Perhaps the most disheartening genre of the Trump era is the Stephen Miller profile. On the weekend, The New York Times and The Washington Post both made substantial contributions to the burgeoning literature with lengthy front-page articles on the White House adviser, who has done more to shape the Trump administration’s fierce anti-immigration agenda than anyone aside from the president. Both articles are smart and well-researched. If they make for stomach-churning reading, that says more about Miller than about the authors.
Miller is a colorless figure, especially compared to the gargoyles who so often swarm around Trump, such as Steve Bannon or Sebastian Gorka. As repugnant as they are, there is at least something exotic about Bannon’s disheveled malice and his habit of throwing around allusions to esoteric proto-fascists like Julius Evola. Equally curious is Gorka’s propensity for wearing a pin commemorating Hungarian philo-Nazis.
Bannon and Gorka are vile in stagy and eye-catching ways. Miller, more successful than they were in pushing policy, is blandly vicious. There’s nothing quirky about him and he can’t be so easily dismissed as an oddball outlier. Quite the opposite. Miller is a white-bread fanatic, a mass-produced jerk whose cruelty is all-American, shared by millions of others formed by the right-wing media loudmouths that are the ideological voice of the Republican Party.
It’s not surprising that Miller is enjoying a much longer tenure than Bannon or Gorka, who were quickly turfed out in the Trump White House’s endless staffing churn. Miller’s ability to survive in a helter-skelter White House owes something to his canny avoidance of the spotlight and his extreme sycophancy toward Trump. Miller has spoken of experiencing a “jolt of electricity to my soul” when Trump announced his presidential run, “as though everything that I felt at the deepest levels of my heart were for now being expressed by a candidate.”
But beyond his obsequiousness, Miller has benefited from the fact that his anti-immigration agenda is squarely within the mainstream of the Republican Party of the current moment. Even as he has pushed for harsh measures like the Muslim travel ban and family separation, he has found many allies in Congress and right-wing media.
It’s easy to dismiss Bannon, Gorka, or even Trump himself as freak accidents, a collection of misfits that through a series of mishaps ended up in power. But Miller is a much more conventional figure, a standard-issue partisan Republican activist. This makes him all the more disturbing, because it suggests that the most extreme anti-immigration attitudes of the Trump administration are woven into the fabric of the GOP and likely to remain integral to the party’s identity.
Miller chroniclers, like Miller himself, make much of the fact that he grew up in left-leaning Santa Monica in a liberal family. But Miller’s class background—his father was a wealthy real estate investor—is more telling than the ostensible politics of his community.
Everything about Miller bears the hallmarks of someone who was born into privilege and resents any challenges to his status. Running for the student government in high school, Miller notoriously ran on a platform demanding that janitors be made to clean more. “Am I the only one who is sick and tired of being told to pick up my trash when we have janitors who are paid to do it for us?” he asked in a debate. As The New York Times notes, Miller “returned to the issue” as an undergraduate at Duke, when he “mocked a campaign to have students thank their dorm-cleaning staff, arguing that employment was thanks enough.”
McKay Coppins, one of the most astute of Miller observers, noted in The Atlantic that Miller’s high school conversion to conservatism came not from the standard tomes by Milton Friedman or Friedrich Hayek but from media provocateurs such as David Horowitz, Larry Elder, and Rush Limbaugh. “When I read Rush Limbaugh’s The Way Things Ought to Be, it was like a page-turning thriller to me,” Miller told an interviewer. “Every page was like some new revelation.” A mind that can be so over-awed by the pedestrian prose of Rush Limbaugh is not particularly profound or theoretical.
As Coppins points out, the right-wing media that Miller consumed and later contributed to leans heavily toward trolling: Triggering the libs is often the main goal, beyond any policy agenda. What could be added is that this form of frat-boy Republicanism has been a mainstay of the American right since at least the early 1980s, when conservative funders started paying for student newspapers like The Dartmouth Review that recast bigotry as expressions of countercultural rebelliousness. As The New Yorker once reported, while an undergraduate at Dartmouth in the early 1980s, Dinesh D’Souza published “an article on affirmative action written in what was supposed to be a parody of black speech.” Two decades later at Duke, Miller organized an “Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week.” Although Miller casts himself as a “non-conformist,” he was acting out a tried and true script: defending existing hierarchies with a jaunty obnoxiousness that would allow him to play the victim if challenged.
The key to understanding Miller is that he was a garden-variety Republican partisan. His pathway to anti-immigrant politics was not the trajectory of paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan who called for nativism as part of a larger anti-globalist politics that also included opposing the Iraq War. Rather, Miller was a loyal GOP foot soldier who supported George W. Bush’s foreign policy.
In turning against immigration, Miller followed the same trajectory as many in the party. As The New York Times observes, “Less attention has been paid to the forces that have abetted his rise and eroded Republican support for immigration—forces Mr. Miller has personified and advanced in a career unusually reflective of its times.”
The GOP has long been internally divided on immigration, with the party elite and the business class supportive of policies that bring in cheap labor while many in the party’s grassroots nurture racist fears that America is losing its white “identity.” The nativist wing of the party has been on the rise since 9/11, with the Global War on Terrorism helping legitimize xenophobia. Partisanship also influenced the shift: Republicans increasingly fear that they can’t win future elections unless they keep the nonwhite vote down. The same impulses that led Republicans to support gerrymandering also fuel their increasing opposition to immigration.
The growing muscle of the anti-immigration movement within the GOP has empowered Miller even as he himself has worked to strengthen his allies. As the Times notes, Miller, “affects the air of a lone wolf—guarded, strident, purposefully provocative. But he has been shaped by the movement whose ideas and lieutenants he helped install across the government as he consolidated a kind of power unusual for a presidential aide and unique in the Trump White House.”
Of the many horrifying things about Stephen Miller, perhaps the scariest is that he is an utterly humdrum Republican. There are countless more like him. If he’s ousted, he’ll be easy to replace. If Trump is defeated in 2020, there will still be Miller-like figures staffing congressional offices and embryonic Millers ready to work in future Republican administrations. The Miller problem is really a Republican problem, which means it won’t be solved anytime soon.