‘Hatemonger’ Examines Stephen Miller, the Extremist at the Heart of Trump’s White House

by Chetanya Robinson

As the COVID-19 pandemic raged through the world in the spring, Trump’s senior advisor Stephen Miller saw it as a unique opportunity to implement his extreme anti-immigrant policies, according to investigative journalist Jean Guerrero, whose new book, Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda, was published in August. 

COVID-19 allowed Trump and Miller to fulfill their dream of closing the U.S. Mexico border to asylum seekers; before the pandemic, federal asylum law made this impossible. They could now suspend refugee resettlement and the processing of green cards, slowing legal immigration under the guise of protecting American jobs.

Miller — who himself tested positive for COVID-19 at the beginning of October — is behind some of the harshest policies from the Trump administration, including a formalized policy of separating migrant parents and children as a deterrent as well as a ban on people from majority Muslim countries.

Much of the Trump administration’s immigration agenda is Miller’s, and its impacts have been felt in Washington State, said Robin Engles, communications director at OneAmerica, such as leaving low-income immigrants worried they will be denied citizenship due to the Trump administration’s “public charge” rule. Washingtonians from Muslim countries, who can’t visit their families as a result of the travel ban, have been “functionally … separated from their family,” Engles said.

“Stephen Miller is clearly, in many ways, a thought leader within the Trump administration on clever and devious ways to harm immigrants and to try to realize what ultimately is a vision of white supremacy,” Engles continued. In response to Trump’s election and Miller’s ascendancy, OneAmerica refocused to build power for immigrant rights. “We need to fight power with power.”

Drawing on documents and over 150 interviews, Guerrero’s book covers Miller’s upbringing and his rise through right-wing media and into the White House, becoming Trump’s trusted advisor. 

Miller hasn’t yet achieved his wish list on immigration policy. But as Guerrero explores in Hatemonger, it aligns alarmingly with that of white nationalists.

His immigration policies came from “think tanks that were created to launder white supremacist ideas through the language of heritage and the language of economics and the language of national security,” said Guerrero in an interview with the South Seattle Emerald.

Many Trump administration immigration policies are intended to re-engineer the demographics of the United States. “This is not about national security, it’s about race,” Guerrero said. 

In her book, Guerrero writes: “Trump knew how to hatemonger before he met Miller. He’d been doing it for decades. But when their paths collided, there was an alchemy. Trump’s riches, marketing instinct and emotional racism merged with Miller’s fanatical ideology, work ethic and strategic thinking.”

An investigative journalist with KBPS in San Diego, Guerrero started covering immigration in 2015 under the Obama administration. She became interested in Miller while covering the Trump administration’s family separations at the U.S. Mexico border.

“I was reporting out of the busiest border crossing in the country, and everything that I was seeing was conflicting with the narrative that was coming out of the White House,” Guerrero said. The White House claimed that family separation and other policies were about enforcing the law. But Guerrero interviewed legal asylum seekers who were separated from their children anyway — and it was happening at a large scale.

To understand what this was really about, Guerrero said, meant understanding Miller, the architect of these policies and rhetoric. 

Miller’s background may seem surprising; he grew up in southern California in the 1990s, a descendant of Jewish refugees who fled deadly persecution to build new lives in the U.S., like many migrants at the southern border today.

Having grown up in Southern California at the same time, it’s no surprise to Guerrero that Miller comes from the blue state, where “there was incredible anti-immigrant hostility” as the demographics of the state became less white. In some ways, Guerrero writes, the racist rhetoric Trump used in his campaign had its antecedent in California.

“People act like [Trump] invented racism,” Guerrero said. “But the Trump administration and Stephen Miller’s crackdown on immigrants is the logical outcome of a decades-long assault, a bi-partisan assault on immigrants and scapegoating immigrants, that dates back to Stephen Miller’s childhood in California and even beyond that.”

At the time, President Clinton was militarizing the southern border, Guerrero writes. In California, Governor Pete Wilson won reelection after blaming undocumented immigrants for the statewide recession. California Republicans and Democrats alike attacked affirmative action, bilingual education, and social services for children of undocumented immigrants. 

Guerrero suggests Miller was radicalized early in life when his family moved to a less affluent part of town after his father lost money. “He felt lost, he felt angry, he felt displaced.” And he found meaning in extreme ideas. 

Guerrero’s book outlines how Miller identified with far-right ideas at an early age. He grew up listening to right-wing radio. Rush Limbaugh’s book The Way Things Ought to Be — which painted wealthy white men as the victims in society — was a formative influence.

Miller’s middle-school friend Jason Islas told Guerrero how shortly before high school, Miller called and calmly told him they couldn’t be friends anymore because Islas was Latino. Miller pinpointed Islas’s insecurities, bringing up his height and lack of confidence.

In high school, Miller told the president of Mexican American student group MEChA to “speak English.” He attended strategic planning meetings for his school district to speak out against bilingual education and a club for gay and lesbian students. In high school and college, Miller would make a point of leaving messes or trash and saying “we have people for that” to clean it up,” Guerrero writes.

People noticed how Miller memorized facts and figures to win arguments but also how he liked to make people angry, “winning” arguments by evoking emotional responses.

In high school, Miller was mentored by conservative radio host Larry Elder and right-wing extremist David Horowitz. Drawn into Horowitz’s worldview, Miller “saw this country as a white-forged masterpiece, unfairly demonized by brown hordes,” Guerrero writes.

Miller’s yearbook page featured a quote from President Roosevelt: “There can be no fifty-fifty Americanism in this country. There is room here for only 100% Americanism, only for those who are Americans and nothing else.”

At Duke University, Miller organized an immigration debate with white supremacist Richard Spencer. In Hatemonger, Spencer tells Guerrero that he was a friend and mentor of Miller’s — though Miller (who declined to speak to Guerrero for the book) has denied this.

After college, Miller worked as communications director for then-Senator Jeff Sessions. Ignored by mainstream reporters, he found kinship with Breitbart News, where he met Stephen Bannon. Miller encouraged Breitbart bloggers to draw ideas from the white suprmacist website American Renaissance.

After Mitt Romney’s loss in 2015, Sessions, Miller, and Bannon sat down to a five-hour dinner and discussed the opportunity for a new populist nationalist movement.

Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign was a dream come true for Miller. “Here was a powerful magnate beaming Miller’s own thoughts into American homes across the nation,” Guerrero writes.

At Bannon’s suggestion, the campaign hired Miller as a speechwriter. He wrote speeches mentioning murders and rapes committed by immigrants who were in the U.S. unlawfully. Miller drew on technical information from immigration experts. “But the gut-punching emotion was a uniquely Miller-Trump mind meld, spiraling up from the underbelly of conservative media and a shared obsession with violence fantasies,” Guerrero writes.

When Trump won, Miller quickly sought to seize power over immigration policy, Guerrero writes. Cecilia Muñoz, Miller’s predecessor and Obama’s Domestic Policy Advisor, recalled Miller asking her how to “grab control of the immigration issue.” Miller asked, “How do you make sure you’re the person running the show?”  

In the Trump administration, Miller was consumed with restricting both legal and illegal immigration, ending amnesty for refugees, ending chain migration and birthright citizenship, and favoring a “merit-based” immigration system. He pushed Trump to end DACA protections for Dreamers and was behind the ban on travellers from six predominantly Muslim countries.

Though the Obama administration did separate migrant parents from their children, the Trump administration separated more families and formalized the policy to deter family migration.

Miller succeeded in enacting a “public charge” rule, making it easier for the U.S. to deny green cards to people who would use public assistance. Before the COVID-19 pandemic allowed the administration to close the border, he got the Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security to enact a rule effectively ending asylum for Central American migrants.

James Nealon, former U.S. Ambassador to Honduras and assistant secretary for international affairs at DHS, told Guerrero that Miller is the most successful beaurocrat he’s ever seen in his 34 years in government. 

Guerrero believes Miller shifted DHS’s focus away from protecting against threats like cyber attacks — or a pandemic — and toward a white nationalist agenda of keeping out Black and brown people, contributing to the Trump administration’s lack of preparedness for the pandemic. “Instead of focusing on distributing masks and medical equipment, this administration has been focused on demonizing and punishing immigrants and other People of Color,” Guerrero said. 

In documenting Miller’s rise, Hatemonger paints him as an extremist who genuinely believes he is protecting the American people — one who achieved power and influence others could only dream of. 

“I really believe that Stephen Miller thinks that by keeping this country a majority white country, that he is preserving things that we hold dear as Americans,” Guerrero said.

If Trump wins reelection, Miller is positioned to wield power, whether he continues as a senior policy advisor or becomes Trump’s chief of staff. In a second Trump term, he will expand his anti-immigrant agenda, perhaps zeroing in on his goal of ending birthright citizenship, Guerrero said, or other extreme measures like ending Temporary Protected Status and refugee admissions.

Beyond the Trump administration, Guerrero is not sure whether Miller’s influence will endure. “I do tend to be optimistic as far as viewing this,” she said. Guerrero thinks the U.S. may be experiencing the “growing pains” that California did in the 1990s, when white people became a minority in the state and some predicted the end of civilization. 

“In California obviously it didn’t turn into the Third World, whatever that means,” Guerrero said. “It did just become increasingly diverse, and people began to celebrate their diverse roots.”

As the whole country becomes more multicultural like California did, Guerrero thinks people will cultivate “a greater capacity for empathy and identification with people outside of their groups,” and realize “we don’t pose existential threats to one another — that we all kind of want the same thing, which is to live our lives.”

Chetanya Robinson is a Seattle-based journalist.

The featured image is attributed to Gage Skidmore under a Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0) license.

Before you move on to the next story . . . please consider that the article you just read was made possible by the generous financial support of donors and sponsors. The Emerald is a BIPOC-led nonprofit news outlet with the mission of offering a wider lens of our region’s most diverse, least affluent, and woefully under-reported communities. Please consider making a one-time gift or, better yet, joining our Rainmaker Family by becoming a monthly donor.  Your support will help provide fair pay for our journalists and enable them to continue writing the important stories that offer relevant news, information, and analysis. Support The Emerald!