The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Stephen Miller lets the mask slip

White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller in Seoul on June 30. (Susan Walsh/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

When you’re a politician who has said something indefensible or an ally/staffer appearing on behalf of that politician, dealing with especially tough questions in interviews has a pretty set routine. The first time, you dodge the question and/or attempt a weak defense. If the questioner follows up, you try changing the subject. And if the interviewer still continues to press, you quickly answer the question to move the interview along. What you definitely don’t do is snarl like the killer at the end of a detective show and lay bare your hate.

That’s what you don’t do — unless you’re Stephen Miller. The senior policy adviser to the president made a rare media appearance on “Fox News Sunday” to defend the president’s repeated broadsides against four Democratic congresswomen of color. Those attacks started last weekend with Trump’s racist tweets suggesting that they “go back” to their places of origin. At a Wednesday rally, Trump supporters chanted “send her back” about Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), born in Somalia; the president disavowed the slogan the next day before reversing himself a day later and defending the chanters as “patriotic.” And on Sunday morning he launched another volley, tweeting, “I don’t believe the four Congresswomen are capable of loving our Country.”

Miller’s Republican counterparts on other networks adopted the usual playbook. For example, on CNN, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) first engaged in some rhetorical dancing, including the preposterous claim that “the whole America love-it-or-leave it is not — not a new sentiment. Back in the ’60s, that wasn’t considered racist.” (That would be news to George Wallace, for one.) But pressed on the president’s latest charge, Johnson tersely replied, “I don’t agree with it.”

Trump's tweets telling minority congresswomen to “go back” to their countries follows a history of racism and nativism. Voters will decide if this is effective. (Video: The Washington Post)

Back on Fox, host Chris Wallace asked Miller: Why shouldn’t people see the latest attacks and other controversial Trump comments (e.g., “very fine people”) as racism? The White House policy adviser first tried to shift the subject, saying, “I think the term ‘racist,’ Chris, has become a label that is too often deployed by left [and] Democrats in this country simply to try to silence and punish and suppress people they disagree with.” When Wallace persisted in pointing out the basic fact that questioning the first black president’s place of birth “is playing the race card,” Miller shifted to whataboutism, attacking rhetoric from two of the congresswomen, Omar and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)

But Wallace pointed out that “during his 2016 campaign, and even as president, Mr. Trump has been as critical of this country as anything” the congresswomen have said. Pivoting off the mention of Ocasio-Cortez, Wallace asked Miller to defend Trump’s false claim that the New York congresswoman had called “our country and our people ‘garbage.’” (Actually, Ocasio-Cortez was referring to particular policies, not the country.) When Miller obliged, Wallace cited a 2014 tweet from Trump, in which Trump said the United States under Obama was “garbage.” Miller, clearly peeved at being caught in a trap, snapped:

Throughout this interview, Chris, you’re continuing to conflate Donald Trump’s criticisms of President Obama versus AOC’s deep and systemic criticisms of the country itself.
And so, let me just cut to the heart of the issue. These four congresswomen detest America as it exists, as it is currently constructed. They want to tear down the structure of our country. They want it to be a socialist, open borders country.
If you, as Donald Trump says, want to destroy America with open borders, you cannot say you love your country. If you attack border agents the way that Ocasio-Cortez has, it means you have a deep-seated hatred of the nation as it exists. That’s why you want to erase its borders, fundamentally transform the country and in the process, it doesn’t matter if American citizens lose their jobs, lose their homes, lose their livelihoods, lose their health coverage and lose their very lives.

Miller’s words do more than just undercut his earlier whataboutism and distraction. They lay bare (again) the authoritarianism at the heart of the Trump administration: To disagree with this president is to disagree with America itself. To criticize the country is to tear it down. To suggest America, as “currently constructed," is imperfect is to threaten Americans’ “very lives.”

As a political tactic, portraying policy disagreements as disloyalty has long been a staple of U.S. politics. We saw it, for example, during the Iraq War when cynical Republicans liked to imply that any critique of the war was an attack on the troops and the country. But Miller’s formulation, with its conscious inclusion of national identity and subconscious-but-no-less-obvious inclusion of race, is an especially hateful ideology. Sadly, as demonstrated on Wednesday, the president’s most loyal supporters agree with it. It is a chilling vision, and the sooner its adherents are out of power, the better.

Read more:

Max Boot: Why ‘send her back’ is even worse than ‘lock her up’

Padma Lakshmi: Millions of Americans like me and Ilhan Omar are right where we belong

Kathleen Parker: Those who don’t condemn Trump’s racism are complicit in his bigotry

Danielle Allen: Trump’s assault on minority congresswomen is a trap. Don’t fall into it.

Henry Olsen: Yes, Trump’s tweets are offensive. But there’s one big reason Republicans still stand by him.