INTERVIEW

Donald Trump's mini-monster: Stephen Miller wasn't born that way

Author Jean Guerrero on Stephen Miller's secrets: He likes to dress up as De Niro — and wants an all-white America

By Chauncey DeVega
Published December 2, 2020 7:00AM (EST)
White House Senior Policy Advisor Stephen Miller (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
White House Senior Policy Advisor Stephen Miller (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

The Age of Trump and its cruelty were not made possible by shades or ghosts or nameless, anonymous bureaucrats and followers. These were people who made the kinds of choices Hannah Arendt warned us about: "The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil."

In total, the Age of Trump was made possible and given life by people, real human beings who should be held accountable to the fullest extent possible, by the law as well as the judgments of history and people of conscience.

Donald Trump was and will continue to be the leader and figurehead of his American fascist movement and political personality cult, one that will survive long after he is (presumably) forced out of the White House next month.

Whatever the power he wields over his followers, Donald Trump is at his core an instinctive strongman and authoritarian.

As shown in investigative journalist Jean Guerrero's new book "Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda," Trump's infamous adviser Stephen Miller is something different and more dangerous: he is an ideologue, a true believer in white supremacy.

Miller has repeatedly taken Trump's worst instincts and made them worse yet. Examples include the child separation policy, mass detention centers along the border and a general policy of cruelty toward nonwhite migrants and refugees, sabotaging pandemic relief efforts, and an overarching strategy of mainstreaming white supremacy into public policy and attempting to overturn America's multiracial democracy.

In this conversation, Guerrero explains how Miller was radicalized as a teenager into the ideology of white supremacy and other forms of right-wing extremism. Guerrero also details how the right-wing political machine mentored and elevated Miller, first as a rising star in high school and college and then all the way to the Trump White House. She also offers an explanation of Miller's profoundly damaged sense of masculinity, which manifests itself through an obsession with gangster movies and a ghoulish fixation on violence. This is a trait Miller shares with Trump, and one that helped to bond the two closely together in their shared political project.

Ultimately, "Hatemonger" is a reminder that human monsters must be created. They are not born that way. 

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Why has there been such denial among the mainstream news media about the white supremacists inside the Trump administration? Most notably, of course, I mean Stephen Miller. This has continued throughout Trump's four years as president.

Stephen Miller does a really good job of laundering white supremacist ideas through the language of "heritage" and "economics" and "national security." People who have racist inclinations do not like to perceive themselves as racist. Even those people who are racist and creating those public policies can continue to entertain such a fantasy.   

Once you start to familiarize yourself with white nationalism and its literature, those concepts are being repeated almost verbatim by the likes of Stephen Miller and others in the Trump administration, as well as their spokespeople and media. The policies of the Trump administration were drawn specifically from a blueprint created by think tanks supported by John Tanton, the eugenicist who believed in population control for nonwhite people. He also believed in race-based pseudoscience and the genetic superiority of whites.

Part of the denial about that reality is a function of systemic issues, such as a lack of diversity in newsrooms and publishing. There are white managers in those spaces who are really reining in their reporters, telling them to not use terms like "racist" or "xenophobe" when describing people like Donald Trump. There is the narrative that such language should not be used to describe Trump, because we "don't know what is in his heart." I did not write my new book "Hatemonger" to tell the public what is in Stephen Miller's heart. What I can tell you is that Stephen Miller is fluent in the language of hatred. He speaks the language of people who hate. I cannot necessarily tell you if there is hate in his heart. Stephen Miller is a hatemonger. He has been engaging in hate-mongering in a deliberate way. He does this through cruel policies, such as systematically separating children from their parents, basically obliterating the asylum system at the U.S.-Mexico border and slashing refugee admissions to historic lows.

What is Stephen Miller an example of?

He is a case study in indoctrination and radicalization. Stephen Miller is the story of what happens when a person is exposed to an extremist ideology during a vulnerable and difficult time in their life. Such a person then ends up becoming consumed by extremism. And then, in the case of Stephen Miller, said person goes on to become the most powerful adviser in the White House.

Stephen Miller was going through a tough time as a teenager. His father is a real estate investor, like Donald Trump, and he was tangled up in legal disputes and bankruptcies related to his business. Miller's father ended up losing a lot of money and the family had to move to a slightly smaller house in a less affluent, less white neighborhood. My conversations with people who knew Miller at the time, people in his family, revealed that Stephen Miller's life was unraveling in a small way, to the extent that he lost his place in line as a rich white male. He felt entitled to that privilege. He was looking for somebody to blame.

At the time there was extreme anti-immigrant hostility in California. The Republican governor, Pete Wilson, was talking about a migrant "invasion" at the border and blaming it for everything that was going wrong in the state. Stephen Miller is really a product of that political and social moment. Miller internalized a lot of that racist rhetoric and ended up meeting some very far-right figures, one of whom was David Horowitz. He introduced Stephen Miller, during this vulnerable time in his life, to the idea that values such as equality and freedom, and other parts of America's civic religion and national mythos, are entirely thanks to white men.

Of course, that is obviously and completely ahistorical. Stephen Miller is a Jewish American. He is the descendant of refugees from Europe. But Miller really saw himself as a white man and began to rally around this idea that America was in danger because of brown and Black people who were coming into the country. David Horowitz introduced a young Stephen Miller to the mission that he needed to save the United States from an existential threat, in the form of the Democratic Party and its alliances with people of color.

How did the right-wing political machine elevate Stephen Miller?

David Horowitz was worried that Stephen Miller was not going to get into an elite university because he was so unpopular in high school and constantly attacked students of color, as well as initiatives to remedy the negative impact of racial inequality.

Horowitz allowed Miller to publish self-promotional articles on his website about all the changes that he had allegedly brought to his high school. Another leading right-wing figure, Larry Elder, allowed Miller to come onto his radio program regularly, when he was a teenager, to complain about his high school.

At Duke University, he continued to use David Horowitz's ideas to get a bigger and bigger platform. For example, Miller was given a column at the Duke newspaper by leveraging the language of "diversity." That tactic is something that Horowitz taught him: Use the language of the civil rights movement against it. He was consistently drawn to racial controversies while at Duke. Miller would get national media exposure from that. But Miller graduated without a job. He was again a fringe figure.

Horowitz comes to Stephen Miller's rescue and gets him his first job, with Rep. Michele Bachmann, the Tea Party congresswoman. And then from there he gets Miller a job with Rep. John Shadegg from Arizona, and finally with Sen. Jeff Sessions from Alabama. Over time Stephen Miller became extremely well connected in the far-right movement, and that helped him get a job working for Donald Trump.

What does Stephen Miller want?

There are two answers to that question.

One of them is very much focused on immigration. He was indoctrinated into the belief that too much immigration from brown and Black countries is detrimental to the United States. What Miller wants is to attack immigration from those countries through whatever means available. That could be through reducing the actual number of people allowed to come to America from those countries or implementing cruel policies in order to deter or frighten nonwhite people from coming at all.

Secondly, and this is why the Stephen Miller story is so important regardless of whether one cares about immigration or not, he is responsible for Donald Trump's most polarizing rhetoric. Miller is also responsible for why Trump was so combative in general. Stephen Miller is truly a master at pitting groups against one another by using wedge issues.

He understands that when you get people fighting with each other, whether it's based on their skin color or their political affiliation or whether they want to wear a mask during the coronavirus crisis, it creates media attention.

Both Miller and Trump believe that any media attention is good media attention, regardless of whether it is negative or positive. Those distractions also allowed Miller and Trump and the administration to push through their agenda. For example, the disastrous response to the coronavirus public health crisis. Instead of focusing on the distribution of masks and medical equipment, Trump and Miller divided the American people by closing the door to legal immigration and denying green cards.

For Stephen Miller, what does it mean to be "white"? Jewish people were not necessarily considered "white" in America until the 1950s or 1960s. Miller has taken that to the most grotesque extreme by becoming a white supremacist.

I believe that Miller would avoid the question. He tries to avoid the topic of race and skin color because he has been taught to launder white supremacist ideas through the language of "heritage," "economics" and "national security," as a way of making hate more palatable.

I believe that an honest answer to that question from Stephen Miller would be that whiteness to him is associated with positive values and ideals. Stephen Miller has been brainwashed to perceive people who are not white as being something evil and beastly. Stephen Miller's reading preferences are very powerful evidence of his beliefs.

Miller has endorsed the explicitly white supremacist novel "The Camp of the Saints."

In 2015, through his connections at Breitbart, he urged staff there to write articles showing parallels between that book and real life. "Camp of the Saints" is about the destruction of the "white world" by this horde of brown refugees who are described as animals and beasts and monsters. The book explicitly promotes hatred and violence against brown and Black people by white people as a way of ensuring the latter's survival. "The Camp of the Saints" is a book about the "white genocide" conspiracy theory, the same conspiracy theory that white terrorists have used to justify their acts of violence. We saw this in the horrible massacre in El Paso.

From a very young age, Stephen Miller would write things such as, "I'm Jewish, but Jewish people are a minority and so even though Jewish holidays are important to me, American holidays are much more important to me." Stephen Miller was very obsessed with the idea of being perceived as American. And for him to be American was associated with whiteness and the white male heroes he held dear, such as John Wayne. The types of movies and the types of people that Stephen Miller idolized were consistently associated with what he understood whiteness to be. To Miller, whiteness is associated with positive ideals. Miller is also obsessed with mobsters and organized crime and the idea that there is no rule of law apart from "might makes right." It all has to do with power for Stephen Miller.

Stephen Miller's obsession with organized crime figures suggests that he is a fragile and weak man who suffered some type of trauma or other harm to his sense of manhood. He is a remarkably dangerous but cartoon-like figure, an adult man who dresses up like a mafioso from the movies.

I spoke at length to one of his longest and closest friends who told me about how, as a child and then well into his 30s, Stephen Miller was obsessed with mobsters. One of his favorite movies was "Casino" with Robert De Niro.

Stephen Miller would go so far as dress up as De Niro's mobster character. Miller would actually go to Las Vegas dressed that way to celebrate his birthday and on vacations with friends and family. Dressing up like a mobster was not something he just did as a child. Stephen Miller actually incorporates the facial tics and hand gestures of the mafia figures he admires.

When Miller was in high school, he disavowed one of his closest friends because he was Hispanic. That signals to the type of man that he would later become.

Stephen Miller was close friends with Jason Islas. Islas' ancestors are from Mexico and he was exploring his heritage, more as a way of reconnecting with his father, who he had not been spending a lot of time with. Around that time, Stephen Miller decides to no longer be friends with Jason, telling him they can't be friends anymore because of his Latino heritage. Miller also insults Jason by telling him about all these other things he does not like about him, such as that he's too small and too insecure, in general just deliberately attacking the things that he knows are going to hurt Jason Islas.

This happened in eighth grade, going into freshman year of high school. Jason Islas told me, "I don't think that people should be judged for the rest of their lives by the things that they do when they're this age." With Stephen Miller, the way in which he rejected Jason Islas because of his Mexican heritage would later calcify into something even darker and do a great amount of of damage to thousands of people from Latin America.

How has Stephen Miller impacted Donald Trump's approach to the coronavirus pandemic?

Stephen Miller, from the day that he entered the Trump administration, has been focused on narrowing the scope of the Department of Homeland Security. DHS has a mandate of protecting the American people from a broad range of threats such as terrorism, cyber-warfare and pandemics.

Stephen Miller wanted DHS narrowly focused on immigration issues because that was where the country's demographics could be re-engineered. This allowed him to shape policy to attack refugees and asylum-seekers. Miller would eliminate people from their positions if they disagreed with him. Many of the top positions at the Department of Homeland Security are held by people in an acting capacity. They have not been confirmed by Congress. This allows Miller to have greater control over them. The Department of Homeland Security is supposed to be protecting the American people from things like a public health crisis, but is so narrowly focused on Miller's racist obsessions that it has failed to protect the American people from much greater and real threats.

Trump is pathological if not an outright sociopath. The facts are clear there. Miller and Trump both idolize cruelty. They speak openly about hurting people. Moreover, both of them are fixated on violence.               

Stephen Miller has a fascination with violence. He shares that trait with Donald Trump. When Stephen Miller was in high school, he wrote an article where he fantasized about watching Osama bin Laden being shot. I believe that his violent ideations are part of why he has been able to last so long in the White House. Stephen Miller understands Donald Trump in a very instinctual way. Miller is the only adviser who consistently pushes Trump in the most cruel and aggressive directions. Trump loves that.

If there is a truth commission or some other organization tasked with revealing the full extent of the Trump regime's crimes and other evils, what would you tell them about Stephen Miller?

I would try to make very clear where Stephen Miller's ideas come from. The Trump administration has consistently talked about how their immigration policies were about "national security" and "law and order," and about keeping out "criminals" and "the cartels." But Stephen Miller's policies have really been about creating a majority white country. Stephen Miller's goal was and is to harm, keep out, exclude and remove as many brown and Black people as he can from this country.

What would America look like if Stephen Miller got his way?

America would be a homogenized gated white community, like the suburbs of Orange County. Unfortunately, America already has mass incarceration of Black people, but there would be more of that if Stephen Miller got his way.

Do you believe that Stephen Miller will have one of those deathbed confessional moments — like Lee Atwater, the architect of the infamous "Southern strategy" — where he recants and apologies at the end of his life for the evil things he has done?

If Stephen Miller believes that it will serve him career-wise, then he might do such a thing eventually. At the end of the day, I would be very surprised if Stephen Miller actually repented.

 


Chauncey DeVega

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

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Authors Books Donald Trump Hatemonger Interview Jean Guerrero Racism Stephen Miller White Supremacy