The Making of Stephen Miller
Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda
by Jean Guerrero
William Morrow, 323 pp., $28.99
Chilling words delivered with a flicking tongue and dead eyes . . . prematurely balding pate shining over a long face that seems to smile only when inflicting pain . . . a figure in dark clothes tailored to sharp, narrow lines . . . relentless driving sentences like long, serrated knives. . . . We all know who we’re talking about, right?
In her new book, Hatemonger, journalist Jean Guerrero provides a full portrait of this Nosferatu of the West Wing—down to his “long, articulate fingers that fit a man often depicted as a behind-the-scenes puppeteer.”
Of course, Stephen Miller is the sort of person who relishes his detractors’ hyperbole. He has been cultivating a cartoon villainy since puberty. He has fashioned himself into what people opposed to the Trump administration describe as a dream enemy. Since the dawn of our era of “American carnage,” Miller has survived all the generals, adults-in-the-room, old cronies, and rank opportunists. He remains a senior adviser for policy to President Donald J. Trump. His influence on immigration policy and the nation’s racial climate will be long-lasting. If, inshallah, the Trump administration’s legacy rots away and vanishes like the soft tissue of some prehistoric shark, the sharp teeth that remain in the fossil record will likely belong to Stephen Miller.
In the last several months of impeachment, pandemic, and economic collapse, Miller hasn’t surfaced in public as much as he did in the first years of the administration. He doesn’t give as many interviews anymore or show up television as often. And he did not avail himself of the opportunity to speak to his biographer. Jean Guerrero, in her decade-long career in journalism, has covered America’s borderlands, mixed cultures, and migrant peoples. She has drawn out the individual stories and traumas that follow from executive orders and white papers in Washington. For this book, she sought to understand the architect of some of the most disturbing policies she had seen from the ground. In her quest to understand, she seems to have spoken to everyone who came in contact with Stephen Miller, from Santa Monica to Duke University to Washington—elementary-school classmates, domestic workers, old girlfriends, right-wing mentors, nearly forgotten relatives, baffled government officials, and other sources high and low who were frightened into anonymity.
The title “Hatemonger” might seem sensational or overdramatic, but it is clinically precise. Miller acquires, packages, commercializes, and touts hatred as surely as a fishmonger peddles haddock and cod. Jean Guerrero has the emails.
Hatemonger delves into Miller’s adolescence and childhood and deeper into his extended family and ancestry. Guerrero notes the irony of Miller’s Jewish refugee ancestors who were spared pogroms and death camps by the grace of an open door to the United States.
Those generations had faded away by the time Miller’s parents established themselves in upper-middle-class security in California. Miller’s father, an imperious lawyer and litigious real estate investor (hmmm) did very well through the 1980s and his son Stephen’s birth in 1985. In the course of the 1990s, however, the family’s fortunes changed and the elder Miller’s politics shifted from conventionally Democratic to economically Republican to combatively right-wing.
Guerrero’s reporting reveals that the Miller family experienced a profound financial and social dislocation as lawsuits and earthquakes pummeled the family business. As Stephen Miller made the transition to Santa Monica High School, the family was uprooted from a wealthy enclave to the margins of a “largely Latin American neighborhood.”
Guerrero reminds readers of the combustible atmosphere of California politics in the ’90s. On the national stage in 1992, immigration hawk Pat Buchanan issued his declaration of “culture war.” In southern California, progressive multicultural initiatives were on the march and they were met by a ferocious white reaction. In addition to literal explosions from wildfires and earthquakes, the state hosted ferocious battles over state services for illegal immigrants (Governor Pete Wilson’s Prop 187), bilingual education, and affirmative action. And there was the matter of the police beating of Rodney King and the vast Los Angeles riots. Oh, and there was a flare-up in white-supremacist terrorist groups and racial tensions among students, even at the mostly affluent Santa Monica High School.
The young Miller found himself swimming in an environment of money and status layered over by liberal pieties. He was alienated from the upper crust and contemptuous toward Hispanic students, whom he saw as the beneficiaries of unwarranted solicitude. One of the central insights of Hatemonger is the ample evidence that, like so many people, Stephen Miller’s template for life seems to have been established in high school. Many of his exploits—such as insisting that students should be free to litter when custodians are paid to clean up—have been well documented already. Miller’s first brush with wider notoriety came with a ginned-up controversy about the Pledge of Allegiance at Santa Monica High after 9/11. He went on the Larry Elder Show, a mainstay of southern California conservative talk radio, first as a caller and then as a guest invited “almost whenever he wanted to come on the air to talk about whatever was on his mind,” according to Elder. In those broadcasts, Miller spoke much as he does now, about anti-American PC tendencies at his school. When a classmate confronted Miller about distortions and dishonesties in his radio remarks, she told Guerrero he said “It doesn’t matter what the truth is, but how it makes people feel.” Miller would ride that proposition all the way to the White House.
From the beginning, Miller seems to have had a talent for friendship with men who could help him. First he played the role of earnest, young patriot truth-teller for Larry Elder. That connection brought Miller into the orbit of David Horowitz, the New Left firebrand turned “second thoughts” conservative firebrand. Like Pat Buchanan, the controlling metaphor for Horowitz’s political activism has long been war. Rhetorical battle, enemies, weapons, hate, rage, war, and more war. Horowitz’s “School for Political Warfare” was a good fit for young Stephen Miller.
Miller told Horowitz “he’d grown up in a liberal household and realized those political views were wrong. Horowitz could relate.” The elder radical against radicals “thought of Miller as a ‘second thoughts warrior’ like himself, someone who had been brought up in one ideology and, upon second thought, decided the opposite was true.”
Members of Miller’s extended family were standard-issue Democrats, but Guerrero’s reporting indicates that Miller’s father had become a strident right-winger before Stephen Miller left elementary school. Guerrero doesn’t explicitly suggest this, but it seems clear that, with Horowitz, Miller was warping his persona to place himself more snugly under an influential man’s wing.
At Duke University, Stephen Miller established himself in a now-familiar contrarian position. He harangued fellow students, faculty, and staff with acidic words. Deans and university administrators deal with thousands of arrogant young activists in the course of a career. Guerrero talked to one who thought Miller’s vehemence and certainty was not unusual but “it didn’t seem to matter what information you gave him.” It seems Miller was always playing to another audience.
The conservative movement was always a loose, sprawling web of ideologies and personalities that contained multitudes and contradictions galore. For long periods, it was a fecund marketplace of ideas, dynamic and adaptable. But on the margins, there has always been a furtive trade in such half-cooked exotica as “race realism” and Christian Reconstructionism.
Before he left Duke, Stephen Miller spent time with peddlers from such dark corners. Regardless of his post-Duke representations, it is clear that Miller worked closely with the now-infamous white nationalist/supremacist Richard Spencer. Miller and Spencer hosted a debate featuring onetime National Review contributor Peter Brimelow, an English immigrant and author of the 1995 book Alien Nation: Common Sense About America’s Immigration Disaster. Brimelow went on to found VDARE, an anti-immigration, white-nationalist-friendly website, foundation, and think tank. Brimelow, Spencer, and Miller may have represented different strains of toxic right-wing thought, but their connection led to a potent cross-fertilization.
A Duke student who saw a lot of Miller up close observed:
Some people want money, some people want power, some people want influence, some people want women, some people want scientific discovery and a lot of people run around not knowing what they want. Stephen very clearly wanted the tears of his enemies—and then went out and got them.
The infamous Duke lacrosse case unfolded during Miller’s time at the school. Eventually, the falsely accused jocks were exonerated and some justice was served. Miller had been, more or less, on the right side of the controversy. His on-campus and off-campus media advocacy established his name far beyond Duke, and he soon took his notoriety—and his influences—to work in Washington.
David Horowitz helped Stephen Miller land a job on Capitol Hill, eventually finding him a slot with Alabama senator Jeff Sessions. Guerrero documents how Miller served as a courier for arguments and strategies between Sessions, Horowitz, and anti-immigration think tanks and policy wonks. That web of connections successfully befouled the last attempt at comprehensive immigration reform during the Obama administration. From that time through the appearance of Donald Trump, Miller was the tireless superspreader of soundbites, strategies, policy prescriptions, and rhetoric around immigration restrictionism. The informal network, which encompassed Steve Bannon and his Breitbart crew, passed around links to white-nationalist material at websites like American Renaissance and Peter Brimelow’s VDARE. It was an electronic wet market of white identity politics.
When Donald Trump rolled down the golden escalator and started his populist march to the White House, Miller and his friends ensured their networks and their ideas were along for the ride. Guererro details how Miller has circumvented norms and chains of command to push for the most ruthless available options in curtailing illegal and legal immigration.
Embedded in Hatemonger are some lessons in how not to fight against the machinations of Stephen Miller. Revisiting the “caravan” of migrants that Trump tried to use as a weapon in the 2018 elections, Guerrero reveals that one of the most chaotic and dangerous moments came at the urging of American activists who visited migrants in Tijuana and told them to “storm the border, passing out flyers that read in Spanish: ‘Open the border or we’ll shut it down! All of us must be allowed to enter!’ The handouts . . . were written in the first-person plural, as if by the Central Americans themselves, but were in fact a product of By Any Means Necessary, a US-based left-wing group.”
The migrants who followed their instructions tried scaling fences only to be met by barbed wire and tear gas. Guerrero makes clear the exploitative and counterproductive nature of some on the far left.
At times, though, she might be too accepting of the supposed harmlessness of some of the left’s identity politics. One of Miller’s lifelong enemies has been the student group “MEChA,” formerly known as the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicanx de Aztlán (the Chicano Student Movement of Aztlán). It is a ’60s-vintage nationalist student movement that has held strange notions of a racial homeland in the southwestern United States and a creepy motto: Por La Raza todo. Fuera de La Raza nada (“within the race, everything; outside of it, nothing”). Then again, as troubling as that is, perhaps racial nationalism of the left is not as much of a threat right now as its right-wing counterpart: As Miller has been prosecuting his continent-wide macroaggression against brown people, MEChA has been consumed in an internecine struggle among its sub-factions over internalized heteronormativity and other pressing concerns.
More troubling is a terrible line of thought that Guerrero repeats unchallenged that was voiced by one of Miller’s Duke student foes: “I am haunted by the knowledge that we could have shut Stephen down at the moment of his becoming, had we been more interested in the psychic and material health of the marginalized peoples with whom we shared our campus than in the doctrine of liberalism.”
Just how might they have “shut Stephen down”? The onetime classmate, who is now
a race and gender studies scholar, says Miller derives his power from liberalism, specifically the doctrine of free speech. “The assumption that you should have every idea available to you and you can pick and choose . . . that’s the problem.”
In due time, I’m sure that Miller and his alt-right allies would also be happy to dispense with the remaining niceties of liberalism, including free speech and tolerance.
Since Donald Trump’s inauguration, Stephen Miller has been the embodiment of the administration’s de facto motto: “Malevolence Tempered by Incompetence.” His arrogance and ignorance have led to missteps and self-inflicted setbacks. His rhetoric has alienated, and his influence has undermined the core missions of the Department of Homeland Security (which include pandemic defense). But he has persisted, adapted, and continued his long march through the federal bureaucracy. Unlike his boss, Miller seems to have been learning on the job as he works the levers of government. Guerrero writes, “Miller knew when to push and when to yield. He had a knack for political maneuvering.”
Somehow he has survived all the Trump world defenestrations. He has benefited from his talent for friendship and his use—and well-timed disposal of—benefactors. Trump may see Miller as a direct line to his base. And Stephen Miller will never tell him to adjust his tone or ease up on the “Mexican rapists” to win over swing voters.
As strongmen and malefactors around the world have discovered, Donald Trump is easily manipulated. Miller learned the tricks. Guerrero explains that “Miller observed early that to survive in Trump’s orbit, he would have to ally himself with Trump’s beloved daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner.” Miller ventured out of his immigration monomania to help Ivanka and Jared with their pet projects. When Steve Bannon started publicly tussling with “Javanka,” Miller knew when and how to shiv his latest mentor. As Miller walked with Trump one day, he was overheard telling his boss, “Your polling numbers are actually very strong considering Steve won’t stop leaking to the press and trying to undermine Jared.” Bannon was soon gone. A victim of the art of political warfare, it would seem.
Steve Bannon has called himself a “Leninist.” Like Miller, Horowitz, and others, Bannon loves those martial metaphors. Bannon, like Trump, liked “killers” who, in Horowitz’s phrase, “take no prisoners.” It’s performative, a lurid echo of the worst of the far left—especially when it comes from David Horowitz—but it’s not just a metaphor. People who use war-like rhetoric tend to extend the imagery and widen its use. It is a thrilling role-playing game. But, at some point, mere words lead to action. After all, if the stakes are so high, if one reversal will end America, shouldn’t we be willing to fight by any means necessary?
We have all too many examples of individuals and small groups taking up the battle cry. They have moved beyond violent symbolism and started deploying real bullets and pipe bombs and speeding weaponized cars. And, even more troubling, it seems the front-line federal officers can be susceptible to that contagion of ruthlessness.
Donald Trump is not an ideological leader. His initiatives are crude and his execution lazy. Stephen Miller is still a very young man. As captured by Jean Guerrero in Hatemonger, Miller does have a vision, an obsession if not a group of principles. And he is anything but lazy. Regardless of the outcome of the coming election, Stephen Miller and his allied forces will march on. Whether he is feeding apocalyptical racial paranoia from the White House or outside, Miller will be the one to watch in the coming years.