The first time I laid eyes on Stephen Miller was in October 2005, in a dingy conference room at Duke University. Miller’s Students For Academic Freedom had organized a discussion, with the campus chapter of the ACLU, on political bias on campus. Miller came in a suit and tie; his primary interlocutor was the literary theorist Michael Hardt, who sauntered in wearing jeans and rumpled hair. Miller came with carefully prepared talking points and his now-trademark stentorian diction. Hardt refused to take him seriously, and casually dismantled his arguments for regulating politics in the classroom. It was, to the audience that had gathered, a rout.
I thought about that debate on Sunday, when Miller, now a senior adviser to the president, appeared on CNN’s State of the Union opposite Jake Tapper to discuss Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury. The debate ended with the host cutting Miller off, saying, “I think I’ve wasted enough of my viewers’ time. Thank you, Stephen,” and Miller reportedly had to be escorted off set. Miller’s debate tactics haven’t changed in the last 12 years: Come with a few talking points. Accuse your opponents of bad faith and deliver ad hominem attacks. Shout over your opponent to make a point. But while the consensus was that Tapper destroyed Miller, I’m not convinced. Miller’s old tactics have finally found a forum and audience in which they can thrive, and he seems to have achieved exactly what he wanted from this interview. If he seems silly to many progressives and some conservatives, that’s never bothered him in the past.
The segment began with Tapper asking a question, which Miller happily ignored in favor of a meandering, long riff. Tapper let Miller go for a minute and a half, and Miller happily took it, running through a series of talking points that sounded carefully workshopped.
“It’s tragic and unfortunate that Steve would make these grotesque comments so out of touch with reality and obviously so vindictive,” Miller said. “The whole White House staff is disappointed with his comments, which were so grotesque.” (There was a lot of “grotesque” and “tragic” in the interview.) Miller went on that “the book is best understood as a work of very poorly written fiction,” a line which might have landed better if he hadn’t followed it with a poorly written, juvenile jab: “I also will say that the author is a garbage author of a garbage book.”
From there, things devolved. Tapper kept trying to ask questions, but Miller would talk over him and refuse to answer, saying that CNN had 24 hours a day to attack Trump and that he, Miller, deserved a chance to reply to this. When Tapper tried to interject, Miller accused the host of being condescending. This was a neatly laid trap, like accusing someone of being defensive—Tapper had no choice but to dispute it, but his incredulity was condescending, and indeed Miller’s comments were deserving of condescension. Also condescending, but also probably true, was Tapper’s accusation that Miller was playing for an audience of one, the president. (A laudatory tweet from the president confirmed Tapper’s suspicions that Trump was watching.)
But the audience wasn’t just Trump—it was his supporters, too. In that demographic, it’s likely Miller scored well by calling out Tapper’s condescension and refusing to back down. Miller’s demand for time to simply ramble makes little sense in the real world—why should CNN give an aide to the president carte blanche to launch ad hominem attacks on Wolff and on the network itself?—but if one believes that CNN makes up facts to take down the president, then why shouldn’t Miller be allowed to say what he wants, too?
Miller accused CNN of offering nothing but anti-Trump attacks, and in the process baited CNN into cutting his mic, which just validated his point. Getting cut off was a better outcome for him than having to actually debate the substance of Wolff’s book or anything else. He got what he wanted.
Miller’s tactics didn’t work in the languorous setting of a campus panel discussion, where Hardt could just wait Miller out, allow him to exhaust his talking points, and then rebut them. Nor was an audience of college students all that sympathetic to Miller’s “academic freedom crusade.” But things are different now. First, Tapper has to control his airtime—it’s limited and valuable—and so he couldn’t roll his eyes and let Miller talk nonsense. Second, there’s now a substantial audience for Miller’s ideological bluster. While progressives may have viewed Miller’s CNN appearance as a train wreck, I suspect that the president wasn’t the only person fired up and excited about it.
There is an important caveat to this. Miller’s performance rallies the Trump base, but that group, while still energetic, is shrinking. Simply holding the line isn’t enough for Trump. At some point, he needs to start rebuilding his support, and any day the White House is debating Fire and Fury, Trump is not doing that. But failing to understand the way Miller’s contretemps with Tapper appeals to a certain swath of the electorate is failing to understand how Trump gathered support in the first place.
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