Stephen Miller is personally responsible for the most xenophobic policies of the most xenophobic presidency in modern American history. The senior White House adviser authored the travel ban that denied a wide variety of American Muslims the right to be visited by their overseas relatives. He implored the president to adopt a policy of family separation at the southern border, arguing that Central American families would be less likely to seek asylum in the United States if the U.S. government gained a reputation for subjecting their children to psychological torment. The public hated this policy, and the judiciary struck it down. Meanwhile, the Trump administration proved itself incapable of competently administering the program: the U.S. government ended up losing track of thousands of migrant children and allowing others to be legally adopted by U.S. citizens without their birth parents’ consent.
And yet Stephen Miller believes that the family separation policy was a success. In his view, having the U.S. government permanently break up a few hundred Central American families is an acceptable price to pay for discouraging such people from exercising their legal right to seek asylum in the United States. Therefore, Miller is advising the president to adopt “a modified version of the family separation policy known as ‘binary choice.’” As the New York Times explains:
Under a binary choice policy, which is highly controversial, migrant parents would be given a choice of whether to voluntarily allow their children to be separated from them, or to waive their child’s humanitarian protections so the family can be detained together, indefinitely, in jail-like conditions.
In response to this and other reports of Miller’s growing influence in the White House, Democratic congresswoman Ilhan Omar tweeted Monday, “Stephen Miller is a white nationalist. The fact that he still has influence on policy and political appointments is an outrage.”
Reasonable people can disagree about whether or not it is worth maintaining a semantic distinction between individuals who openly identify as white nationalists and those whose words and deeds betray an ideological commitment to maintaining the United States as a majority-white nation. But it is impossible to understand the Trump administration’s immigration policies without stipulating that it subscribes to a “soft-core” or reformist version of white nationalism.
We can’t look into Stephen Miller’s heart, or search X-rays of his body for signs of “racist bones.” But we do know that he has tried to ban Chinese students from American universities and pushed for the deportation of Vietnamese refugees who have been in the United States for decades — a policy with no national-security, economic, or assimilationist rationale. We also know that Miller reportedly told a colleague, “I would be happy if not a single refugee foot ever again touched American soil”; and a middle-school classmate, that they couldn’t be friends anymore because of the classmate’s “Latino heritage.” And we know that he wrote in his high-school yearbook, quoting Teddy Roosevelt, “There can be no fifty-fifty Americanism in this country. There is room here for only 100 percent Americanism, only for those who are Americans and nothing else.”
Given all this, it seems both fair to describe Miller as a white nationalist and nearly impossible to ascribe a non-racist motivation to his political behavior.
But Republicans think otherwise. In their view, we must always strive to interpret the motivations of our political adversaries with maximum generosity — and resist the temptation to brand them as bigots unless there is indisputable, documentary evidence to substantiate such a charge.
Which is why they’re branding Ilhan Omar’s criticism of Miller as anti-Semitic.
“During my time in Congress before @IlhanOmar got here, I didn’t once witness another Member target Jewish people like this with the name calling & other personal attacks,” Jewish Republican congressman Lee Zeldin tweeted. “In 2019 though, for @IlhanOmar, this is just called Monday.”
President Trump echoed Zeldin’s sentiments Tuesday morning:
It is true that Stephen Miller is Jewish, and that white nationalists have historically targeted Jews for persecution. But this does not mean that Miller cannot be a white nationalist. There was a time in the U.S. when white supremacists were virulently anti-Catholic, and considered the Irish to be a subhuman race. That has not made it impossible for an Irish Catholic like Steve Bannon to openly endorse white-nationalist novels and thinkers. “White people” is not a coherent biological or ethnic category. It is a social caste with semi-porous borders. And by all appearances, Miller identifies with that caste. More to the point, there is no evidence whatsoever that Omar directed her criticism toward Miller because of his Jewish heritage and not because of his (undisputed) status as the White House’s most influential and hardline immigration adviser.
But the GOP’s decision to brand Omar’s comments as anti-Semitic is something much worse than unfair or unsupportable. It is confirmation that the party sees anti-Semitism less as a scourge to be combatted than as a political cudgel to be exploited.
Last fall, Stephen Miller encouraged the president to focus his midterm message on the threat posed by a caravan of Central American migrants. Trump proceeded to tell supporters that this caravan was an “invasion,” that “the Democrats had something to do with it,” and that he “wouldn’t be surprised” if the Jewish billionaire George Soros was financing this “invasion” in an attempt to rig the midterm elections.
Lee Zeldin did not object to these remarks. In his view, it was not anti-Semitic (or even irresponsible) for the president to suggest that a wealthy Jew was orchestrating an invasion of the United States, using nonwhite immigrants as his shock troops — even though the president was saying such things just days after a neo-Nazi had murdered 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue because he believed that Jews were orchestrating an invasion of the United States, using nonwhite immigrants as their shock troops. Instead, Zeldin chose to demonstrate his solidarity with American Jews last fall by inviting Steve Bannon to headline one of his campaign events.
It is worth noting that even if Trump’s revanchist nativism didn’t contain traces of anti-Semitism, it would remain a form of politics that endangers Diaspora Jews. Jewish reactionaries like Stephen Miller might be able to assimilate to the form of Americanism that Trump champions. But the vast majority of American Jews are liberal, cosmopolitan, and secularist. Which is to say: They are the “globalist” villains in Trumpism’s Manichaean fable of American decline.
And even if Trump’s politics did not endanger Jews, anyone who has ever uttered “never again” in earnest would still be obliged to oppose him. If you are a Jew who has “zero tolerance” for anti-Semitism — but infinite tolerance for a president who describes immigrants as an “infestation,” and directs extrajudicial cruelty at their children — then you aren’t so different from the Nazis’ apologists. You share their conviction that some populations are entitled to basic rights, while others are not.
You just believe the führer should have included your people among the chosen.