Culture

Jean Guerrero’s ‘Hatemonger’ Is a Tool Against the Threat That Is Stephen Miller

Courtesy of William Morrow and Company

A far-right senior adviser for policy and speechwriter for President Donald Trump, Stephen Miller has played a crucial role in the demonization of immigrants and people of color in this country. He is the architect of the Trump administration’s most extreme anti-immigration policies, from family separations to the travel ban, and has crafted addresses that refer to non-citizens as violent and criminal. Despite his powerful influence in the White House, the 34-year-old remains a mystery to many. In Jean Guerrero’s latest book “Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda,” the investigative reporter aims to understand the figure by examining his journey from a child in Santa Monica, Calif., to a leading ultra-right millennial voice and force in politics.

Guerrero, an Emmy- and PEN-winning journalist who covers the border for KPBS, San Diego’s public broadcasting station, looks at how childhood adversity, changing demographics in Southern California in the 1990s, local bipartisan anti-immigration policies, white supremacist media and literature helped sculpt Miller into a viscous rival of legal immigration, despite his own family’s dependence on it.

“I wanted to understand how a descendant of refugees, someone with a Jewish background, becomes the person who is crafting some of America’s rhetoric and policies targeting people fleeing violence and persecution, people like his own great-grandparents,” Guerrero tells Remezcla.

Drawing on more than 100 interviews with Miller’s relatives, classmates and mentors throughout a period of six months, she offers the first book-length biography of Miller today. “Hatemonger,” published by William Morrow, is out on August 11. Here, the author discusses Miller’s role in the Trump administration, his rise to power and how understanding his story can help us adequately respond to him and like-minded figures.

Stephen Miller is a senior adviser for policy to President Donald Trump. For readers who might not know what that actually encompasses, what is Miller’s role and influence in this administration? 

He has this unique role where not only is he one of Trump’s chief speechwriters and playing a central role in shaping Trump’s rhetoric, he’s also shaping Trump’s policy, specifically related to immigration. You see him lately being introduced as his chief adviser, and I think that’s a reflection of the really important role Miller has played both in the Trump campaign and later in the Trump White House. You can see Trump leaning more and more on Miller because he understands that Miller’s advice is effective with Trump’s voting base and getting their attention.

The impact Miller has had with immigration is really to target… and reduce legal immigration, including asylum-seekers and refugees. There’s this false idea that Trump has been focused on keeping out criminals and cartels but, in reality, if you look at the person who is shaping his policy around immigration, it has really been focused on keeping out people who come here through legal means.

Trump has become the face of these policies and a central character in the dehumanization of immigrants, but how has Miller been leading these initiatives behind closed doors?

One of the very first things Miller did when he entered the White House was create an office that was dedicated to the daily demonization of migrants. VOICE is the acronym, which stands for Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement.

Stephen Miller is very bookish and very disciplined in a way Trump is not, so he has been able to give Trump real border security credentials in a way that he wouldn’t have had if he never hired Miller. Early on in Trump’s campaign, when he was talking about his border wall, a lot of immigration hardliners—people who follow the issues of immigration and want to reduce immigration into this country—were not impressed. They rolled their eyes because they knew we had hundreds of miles of border fencing already, and it hasn’t done anything to decrease overall flows but has simply rerouted them into other areas. It wasn’t until Miller joined the campaign and started to take policies directly from anti-immigration think tanks that were led by a eugenicist named John Tanton, who believed in population control for non-white people and believed in race-based pseudoscience about the genetic superiority of whites, that people started to get really excited about the Trump campaign. You saw Miller putting out Trump’s immigration plan early on, and these are the policies that Miller started to implement while in the White House.

The demonization component is central because it is the only way that Miller is able to rally support for these performatively cruel policies that target people who have broken no laws with the exception, in some cases, of the misdemeanor of illegal entry. He uses demonization in order to get people to cheer on these policies, so you see him inserting really gory descriptions of crime allegedly committed by migrants into the initial immigration plan that Trump put out but also into all of Trump’s speeches. You hear him talking about MS-13 butchering little girls, cutting people apart with machetes, just very vivid language meant to incite fear and get people to rally around policies that target anyone who is coming into this country, though largely from Central America and various African countries.

You are an investigative journalist with a history of writing about people who are considered ‘outcasts’ or ‘outsiders.’ Why did you want to write this book about Stephen Miller?

I wanted to understand how a descendant of refugees, someone with a Jewish background, becomes the person who is crafting some of America’s rhetoric and policies targeting people fleeing violence and persecution, people like his own great-grandparents. I really wanted to solve that mystery…

It was also appealing to me because I grew up in Southern California at the same time as Miller did in the ‘90s. I’m just a couple years younger than him and grew up just a couple hours away from him. I feel that a lot of the conversation we are seeing now nationally about immigration fails to capture the full picture as far as how this all got started. Trumpism is the logical outcome of our bipartisan decades-long assault on immigration, which started in California with the demonization and scapegoating of immigrants throughout the ‘90s. You saw Republican Gov. Pete Wilson talking about the ‘invasion’ at the border and blaming migrants for everything wrong in the state. You saw Democrats and Republicans in the state rally around really cruel policies targeting migrants, including migrant children, and taking away social services of children of the undocumented, attacking bilingual education and so on. I remember growing up in this environment; this was a period when Californians learned how to scapegoat. As I learned about Miller, I realized that his life was a microcosm of what was happening in the state at the time and was an important microcosm of what we are now seeing nationally.

If you want to understand the hostility toward immigrants we now see on a national level and the polarization among Americans, then you need to understand the story of Stephen Miller. Although he is known for his obsession with immigration and really focusing on reshaping the immigration system, it goes far beyond that with Miller. One of the reasons he is so valuable to Trump is that he’s so effective at pitting Americans against each other, whether it’s based on their skin color, political affiliation or whether they want to wear masks or not in response to the coronavirus. He’s very skillful at finding wedge issues that divide Americans and distract them from problems that are going on in the White House. For example, Trump’s disastrous response to the coronavirus crisis.

Courtesy of William Morrow and Company

How did you approach this biography?

I approached this project with an open heart. There’s been a lot of demonization of Stephen Miller in the media, and I have never really believed in straight-up villains. For me, it was really important to try to find the humanity in the story of Stephen Miller. I feel like I found that humanity in stories about him as a little boy. The issue is that Miller internalized this white supremacy and racism that was being broadcast statewide at the time and never grew out of it. He continues to be obsessed with the same issues today as he was when he was a teenager.

For me, it’s a story of indoctrination. During a very vulnerable period in his life, these older far-right conservative figures came into his life and nurtured his extremist beliefs about people of color and gave him a sense of power, meaning and belonging that he didn’t have at the time. He was going through a difficult time in his family life with his father losing a lot of money and his family having to move from a very affluent area of Santa Monica to a less-affluent part. His life was spiraling out of control as a young man and he was looking for somebody to blame, according to my conversations with people who knew him and his family. People came in and provided him with someone to blame and a framework through which to understand what was going wrong in his life.

Miller is 34 years old, he’s a millennial. There’s this idea that racism and xenophobia will die out as old men in power pass away. But Miller, and many others like him, directly challenge this concept. What role do you think texts like this, which really aim to understand Miller and how a hatemonger is created, plays in resisting hate and creating a more just society?

While it was important for me to humanize Miller, I also wanted to make sure that I didn’t fall into the trap of romanticizing or glorifying him. I feel like that fetish that our culture has for the white male antihero is part of what led Stephen Miller down this path. So it was a very fine line I was walking between seeking out his humanity and also making sure I didn’t paint another glorified antihero the way that we’ve seen [Steve] Bannon and even Trump himself mythologized in a lot of books.

In response to this question, though, I feel like it’s really important that we not scapegoat individuals for things that are going wrong in our society in the way that Miller and Trump and others in the White House have been doing. When you paint a full picture, you see that Miller was not inventing this stuff. Part of his power is his skill to regurgitate the talking points of other people who came before him and how well-read he is in white nationalist and white supremacist literature and how well-connected he is in those movements. I feel like when you paint a whole picture on how it’s not just one person, then it forces society and you to reckon with your own role and the role of the systems that have been contributing to this larger problem.

There’s this myth that Trump created the immigrant crackdown at the border, but when you look at the life of Stephen Miller, you recognize this is something that both Republicans and Democrats have been contributing to for decades. The hypocrisy of blaming just one person for these issues feeds the problem and makes it impossible to actually reckon with it in a way that is productive and solves the roots of the problem. One of Stephen Miller’s strengths is the fact that he grew up in a progressive community and is very familiar with the hypocrisies of the left and is able to weaponize them in a way that appeals to a lot of average Trump voters, who see the selective outrage in the Democratic Party and roll their eyes at it. Stephen Miller is able to weaponize that because he is familiar with both sides of the argument.

You interviewed more than 100 people for this biography and worked on it for six months. What was the most shocking thing you learned about this figure or his influence in the White House during your investigation?

The most impactful part of this reporting process came when I was reading the book ‘The Camp of the Saints,’ which Stephen Miller promoted in 2015. That was a big eye-opener for me and a big turning point for me in my thinking of Stephen Miller. As I said, I had approached this with a real desire to understand Stephen Miller and put myself in his shoes, but when I was reading that book, something became very clear to me. This is a white supremacist dystopian novel about the destruction of the white world by a hoard of brown refugees who are described with really horrific language, like ‘beasts,’ ‘monsters’ and ‘teeming ants toiling for the white man’s comfort.’ The book explicitly promotes hatred and violence against people of color as a survival mechanism against perceived white genocide, which is a conspiracy theory that motivates a lot of the white terrorism we see today, like the horrible massacre in El Paso that targeted Mexican Americans last year. For me, when I realized that Stephen Miller promoted this book in 2015 through Breitbart, encouraging writers there to point out alleged parallels between the book and real life, it hit me that the most powerful adviser in the White House believes that Brown and Black people pose an existential threat to the United States and that they need to be kept out because of that perceived danger that they pose. That’s when it hit me how dangerous of a figure Stephen Miller is by possessing so much power.

White House senio­r advis­er Steph­en Mille­r looks on as President Donald Trump addresses reporters in the Oval Office of the White House after receiving a briefing from law enforcement on “Keeping American Communities Safe: The Takedown of Key MS-13 Criminal Leaders” on July 15th 2020 in Washington DC. Photo by Anna Moneymaker-Pool/Getty Images

As a Latina and daughter of a Mexican immigrant, what was it like for you to write this book and dive deep into these extremely xenophobic characters? 

It was a very chilling experience, especially immersing myself in all of the literature that inspired Miller, trying to get inside his head. But I think it helped me to remember what it was like growing up in Southern California at the same time as Miller. There was a lot of internalized white supremacy at the time, including among Latinos. I remember my Mexican dad used to wash my hair with chamomile shampoo because he wanted my hair to stay light. There was a lot of self-loathing associated with being Mexican because of the rhetoric we were seeing statewide.

As a Latina writing this book, I drew optimism and a positive perspective from realizing a lot of what we are seeing nationally now we already saw in California. People were talking about how California was turning into a third world because white people became a minority in that decade in the same way that the U.S. is coming close to white people becoming a minority by 2050. I think we are sort of seeing the same thing nationally that we saw then in terms of people fearing that civilization is going to end because white people are going to become a minority. But I remembered that those were simply growing pains that California went through, and soon communities became empowered and people started to celebrate diversity and recognize that people of color don’t pose a threat to civilization. People, regardless of their skin color, realized they could work together and form coalitions, that multiculturalism was something that could be celebrated.

I feel like we are headed into that future in the U.S. We’re going to become increasingly mixed and with more hyphenated identities. As a result, we will have a greater capacity of identification with one another, including with people of different backgrounds. There will be less tribalism. This is really the opposite of the vision that people like Stephen Miller have, which is that multiculturalism represents a grave threat to society. I try to maintain a level of sympathy for the white supremacy and racism that a lot of people in the U.S. are internalizing because it’s really handed down from national narratives and myths, and I was able to grow out of that and realize how destructive that was and learn to celebrate my roots and how much more beautiful and healthy that was. I feel Americans, more broadly speaking, will go through that process as well, whether or not they are people of color. Just like in California, nationally, we will become a more inclusive and diverse society, and we are just going through the growing pains.

Why should our readers pick up “Hatemonger?” 

Stephen Miller is the person who is having the largest impact on immigrant communities and entire Latinx and people of color communities because of the fact that he draws a lot of his inspirations for his policies and the rhetoric that he crafts for the Trump administration from white supremacist and white nationalist literature, which creates and feeds hostility for groups of color in general. If you are from a Mexican-American family or a Black family, learning about Stephen Miller helps equip you with how you can adequately respond to the threat by understanding the magnitude of it and where it comes from.