Remember back when we were still trying to figure out who was really running the Trump ship? And all sorts of people were being tagged as the “real brains” behind the president? Then they’d get fired and the fun could start again?
For the first few months of the Trump administration, everyone was calling Steve Bannon the puppet master behind the whole operation. We all followed Bannon slavishly, collectively positing that he was the Grim Reaper behind bumbling Trump. This narrative stuck until Bannon bragged about his position as the brains a little bit too much. Ultimately, Trump ousted him. After Bannon landed on the cover of Time magazine in February 2017, Trump began snarking about him. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in April 2017, he called Bannon merely “a guy who works for me.” By August of 2017, Bannon was gone. Poof.
For a while after that, we allowed ourselves to believe that John Kelly was Trump’s real brain, or that Jared Kushner was Trump’s real brain, or variously, all sorts of people who had fallen in and then out of Trump’s favor. Occasionally we even thought that Donald Trump himself was Donald Trump’s real brain. That’s still a working hypothesis.
But you know whom we don’t talk about as the real brain behind the Trump administration? Stephen Miller. And this is weird, frankly, because nobody has been a more consistent architect of Trump and Trumpism than the 33-year-old Miller. He was the cruel visionary behind the family-separation policy—which he gleefully crowed about—and the demented champion of Trump’s recent wall-building hostage spree. He was the primary author of the speech about the pretend crisis that necessitated the wall, and also, he was behind slashing refugee-admission policies and, famously, the Muslim ban. His nativist fingerprints were all over Trump’s most recent efforts to reach a “compromise” on reopening the government, which was larded up with cruel poison pills that would have hurt the same people Miller has spent two years trying to hurt in the open.
And this week we hear that in Cliff Sims’ new tell-all insider book, Team of Vipers, which goes on sale Tuesday, Miller once told Sims, “I would be happy if not a single refugee foot ever again touched America’s soil.” This guy. Always saying the quiet parts loud.
So how come we don’t ever talk about that guy as Trump’s brain? Given Miller’s primacy in so much of Trump’s policymaking, and the ways in which his immigration vision has become the signature issue from which the president is seemingly unable to back away, it seems that Miller is Trump’s real Svengali, the enduring power behind the throne. Virtually all of Trump’s A-team is long gone. Shouldn’t we be crowning Miller as the winning contestant on White House Celebrity Apprentice?
We should, but we are not. Partly it seems to be because Miller doesn’t seek out that distinction. In a definitive profile in the Atlantic, McCay Coppins writes:
[Miller is] content to be a staffer instead of a star. … I heard variations of this line from several people in the administration, and at first I was skeptical. Given his lifelong penchant for attention-getting provocation, could he truly be content playing the part of the obedient lieutenant? But as it turns out, Miller has found ways to channel his talent for trolling into the less visible work of government policy making.
A Politico profile by Nahal Toosi from August arrived at a similar conclusion—not only does Miller avoid taking credit, he also avoids even the appearance of taking credit. Miller deliberately limits his paper trail and tries to make his ideas sound like they are being generated by others. As Toosi reported:
A former West Wing aide said Miller would at times ask people in the White House to send him suggested inserts for the president’s speeches that he wanted to include. It seemed to be Miller’s way of making it appear the ideas originated from someone besides himself.
“I never understood it,” the former aide said. “He had the power to put it in himself.”
This is all compelling, but it’s still only a half-answer. It cannot be the case that because Miller goes out of his way to act behind the scenes, we have all come to agree that he isn’t the driving force behind the most enduring Trumpist policies.
Could it be that Miller is just excruciatingly bad at being the public face of anything? His handfuls of efforts to put himself into the spotlight seem to backfire spectacularly (being escorted off a CNN set), and painfully (caught with spray-on hair), no matter how infrequently they occur. At least one version of the story holds that Miller is more or less the Trump administration’s toxic-waste guy; he’s only ever given the spotlight to publicly defend positions nobody else can bear to give voice to, and each time he is tasked with that, he screws it up so massively that we are essentially unable to consider him a mastermind of anything.
But I think this brings us to the possible secret of Stephen Miller’s quasi-miraculous ability to survive the Trump administration while leaving such a silent yet indelible mark: He actually revels in Trump’s basest cruelties. It’s easy to think of Miller as an almost sinister but pathetic cartoon figure: The high school troll character William Shakespeare would have chucked, because he’s too absurd, before he went with the lesser villain, Iago. But unlike, say, Sims, who penned Team of Vipers in part as expiation for “letting down his Christian faith” in his service to the Trump administration, Miller truly owns the acts of cruelty Sims decries as a means of advancing his personal and policy interests. Sims is frustrated that Trump didn’t change refugee policies to privilege “persecuted Christians,” as he writes. Miller just hates refugees. And so, Sims absolves himself by writing a book distancing himself from Trump’s brutality. Miller stays on the inside, effectuating that brutality for its own sake.
As the heap of purely transactional players in the Trump administration totters ever higher, Miller should get credit for not being simply instrumental. He’ll do the job anonymously; he’ll do it unpersuasively; he’d likely do it for free. He’ll do it from a train, in the rain. It’s what he is. Miller isn’t in it for glory, or for the short hop to a permanent Fox News gig, or to sell memoirs. He’s the most authentic Trumpist there is, enabled and enabling. He has probably never gotten credit as Trump’s brain because, unlike some of the other folks who are just in it for the ride, it’s now actually impossible to tell where one begins and the other ends.