Decoding Stephen Miller's Nationalist Mind
In the opinion section of last Wednesday’s New York Times, journalist Masha Gessen and retired tennis star Martina Navratilova wrote an article on their feelings about the recent immigration restrictions ordered by Donald Trump. “This anger and despair make both of us feel as if we are losing our home,” they wrote. Since both writers had themselves immigrated to the United States, “home,” rather than being a place of birth, was somewhere that gave them “a sense of safety, a sense of familiarity, a sense of inhabiting space with certainty, a sense, indeed, of the certainty of that space—the opposite feeling of having the rug pulled out from under your feet.” This was all understandable—and sad. At the same time, their sentiments opened an unlikely window on the thinking of Trump’s chief advisers. Trumpism—along with its leaders in the White House—is often rejected as a doctrine of simple racism or ethno-nationalism. But such pejoratives obscure that it’s a mostly coherent system of belief (in contrast to the thoughts of Trump himself), one that’s more vulnerable than most to hijacking by racial extremists (take a bow, Richard Spencer), but still—for now, God help us—separate from them.
A few years back, Stephen Miller, a White House senior policy adviser at whose feet much of the tumult resulting from Trump’s immigration order has been laid, made some brief remarks at a conservative gathering in Palm Beach. “One of the things that we’re missing from our political dialogue right now is the idea that the United States is a home,” said Miller, who was then a staffer for Jeff Sessions. “It is more than an accounting sheet. It is more than the sum of its G.D.P., its total tax collections, or its total outlays. America is a family.”
What threatened the American family and home, said Miller, was a government that cared more about numbers pleasing to business interests than to the concerns of those whom it was supposed to represent. With its push for ever-lower barriers to migration or trade, he explained, Washington was abandoning the “real flesh-and-blood citizens who together create this body politic, this nation, this home, represented by that flag.” This has been a staple of the belief system among Trump’s senior staffers: America is a home, not an economy, and the economy must serve the home, not the other way around.
What Miller left unsaid, but implied, was also the contrast between home and doctrine. For the past two decades, prevailing opinion has embraced the idea of the United States as an “experiment,” a “propositional nation” or “creedal nation,” as Irving Kristol described it in 1995. In contrast to older nations, America is bound together by people “dedicated to the proposition” of constitutional democracy as laid out by Lincoln. It’s an appealing idea for a great number of reasons. It helps bridge our ethnic divisions, and it gives newcomers a fast track to assimilation. That citizenship is an act of will, a buy-in rather than something more organic, helps remove nationhood from the realm of “blood and soil,” a conception of nationhood that predated the Nazis but won’t soon recover from their embrace.
Still, while stressing the creedal nature of the United States is effective up to a point, it resonates more among intellectuals than among ordinary people. Ideas can help create a community, but they cannot alone sustain it. Ask most people why they join armies, and they’re likely to speak of home and country more than propositions. Similarly, while ideas can strengthen bonds in a family—shared Catholic faith, for instance—most families aren’t based on ideas. They’re formed instead by proximity, affection, habit, and, more often than not, blood ties. Adherents of Trumpism therefore see in creeds only a limited panacea for our societal rifts, and in high levels of migration or workplace turnover an increase in existing pressures.