Breaking Good?: How Defining Moments Shaped Today’s GOP Leaders

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Whether we’re talking about actors, sports heroes, or politicians, one of the things that always interests me is how someone’s “Rosebud” moment influences who they become. And learning about the seminal moments in the lives of some of today’s GOP stars was one of the things I enjoyed most about McKay Coppins’ new book The Wilderness.

While the scoops and bits of campaign gossip found in its pages are sure to get the most ink, I found myself fascinated by this recurring theme.

For example, Coppins details how the death of Paul Ryan’s father made him a young man in a hurry—made him get serious. It also probably made him a good protege and networker—someone who was looking for father-figures.

Jeb Bush didn’t get serious until he met his future wife. And his political career was hatched after casual discrimination against her in Texas led the couple to flee for Florida (something I learned from Coppins’ book).

Each of the Republican leaders highlighted in The Wilderness confronted a defining moment that shaped them. “In this book, no one comes off as purely heroic or purely villainous,” Coppins told me during a recent podcast discussion. “These 2016 candidates and prominent Republicans are actually human beings,” he continued. “And they have moral and psychological foibles. But they also, in a lot of ways, are brilliant and have these idealistic visions.”

“They all kind of start out in some way with an idealistic idea, either about themselves or about politics, or about the Republican Party,” Coppins said. “But they’re constantly—as they go through the kind of grind of the political process—they find themselves constantly running into situations where they have to kind of compromise their principles.”

No wonder it makes for such a compelling read. This is essentially the theme of great works of popular culture like Star Wars, Breaking Bad, and the Godfather. (Then again, maybe those aren’t great analogies to describe the current GOP?)

The good news is that, just as pain and trials can destroy us, resistance and adversity are required to achieve wisdom and greatness. Politics ain’t beanbag. “At the end of it,” Coppins told me, “it kind of made me both never want to even consider running for office in my entire life, and then also, kind of have an appreciation for the people who do. Because, it is, kind of brutal.”

You can listen to my podcast discussion with McKay Coppins here.

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Matt K. Lewis