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Donald Trump's “brain” Stephen Miller is also obsessed with Muslims and Mexicans

It would be no exaggeration to call the president's senior policy adviser an extremist.

Remember how the White House adviser and arch-schemer Karl Rove was dubbed “Bush’s brain”? Stephen Miller fills that role for Donald Trump.

The balding, skinny-tie-wearing Miller, aged just 31, serves as White House senior adviser on policy and has played an outsized role in the Trump administration so far. He was the author of Trump’s dystopian inaugural address, with its dark invocation of “American carnage”, and also wrote the president’s first speech to Congress, with its hyperbolic references to “lawless chaos” and “radical Islamic terrorism”. He was the co-architect, with Steve Bannon, of Executive Order 13679, better known as the “Muslim ban”, and went on cable news to denounce the federal judges who ruled against it, claiming: “The powers of the president to protect our country are very substantial and will not be questioned.”

One former colleague has described Miller as “a true believer in every sense of the word” with “a better understanding of the president’s vision than almost anyone”. Miller, in fact, was one of Trump's early adopters: in 2014, he emailed friends saying: “Trump gets it. I wish he’d run for president.” In January 2016, he quit his job with conservative Senator – now Attorney General – Jeff Sessions and joined the insurgent Trump campaign, soon becoming a a warm-up act for the property tycoon at his frenzied campaign rallies.

Within the White House, where he was once seen only as a Bannon acolyte, the shrewd and ambitious Miller has today positioned himself also as a close ally of Jared and Ivanka.

In recent weeks, he has become the public face of the administration’s hard-line immigration policy, taking to the White House press room podium – after the resignation of the mendacious Sean Spicer as communications director and the sacking of his foul-mouthed replacement, Anthony Scaramucci, ten days later – and loudly clashing with the CNN reporter Jim Acosta over the new plan to give preference to immigrants who speak English.

In the teeming cast of White House grotesques, the dead-eyed Miller – “He looks like the hitchhiker other hitchhikers stay away from,” joked the late-night talk show host Seth Meyers – stands out as a paradoxical figure. Though he is Jewish and was born and raised in liberal Los Angeles County, Miller has the most extensive ties to the white nationalist movement of any White House adviser, Steve Bannon included.

It would not be an exaggeration to call Miller an extremist – and one whose extremism goes back to his teenage years. “He believes multiculturalism is a weakness, that when we celebrate our differences we are ignoring our ‘American culture’,” his former high school classmate Nick Silverman recalled on Facebook in February. “He didn’t like someone from El Salvador celebrating their homeland, or someone from Vietnam bringing in food from their country of origin. He wanted everyone to celebrate one culture. One country.”

Other former classmates told the US Spanish-language news network Univision that Miller “used to make fun of the children of Latino and Asian immigrants who did not speak English well”. One student, Jason Islas, claims that Miller told him they could not be friends because of the former’s “Latino heritage”.

In a high school newspaper column written three months after 9/11 and entitled “A Time to Kill”, Miller also mocked the idea of Islam as “peaceful” or “benign” and demanded a violent response to “millions of radical Muslims”. Later, he worked with David Horowitz – dubbed an “anti-Muslim extremist” by the Southern Poverty Law Center – to organise “Islamofascism Awareness Week” on college campuses.

To recap: for more than a decade, Miller’s biggest obsessions have been race and culture; Mexicans and Muslims. Who does that remind you of? The truth is that his boss – who has retweeted neo-Nazis and received the official endorsement of the Ku Klux Klan – has recruited a motley crew of far-right nativists to serve in his White House. Bannon, the chief strategist, has bragged about how he turned Breitbart News into “the platform for the alt-right”. Sebastian Gorka, who serves as a “deputy assistant” to the president, is alleged to have once been a member of a far-right Hungarian group.

Miller is a former university pal of the white supremacist Richard Spencer, who has called for “peaceful ethnic cleansing”. Spencer referred to himself as a “mentor” to Miller, telling the Daily Beast that he “spent a lot of time with him at Duke [University]… I hope I expanded his thinking.”

Miller was quick to deny any relationship with Spencer. “I completely repudiate his views,” the Trump adviser told Mother Jones last October. But does he really? In his recent clash over immigration with CNN’s Acosta – which has led to reports that he may be promoted to White House communications director – Miller denounced the reporter for his “cosmopolitan bias”. As commentators and historians have since observed, that deeply loaded phrase has both racist and anti-Semitic connotations.

Let’s be clear: the Trump administration’s plans to cut legal immigration in half and prioritise the speaking of English by new applicants have nothing to do with economics or national security and everything to do with Making America White Again. As the academic Carol Anderson observed in the New York Times, the “guiding principle” of his administration “is to turn the politics of white resentment into the policies of white rage”. (The administration’s support for this immigration bill is also a classic example of Trumpian hypocrisy – the president’s grandfather Friedrich Trump arrived in the US from Germany in 1885, unable to speak English, while according to the 1910 census, Miller’s great-grandmother could speak only Yiddish.)

It cannot be pointed out often enough that this is not in any way, shape or form a normal Republican or even conservative administration. Forget the serial dishonesty and astonishing dysfunction. This is a White House that indulges and panders to far-right bigots and nativists in both coded and not-so-coded language; a government of white nationalists, by white nationalists, for white nationalists. The rise and rise of the odious Stephen Miller, from high school provocateur to senior White House adviser – and maybe now even communications director – is worrying proof of that.

Mehdi Hasan is an NS contributing editor. He is based in Washington, DC

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon

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Smart and politically alert, Black Panther will inspire a generation of film students

Plus, Wakanda has a border control system to make Theresa May swoon. 

Before I went to see Black Panther, I had no idea whether or not it would be any good. That might sound strange, given the positive buzz around it, but I did have a nagging suspicion that “being nice about the first black-led Marvel film” might have got mixed up with “parading my anti-racist credentials on social media”.

Well, that suspicion was an unworthy one. Black Panther is not just smart and politically aware for a superhero film – it’s smart and politically aware, full stop. Its central conflict springs from its alternate-reality vision of Africa: specifically, a country called Wakanda, home of the world’s only reserves of “vibranium”. This has allowed Wakanda to become more technologically advanced than the West – “it’s as easy as riding a hoverbike”, the country’s chief scientist says to a bemused American at one point – and it has not only never been colonised, but never been mapped. It hides its lush plains and skyscrapers inside a holographic mountain.

A rare, mystical natural resource might be a staple of fantasy films (think of Avatar’s Ronsealishly named unobtainium), but putting it in the middle of Africa gives the film both a historical resonance – untold misery was caused by the 19th century efforts of European powers to secure the continent’s mineral wealth – and a contemporary one. It’s impossible to make a smartphone without rare earth metals, and some of the places where these are found, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, suffer from what economists call a “resource curse”. Without strong governments and infrastructure, the vast wealth obtainable by mining creates opportunities for corruption, and funds militias and civil wars.

Rare resources also attract vultures: which is exactly what Wakanda’s rulers fear. If they share the source of their power,  and give away their only advantage over the West, how will they be treated? A glance at their continental neighbours would be anything but reassuring.

That question – could you honestly advise Wakanda to share its vibranium with the world? – is interesting enough. But the film’s politics go even deeper, into uncomfortable questions about culture and immigration. All Wakandans have a tattoo on their inner lips, which grants them access to the kingdom: it’s a border control system that would make Theresa May swoon.

Early in the film, King T’Challa (whose alter ego is the superhero Black Panther) discusses with one of his closest advisers whether or not they have a duty to their fellow Africans, particularly refugees. W’Kabi (played by 28-year-old British actor Daniel Kaluuya) offers an argument we are more used to hearing from Trump voters in those worthy American newspaper profiles of flyover states: won’t mass migration mean the end of our unique culture? Putting that sentiment in the mouth of someone from an uncolonised African country is deeply provocative, helping audiences scale what the anthropologist Arlie Russell Hoschchild calls an “empathy wall”. The film ultimately rejects W’Kabi’s position, but it does give it space to be heard.

There’s another layer of sophistication to the political allegory here. The film’s true villain is not the white South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (although the parents who gave him that name really only have themselves to blame that he turned to crime and prosthetic augmentation). It’s the deeply conflicted figure of Killmonger, King T’Challa’s first cousin.

 Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) fights T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Photo: Marvel.

The king’s father killed his own brother back in 1992 after discovering that he had arranged the theft of a cache of vibranium. The plan was to distribute it to black people around the world, so they could rise up against their (white) oppressors. “I think the best villains are ones that have a point of view that’s relatable and that you can empathise with,” screenwriter Joe Robert Cole said in a recent interview. “Sometimes it’s how far you take things that makes you a villain, and not necessarily the perspective.”

Again, the film gives Killmonger’s argument space to breathe. Raised by a single mother in America, when his dead father asks him in a vision why he has no tears for him, he says that life is cheap here, meaning: black life. The Wakandans are not pacifists – Black Panther can, and will, kill people with his claws – but Killmonger experiences violence as chaotic, meaningless and random. He has been brutalised by the reality of life as a black man in America, and later as a soldier in America’s foreign wars. How radical is that: a $200m Hollywood film where the villain is a personification of America’s domestic and foreign policy?

There is so much more richness in the movie that (I hope) it will inspire a generation of film students. How should we react to a king and his subjects making monkey noises at someone in an ethnic minority, trying to intimidate him into silence? (In this case Martin Freeman’s white CIA agent.) How do black Africans feel about the film’s essentially American perspective, implying a commonality between black citizens in countries with such huge disparities in average income? How do the kind of internet writers who worry about “cultural appropriation” feel about a cast which includes black British, West Indian, Zimbabwean-American and German actors doing Xhosa accents? (“The implicit statement in both the film’s themes and its casting is that there is a connection, however vexed, tenuous, and complicated, among the continent’s scattered descendants,” noted Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker.)

As a white British viewer, the most uncomfortable moment for me was when Killmonger promises that the “sun will never set” on the new Wakandan empire. It reminded me of the developed world’s anxious hope for the future: that the rising nations of the world will treat us better in their pomp than we treated them in ours.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia