Almost from the moment the camera blinked on in the Oval Office, it was clear that President Donald Trump was delivering a Stephen Miller special.
The 33-year-old White House speechwriter has a hand in virtually everything the president reads from a teleprompter. But as one of the most strident immigration hawks in the West Wing, Miller has been especially influential over the past two years in shaping the way Trump talks about his signature issue. Tuesday night was reportedly no exception.
While it’s impossible to say just how much of the address he wrote, all of the tics and tropes of Millerian rhetoric were on display. The scary immigrants (“vicious coyotes and ruthless gangs”). The gory anecdotes (a veteran “beaten to death with a hammer by an illegal alien”). The decidedly un-Trumpian flourishes (“a crisis of the heart, and a crisis of the soul.”)
In setting the stage for Trump’s prime-time address, White House officials had insisted that the president was making a good-faith effort to win over skeptics of his border-wall proposal and get the government reopened. But the speech he ended up giving was not calibrated for persuasion. It was, by and large, dark, divisive, and shot through with the kind of calculated provocation that rallies the president’s fans and riles his enemies. It was, in other words, classic Stephen Miller.
This is an approach Miller has been honing since his teenage years in Santa Monica, California, where he rebelled against the native culture of affluent liberalism by listening to Rush Limbaugh and quoting books by right-wing ideologues such as Wayne LaPierre. At Santa Monica High School—the kind of place where proto-woke students organized “racial-harmony retreats”—Miller delighted in offending his peers’ progressive sensibilities. In some ways, he has never stopped, as I reported in my profile of Miller last year.
This instinct for agitation permeates every line Miller writes in the White House—even the ones Trump ends up delivering in his serious, presidential voice. Consider, for example, the most-praised bit from Tuesday night’s speech:
Some have suggested a barrier is immoral. Then why do wealthy politicians build walls, fences, and gates around their homes? They don’t build walls because they hate the people on the outside, but because they love the people on the inside.
The National Review editor Rich Lowry, echoing other conservative commentators, hailed this riff as a triumph, and predicted that it would “land” with many Americans. He may be right. But if Trump and Miller were prioritizing persuasion and bipartisan deal making, it seems unlikely they would have punctuated their point with this next line: “The only thing that is immoral is the politicians to do nothing and continue to allow more innocent people to be so horribly victimized.” Throwing haymakers like that might get a good “DRAIN THE SWAMP” chant going, but it’s not going to lure congressional Democrats to the negotiating table.
The same can be said for the graphic scenes of violence that stud Trump’s speeches on immigration. Whereas wonkier restrictionists often focus their arguments on wages and labor, the president’s rhetoric gravitates toward blood and gore. He made no exception for his Oval Office address:
Day after day, precious lives are cut short by those who have violated our borders. In California, an Air Force veteran was raped, murdered, and beaten to death with a hammer by an illegal alien with a long criminal history. In Georgia, an illegal alien was recently charged with murder for killing, beheading, and dismembering his neighbor. In Maryland, MS-13 gang members that arrived in the United States as unaccompanied minors were arrested and charged last year after viciously stabbing and beating a 16-year-old girl.
This kind of fearmongering comes naturally to Trump, who famously launched his campaign by warning of Mexican rapists streaming across the border. But Miller has taken his boss’s instinct and colored it in with grim specifics. From Trump’s Republican National Convention acceptance speech to his inaugural address to his stump speeches on the midterm campaign trail, it’s “American carnage” all the way down. The speechwriter has made sure of it.
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