I read a very strange story in The Hill yesterday. It recounted an incident in which Stephen Miller, Donald Trump’s senior policy adviser and the principle architect of the recent policy that separated immigrant parents from their children, was called a “fascist” by a member of the public while eating dinner at a Mexican restaurant.
The name-calling itself is not strange—Miller became the face of child detention when the New York Times ran a story in which it became clear that he enthusiastically promoted the new policy, and that the outrage it caused was a “feature, not a bug,” since it divided the country in ways that were beneficial to Trump. In essence, Miller is a professional troll who couldn’t care less about the kids (“he actually enjoys seeing those kids at the border,” said one White House adviser), and he feels that this type of brinkmanship ultimately plays to his favor. With all this information spread broadly over the past two weeks, it would have been shocking if someone didn’t confront him.
No, what was strange about the story was the fact that Stephen Miller was out in public at all, and further that he chose a Mexican restaurant. Homeland Security secretary Kirstjen Nielsen did the same thing a couple days later, and was chased out of the restaurant by activists in a humiliating scene that quickly went viral. The fact that either went to a Mexican restaurant in the midst of a controversy on the Mexican border prominently featuring them is puzzling, and in Miller’s case, it’s hard not to read it as purposeful and provocative—the troll in his element.
But why? Was it just to be a pain in the ass, or because he couldn’t resist his own private joke?
Maybe. But when you consider Miller’s past—his history of “triggering” liberals by various means—it’s clear that the fundamental goal of his political life has been sowing division between the American left and right. The idea itself is inherently fascist, in that he wants a crystal-clear division between sides, and wants his side to become ascendant. This is somebody who has always been far ahead of the polarization trend in America—he didn’t just see it coming, he had a vision for where it could go. And that vision, though it’s beginning to clarify, is still something we can’t fully imagine. Our best guess, knowing Miller, is that it’s horrible, and that his enemies will be severely punished.
The prototype for this kind of power grab, of course, is Adolf Hitler. (The anonymous White House adviser quoted above called Miller “Waffen-SS.”) And a critical part of the Nazis’ rise to power came a month after Hitler became chancellor, when a fire at the German parliament building was blamed on communists, and used by Hitler to consolidate his power and begin a series of vicious crackdowns on his opponents. It was the spark that laid the groundwork for the brutal decade to follow, and though it’s still not clear whether the Reichstag Fire was truly set by communists, or by the Nazis as a false flag, there’s no doubt that it served as an effective method to elevate Hitler above the German democracy.
Now, the reductio ad hitlerum argument technique—basically, playing the Nazi card—is often seen as hyperbolic. It seemed that way to me after the election, even though Trump terrified me. But at this point, the administration has seen fit to put innocent children in cages and traumatize them for life as a dubious “deterrent,” and would have continued to do so indefinitely if not for public outrage. So I no longer think that comparisons to historical fascists are overblown or melodramatic, especially as it pertains to Miller himself, the brainchild of the “zero tolerance” border policy.
In fact, I think that to understand Miller, we have to recognize the historical parallels. Why did he instigate the family separation madness, and why did he see fit to nudge liberals by eating at a Mexican restaurant so soon after his colleague’s night had been ruined doing the same? It can only be read as a larger plan to stoke liberal fury. And the minute something happens—which it very well could, because his goal of fomenting extreme anger on the left succeeded wildly, and it may be only a matter of time before that anger spills into violence—he and Trump will be ready to take the next small step toward totalitarianism.
It’s hard to gauge what that step will be, especially because it depends on the reaction they provoke. But what remains certain is that it won’t be enough to cry “fake news,” or to blame every problem on Democrats forever—eventually, those tricks will fall flat with the majority, though they would resound forever with the dyed-in-the-wool fascist element. What they’ll need instead is evidence they can take to the people to say, “look, leftists are dangerous.” All it will take is an act of violence or two for them to paint a false pattern, and then the escalating crackdowns can begin.
To this purpose, the likes of Stephen Miller are perpetrating heinous and offensive acts with the aim of enraging their opponents. I don’t mean to argue that they don’t believe in their policies—I’m sure Miller gets plenty of kicks watching children suffer, and can justify it to himself with political logic—but only that they eagerly anticipate the reaction. When civility breaks down, the powerful profit. As such, the Trump Republicans play their inciting role in the hope that a desperate, angry left will join them in the swamps of violence. It’s a game they know they can’t lose.
This story has been updated to reflect that Nielsen’s incident in a Mexican restaurant came after Miller’s.