With the election of Donald Trump, Stephen Miller was elevated from an obscure Senate aide to the architect of a restrictionist immigration policy meant to curb both legal and illegal immigration and reduce the number of asylum seekers and refugees. Behind the scenes, he crafts most of the president’s most incendiary public remarks and urges a take-no-prisoners approach meant to mobilize Trump’s base around wedge issues.
According to investigative reporter Jean Guerrero, “It’s impossible to understand the Trump era, with its unparalleled polarization, without tracing Miller’s journey to the White House.” In her new book “Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump and the White Nationalist Agenda” (William Morrow), Guerrero documents the balding, nattily dressed 35-year-old’s meteoric rise from awkward Jewish kid in suburban Southern California to far-right campus activist at Duke University to powerful solider in what he and his mentors consider a war on “Western civilization” waged by liberals and immigrants. Whether or not Miller or Trump at heart share the racist worldview of white nationalists, she writes, “the duo packaged the hate that fuels white terrorism and sold it like candy at an amusement park.”
She spoke to The Jewish Week from her home in San Diego, where she covers border and immigration issues.
Let’s start by recapping Stephen Miller’s influence on policy and this administration. Where is his influence seen?
There are two things – the element of him being a top speechwriter for Trump and continuing to shape his rhetoric, and Stephen Miller in charge of having shaped immigration policy in which they are targeting legal immigrants, dismantling the asylum system, fostering family separation, undermining immigrant protection protocols and now, with the pandemic, turning just about everyone away systematically.
In terms of refugees and asylum, he almost single-handedly dismantled a system against what the officials who’d been there a long time wanted. He turned away families fleeing persecution and violence. He’s been targeting green cards through the public charge rules which disqualify applicants if they relied too much on public assistance, while completely freezing green card processing.
Some of these are changes immigration hardliners have sought for a long time. What does Miller bring to the effort that hasn’t been on a traditional conservative wish list?
It’s true: We’ve had really intense enforcement under Democrats. Under Obama there were record deportations. The border was militarized under Bill Clinton. What Stephen Miller adds is that he skillfully uses the rhetoric of Trump – for example, in creating Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement, or VOICE — to demonize immigrants around policies that will primarily impact people who have not committed any crimes. Previous administrations tried to maintain focus on felons rather than families. This administration is primarily obsessed with closing off legal pathways into this country that we haven’t seen since the early 1900s.
Your book shows Miller both learning from and sharing ideas based in the white nationalist movement, from notions that Western civilization is under attack from third world invaders to the racist idea that people of color are innately more violent than white people. For Miller, is promoting these ideas tactical, or does he believe them?
I show that as a high school student he began to share these ideas as a way to be empowered when he felt disempowered. Eventually he invested more and more in this ideology so that his identity became inseparable from it. His friends said he has become consumed by this mission in the way of a fanatic. People who worked for him say he actually does believe this, and that shutting off immigration is somehow preserving Western civilization. He is careful not to talk about it in terms of race but asserts the need to maintain a white majority because he was radicalized to believe that was necessary for the specific culture we have today. He learned this from David Horowitz: that white men shaped this culture and that is what Stephen Miller is trying to preserve.
That’s David Horowitz of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, the former ’60s radical and current right-wing activist who first noticed Miller when he was a high school student calling into a far-right radio show. Horowitz mentors Miller in his conservative activism at Duke University. Was it Miller who brought into the mainstream Horowitz’s idea about an assault on the West by liberals, immigrants and what he calls civil rights “demagogues”?
Horowitz had been hosting his Restoration Weekends for a very long time, which helped in pushing GOP and conservative leaders in a more radical direction. But as for actual policy, this is the first time that David Horowitz has reached such a high level of impact.
Miller and Horowitz worked together early on opposing pro-Palestinian activism at Duke University. What connections, if any, are there between Miller’s pro-Israel activism and his attitudes on immigration?
The way he interprets Zionism is not the way most American Jews interpret it: His is a full-throated nationalism that won’t take the other side into account at all. That’s not what most people take the project of Israel to mean, as Yehuda Kurtzer [of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America] explained to me. For Miller, it is very tied together — this identification with some sort of white ideal that ends up demonizing or disregarding or disparaging brown people.
And in the case of Palestine, for Stephen Miller it’s denying the existence or validity of Palestine or negotiations between the two groups. In the U.S., it means keep as many brown people out. His extremism doesn’t start with immigration even though in high school he was very much about railing against multiculturism and telling Mexican classmates to go back to their countries. He becomes more politicized when he is in Duke and going after the Palestinian solidarity conference. That’s the political idea that expresses his fanaticism early on in life. It appears that the political extremism starts with this anti-Arab, anti-Muslim ideas that Horowitz introduced him to.
Soon after he was bringing the white nationalists Richard Spencer and Peter Brimelow to campus; that’s when he begins thinking about the immigrant issue. Brimelow’s book “Alien Nation” calls for limits on immigration because of the racial character of the people coming here.
The story often told about Miller is that he grew up in a typical liberal Jewish household in Southern California and that he rebelled against his parents and their friends. But you report a very different picture, especially after his father, a lawyer, had to file for bankruptcy on some property ventures and the family had to move to a less affluent part of Santa Monica.
Stephen’s parents voted Democratic in the 1980s and donated to Democratic campaigns, but when his father’s business troubles started you saw [his father] go really to the right on politics and talk about the “ridiculous liberal elite.” Stephen Miller’s father was inclined toward these ideas when Stephen was still a child.
Stephen Miller is described by a lot of people in your book as robotic and relentless, and is inclined to argue in ways that just bulldoze over people he disagrees with. What do his friends and allies say about him – what do they like about him?
A lot of close allies did not want to speak with me. Most of my conversations suggest that he is so consumed by this mission he is not very likeable anymore. In college he was friends with people of color and with people who disagreed with him politically. But over time he became more and more consumed with this mission. But he probably does have a core group of allies in the White House. But I wasn’t able to speak to them.
Michael Anton from the Claremont Institute, who left the administration early and was a close ally, did paint a portrait that you usually don’t see in the media, of Miller being sort of a stand up comic during plane travel in different places. That jibes with the young Stephen Miller – launching into these monologues, or onstage for student government and saying outrageous things. He had an ability to make them laugh.
In a White House that has gone through endless turnover, from Miller’s other mentor Steve Bannon to four chiefs of staff to five secretaries for Homeland Security, what accounts for Miller’s longevity?
People don’t realize how crucial he was to Trump’s victory in 2016. Immigration activists rolled their eyes when Trump talked about the border wall, saying walls are very expensive to maintain and don’t do much to halt immigration flows. Then Miller came and gave Trump real credentials, using policies from FAIR [Federation for American Immigration Form] and from Miller’s time as press secretary for Sen. Jeff Sessions. Then Miller got him the endorsements of the Border Patrol and ICE unions – the largest law enforcement agencies organized behind Trump and that was Stephen Miller. He proved himself a key player for Trump, even as early as 2015 when he was unpaid labor, writing talking points and policy proposals showing Trump how much he believed in him.
The rhetoric that Miller is inserting into Trump’s speeches is the same rhetoric that white supremacists use to recruit people.
Trump believes Stephen Miller will be crucial for him to win in November, which will depend on the apocalyptic demonization of his political opponents. Stephen Miller is comfortable in Trump’s shadow, a mere devoted vehicle for Trump’s agenda. This works for Trump’s ego. [Miller] never gets out ahead of him. White House officials tell me they were afraid to challenge or question Stephen Miller because he was always speaking for Trump.
More than others, I think, you find connections between some of the anti-immigration rhetoric coming out of the White House and three acts of domestic terrorism in 2018 and 2019: the killing of 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the murder of a woman at the Chabad synagogue in Poway, California, and the killing of 22 people at the El Paso Walmart. In each instance, the shooters’ manifestoes drew on the notion of an immigrant “invasion” or threats to the “white race.” This was at a time when Trump and many of his supporters were stoking fears of an invasion from Mexico and Central America.
It was very striking as I was reporting it out and laying everything on a timeline and seeing how Trump would say something and – I am not saying there was a cause and effect, but definitely these things are not happening in a vacuum. The rhetoric that Miller is inserting into Trump’s speeches is the same rhetoric that white supremacists use to recruit people, like the use of crime statistics to show that people of color are innately more violent than whites, or the gory language to describe an attack on white women by an undocumented immigrant. These are core components of the way Trump speaks in the White House. He is not using it to recruit people, but to rally people around Donald Trump. But the collateral damage is giving people a green light to embrace these movements.
Can you tell when Stephen Miller writes a speech for the president?
The left as “anarchists and agitators,” a focus of Trump this year, comes directly from “The Camp of the Saints,” this white supremacist dystopian novel [written in 1973 by French author Jean Raspail] that Stephen Miller recommended to reporters at Breitbart News. The book, in which brown and black immigrants are dehumanized as “kinky-haired, swarthy-skinned phantoms,” also has this obsession with demonizing anti-racists as “agitators” and “racists” and “thugs” and unhinged mobs that want to destroy white civilization. Trump is doubling down on using those same words to describe Black Lives Matter as anarchists and thugs. I know that is Stephen Miller’s influence.
Terms like “hard-left fascism,” that’s David Horowitz. Any kind of over-the-top demonization of Democrats or liberals. Until 2016, the far right was calling the left globalist elites seeking to undermine the U.S. though mass migration. Now it’s the demonization of liberals as agitators and anarchists who want to destroy the country through their allyship with Black Lives Matter, which they call a Nazi organization or terrorist organization. Trump shied away from that language, preferring to target Mexicans and Muslims. But in 2020 he is expanding to include these others.
To what degree is this a personal story for you: Your mother is Puerto Rican and your father immigrated from Mexico, as you explained in your memoir “Crux.”
I was actually drawn to the Stephen Miller story from the professional aspect of having been a reporter on the ground at the busiest port of entry near San Diego and seeing the impact and human cost of Stephen Miller’s policies. I kept hearing this White House narrative that contradicted what I was seeing on the ground.
As far as my background, being a daughter of a Mexican immigrant helped me understand Stephen Miller as well, as a descendant of people who came to America seeking a better life. Growing up in Southern California in the 1990s – we now think of it as a very blue state leading the charge against the Trump administration, but then there was an intense anti-immigrant hostility. There was real shame being seen as “other.” My mother wanted me to be perceived as American, not Mexican or Puerto Rican. I empathize with the young Stephen Miller who wanted to be perceived as American. In his early writings he does not renounce his Jewishness, he says the holidays and customs are important to him, but not as important as American traditions because he is American. That was familiar to me.
His family members have pointed out the irony of this fierce anti-immigration ideology coming from someone whose ancestors fled Eastern Europe for a better life in the U.S. You write that his maternal great-great-grandfather, Wolf Glosser, arrived at Ellis Island from Belarus in 1903.
His grandmother Ruth Glosser, who passed away from the coronavirus this year – which the White House is denying, for some reason — is a woman who spent her retirement compiling her family history because she saw herself as a necessary bridge with a generation who came with nothing but the clothes on their back and speaking no English and Stephen’s generation, and reminding them of the dangers of demonization. All lessons that her grandson completely disregarded.
We don’t know what will happen in November, but what would Miller like to achieve that he hasn’t so far – and if Biden should win, how quickly could some of Trump’s policies be undone?
The biggest thing that is going to take a long time to reverse is the refugee admission system, an entire infrastructure that was easy to destroy but not easy to rebuild. Also, in terms of reputation: For a long time the world saw the U.S. as a beacon of hope for people fleeing persecution. That will be very hard to rebuild.
FAIR wanted to end birthright citizenship. The whole Kamela Harris birther conspiracy comes from a senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, which has for a very long time been trying to revoke birthright citizenship according to a twisted interpretation of the 14th Amendment. If there is a second term that will absolutely be a priority.