Both Jewish, we were raised upper-middle class in comfortable, liberal suburbia (he, Santa Monica; me, outside Boston). We both rebelled against the stifling, progressive conformity of our respective communities by embracing a contrarian, at times combative, conservative politics. The September 11 attacks played a major role in shaping our political outlooks, as did attending liberal universities. At Yale (me) and Duke (him), both of us wrote provocative newspaper columns that scandalized the campus and occasionally brought us national attention. Our work caught the eye of David Horowitz, the ur-leftist turned hardcore conservative.
I offer this background by means of establishing my familiarity with the sort of milieu from which Stephen Miller—now the senior policy advisor to the President of the United States— originated. But there are important differences in our political maturation and trajectories. Miller’s conservative awakening began in high school, whereas mine didn’t really begin until college. While I was campaigning tirelessly for Ralph Nader, he was converted to the conservative cause reading National Rifle Association chief Wayne LaPierre’s Guns, Crime and Freedom.
At Yale, whereas I lionized and made the acquaintance of erudite writers like William F. Buckley Jr. and Andrew Sullivan, Miller went the Ann Coulter-Rush Limbaugh-red-blooded outrage route, penning bombshell columns for the Duke Chronicle, which, according to the paper’s editor, were “low stakes but high offense.”
Another substantive difference is our views on immigration. While I always have favored high levels of immigration, and the sort of bipartisan, compromise proposals for dealing with illegal immigration offered by Ted Kennedy and George W. Bush or, latterly, the bipartisan so-called “Gang of Eight” that would offer pathways to citizenship for the undocumented, Miller is a severe restrictionist.
In fact, hostility to immigration has been the defining cause of Miller’s career. In addition to serving as the chief Senate communications aide to former Senator (and current U.S. Attorney General) Jeff Sessions, long the most anti-immigration member of the U.S. Senate, Miller also spent time working for hard right former Rep. Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn.) and Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), the man who defeated the (Jewish) House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in a spectacular upset largely triggered by the latter’s support for immigration reform. In 2014, Miller was instrumental in helping Sessions to defeat the Gang of Eight legislation that offered a route to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
It should come as no surprise, then, that when Donald Trump descended onto the political scene in 2015, Miller would be attracted to the candidate who labeled Mexicans rapists and criminals, proposed building a wall along the southern border, and called for deporting millions of people.
Miller wrote many of Trump’s speeches and warmed up the crowds at rallies across the country. This provided one of the most improbable spectacles of an already bizarre presidential campaign: the nasally, nebbishy Jewish kid from Santa Monica egging on crowds of down-scale whites in middle America with attacks on coastal elites.
While Miller was attracted to the presidential campaign of Donald Trump, I, and many other Jewish right-of-center writers were repelled. “A country that is politically pluralistic, open to new ideas and new people, ethnically diverse, and respectful of religious difference, is a country that will naturally be safer for Jews than a country that is none of these things,” I wrote in March of last year, in the first of what would become many pieces articulating my vehement opposition to Trump’s candidacy. (An opposition that led former admirer Horowitz to call me a “mad dog loon,” among many other insults.) I was hardly alone in this view: When the election results came in on November 8, a higher proportion of Jews voted against Donald Trump than did Hispanics.
Along with Trump’s daughter, Ivanka (who converted), and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, Miller is one of several high-profile Jews who surround the president. That Trump earned the vocal support of prominent white nationalists and anti-Semites, that he adopted the campaign mantra “America First” (infamously associated with pre-World War II Nazi sympathizers), that he would say, with respect to the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, that “good people” were to be found among the skinheads and Klansmen—none of this has dissuaded his coterie of Jewish supporters, Miller most prominent among them.
Indeed, Miller has run with these ideas. In a recent televised exchange with (the equally insufferable) Jim Acosta of CNN, who asked Miller if the Trump administration would forsake Emma Lazarus’ paean to “your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” Miller accused the reporter of harboring a “cosmopolitan bias,” an indictment redolent of the Soviet-era, anti-Semitic slur, “rootless cosmopolitan.”
I don’t doubt the sincerity of Miller’s views. He is clearly well-versed in the policy particulars, and gives articulate voice to ideas shared by tens of millions of my fellow Americans. “I think it was growing up in California, he saw the role that mass migration played turning a red state blue,” one unidentified former Senate colleague of Miller told Politico Magazine. “He was fearful that that would happen to the rest of the country.” Miller would hardly be alone in fearing how Hispanic immigration will change America. But these were the same fears that the restrictionists of yesteryear raised about Stephen Miller’s ancestors.
By giving voice to a form of American nationalism that is ethnic rather than creedal, Stephen Miller—whose family fled Belarus to these welcoming shores in 1903—is a perverse emblem of successful Jewish assimilation into America’s racial culture. Miller “passes” as white. On a personal level, he is deeply annoying, vexing, and has caused me to re-examine some of my deepest beliefs about being American, being Jewish, and being a conservative.
First, there’s something desperately preening about Miller’s entire career, a sense that he adopts such harsh positions, and in so strident a fashion, as if to ingratiate himself with the most goyishe precincts of the Trump universe—the sort of people who might otherwise question his roots. One can trace this overcompensating tendency back to Miller’s college days, when he wrote a column decrying that bugbear of existentially paranoid right-wingers, “the war on Christmas,” whose instigators were, to use Bill O’Reilly’s stock phrase, “secular progressives” (i.e. amoral Hollywood producers, the ACLU, and other constituencies with a high Semite quotient).
But the perversity of Miller’s approach is not merely aimed at himself and his own roots: His improbable existence as a Woody Allen character who talks like Pat Buchanan is a near-comical rebuke to those white nationalists who claim a Jewish conspiracy has orchestrated untrammeled immigration to dilute America’s racial stock. This was the meaning behind the “Jews will not replace us” chant grunted by the tiki torch-bearing neo-Nazis of Charlottesville; that Jews, in cahoots with ethnic minorities, plan to destroy the white race.
To that point, the strange case of Miller illuminates the recent debate over whether Jews are white. Throughout his career, Miller has gone out of his way to make people think that he belongs to this particular racial group. Though there has been some academic consideration of the question, those who have the most invested in the realization of a white identity—white supremacists—appear to have settled it. While there may be a handful (like American Renaissance editor Jared Taylor) who seek to include Jews in their racist political project, the vast majority of professional white supremacists are anti-Semites who adamantly insist that Jews constitute a distinct race separate from the white Europeans to whom America “belongs.” Alt-right leader Richard Spencer—who, when I once asked him if Jews are white, peevishly replied, “Jews are Jews,” and who claims to have known Miller when they studied at Duke—recently told The Washington Post that his collegiate comrade is “not a white nationalist.” He followed this, however, with a caveat: “But you can’t be this passionate about the immigration issue and not have a sense of the American nation as it historically emerged.”
To cite a bit of wisdom from that great American Jewish philosopher Groucho Marx: It’s sad that Miller has become a mouthpiece for a group that won’t accept him as a member. Yet there’s something oddly reassuring about the rise of Stephen Miller, something that speaks to the comfort and respect that Jews have achieved here. For where else could a Stephen Miller have been created but in America, a country so open to outsiders and assimilation that a Jewish kid from Santa Monica could grow up to work for the most nakedly nativist president in living memory?
Nobody’s politics or worldview should be determined by their racial, ethnic, or religious background—certainly not in a country as big, diverse, and welcoming as America. But if there’s an issue that should be at least influenced by one’s American Jewish identity, it’s immigration. And that’s because America, quite simply, has been great for the Jews, whose forebears in the shtetls of Europe spoke about it as the goldene medina, a golden land. Enslaved, ghettoized and murdered throughout our history, Jews have been welcomed by America with open arms.
Of course, that has not always been the case. During the Jewish people’s most desperate hour, Franklin Delano Roosevelt slammed the door shut on migrants from Nazi Germany. And it wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century that institutional discrimination against Jews, in the forms of university quotas and the like, came to an end. But few other nations have been so hospitable to Jews as the United States. Indeed, it’s hard to think of any other minority group that has succeeded so much thanks to America’s generosity and openness. The American idea allowed us to flourish to the point where we are the most widely admired religious group in the country. That is not a condition, to say the least, with which Jews have been much familiar at any other point in our long and beleaguered history, anywhere else in the world.
American Jews, then, have something of a communal obligation to pay it forward by supporting a liberal immigration regime. And by and large we have: Jews and Jewish organizations are very pro-immigration. This implied social responsibility doesn’t necessarily entail support for open borders. Nor does it apply to other parts of the world; continued mass Muslim immigration from North Africa and the Middle East into Europe, for example, is a portentous development that will make Jewish life there, already difficult, increasingly so. But an American Jew calling for a drastic reduction in legal immigration to America is unseemly.
Whether he is a “white nationalist,” as many now call him, or not, Miller remains in essence the campus provocateur of his Duke days. He still hasn’t outgrown the vindictiveness of the excitable, oversensitive collegiate conservative, constantly on the lookout for enemies real and perceived, all in hope of getting that five-minute hit on Fox. In his younger days, Miller battled “liberal indoctrination” and “feminists”; now he’s up against the “deep state,” the “opposition party” (what former White House senior counselor Steve Bannon calls the mainstream media) and “the Swamp.” Larry Elder, a Los Angeles-based conservative talk radio host whom Miller sought out as a mentor, told The Washington Post that, “The way that people on the left abuse and slam people on the right—that’s probably the thing that’s most concerned Stephen. The lack of fairness. The left wing dominance in academia. The left wing dominance in the media. The left wing dominance in Hollywood.”
It’s true that liberals dominate all these fields. But Stephen Miller has had a privileged life, and he’s now working for the most powerful man in the world. The coy conflation of Jewish identity and whiteness, the revisionist undermining of America’s immigrant history, the constant cries of victimhood from someone who has benefitted enormously from the American system and who would deny its blessings to others, well, we Jews have a word for all this: chutzpah.
James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a columnist for Tablet and author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age.