Stephen Miller stokes Trump's nationalist vision

Matt Bai
National Political Columnist
Yahoo News photo illustration; photos: AP, Getty Images

Leave it to Donald Trump to make us wistful for Richard Nixon, a president who understood power well enough to abuse it properly.

Nixon didn’t mess around. When he picked up the phone and deliberately started firing Cabinet officials on a Saturday night in 1973, the objective was clear and his resolve unwavering — if you weren’t willing to subvert justice and shut down the investigation that would lead to Nixon’s undoing, then he’d just keep firing away until he found someone who would.

I hate to say it, but compared with that, Trump’s kind of an amateur when it comes to terrorizing the bureaucracy. He’s like a guy who wants to be profane but keeps dropping F-bombs in all the wrong places, making everybody feel kind of awkward.

Instead of firing the special counsel to spare himself investigation like he was always threatening to do, Trump decided his Monday Morning Massacre should involve the secretary of a dysfunctional agency and some sub-Cabinet officials no one outside Washington has ever heard of, apparently because they tried to uphold at least a handful of immigration laws.

Even Democrats couldn’t seem to muster much genuine outrage there.

So now Kirstjen Nielsen, the deposed head of homeland security, gets to start her long-awaited rehabilitation tour, which began with a series of stories about how she resisted the president’s bullying for as long as she could and refused to continue separating children from their parents after it became clear to her that separating children from their parents was wildly unpopular and, also, immoral.

Like her mentor, John Kelly, and like a string of other departed administration officials — Jeff Sessions, Rex Tillerson, James Mattis, Reince Priebus, Gary Cohn — Nielsen will now hold herself out, at least in whispered asides, as a fallen bulwark against presidential craziness who did what had to be done for as long as she could stand it. A Harvard fellowship is probably in the offing.

Which is, of course, ridiculous. Plenty of good public servants refused to act as enablers for this president, and precious few allowed themselves to be humiliated as props, waiting their turn around the Cabinet table to pay obsequious tribute to the boss on national TV.

You shouldn’t be able to prostrate yourself before an abusive bully and then call yourself a resister when he walks right over you.

What all of this made clear, though, is that while we’ve focused on rental aides like Nielsen, we’ve often overlooked the one adviser whose influence in the administration never wanes and who never seems to disappoint the president.

The loudest and most insidious whisper in the Oval Office has always belonged to Stephen Miller, the smarmy son-in-law Trump probably wishes he had.

It was hard to take Miller too seriously at first, even after he wrote that graceless inaugural address that introduced the world to his trademark oratorical style, which reminds me of nothing so much as “The Sound of Music,” since it combines strong elements of ethnic nationalism with the cheap bromides of a children’s musical.

It was hard to imagine he had much staying power after he argued on national television that the Statue of Liberty didn’t really have anything to do with accepting immigrants, because the poem about “huddled masses” was a sham.

It was hard to think that Trump, of all people, with his constant harping on physical appearances, would continue to take advice from a guy who showed up to a television studio with — how do I put this — spray-on hair. (Judge for yourself.)

But here he is, Miller, all of 33, still putting his distinctive tint on most everything the president touches, like a bacteria.

Sure, as Michelle Cottle wrote in the New York Times Tuesday, it takes an army of willing appeasers — not one guy — to implement any extremist ideology. But under the substantive-sounding guise of domestic policy (the all-powerful John Ehrlichman held that portfolio in the Nixon White House, by the way), the virulently anti-immigrant Miller has scripted the most odious and divisive episodes of Trump’s presidency: the Muslim ban, the family separations, the equivocating reaction to violence in Charlottesville.

It doesn’t matter whom they call the acting secretary of this or the senior adviser for that. Miller is the president’s chief prod and justifier, his minister of ideological cant.

I don’t know Miller personally, but if you’ve spent much time knocking around elite schools and Washington think tanks, you pretty much know what he’s about.

The brainy outcast at a sanctimonious Santa Monica high school, Miller went to the other extreme, embracing a kind of white aggrievement. He’s spent his entire adult life on campuses or working for extremists on Capitol Hill.

The throwback America he champions exists only in theory, without any of the complications one gets from actually living in it.

So what makes Miller the indispensable aide? Why does Trump eventually despair of every mercenary adviser but one?

In part, it’s probably because Miller, having spent so much of his young life battling academics and legislative staffs, is a better bureaucratic infighter than the rest of them (and far more adept at that game than his mentor, Steve Bannon, ever cared to be). He knows how to manage up, as they say.

Maybe it’s because Miller speaks to the part of the president that’s most deeply ingrained, the outer-borough kid who always felt mocked and rejected by Manhattan’s liberal elite.

But I’m guessing it’s mostly because Miller is the one guy who supplies Trump’s presidency with any sense of history, however twisted his reading of it may be.

Presidencies feed off a higher purpose. Bill Clinton saw himself as the boomer president sent to retool the industrial economy; George W. Bush was handed what he called a global war on terror; Barack Obama promised a new age of bipartisan reform, then walked into a historic financial crisis.

Here, as in so many other ways, Trump is sui generis. His campaign started as a marketing stunt, its meaningless message embroidered on cheap hats, its chief issue — the wall — a talking point. His appeal was emotional and nostalgic and meandering, based mainly on his own celebrity.

Only Miller, at least since Bannon departed, has consistently proffered a grander notion of what Trump’s presidency might actually be made to mean — the retrenchment of white culture into nativism and national identity, in line with similar reactionary movements sweeping through Europe.

It is the administration’s only recurrent theme, resentful and mean, and whenever it recedes for more than a few weeks, the presidency seems to drift toward a vacuous nowhere. It is the one pseudo-intellectual framework that gives Trump a firm sense of what he’s actually supposed to be doing here.

And so Miller remains and grows in power, filling a vacuum, as clever opportunists always do. In this presidency, the heart of the darkness is notably pale.

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