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Stephen Miller, explained

How the influential adviser went from right-wing troll to the driving force behind Trumpism.

White House senior adviser Stephen Miller walking on the South Lawn of the White House in July.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

How much do we really know about Stephen Miller?

A senior adviser to President Donald Trump, the 35-year-old Miller has emerged as the leading far-right ideologue in this administration — outlasting his only real competitor, Steve Bannon. By all accounts, Miller is the driving force behind Trump’s most extreme anti-immigration measures — from the separation of migrant families at the border to Trump’s infamous “Muslim ban.” Now he’s in the news for an entirely different reason: On Tuesday, he was the latest top Trump aide to test positive for coronavirus.

As my Vox colleague Jane Coaston pointed out, Miller delights in provocation for provocation’s sake. And yet, in this role, he has gone beyond “triggering the libs” to shepherding real policies with real consequences. He’s also been enormously successful at reinforcing his power in one of the most chaotic White Houses we’ve ever seen.

A new book called Hatemonger by journalist Jean Guerrero takes a deep dive into Miller’s background — where he comes from, the events and people that shaped his worldview, and what he really wants. It’s a fascinating look at Miller’s upbringing in southern California and the Trump-like family dynamics that turned him into a conservative firebrand.

Miller’s ambitions are all the more important in light of recent comments from a former Trump DHS official suggesting Miller has a list of “shock and awe” immigration orders to unleash if Trump wins a second term, orders that “were unacceptable to issue in a first presidential term because they knew they would lose voters because they would be so extreme.”

I reached out to Guerrero to talk about Miller’s life and ideology and, hopefully, get a sense of what those “extreme” orders might look like. Miller, Guerrero argues, might be a troll, but he’s also much more than that — and we dismiss him at our own peril.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

The premise of your book is that we should take Stephen Miller seriously because he’s someone who genuinely thinks he’s on a “quest to save the country.” What does that mean?

Jean Guerrero

It means he’s a fanatic. I really believe that Stephen Miller is one of the few people in the White House who has a firm ideology and has invested in that ideology over the course of his life so much that it’s become inseparable from his identity. And that ideology is basically that multiculturalism poses an existential threat to Western civilization, as we know it.

So his entire obsession with the immigration system and trying to limit the number of people from different countries, particularly from Latin America and Africa, to come here, it goes back to that belief that multiculturalism is a threat to civilization, which is a prominent view among white supremacist groups and it’s why they want a white majority in this country.

These are ideas that Miller learned at a very young age and over the years invested more and more in them. My sense, based on the conversations I had with people who have known him since he was a kid, is that this has become his life’s mission and it drives everything he does now that he has real power.

Sean Illing

It’s a little surprising to hear you say that Miller has a “firm ideology” because he built his reputation as a troll, and we don’t typically think of trolls as serious ideologues.

Jean Guerrero

His friends tell me that, at first, they also couldn’t tell whether he was joking, And maybe early on in his life, it was less about ideology and more about being a teenager and looking for attention and finding ways to stand out and wanting to make certain people laugh. But over the years, he learned that being provocative was a good way to get attention and power and so that become a key political tool for him.

So yeah, I do think Miller started out as a kind of troll but eventually the ideas he was flirting with became a huge part of his identity and he really believed it. This sense of mission he has is inseparable from his identity, he’s consumed by it. Whatever lightheartedness he may have had when he was younger is gone — we should see him above all as a committed ideologue.

Sean Illing

I always wonder with these alt-right types if they began as trolls and picked up a coherent ideology later or if it’s the other way around. I guess it’s the former in Miller’s case, but also a little complicated because there was real resentment pretty early on in Miller’s life.

Jean Guerrero

Even though I said he may have started out as a troll, it’s misleading to think of his early years that way. As you said, there was a lot of actual resentment present in his early years, particularly towards students of color, and the trolling was often a mask for that resentment.

Sean Illing

Where did that resentment come from?

Jean Guerrero

He started to express his conservative and contrarian views at a time when his family had lost a lot of money, and he had to move from a very affluent part of Santa Monica to a less affluent part. And he looked around at his high school, his very diverse public high school, where otherwise he might’ve attended a mostly white private high school and he was clearly annoyed that so many of his class were getting special attention and having their voices elevated. And this is when he starts to express his resentments out loud. He becomes more vocal and more aggressive.

Sean Illing

When I look at some of these clips of Miller, especially when he was younger, it’s so hard tell where the trolling ends and the earnest beliefs begin. Everything he says is tinged by that half-cocked grin, and you can see it still today. Is it just impossible to disentangle the performance from the ideology in Miller’s case?

Jean Guerrero

I think they’re impossible to disentangle, partly because he takes such pleasure in triggering people. When he goes on television or gives interviews, he sometimes has this glimmer in his eye and will say things that are kind of humorous but it’s never totally clear if it’s a joke. But what he’s really doing is trying to expose what he thinks is the false moral outrage of a lot of progressives — this is his thing. So yeah, it’s trolling but it’s also a way of advancing his ideology because he believes trolling is an effective way to do politics.

Sean Illing

There are a lot of bizarre anecdotes in the book, but the one about Miller and the high janitors is so revealing. Can you explain briefly what that’s about?

Jean Guerrero

He gave this speech at his high school where he was screaming, “Why do we have to pick up our trash when we have janitors to do it for us.” And I remember reading his friend, Chris Morris’s justification of it. “Oh, it was a joke. Obviously, it was a joke. It was just meant to get people to laugh.”

One of the questions I wanted to answer was, how much of a joke was it really? I went back and interviewed a lot of his classmates and former friends and I don’t think it was a joke. There were numerous instances, not just in high school but also in college, where he would throw his trash or leave his trash out and encourage others to do the same, saying, “This is what we have the janitors here to do.” And at one point, he told a teacher who was encouraging students at a rally to clean up after themselves, he interrupted her and said, “No, don’t listen to her. This is what we have janitors here to do. They need a job. So throw your trash on the ground.”

It struck a lot of classmates as not only classist but racist. At Miller’s high school, there were a handful of janitors for this very large student population, and they were mostly people of color. So giving that speech the way he gave it made a lot of classmates feel like he was trying to incite a race riot at the school and that’s why they had to push him off the stage, because he wouldn’t stop talking and the student body was getting really riled up.

Sean Illing

So what do you think he’s doing in the White House? Does he really want to change the world or is the White House the ultimate trolling platform?

Jean Guerrero

It’s an interesting question. Nothing in any of my discussions with his colleagues in the White House have indicated that he has looked to influence other countries consciously. I do think that it would be a natural next step for Miller to try to spread his ideology overseas and coordinate with others and share his views in other countries, and try to turn that into some kind of global movement, as we saw Steve Bannon attempting to do.

I think Miller would be more effective and more dangerous than Bannon by the way, because I don’t think that Bannon has a real ideology the way that Stephen Miller does. So far, he’s been extremely focused on the United States. He has an almost tunnel vision for immigration policies in the US and that’s what he’s focused on. But I wouldn’t be surprised he expanded his focus outward in the future.

Sean Illing

What would you say is the most important thing people should know about Miller?

Jean Guerrero

I think people should know that he is arguably the most powerful advisor in the White House. And he is a case study in radicalization, someone who was consumed by an extreme ideology at a very young age, and then went on to become one of the most powerful advisers in the White House, shaping not only immigration policy, but Trump’s speeches and even the reelection strategy for 2020.

Sean Illing

Why is Miller the one adviser, apart from Trump’s family members, that has survived all these years?

Jean Guerrero

It’s a few things. The most important is that Miller gets Trump — emotionally, psychologically, even spiritually. Part of it is that Miller grew up in a family that was very similar to Donald Trump’s. Several people described Miller’s father to me as “Trump-like.” He was tangled up in numerous legal disputes and bankruptcies related to his real estate company over the years, as Miller was growing up. He is described in court documents as being a master of evasion and manipulation. He was described to me as being very combative. I think this experience helps Miller manage his relationship with Trump, helps him manage Trump’s personality.

The other part of it is that Miller is always tasks himself as a devoted vehicle for Trump’s agenda and is careful not to overshadow his boss. And this is partly one of the sources of his power within the White House. Whenever he wants something done, he invokes Trump. He invokes Trump’s desires, Trump’s demands. He invokes Trump’s name. So he’s constantly channeling Trump and this makes officials in the White House afraid to challenge him, because it’s like they would be challenging the president. And they’re aware of his special relationship with the president.

So this elevates Miller’s power within the bureaucracy, but it also elevates his power over Trump personally, because it works for Trump’s ego, unlike other people who have exaggerated their influence in the White House. Miller is more comfortable in Trump’s shadow.

Sean Illing

What do you think Miller does after Trump? Does he find another political vehicle or is he likely to get involved some other way?

Jean Guerrero

His initial goal was to be a prosecutor and then become a senator. I think becoming a prosecutor is not on his mind anymore, but I do think it’s possible that he might still run for office somewhere. I think it’s possible he might try and make a living as a commentator on conservative outlets.

I do think that if Donald Trump loses the election, Miller will double down on his ideology and look for new ways to elevate it through the media, something he’s very good at doing. He understands the media and has been exploiting it since he was a teenager going on conservative talk radio in southern California. And if Trump wins in November, well, I think he’s going to double down on his agenda and become even more powerful.

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