Tom Brenner / Reuters

Stephen Miller’s liberal critics were right after all. The influential White House aide and immigration hard-liner has long been a liberal target. Prominent conservatives such as the National Review editor Rich Lowry have defended Miller as a “wunderkind” and praised his “knowledge, energy, and doggedness.” But liberals have maintained for years that Miller is pushing an agenda far more sinister than straightforward immigration restriction.

A cache of Miller’s emails, provided by the former Breitbart News staffer Katie McHugh to the Southern Poverty Law Center, draws a straight line between the Trump administration’s immigration policies and previous, explicitly racist immigration laws. The emails show Miller praising racist immigration restrictions from a century ago, while bitterly lamenting the law that repealed them.

Donald Trump’s defenders might be inclined to dismiss those views as irrelevant, as they have in the past. But if they want to have any chance of stifling the rise of the extreme right, they shouldn’t. There is a reason that a cadre of white nationalists and their fellow travelers descended on the nation’s capital in the aftermath of the 2016 election, seeking jobs in the Trump administration and right-wing media. A small, dedicated ideological vanguard, with the right influence and connections, can steer the direction of the country. After all, that’s exactly what happened in the previous Republican administration.

“Stephen Miller is a very intense and obsessive person,” McHugh, who broke from the far right earlier this year, told NBC News. “He’s one of those white nationalists who puts a veneer of intellectualism on things, so he was able to get away with them.”

There were never that many neoconservatives. The term was coined to describe a group of formerly liberal and leftist intellectuals who, disillusioned with Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society and the cultural revolutions of the 1960s, drifted to the right. During the George W. Bush administration, though, on the left, the term became little more than an epithet for the president’s hawkish brain trust.

Yet the term was something of a misnomer—most Bush officials were not neocons, and many of the most influential neocons never served in the administration.

Nevertheless, neoconservative did once serve as a useful descriptor—and despite their small numbers, neoconservatives did have an impact. They believed that their duty was to wage a global battle for democracy in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, but soon after 9/11, they turned their eyes to the Middle East. Their ideas and arguments found admirers and advocates at senior levels of the Bush administration, those with access to the president himself.

The neoconservative conviction that Middle Eastern autocracies once backed by the United States could be remade into liberal democracies at gunpoint led to one of the greatest foreign-policy debacles in American history. The invasion of Iraq under false pretenses exacerbated all the regional trends—Islamism, terrorism, and authoritarianism—that it was intended to combat. It has been more than 15 years, and American troops remain in the region, trying to contain the aftermath of catastrophe.

The Iraq War was a disaster, and Bush left office an unpopular president, and left the nation in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The neoconservatives and their ideas fell out of favor. But their impact on a president who had campaigned on a “humble” foreign policy, only to initiate an armed conflict with the globe as its battlefield, shows how a small ideological vanguard can have a profound influence on the course of the country and the fate of the world. The Republican electorate was never made up of committed neoconservatives. But that electorate gave neoconservatives the power to shape the beginning of the 21st century when it elected Bush. In his aspirations and character, and fundamentally his political success, Republican voters saw themselves; partisanship did the rest.

That example of a small but influential ideological vanguard provides the proper lens with which to view white nationalism and the Trump administration. The president himself has an instinctive affinity for the idea that America is a white man’s country, expressed in both word and deed. Long before the presidency, he refused to rent apartments to black people and called for the execution of black and Latino youths for a crime they did not commit. Prejudice itself can exist without taking an ideological shape, but ideology can forge it into the sharpest and most deadly of weapons.

The president’s own instincts are amplified by many of those who surround him, who are ideologically committed to the idea that America belongs to white people. Although they may make individual exceptions for those they esteem or find useful, they seek to maintain the cultural and political hegemony of white Americans, which they believe is threatened not just by immigration but by the growing presence of nonwhites within the United States. The Republican base did not need to be deeply versed in the works of Irving Kristol for neoconservatives to shape American policy in pursuit of their global crusade for democracy. And the Republican electorate needn’t be composed of committed white nationalists quoting The Passing of the Great Race for white nationalists to exercise power and influence in the Trump administration, in pursuit of an America where the cultural and political hegemony of white Americans is unthreatened.

Miller’s emails show one of the president’s closest aides, and the architect of many of his hard-line immigration policies, citing white-nationalist sources and pursuing the same goal they sought to realize: the restoration of immigration restrictions explicitly designed to keep America white. The most revealing exchanges involve Miller’s praise for 1920s immigration restrictions targeting Africans and Asians, as well as eastern and southern Europeans, and his frustration with the 1965 law that repealed them.

In a 2015 exchange, Miller praised Calvin Coolidge for “shutting down immigration.” As I wrote back in February, the immigration laws of the 1920s, which barred African and Asian immigration but also sought to reduce immigration of Europeans deemed to have inferior genetic stock, such as Italians and Jews, were rooted in racist pseudoscience positing that America’s success was the result of its citizens of “Nordic” genetic background.

The authors of these laws believed that America’s “Nordics” were committing “race suicide” by allowing the genetically inferior to immigrate, an early intellectual version of the “white genocide” conspiracy theory that has inspired terrorism from Pittsburgh to New Zealand. Coolidge supported such restrictions on the basis of his belief that “certain divergent people will not mix or blend.” As Senator David Reed, one of the authors of the Immigration Act of 1924, declared in a New York Times op-ed shortly after its passage, “The racial composition of America at the present time thus is made permanent.”

Elsewhere in the emails, Miller recommends another white-genocide touchstone: the French novel The Camp of the Saints, which dramatizes the apocalyptic scenario of Europe being overwhelmed by nonwhite immigration, leading to the end of civilization.

Those immigration laws were an inspiration to Nazi Germany, whose lawyers closely examined American laws regarding race and citizenship while seeking to construct their own fascist state rooted in centuries of European anti-Semitism. “It was America that taught us a nation should not open its doors equally to all nations,” Hitler told The New York Times in 1933.

In a later exchange, Miller attacked the 1965 Hart-Celler Act, which repealed the racist and anti-Semitic restrictions of the 1920s. His feedback helped shape a Breitbart article titled “Ted Kennedy’s Real Legacy: 50 Years of Ruinous Immigration Law,” which lamented the fact that “native-born whites are the only group expected to decline in both absolute numbers and fertility rates.” Miller himself wrote to praise McHugh’s work, telling her, “You’re the only writer in the country who published a piece even mentioning the law and what it did.”

That Miller himself possesses a Jewish background is no obstacle to his believing that the racist and anti-Semitic restrictions of the 1920s were a great achievement, and that the law that repealed them was a great tragedy. These comments shed a great deal of light on Miller’s motives in shaping administration policy.

For instance, in a 2015 exchange, Miller complained that Mexican survivors of Hurricane Patricia could be given temporary protected status, or TPS, which would have allowed them to stay and work in the United States. Shortly after taking office, Trump sought to end TPS for about 400,000 El Salvadorans, Hatians, and Hondurans in the U.S., those from nations the president has privately referred to as “shithole countries.” In September, he prevented Bahamians fleeing Hurricane Dorian from coming to the U.S. and being granted TPS, saying he was worried about “gang members” and “drug dealers.”

Miller was also at the forefront of constructing the Trump administration’s travel ban targeting Muslim countries; he helped devise the child-separation policy designed to deter Latin American immigrants; he worked to scuttle a deal with Democrats following Trump’s repeal of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which prevented the deportation of young undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children; and he is trying to reduce the number of refugees being admitted to zero. The emails help explain Miller’s zeal.

Miller is not alone. As I reported in 2017, his former boss and Trump’s former attorney general, Jeff Sessions, also praised the immigration restrictions of the 1920s, in an interview with the former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, and while Miller worked for Sessions’s Senate office, the senator regularly sent out press releases warning of the dangers of Muslim immigration and lamenting a lack of immigration from Europe. Michael Anton, a former Trump national-security official, wrote a screed in 2016 urging conservatives to back Trump in part because of the “ceaseless importation of Third World foreigners with no tradition of, taste for, or experience in liberty.”

On Fox News, on a nightly basis, conservative figures with direct lines to the president urge conservative audiences to view the presence of nonwhites in America as an existential threat, which is to say that viewers are encouraged to view their countrymen in this way. Fox personalities such as Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham tell their viewers that “Latin American countries are changing election outcomes here by forcing demographic change on this country” and that Democrats “want to replace you, the American voters, with newly amnestied citizens and an ever-increasing number of chain migrants.” Ingraham and Carlson are reliable apparatchiks—in the Bush era, they echoed the hawkish views of neoconservatives. Now that Trumpism is ascendant, both dedicate their nightly broadcasts to convincing Republicans that the president’s nativism is both brilliant and necessary, recognizing it as the ideological core of his presidency.

Having adopted the premises but not the rhetoric of the racist right, mainstream conservatives now find themselves besieged by white nationalists wielding the same ideas in more explicit language. When liberals warned that conservatism had been infected by racism and nativism, conservative writers insisted that liberals were claiming racism in bad faith; that describing things as racist simply made people more racist; that accurately labeling actions as racist was an attempt to stifle debate; that, in fact, white people were the true victims of racism. Now mainstream conservatives face those same arguments from a resurgent white-nationalist movement, which deploys this same logic against them as they weakly try to respond with anti-racist rhetoric they have spent the past four years training their audiences to dismiss with a sneer.

Nothing prevents Republicans from preaching the gospel of conservatism to these new arrivals. The notion that immigrants from left-wing nations are somehow immune to conservatism is ludicrous; some of the leading lights of the conservative movement are Soviet-era Jewish immigrants whose politics are deeply conservative precisely because of the illiberal left-wing regime their families fled. One need only look to the staunchly Republican Cuban American community in Florida to see the fallacy of this ugly genetic determinism, and the bigotry that animates it. The problem for Trump’s white-nationalist vanguard is not that nonwhites are incapable of being conservatives or Republican voters; it is that they are incapable of being white.

The sense that, somehow, conservatism and America are “endangered” by immigration has made conservatives more hostile to democracy and diversity, which is to say more hostile to their fellow Americans. They have been led here not solely by the demagogue in the White House, but by an ideological vanguard convinced that white Christians are the only true Americans. We can only hope that, by the end of the Trump era, this vanguard follows the neoconservatives into similar disfavor and disrepute.

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