One face of Donald Trump’s cruelty toward refugees is a tear-stained child wrenched from parents. Another is the vulpine countenance of the president’s twerpish mini–me, the anti-immigration zealot Stephen Miller. To a frightening degree, Miller personifies the inhumanity, mendacity and nascent authoritarianism of Trump’s exploitation of xenophobia and racism in the soulless pursuit of power.
Miller first captured mass attention last year through a string of bug-eyed TV appearances, shrilly defending the now-Supreme Court-approved travel ban targeting Muslim-majority nations. Miller declared at the time that Trump’s authority “will not be questioned.” For the uninitiated, he looked like a callow and febrile fanatic unprepared for the spotlight.
In truth, Miller has been like this since high school in Santa Monica, California ― an abrasively attention-seeking Jewish kid so obsessed with demeaning other minorities that he evoked a soulless species all his own, divorced from other humans and his own humanity.
The diversity among his fellow students drove him to near-frenzy. He railed against public address announcements made in Spanish. He penned an Op-Ed in a local newspaper claiming that many classmates “lack basic English skills” and that “very few, if any” Latino students took honors classes. He allegedly broke off a childhood friendship expressly because the other kid was Hispanic. He attacked groups focused on black and Latino issues.
While running for student government, he complained about having to pick up his own garbage when the high school had janitors ― reportedly ill-paid blacks and Hispanics. His classmates recall constant slurs against African-Americans, Latinos and Asians. His yearbook quotation foreshadowed his professional monomania: “There is room here for only 100% Americanism, only for those who are Americans and nothing else.”
Unsurprisingly, he was described as a homophobic social isolate. He seemed to find community through the shrill echo chamber of right-wing talk radio, fulminating against his high school’s presumptive liberal bias.
At Duke University, he doubled down on his identity as a racial provocateur, adding Muslims to his usual bete-noirs ― affirmative action and multiculturalism ― while honing an edge of misogyny. As before, his means of engaging with others was through the inflammatory expression of his ethnic preoccupations.
Hopefully, and customarily, the passage from youth to adulthood replaces certainty with doubt and adolescent self–absorption with a broader sense of others. Not, sadly, for Stephen Miller.
Instead, he took his disturbing admixture of dissociation and fixation to the larger petri dish of Washington. As a staffer for GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, then Sen. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama Republican tapped by Trump to serve as attorney general, Miller tasted the intoxicating power to thrust his obsessions on America at large.
Unleashed by Sessions on Capitol Hill, he worked ferociously to squelch a bipartisan immigration bill, bombarding reporters and fellow staffers with incessant emails while circulating negative articles on the measure’s proponents, like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). Then, candidate Trump appeared ― the answer to Miller’s deepest cravings.
Soon, he was central to a campaign based on arousing fear of immigration, serving as an ideas man and warm-up speaker for Trump’s counter-factual incitements ― often scripted by Miller himself. Nothing seemed to thrill Miller more than Trump’s repetition of lyrics from “The Snake,” analogizing Syrian refugees to a poisonous reptile who killed a naive woman after she nursed him back to health. Then Trump won, unshackling the racist agenda that was Miller’s hallmark.
Swiftly, his obsessions bore a president’s sulfurous imprimatur. He lied repeatedly about voter fraud by minorities and illegal immigrants. He delighted in pointing out that Emma Lazarus’ ode to immigration was not part of the original Statue of Liberty. Critically, he partnered with Steve Bannon in writing Trump’s draconian and ill-conceived Muslim ban.
Miller worked to sabotage a compromise bill protecting 800,000 DACA recipients brought to America as children. “As long as Stephen Miller is in charge of negotiating immigration, we’re going nowhere,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) complained. Precisely ― Miller further poisoned the well by claiming that Democrats “oppose anything that would actually prevent future waves of illegal immigration.”
But all this was prologue to Miller’s ultimate cruelty: pushing Trump’s “zero tolerance” program of child separation at the U.S.-Mexico border ― not only as policy, but as a political winner. As The Atlantic put it, for Miller, “the public outrage and anger elicited by policies like forced family separation are a feature, not a bug.” An outside advisor to Trump elaborated: “Stephen actually enjoys seeing those pictures at the border. He’s a twisted guy... ”
As the horrors mount, they bestir a chilling historic frisson. Kids taken from parents who’ve applied for legal asylum. Parents who may never find their children. Trump’s call to end due process for parents charged with crossing the border illegally. His racially incendiary fiction that an “infestation” of non-white criminals and gang members is overrunning our country ― a cynical and toxic update of past authoritarians’ insidiously captivating “big lie.”
It might surprise that Miller’s great-grandmother arrived in America speaking only Yiddish, or that his great-grandfather flunked his naturalization test. But in Miller’s case, it underscores that one becomes such a stunted man by strangling empathy and self-knowledge in their infancy, reinventing himself as an omnipotent ubermensch unconstrained by human norms.
As with Trump, only victimizing others can satiate his own disfigured spirit.
Richard North Patterson is the New York Times best-selling author of 22 novels, a former chairman of Common Cause, and a member of the Council On Foreign Relations.