The PEN Pod: On White Supremacy and Immigration with Jean Guerrero
Investigative journalist Jean Guerrero is an Emmy Award-winning reporter out with a new book, Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda. Her reporting has covered the United States and Latin America, and her award-winning memoir Crux won the 2016 PEN/Fusion Emerging Writers Prize. She joined us on The PEN Pod to discuss the impetus behind her new book, Stephen Miller’s role in shaping the messaging of the Trump administration, and what she’s reading now. Listen below for our full conversation (our interview with Jean is up until the 13:12 mark).
What made you decide to focus on Stephen Miller? How did this project get started?
I had been covering the consequences of his policies—the human cost of his policies—from day one of the Trump administration. As an immigration reporter, I’d been at the reporting from the busiest border crossing in the United States. I was talking to families and parents who had their children separated from them—in most cases, families who had not broken any laws. I spoke to one father from El Salvador who had sought asylum at the port of entry. He had no criminal record, came with his one-year-old baby, and was separated from his child for eight months. He was locked up without knowing where his baby was.
This raised the question for me. I kept hearing the White House talking about how this policy of family separations—among other immigration policies—was about law and order, that they were just targeting people who’d broken the law. But I knew that that wasn’t the case. And for me, that raises the question, if this isn’t about law and order—which it clearly is not—then what is it about? That’s what led me to turn to Stephen Miller and try to understand the man who was behind these policies. When I learned that he grew up in Southern California at the same time that I grew up in Southern California, I began to get more interested in telling his story and trying to understand. How does the descendant of Jewish refugees, how does that person end up crafting Trump’s harshest rhetoric and policies targeting people fleeing violence and persecution?
“When I learned that [Stephen Miller] grew up in Southern California at the same time that I grew up in Southern California, I began to get more interested in telling his story and trying to understand. How does the descendant of Jewish refugees, how does that person end up crafting Trump’s harshest rhetoric and policies targeting people fleeing violence and persecution?”
You trace the trajectory of Stephen Miller, who is 34 years old, and he basically has become one of the president’s closest and truly longest-serving advisors in the White House. How has he managed to last this long?
Part of it is that Stephen Miller gets Donald Trump in a way that no one else in the White House does. He gets him emotionally. He gets him psychologically. He gets him spiritually. A lot of this has roots in his childhood, which I delve into in the book. Stephen Miller grew up in a family that was very similar to Donald Trump’s family. His father is a real estate investor who was plagued by bankruptcies and legal disputes related to his real estate company. Court documents that I found for the book describe him as a masterpiece of evasion and manipulation. People who knew Stephen Miller back then tell me that his father is very similar to Trump, so he gets Donald Trump for that reason.
The other thing is that he has always pushed Donald Trump in the most aggressive direction when it comes to his rhetoric, and when it comes to his policies. Trump has found that this is very appealing and very effective with his base. Trump thinks that Stephen Miller is the reason that he won election in the first place in 2016, and he believes that Stephen Miller is going to be a key player for him to win again in November. So you see him leaning more and more on his most divisive and most controversial advisor.
How much of Miller do you see in the Trump campaign right now, and what role—at least from your reporting—do you understand that he’s playing in shaping that message?
He’s playing a central role. He’s still one of Trump’s top speechwriters, and in addition to being in charge of the immigration agenda, he’s really in control of what Trump says in his formal speeches. For me, it’s very clear that Stephen Miller is playing a very important role in the reelection strategy, which currently revolves around the demonization of the entire Democratic Party as an existential threat to America. It’s very important for people to understand that this idea is rooted in the white supremacist conspiracy theory of white genocide, which Stephen Miller is intimately familiar with.
“My reporting shows that Stephen Miller has been reading white supremacist and white nationalist literature for a very long time, which casts any allies of people of color, antiracists, and people who oppose white supremacy as agitators, anarchists, and unhinged mobs—the exact same language that you see Donald Trump using to describe antiracist protesters in Portland and across the country. This is really what his reelection strategy boils down to. It’s this laundering of white genocide through the language of heritage and the language of national security.”
My reporting shows that Stephen Miller has been reading white supremacist and white nationalist literature for a very long time, which casts any allies of people of color, antiracists, and people who oppose white supremacy as agitators, anarchists, and unhinged mobs—the exact same language that you see Donald Trump using to describe antiracist protesters in Portland and across the country. This is really what his reelection strategy boils down to. It’s this laundering of white genocide through the language of heritage and the language of national security.
You’ve covered immigration, and you’ve covered the U.S. and Latin America so extensively, and you know more than anyone, probably, the contours of how this plays out among non-immigrant communities in the United States—particularly in white communities. I wouldn’t ask you to break out your crystal ball, but is this messaging resonant? Is this something that is tapping into an antipathy that is still very present? Or do you think we’ve turned a corner since the summer, and the sort of crucible of the Trump presidency?
I think it absolutely speaks to a lot of people. It exploits and preys on people’s fears about changes in their lives, gives them an easy scapegoat and an easiest solution, which obviously does not actually do anything for anybody, but it’s politically very effective. I don’t know what’s going to happen in November. But, one of the things that I delve into in the book is the fact that what we are seeing nationally today, with this resurgence of white supremacist feeling across the nation, is sort of history repeating itself from the situation in California in the ’90s, when Stephen Miller was growing up there. There was an incredible anti-immigrant hostility, statewide bipartisan attacks on bilingual education, on affirmative action, on social services for children of undocumented migrants, and a lot of talk about the “invasion” at the border. This was a product of white people becoming a minority for the first time in California that decade. There was a lot of white backlash, white fear associated with this idea that the browning of the state was going to lead to some kind of apocalypse or third world situation, which obviously is not what happened. Ultimately, you saw California become a very diverse and very democratic state.
I think that, if Stephen Miller’s childhood is any indication, we’re kind of going through the same growing pains nationally that California underwent in the ’90s. It was sort of a microcosm for what we’re seeing in the United States today, and if that’s any indication. . . right now, there’s a lot of harm being done to immigrant communities, but I truly believe that future generations are going to be increasingly mixed. We’re heading into 2050, when white people are going to become a minority nationwide, but there’s not going to be some kind of apocalypse or third world situation the way that the white supremacists say. We’re just going to become an increasingly mixed society, and people are going to have more hyphenated identities. For me, that means an end to tribalism, because people will have a greater capacity for identification with multiple ways of being, with multiple nationalities and origins. It’s going to become a more multicultural nation the way that Stephen Miller has always feared, because he was indoctrinated at a very young age to believe that multiculturalism was some kind of existential threat, which it is not.
“I feel like labels can really be reductive and do harm, but I truly believe that they also have created space. Our journalistic reluctance to call racism and xenophobia what it is has created space in our institutions for white supremacists to operate with impunity. So I think it’s very important to use language, especially because I have strategy papers showing Steven Miller considering the political utility of hostile emotions like hate. He truly has been hatemongering for his entire career.”
I like that there’s an optimistic spin in there. I wonder though, writing this book, putting Stephen Miller’s face on the cover, and labeling the title “hatemonger” feels like it’s a risk. How has the book been received, and what kind of reaction have you seen, especially from the right?
First of all, I just want to say that as a journalist, I’ve always shied away from using labels to describe people. I feel like labels can really be reductive and do harm, but I truly believe that they also have created space. Our journalistic reluctance to call racism and xenophobia what it is has created space in our institutions for white supremacists to operate with impunity. So I think it’s very important to use language, especially because I have strategy papers showing Steven Miller considering the political utility of hostile emotions like hate. He truly has been hatemongering for his entire career.
As far as the risk, since the book came out, I’ve been getting a lot of threats of violence against me on social media, which is to be expected. There’s just so much hostility, and the people that Stephen Miller directly appeals to are people who have an instinct for violence—white supremacists and neo-Nazis who believe in violence. So it’s not surprising that I’m getting these threats of violence, but PEN America really helped me figure out ways to protect my identity—or rather, my personal information. The first book that I wrote is a very personal book, with the names of my families and things like that. I took steps prior to the book coming out to make sure that their personal information was protected and erased from online databases so that people cannot dox me or my family members.
I should just remind our listeners that PEN America publishes the Online Harassment Field Manual that has a lot of resources for anyone who might be experiencing, or be the ally of someone experiencing online harassment, because it’s insidious. Just to wrap up, what are you reading right now?
I’m just finishing up Mary Trump’s book Too Much and Never Enough. It’s remarkable—the parallels between the Trump family and the Stephen Miller family. To me, it’s very clear that the reason why Stephen Miller has been able to stick around in this White House for so long, and to have such an outsize impact in the White House, is because of the fact that Stephen Miller and Donald Trump see eye to eye. They have similar value systems, and they were raised in very similar ways. It’s been really eye-opening for me to read Mary Trump’s book.