was recently at a dinner with some, as I and others like to describe them, "good white liberals with money." They honestly believe that the tide is turning against Donald Trump and the MAGA movement and the Republicans.

They asked me what I thought. I told them I am off the clock and let's talk about something else. They persisted. I then plainly explained that people like them truly have no idea what is happening in the real world and the forces they are up against. The Trumpists do not believe in democracy — especially multiracial pluralistic democracy. They are playing for keeps. I also told the people at the party that they are so naive and privileged and that the world they want to believe exists is not the world that actually exists. Trump is much more popular than you all want to admit or can even understand. I concluded by telling them that the 2024 Election is going to be far closer than you all realize, and Trump has a very good chance of winning — even if he is on trial or in jail. They literally looked at me like I spat on the floor of their nice house because I told them the truth. They then went back to their fantasies and making each other happy with self-soothing stories.

If I were to bet on who is going to be the next president of the United States, I would put my money on Donald Trump. Obviously, that is the last thing I want to see happen. But if I had to make a bet today, despite the impeachments and the indictments, and the widespread opposition to him, I think he's likely to be the next President of the United States. That should be a five-alarm fire for our democracy. Our democracy right now is at very grave risk of going through a period of destruction, and in many ways it already has. But I can remain optimistic in the midst of all these troubles because the crisis can be an opportunity to improve our democracy. The United States may need to experience more pain as we are seeing with Trumpism and renegotiate our social contract and democracy for the better to prevent such a leader and movement from rising to power again in the future. But the jury's still out on what decision we will make about whether to continue the American experiment.

How do the mainstream news media and other centrist political types – and many among the general public too — sustain such naivete and denial? Why are they perpetually "shocked" and "amazed" at the horrible things that Trump and his Republican Party and their followers do and believe? After seven years, it all seems like willful ignorance to me; it is very unhealthy and maladaptive.

Because it's the same thing they accused the other side of doing.

The good white liberals and centrists and media types and elite political class you are speaking of accuse the MAGA people and others on the right wing of being inside of an echo chamber and living in a false reality. But in their refusal to associate or really engage with the MAGA people and right-wingers those centrist types, mainstream liberals and Democrats, means they too are living in a separate reality of their own making. When I go home to the Midwest and talk to Trump supporters, they are telling me they are going to vote for Trump again.

"The continuing support for Trump and that he stands a very good chance of returning to the White House feels a little bit like civic suicidal ideation."

These people have brought into the right-wing echo chamber and lies about the "Biden crime family" and "the Democrats are evil and they're destroying America." They are ready to put Trump back in the White House. Many Democrats, liberals, centrists, and progressives, those good white liberals in their echo chamber bubbles refuse to accept that reality because it is upsetting and foreign to them. We are fragmented and living in different realities, and we must address that problem if we are going to survive as a country and democracy.

How do you explain Donald Trump's "dark charisma" and the hold he has over so many tens of millions of people? Unfortunately, too many in the mainstream news media and political class are avoiding that question — which is why they do not fully understand the peril that American society is facing right now.   

A person like Donald Trump appeals to the devils of our nature, not the better angels of our nature. Sometimes it's very difficult for people to see when something is detrimental to them — like a Donald Trump. Demagogues rise to power, especially fake populists, not because they are promising to destroy people's lives and control them, but because of the promise that they will give the people safety and security and make their lives better.

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The sleight of hand is that demagogues like Trump are taking freedom and liberty away. Many members of the public are willing to make that trade and they do not really care if such a leader has too much power and may abuse it. It would be grand hubris to assume that we, the American people, are immune to those types of autocratic tendencies, tendencies that have plagued democracy back to antiquity and government well before that. New technologies such as the internet and social media have made it very difficult to suppress those types of autocratic forces.

Beyond the dedicated ideologues, what types of people will want to go work for Trump's regime if he takes back power? Who would want that stink and filth all over them?

The worst types of people.

Friedrich Hayek was trying to grapple with how Nazi Germany became a totalitarian society under the Nazis and what types of people would serve such a regime. The regime starts with the people who are already part of the government and then starts removing anyone who will resist or is otherwise an impediment to the agenda. Trump did that in his first term. Trump got rid of the experienced public servants who told him that what he was doing was illegal and/or immoral and unethical and then replaced them with sycophants. In the next stage, the sycophants basically compete with one another to be the one that does whatever the leader wants, no matter how bad and extreme.

"As the saying goes, 'Stalin was bad, but the little Stalins were a hell of a lot worse.' And that is what we would be seeing in a second Trump term. "

In researching "Blowback" that is one of the themes that I heard repeatedly in my interview with ex-Trump administration officials. They warned that if Trump returns to power, it wouldn't be first-tier or second-tier or even third-tier people who he surrounds himself with. Trump would have the fifth-tier people, which would consist of some quite dangerous and amoral individuals, who would be empowered to run federal agencies and be in the White House as his advisers and staff.

The banality of evil is very real.

As the saying goes, "Stalin was bad, but the little Stalins were a hell of a lot worse". And that is what we would be seeing in a second Trump term. As bad as Donald Trump will be if he wins a second term, his lieutenants will likely be people who are even more evil than he is. That is going to be true of Trump's successors too because they will be following his authoritarian playbook to win the MAGA base.

How do you maintain your energy and moving forward with this work?

I'm absolutely exhausted too. Doing this work and having these conversations is exhausting because it often feels futile. I hate being in politics. Writing books such as "Blowback" is the last thing I want to do. But I sincerely believe that we are really at the brink of throwing our democracy away here in America. I must devote my energy to doing this work instead of focusing on the things that I love and that bring me joy. But if we don't fight to defend and protect our democracy then our kids and grandkids won't be able to enjoy their lives. It's really easy to get exhausted by this fight but there are some pretty dark forces at play in our political system with Trump and the MAGA movement and the larger democracy crisis and we must defeat them.

How do you respond to the claim, which is absurd, that you are some type of "grifter" who is speaking out against Trump for the money? That is a charge that is made against many people who are in the pro-democracy movement and trying to save this country from its worst impulses. 

There is nothing I've done in my life that has been less profitable financially, and damaging in terms of general life security, than staying involved in politics and being part of pro-democracy movement. When I stepped out of government and moved away from all of this I started doing fantastically well in the private sector. There was zero financial incentive to unmask myself as "Anonymous." I pledged away the proceeds of the money I made from the book "A Warning."

I lost my job. I lost my home. I lost my financial security and my savings. Every single time I do an interview like this or go on TV, or otherwise talk about Trump it makes it that much more difficult to go get a job in the private sector and to make money because people don't want to touch politics. It's toxic. I always laugh when the grifter label is leveled at me. I wish the folks who lob the grifter label at me had been sitting there with me filing for unemployment in the months after the Trump presidency ended because fighting against him meant I didn't have a job, and I had to go avail myself of the welfare system. I don't say that for any sympathy, but the public needs to realize that the people who are in this fight, the vast majority of them, are in it for the right reasons, because very few of them are really making great money by doing this.

Why do people do it then?

I was raised in a family where if something is wrong you have an obligation to call it out and do something about it within the appropriate channels. Donald Trump and his rise to power and the threat to democracy he represents is a simple and obvious moral dilemma. You rarely get that moment in life to be presented with such a clear moral cause for which you can be on the side of wrong or right. I have chosen to be on the right side of history and that comes at a great cost. I will take that tradeoff.

The New York Times had a recent story about Trump's plans to become a de facto dictator when and if he retakes power in 2025. There is Trump's "Agenda 47" that I and a few others have been writing about, which is again a plan for a de facto dictatorship. Where is the mass outrage by the public? Where is the mobilization? Are people just spent and stuck in a state of learned hopelessness and exhaustion? It is a function of agenda setting by the mainstream news media and other influentials? Too many everyday Americans actually believe that their leaders are going to save them — they will not.

"The United States may need to experience more pain as we are seeing with Trumpism and renegotiate our social contract and democracy for the better to prevent such a leader and movement from rising to power again in the future. "

What I tried to do with the new book "Blowback" is to outline Trump and his forces' playbook. The first step in stopping them is to understand what they intend to do. We now have the benefit of Trump and his cabal's own words and plans because they have detailed it publicly. His second term will be based upon retribution and revenge. We have to mobilize those Americans who have a moral aversion to Trump's plans for a de facto dictatorship. The diehard MAGA people support Trump's plans. But there is a cohort among Republican and other conservative voters who do not like the direction the party is going and who are scared of people like Trump, but they continue to quiet because they're intimidated by the right-wing tribe. We need to explain to those people who can be persuaded on the right that it is okay to turn against the hive mind and to oppose Trump and the threat to democracy he and the MAGA movement and other neofascists and authoritarians represent to the country. I don't have a great deal of confidence that they're going to be able to muster up that coalition fast enough to stop Donald Trump from being the Republican 2024 presidential nominee, however. Those resisters inside of the party are going to have to be mobilized to fight back during the election and beyond if Trump takes back the White House.

I am frustrated for you in terms of how the new book is being received and framed. There are all these news stories that cherry-pick scintillating and scary details about what you saw and experienced firsthand with the Trump regime but fail to connect the dots to the bigger picture, the more important message and agenda of the book. It's easy to write 500 words or 250 words and pull a quote to get eyes and clicks and views, downloads, and listens. It is traffic chasing in a broken attention economy. How do you explain the bigger picture — what really matters — that you are trying to communicate with "Blowback"?

The systemic dismantlement of American democracy's guardrails is not easily condensed into popcorn talking points. It requires thought and it requires time to explain the stakes and the extreme danger we in this country are in right now.  Sadly, in this moment that we are in as a society, people don't want to give serious things much thought or attention. But if we as a society are not willing to do that basic work then we are going to suffer the consequences. If we reelect someone like Donald Trump to the White House, then we will deserve everything that happens to us. Good or bad, or more likely, ugly, we will deserve it.

But we have a choice not to put ourselves in that situation. The refusal to think has led people to make too many snap judgments that are really detrimental to the health and welfare of our democracy. Ultimately, I hope that people will take the time to actually read, digest, share and live their lives in a more contemplative way — such as reading books and other longform writing and work — instead of just TicTok snippets and other nonsense.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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