The Week (US)
The making of Stephen Miller
Family financial setbacks led to Miller attending a diverse California high school with many poor immigrants, said journalist Jean Guerrero. His resentments later came to shape national policy.
STEPHEN MILLER STARTED at Santa Monica High School in 1999. His high school years came amid a period of family turmoil. Miller’s father, Michael, was having financial troubles and fighting several legal battles related to his real estate company, including a fight with his brother, whom he later permanently separated from the family with a no-contact order in a settlement agreement. The family had moved out of a million-dollar home in a wealthy white neighborhood to a slightly smaller house in a more diverse neighborhood. Michael Miller would refinance the house three times in the next four years.
Rather than attending a private school the way Michael’s youngest son later did, his oldest son, Stephen, found himself at a diverse public school, which celebrated Día de los Muertos and Cinco de Mayo. The year before Miller started high school, Santa Monica had experienced eight gang-related shootings within a couple of weeks, resulting in five deaths, including one across from the high school. The high school was experiencing what administrators called “a two-schools phenomenon.” One part went on to Ivy League and top universities; the other part dropped out.
In high school, Miller discovered conservative talk radio: The Larry Elder Show. In the 1990s, Elder was a rising star, broadcast in the afternoon on KABC/790 across Los Angeles. A Los Angeles Times article described Elder as “a darling of white listeners who seemed to almost gush when they telephoned him on KABC talk radio, astonished to find a black man who wasn’t going to chastise them.” In 2001, Elder published the book The Ten Things You Can’t Say in America. In it, he argues that black people are more racist than white people, and that the problems of black people come from a lack of self-determination.
Elder wrote, “At American dinner tables all across the country, most parents urge their children to work hard, study hard, and prepare. But in black households, how much dinner-table talk revolves around ‘the white man done me wrong,’ rather than focuses on grit, hard work, and preparation?” Like
Rush Limbaugh, another formative influence on Miller, Elder dedicated a chapter to media bias and belittled the idea of sexism, saying, “Smart women simply overlook boorish behavior by men.”
Miller called in to his show and invited him to speak at his high school. Elder agreed. He came to campus and stood in front of a diverse crowd of Santa Monica High School students, including Miller. He told them they had to learn how to pull themselves up by the bootstraps and not use race as social capital.
Maria Vivanco, a classmate who was president of the school’s Chicano activist organization, MEChA, recalls that Miller seemed aroused by Elder’s speech. Vivanco watched the pleasure in his face and felt herself getting really angry. She stood up and confronted her classmate. “You are a racist!” she said. Miller shouted back, telling her she was wrong and didn’t understand. In retrospect, she says, “I think, looking back, he didn’t like to be confronted by a Latina girl, a teenage girl.”
N HIS JUNIOR year at Santa Monica High School, Stephen Miller ran for student announcer. His father had gotten elected student body president at another high school 35 years earlier with a memorably subversive speech that turned him into a school hero. Like Michael Miller, Stephen would also give a speech that people would remember for years. He sauntered onstage before a large, noisy crowd.
I“Hi, I’m Stephen Miller,” he said. He gripped the microphone and squinted his face with practiced confidence. He was the only candidate, he said, “who really stands out. I will say and I will do things that no one else in their right mind would say or do.” He continued, his face reddening with emotion, his voice rising to a shout, “Am I the only one who is sick and tired of being told to pick up my trash when we have plenty of janitors who are paid to do it for us?”
The school had thousands of students and about 10 custodians, mostly people of color. Students erupted in a roar of disapproval.
Student assembly president
Coleen Armstrong-Yamamura was worried the students were about to riot. “I just remember the crowd at that point going kind of nuts. We had very volatile racial relations,” she says. She thought Miller’s comments were classist and racist. “I can’t remember if somebody threw things at him, but I felt it was on the brink of getting there,” she says. She told him his time was up. “You need to get down,” she said. He kept talking, relishing the moment. “So I took him physically, and I pushed him off the stage.”
When he got to Duke University two years later, there were signs that Miller would pick up right where he left off in high school. Freshman year, he lived on the second floor of Pegram Dormitory. The dorm was on East Campus, with redbrick Jeffersonian architecture along a verdant quad. During orientation, a second-floor resident adviser asked his group of male residents to gather outside. Seated on the grass, the counselor asked them to introduce themselves: name, hometown, something about themselves. Most remained seated. But Miller sprang to his feet.
“Hi, I’m Stephen Miller,” he said, just as he’d started his high-school speech. “I’m from Santa Monica, California—and I like guns.” His spectators chuckled, unsure if he was joking. He sat down. The introductions continued. But Miller had made an impression. He had a nickname now: Guns. His dorm mates called him Stephen “Guns” Miller.
The dorm residents gathered in the first
floor common room for pizza, salad, and refreshments. They were getting to know one another during this first chapter away from home. When Miller threw his plate away, he missed the trash can and leftovers spilled on the floor. He walked away. A classmate asked, “Are you not gonna pick that up?” Miller replied, “What hellhole are you from? We have people here for that.” Another recalls having lunch with him in the cafeteria. Every now and then, Miller would leave his tray on the table, saying it wasn’t his responsibility to clean up. One classmate recalls that he tossed his tray on the ground, saying, “There were people there paid to clean it up.” A few weeks into freshman year, a graduate assistant in charge of Pegram Dorm put a temporary lockdown on the common room because students were leaving it so messy. The dorm manager taped up a piece of paper letting students know that the custodial staff was not there to enable their filthy lifestyles. It encouraged them to pick up after themselves like grown-ups. Miller taped up a typed two-page reply, protesting the punishment. Classmate Sean Hou says it described cleanliness as “a fine personal virtue, but ultimately it’s the responsibility of the janitorial staff to ensure that it’s clean, and it’s too bad that $40,000 a year doesn’t make sure that people understand that.”
N JUNE 16, 2015, Trump rode down the golden escalator at Trump Tower, his yellow eyebrows and hair glimmering in his gilded atrium. He pursed his lips at the podium, “Whoa,” he said, glancing at the crowd. “That is some group of people—thousands!” He was running for the Republican presidential nomination. Like Miller, Trump was an outsider to the Republican establishment. He said politically incorrect things. “When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity, and now they’re beating us economically. They are not our friend.” Then: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with (them). They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists.
And some, I assume, are good people.” He evoked the image of a soiled America, “a dumping ground.”
People had belittled Miller all his life for his views, deriding him as he stood onstage demanding that custodians of color pick
OTrump’s comments were widely perceived as racist. But he refused to apologize, telling CNN’s Don Lemon: “Someone’s doing the raping!”
Steve Bannon, Miller’s mentor and chief of the increasingly influential Breitbart News, was cringing a little. Trump’s campaign had potential, but he needed help. Trump was focused mostly on his wealth. He had singled out the issues that Bannon, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, and Miller had talked about during their lengthy dinner the previous year as they plotted a populist nationalist insurgency: trade and immigration.
But Trump didn’t present solid policy solutions. He promised a border wall and that Mexico would pay for it. But the wall had been conceived by consultants Sam Nunberg and Roger Stone to get Trump to remember to talk about immigration. It was a mnemonic device, not a policy proposal. Experts knew transnational cartels were digging tunnels 90 feet underground in San Diego, the most fortified border area, with layered steel fencing, and that nearly half of all people in the country illegally were visa overstays who entered through airports and ports of entry.
Bannon reached out to the campaign and said he knew of a guy who could help. He could pull double duty: speechwriter and policy writer for Trump—two for one. Sessions gave Miller a glowing recommendation, comparing him to George W. Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove.
But the campaign wasn’t convinced. Campaign manager Corey Lewandowski dragged his feet on hiring Miller. Miller started reaching out to Lewandowski directly, bombarding him with emails at 2 o’clock in the morning. “We have to talk immigration, we have to talk immigration,” Miller told him. “Let me come to the campaign,” he said. “Let me help draft your immigration policy.”
Miller put together an immigration plan for Trump. With references to murders, rapes, and beatings by people who lived in the United States without legal permission, the plan highlighted Miller’s passion for the macabre. “An illegal immigrant from Mexico, with a long arrest record, is charged with breaking into a 64-yearold woman’s home, crushing her skull and eye sockets with a hammer, raping her, and murdering her,” the immigration plan read.
It drew a contrast between Trump and “wealthy globe-trotting donors.” In Miller’s view, the rich—excluding Trump—had a nefarious plot to pollute the U.S., as did Mexico. He took the seed Trump introduced and adorned it: “Mexico’s leaders have been taking advantage of the United States by using illegal immigration to export the crime and poverty in their own country.... U.S. taxpayers have been asked to pick up hundreds of billions in health-care costs, housing costs, education costs, welfare costs, etc.”
The plan laid out steps to “Make America Great Again,” in addition to the wall: tripling ICE officers, implementing nationwide E-Verify, mass deportations, an end to “catch and release,” defunding “sanctuary cities,” enhanced penalties for visa overstays, an end to birthright citizenship, a requirement to hire American workers, and ending “welfare abuse.”
In January, the campaign announced it had hired Miller as a senior policy adviser. Ann Coulter, who in one article had compared migrants to cockroaches, tweeted: “I’M IN HEAVEN! Trump hires Sen. Sessions’ brain trust.... He’s not backing down on immigration.” Miller finally got to work for his idol. Surely, neither man knew how momentous it was.
Adapted from the book Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda by Jean Guerrero. © 2020 by Jean Guerrero. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins.