Migrant justice activists have been sounding alarm bells about Stephen Miller for years. When he joined Donald Trump's presidential campaign, and then his administration, those alarms rang all the louder—especially given how much direct influence Miller is reported to have over the administration's immigration policies.
This week, a new report by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Michael Edison Hayden revealed, in exquisite detail, just how fluent Miller is in white nationalist discourse. Before he joined the administration, he sought to spread white nationalist ideas through the media, by sending links to far-right and white nationalist websites as well as sharing his thoughts on a racist novel with Katie McHugh, then a Breitbart News staffer.
From certain quarters, the reaction to the report, based on a tranche of 900 emails shared with Hayden by McHugh, who has renounced the so-called alt-right after her sojourn through it, has been largely predictable. While left-wing Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar have called on Miller to resign, the White House has responded by calling the SPLC "an utterly-discredited, long-debunked far-left smear organization," telling the Washington Post that "they are beneath public discussion." Even more insidiously, Trump administration staffers are telling reporters on background that criticism of Miller is anti-Semitic.
Meanwhile, Miller had apparently been sending thematically similar emails to journalists who did not work for far-right publications as far back as 2013. From some sections of the liberal media, the report has been met with little more than a shrug, as if to say: Of course Stephen Miller is a white nationalist. What else is new? Now the story is likely to be swallowed up by impeachment coverage—at least until Hayden's next piece.
It is pointless to scold people for not caring enough about the thing that you care about, or not caring about it in the way that you want them to care about it. (It is especially pointless on Twitter.) But the ambivalent reaction by establishment media reveals how it’s still struggling to understand the meaning and significance of the Trump administration, the actions of individuals within it, and its relationship to the administrations that came before.
This is not to say that anyone else has particularly good answers, or that what answers are on offer are especially hopeful. The SPLC investigation proves, beyond doubt, that Miller has white nationalist sympathies—and, in all likelihood, it won't matter. Why is that? What does it mean?
Identifying an influential official as an "extremist" with ties to "hate groups"—terminology favored, ironically, by organizations like the SPLC—in some ways obscures the larger issue. The nativist current that has borne Miller to the White House runs deep in American politics, and while Donald Trump's personal xenophobia on the campaign trail may have been shocking to some, he is far from the first modern president to fetishize "border security." Between them, the Obama, Bush, and Clinton administrations conducted 27 million deportations, according to the Migration Policy Institute; as the Wall Street Journal noted, deportations under the Obama administration peaked at 409,849 people, versus 256,085 in 2018 for Trump.
Investigations like the SPLC's into Miller present a deeply frustrating analytical knot: If it is the case that the Trump administration is not a departure from or an anomaly within the history of the United States—a settler-colonial nation-state built on white supremacy and governed in the interests of capital—then how does one cover a figure like Miller without treating him as mundane? And if it is the case that the Trump administration represents a radicalization of existing dynamics, how does one cover that without treating it as alien or extreme?
Even before Trump, successive presidents allowed a "culture of cruelty" to flourish within the immigration enforcement agencies. Liberals and conservatives alike are complicit in the transformation of the Sonoran Desert into a death trap surveilled not only by the heavily militarized Border Patrol but by right-wing vigilantes and militias. The massive expansion of the carceral state and its subsequent privatization is a bipartisan project.
All of this is preceded by a set of shared ideological assumptions about immigration, the border, and national sovereignty that are the necessary preconditions for the Trump administration: among them, that immigration, absent regulation and control, poses a threat to national sovereignty; that it is appropriate for the border to be militarized; that it is acceptable for there to be a criminalized underclass of people in this country subject to deportation.
Thus the political machinery of the federal government is deployed in the service of a more extreme agenda oriented to fundamentally different ends than that of previous administrations. That Obama deported 5 million people does not make him a white nationalist; it makes him a liberal who prioritized enforcing the "rule of law," even as he sought to create ways for some to improve their lot, like DACA. Trump (and Miller) are using the same tools to different ends. Fascism is not something that descends upon liberal democracy from without, but develops within it under particular conditions.
The SPLC report matters because it shows us where someone like Miller gets his ideas, how his thinking is shaped, how he tries to influence others, and how far he is willing to go to make his political vision a reality. Miller's resignation, or even Trump's removal from office, will not address the rot—but we also won't be able to address the rot until they're gone.
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