The New Republic, April 8, 2019
Stephen Miller is winning. In recent days, President Donald Trump’s senior adviser for policy has overseen a purge of officials who were seen as insufficiently extreme on immigration. Homeland Security chief Kirstjen Nielsen was pushed out on Sunday. Two days earlier, Miller persuaded Trump to cut ties with Ronald Vitello, the president’s nominee to lead Immigration and Customs Enforcement. “Ron’s a good man but we’re going in a tougher direction,” Trump told reporters.
And Miller’s not done. On Monday, CNN reported that Miller also wants the president to fire two more high-ranking immigration officials. “He’s actively trying to put in place people who have very different points of view than the current leadership within the agencies,” a former DHS official toldPolitico, referring to Miller. “His idea is basically [to] clean house.” Trump reportedly has informed aides that the 33-year-old Miller will oversee all immigration initiatives.
In a White House defined by dysfunction and turnover—the departments of justice, defense, and veterans affairs are all led by acting directors—Miller is the thriving cockroach. It’s no secret why: He has shown an unwavering commitment to Trump’s toxic immigration agenda, perhaps even more so than the president himself. Miller’s expanding influence and seemingly permanent tenure suggest that Trump’s immigration policies will become even more radical than those he implemented during his first two years in office.
Prematurely balding, with a somewhat vampiric face, Miller is an experienced troll after Trump’s own heart. In high school, he would try to own his liberal classmates by railing against feminism and bilingualism, and in college he accused Maya Angelou of exhibiting “racial paranoia.” Over the past two years, he has been one of Trump’s most vociferous defenders, shouting at any TV host who dares to criticize the president.
In the White House, Miller has been the architect of many of the administration’s most extreme policies. Just days after Trump’s inauguration, he and then-adviser Steve Bannon crafted an executive order that banned travel into the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries, resulting in massive protests across the country. Over the next two years, Miller would play a prominent role in the firing of FBI Director James Comey, Homeland Security’s child separation policy, and the GOP’s racist midterm message.
Miller has defended this approach on political grounds. “You have one party that’s in favor of open borders, and you have one party that wants to secure the border,” Miller toldThe New York Times. “And all day long the American people are going to side with the party that wants to secure the border. And not by a little bit.” But Miller’s favored policies have been enormously unpopular. A majority of Americans consistently opposes the wall. Voters rejected Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric by delivering a historic midterm defeat for the Republicans last November.
And yet, as Trump has become more frustrated with the situation at the border—and with his political failures more broadly—he has further embraced Miller’s far-right agenda. According to The New York Times, Trump had previously castigated Nielsen over her reluctance to implement his most severe, sometimes illegal, policies, like family separation, blocking migrants from seeking asylum, and closing the southern border. With Nielsen gone, the administration is considering further restrictions on asylum seekers and reinstating child separation.
Again and again, Trump has responded to crises and defeat by embracing extreme immigration policies, which have always backfired. This underlines his weakness as a president. He has so few allies that he dares not risk alienating the base that helped him win the White House. But this also speaks to his actual political philosophy, which elevates cruelty—often misconstrued as “strength”—into a perverse virtue. Those who express uneasiness about this approach are dismissed as weak. Miller only advocates for the cruelest available options, and therefore rises in Trump’s favor.
This does not bode well for the nation as Trump flails through the remainder of his first term. His political fortunes, which have been wobbly since Day 1, are threatening to tumble over the next year as the economy slows and Congress accomplishes little now that Republicans have lost their unified control. As these problems mount, and the 2020 election nears, he will double down (or rather, quadruple-down) on his signature issue—and Homeland Security will be led by officials who will do the president’s bidding, without question or conscience.
I know: It’s hard to imagine how Trump could be any more extreme on immigration than he already is. But rest assured, it’s not hard for Miller to imagine.