Most of America met 31-year-old presidential adviser and speechwriter Stephen Miller the weekend before last, shilling for the White House on four of the five major national network Sunday shows. Post-Katrina, Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff was dispatched to the circuit. As we approached the “fiscal cliff” in 2012, it was Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in the rotating hot seat. It is not the kind of stunt that’s pulled when things are going well. And the administration usually gives the role to someone whose presence is authoritative but calming. This time, the White House just sent an authoritarian.
Miller was shifty-eyed but blindingly lucid, spouting patent falsehoods with preternaturally unflappable assurance. Imagine Ted Cruz, but without the charm. Bald-pated and with an equally blank, unlined face, Miller manages to exude both octogenarian crankiness and callow, youthful smarm. He’s the oldest young person since Benjamin Button.
In contrast to Kellyanne Conway’s chipper surrealism, Miller responded to incredulous questioning with deadpan, if wholly counterfactual, assertions. When he wasn’t lying outright (alleging voter fraud in New Hampshire), he was making veiled threats: “Our opponents, the media, and the whole world will soon see as we begin to take further actions, that the powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”
Miller’s combination of heated rhetoric and weirdly cold delivery may be new to most of the nation, but it’s certainly familiar to Trump superfans. During the campaign, Miller emerged as Trump’s warm-up act. A baroque but disciplined speaker, Miller cajoled the crowds with loosely xenophobic, sweepingly resentful tirades that laid careful groundwork for his boss’s stream-of-consciousness white-supremacy poetry slam. “Everything that is wrong with the country today,” he would tell them, “the people who are opposed to Trump are responsible for.” Cable networks didn’t give Miller’s speeches the same context-free airing they did Trump’s performances, but, according to Politico, diehards followed along on YouTube and audiences responded with reliable enthusiasm. “I want you to shout so loud, so that everyone who betrayed you, everyone who let you down, everyone who ignored your cries and pleas for help … I want you to shout so loud it quivers the conference tables in Washington, D.C.”
Miller was conducting a primal-scream therapy session, but one wonders if he may have been a client as well. The thundering approval of Trump voters in 2016 is the telescope end of Miller’s adolescent experience, according to numerous profiles and the unsolicited memories of peers:
Miller’s run for class president was an act of supreme self-confidence, the act of either a borderline sociopath or a masochist. Miller was hated by his classmates, and he knew it. In the liberal, fruitopian enclave of Santa Monica High School, Miller was a hard-right conservative activist. He campaigned against multiculturalism and inclusion in all its forms, from class subject matter to the existence of an LGBT student group. In that run for class president, boos erupted when he attempted to rally his fellow students by demeaning the largely Latino and black maintenance staff, arguing that he was "sick and tired" of being told to pick up his own trash when "we have plenty of janitors who are paid to do it for us."
Miller’s self-consciously galling conservatism seems to have been met with something between bemusement and annoyance. He was a columnist and community gadfly who invited conservative speakers to campus for the pleasure of having the idea rejected. He broadcast a laundry-list of calculatingly offensive positions, but seemed blissfully unaware that the “politically correct” martinets he railed against were the same set of students and administrators who amplified and responded to complaints. When he fought to reinstitute the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in classrooms, administrators conceded. No one took away his column in the school newspaper after he wrote a post-9/11 essay titled "A Time to Kill."
Those former peers and instructors today seem genuinely surprised that someone with Miller’s ill-formed social graces and brutish politics would be addressing them from the White House briefing room. I imagine that they felt his personal abrasiveness safely marginalized his obnoxious views. “That Stephen Miller would take the playbook he used to provoke Santa Monica High School students and turn into becoming one of the most powerful people on the planet,” as one classmate put it, “I think that’s something nobody saw coming.”
But of course the playbook that brought him alienation in Santa Monica has proved to be a pathway to power. Miller’s playbook was white nationalism, and that’s where most power in America comes from, after all. It’s not as if Miller became a militant vegan or Flat Earth Society evangelist. His chosen form of rebellion against the authorities in his local sphere really only established him as an outpost for a much larger, more pervasive form of authority.
At 17, Miller was calling into national conservative radio shows and writing for national conservative publications. These institutions delighted in their exotic acquisition, and their praise and support undercuts any claim that Miller’s ideas were forged in the fires of opposition. Long-distance phone calls and, even more importantly, the internet made it possible for Miller to shrug off whatever he heard in the hallways of high school. He never had to actually debate his peers, or suffer through a dark night of the soul over whether his opinions had merit — he could always retreat to the cathode-glow community of fellow true believers.
America is familiar with this type of ideological wooing, actually. Established figures recruit and groom unhappy young men with promises of acceptance into a society of intellectual and moral rigor, offering dire warnings against their libertine culture of origin. On some level, I guess we’re all lucky that Miller’s intellectual wanderings only took him as far as Wayne LaPierre and Larry Elder.
In recent profiles of Miller, Ann Coulter and other nativists melt over Miller’s “brilliance” and “intellect,” but whether they realize it or not, they’re mainly praising themselves. Miller’s philosophical journey, such as it is, has been a short one. An essay from his senior year of high school appears to have been the source for at least one of the lines in Trump’s inaugural address. Trump declared, “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice,” whereas the young Miller, less pithily but with no greater sophistication, wrote that the “prescription for the disease of racism” should be “more American celebrations, more patriotic exercises.”
Still, Miller’s fans seem to think he’s a more polished presenter for their shared ideology than the president, and, well, they’re not wrong. “Trump is not an articulate spokesman for these ideas” — nationalism — “at all,” Tucker Carlson told Politico, back when we all knew it was Hillary’s campaign to lose. “I’m convinced that if you found a candidate who could articulate those views half as eloquently as Stephen, he’d win.”
As the Trump presidency founders on its own incompetence, it tempts fate to wonder too explicitly what its legacy may be. But after a year of Miller warming up audiences for Trump, is it possible that Trump was just warming up America for him?