Before border-patrol agents separated migrant families, before the White House declared a ban on Muslims, before the U.S. Army deployed troops to the border, before the Trump administration’s raids, restrictions, and deportations, Steven Miller e-mailed Breitbart.
He was excited. It was March 2015. Miller, then an aide to the notoriously anti-immigration Alabama senator Jeff Sessions, had discovered the perfect occasion to condemn immigration. “They opened the Ted Kennedy center today in Boston,” Miller wrote to editor Katie McHugh. “Another opportunity to revisit the ’65 immigration law.” At the instigation of Miller, Breitbart published an article disparaging Kennedy’s “ruinous” immigration policy. The law in question was the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, otherwise known as the Hart-Celler Act. And the bill ended race-based limits on immigration, like the Immigration Act of 1924, which enacted severe national quotas and was based on the junk-science eugenics movement. Yet, according to Breitbart, the 1965 bill didn’t represent a new era of American public policy freer of discrimination but a new generation of foreigner-driven rape, murder, and unemployment across the United States.
McHugh wrote that “the costs Americans pay in lowered wages, strained social safety nets, their children’s blood, their declining quality of life, the chaos of sharing space with an ever-swelling criminal population aided and abetted by the nation’s elite, the berating Americans of every stripe endure when they dare ask their country merely be preserved—that’s the real legacy of Ted Kennedy.”
The e-mail exchange between McHugh and Miller was among a trove of over 900 messages analyzed in an exposé published this week by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC). Among Miller's notes and calls are links to white nationalist websites, like VDARE and American Renaissance, and a recommendation for a French dystopian novel, The Camp of the Saints, popular among neo-Nazis, which depicts a rampaging mass of brown refugees literally eating feces and raping white women. Miller also repeatedly praised the immigration law endorsed by Adolph Hitler—in Mein Kampf, the Nazi leader praises the U.S. race-based Immigration Act of 1924, signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge. The leaks caused a stir. The news that Miller was trading in extremist white supremacist propaganda was—and should be—deeply disturbing. Ethnonationalism with a foothold in the White House is disheartening, but it's also not exactly new.
Far from the radical heyday of Abraham Lincoln, the modern Republican Party has relied on dog-whistling the idea of race-based citizenship to corral a base of white voters for generations. The e-mails published this week identify Miller as the most recent runner in the GOP’s relay advancing the baton of pro-white, exclusionary national politics.
In Ian Haney López’s book Dog Whistle Politics, the University of California at Berkeley law professor describes Republican race-baiting as an open secret. “Republicans,” he writes, “rely on racial entreaties to help win elections.” López cites a 2010 speech by former Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, admitting that “for the last 40-plus years we had a ‘Southern Strategy’ that alienated many minority voters by focusing on the white male vote in the South.” He recounts a 2005 speech from another former RNC chairman, Ken Mehlman, who confessed the GOP has strived “to benefit politically from racial polarization” for decades. This Southern Strategy of subtly appealing to white voters’ racial animus was infamously summarized by Republican strategist Lee Atwater, adviser to Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
The racialized manipulation of “states' rights,” “welfare queens,” “illegal aliens,” and “radical Islamic terrorists” is not used merely out of spite. It is also a politically strategic path to victory. And dog-whistle politics allow a group of powerful donors to take advantage of our political system for private gain. López argues that "politicians backed by concentrated wealth manipulate racial appeals to win elections and also to win support for regressive policies that help corporations and the super-rich." With nearly 90 percent of Republican Party voters identifying as white, according to a 2013 Gallup poll, the GOP’s racist strategy offers an effective organization technique for controlling the party’s homogeneous base. Several studies, including this one from The Washington Post, found that racial resentment was the strongest predictor of support for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. The leaked e-mails published by the SPLC this week show how party operatives like Stephen Miller continue to pull from the racist playbook to drive GOP politics today.
In 2015, just after Dylann Roof massacred nine black parishioners, Miller seized upon the debate to remove the Confederate flag. In an e-mail to Breitbart, Miller suggested the publication call out Amazon, which had pulled Confederate flags from its online stores. Miller argued the store should yank “commie flags,” too. This strategic defense of Dixie echoes Republican standard-bearers like Ronald Reagan. During his presidency, Reagan proudly adopted the neo-Confederate slogan “the South shall rise again” and cited Confederate president Jefferson Davis as an executive inspiration. Reagan's nod toward Davis, a slave owner, and the neo-Confederates, who labored vigorously during the civil rights era, long after the end of the war, to erect Confederate imagery across the South, worked as a nimble political tool to appeal to white Southerners. Like Reagan's, Miller’s rhetoric in defense of the Lost Cause serves as a throughline to the early days of America's white nationalist politics—back to the Civil War, when white Southerners fought to protect slavery and the sanctity and exclusivity of white citizenship.
Across American history, the seeds of white nationalism planted at the nation's origins continue to bear fruit today. The insistence on denying black Americans their rightful citizenship echoed in the Tea Party’s racially-charged backlash against Barack Obama in 2012. Following the resurgent Tea Party-era, a 2015 Morning Consult poll showed that only 29 percent of registered Republicans believed that Barack Obama was born in the United States. Whether denying the first black president’s citizenship through conspiracy theories or denying black and Native Americans citizenship rights, like new voter ID laws in states like North Dakota and North Carolina, through strategic voter suppression campaigns, recent years have shown how the Republican party has used policy and rhetoric to build-out the notion that there's a positive correlation between whiteness and Americanness.
Many deny this. Those affiliated with the Tea Party often stress that the movement was about fiscal responsibility not reactionary racism. Yet it is odd that only a few years later, in the era of Donald Trump, under a Republican-controlled government, the national deficit has ballooned. Fiscal discipline evaporated away. Yet the Republican tendency towards white nationalism remained.
Today, perhaps the most diligent shepherd of this politic is Stephen Miller. The leaked e-mails in the SPLC story expose more than a single political operative’s white-nationalist worldview, but what would grow into the intellectual thrust behind American legal action. “What Stephen Miller sent to me in those e-mails has become policy at the Trump administration,” said McHugh, the former Breitbart editor who provided the e-mails.
From the Tea Party to Trump, the modern Republican party has held tightly to the race-baiting strategy embodied by operatives like Steven Miller. Whether Newt Gingrich referring to President Obama as “the food stamps president,” Trump questioning Obama's nationality, or MAGA rally attendees chanting “send her back” about a congresswoman of color, the dog whistles blow nonstop. The implication behind many of these messages is that American citizens who are not white have less legitimate connection to the country. Following Trump's smearing congresswomen Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and his insults about “shit hole” countries, the New York Times’s Jamelle Bouie argued that Trump’s inclination towards white nationalism is one of his core beliefs. “If Donald Trump has a theory of anything, it is a theory of American citizenship,” wrote Bouie. “It’s simple. If you are white, then regardless of origin, you have a legitimate claim to American citizenship and everything that comes with it. If you are not, then you don’t.” This ideology is reinforced by aides like Miller who bolster the Trump administration's fanatical restrictions on immigration.
Perhaps emboldened by electoral victory, the current leader of the Republican party adopted a once stigmatized title onced banished from polite company. Last year, Donald Trump drew criticism for embracing the term nationalist. “You know, they have a word, it sort of became old-fashioned. It’s called a nationalist,” he said at a rally in Houston. “And I say, ‘Really? We’re not supposed to use that word,’” Trump continued. “You know what I am? I’m a nationalist. OK? I’m a nationalist.”
Later, in classic dog-whistle key, Trump denied that his affinity for the term was exclusionary or racist. Yet for anyone fooled by the misdirection or unaware of the Republican party's history, this week's e-mails from Stephen Miller should make the truth abundantly clear. When a senior policy-maker in a Republican presidential administration has overlapping immigration preferences with Hitler and eugenicists, when he laments the banishment of the Confederate flag, when he despises immigration from the global South, you know what color his nationalism is—it's white.
Aaron Ross Coleman covers race and economics. His previous work appears in The New York Times, The Nation, Buzzfeed, CNBC, Vox, and elsewhere. He is an Ida B. Wells Fellow at Type Media Center.
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Originally Appeared on GQ