In December 2012, with the Republican Party reeling from a brutal election that left Democrats in control of the White House and the Senate, the conservative activist David Horowitz emailed a strategy paper to the office of Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions.
Horowitz, now 81, was a longtime opponent of immigration and the founder of a think tank and a campus freedom-of-speech advocacy group. He saw in Sessions a kindred spirit—a senator who could reawaken a more nationalist fire in the Republican party. The person he emailed it to was a Sessions aide: Stephen Miller. Horowitz, who recalled the episode in an interview and shared the emails with me, had known Miller since the aide was in high school.
Horowitz encouraged Miller to not only give the paper to Sessions but to circulate it in the Senate. Miller expressed eagerness to share it and asked for instructions. “Leave the Confidential note on it. It gives it an aura that will make people pay more attention to it,” Horowitz wrote. The paper, “Playing to the Head Instead of the Heart: Why Republicans Lost and How They Can Win,” included a section on the political utility of hostile feelings. Horowitz wrote that Democrats know how to “hate their opponents,” how to “incite envy and resentment, distrust and fear, and to direct those volatile emotions.” He urged Republicans to “return their fire.”
“Behind the failures of Republican campaigns lies an attitude that is administrative rather than combative. It focuses on policies rather than politics. It is more comfortable with budgets and pie charts than with the flesh and blood victims of their opponents’ policies,” Horowitz wrote, adding that Democrats have the moral high ground. “They are secular missionaries who want to ‘change society.’ Their goal is a new order of society—‘social justice.’” He argued that the only way to beat them is with “an equally emotional campaign that puts the aggressors on the defensive; that attacks them in the same moral language, identifying them as the bad guys.”
Horowitz wrote that hope and fear are the two strongest weapons in politics. Barack Obama had used hope to become president. “Fear is a much stronger and more compelling emotion,” Horowitz argued, adding that Republicans should appeal to voters’ base instincts.
It is perhaps the most compact crystallization of the relationship that propelled Miller, now a senior policy adviser and speechwriter in the Donald Trump administration, to the White House and of the importance that relationship has had in the administration. The friendship between Miller and Horowitz began when Miller—who did not respond to interview requests for the book from which this article was adapted—was in high school and continued throughout his career. Tracing it reveals a source of Miller’s laser focus on immigration restriction, which has over the past few years resulted in a ban on travel from mostly-Muslim countries and a policy that separated families crossing the border into the United States to seek asylum. If you want to understand the language Trump uses to talk about immigrants and his opponents, or the immigration policies he has put into place, often via Miller, you have to also understand David Horowitz, and the formative role he played in Miller’s career and life.
Miller met Horowitz shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks when Miller was a teenager growing up on the Southern California coast. He was going through a period of family turmoil. A few years before, they had moved out of a million-dollar home in a wealthy white neighborhood to a slightly smaller house in a more diverse neighborhood. Miller’s father Michael was having financial troubles and fighting several legal battles related to his real estate company, including a fight with his brother whom he permanently separated from the family with a no-contact order in a settlement agreement. Rather than attending a private school the way Michael’s youngest son later did, his oldest son Stephen found himself at a diverse public school, which celebrated Día de los Muertos and Cinco de Mayo.
When his father was tangled up in lawsuits, Miller found comfort in a number of conservative California-based talk radio show hosts, including Rush Limbaugh. Limbaugh complained about multiculturalism and the poor, whom he called “the biggest piglets at the mother pig and her nipples” in his book The Way Things Ought To Be. Miller read the book and later cited it as a favorite.
Geographically, the 16-year-old was nearly as far from the 9/11 attacks as he could be in the United States, but he was transformed by the tragedy. He wondered why his high school didn’t recite the Pledge of Allegiance. He called into a local right-wing talk radio show, the Larry Elder Show, to complain about his school’s alleged lack of patriotism.
When Miller heard about Horowitz through a classmate, he reached out to him and invited him to speak at Santa Monica High School. Horowitz had heard Miller on the radio, as had other right-wing provocateurs who would go on to shape Trumpism: Steve Bannon, Andrew Breitbart and Alex Marlow. Like them, Horowitz was riveted by the teenager’s furious rants against multiculturalism. He thought he was “gutsy,” a kindred spirit. He agreed to speak at his school.
Horowitz ran, and continues to run, the Center for the Study of Popular Culture, which was later renamed the David Horowitz Freedom Center: A School for Political Warfare. The foundation says it “sees its role as that of a battle tank, geared to fight a war that many still don’t recognize.” The enemy? In the foundation’s words, it’s the “political left,” which “has declared war on America and its constitutional system, and is willing to collaborate with America’s enemies abroad and criminals at home to bring America down.” Horowitz says the political left poses an “existential threat.” Horowitz has been labeled an anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant extremist by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a hate watch group.
Horowitz’s parents were members of the Communist Party, and he supported the New Left in the sixties and seventies, and worked with the Black Panther Party. But he became disillusioned after a white friend he had recommended to work for them as a bookkeeper, Betty Van Petter, was murdered.
The murder was never solved, but Horowitz blamed the Black activists. He came to believe liberals had waged a wrongheaded “war against ‘whiteness.’” White European males, primarily English and Protestant Christian, created “America’s unique political culture … [which] led the world in abolishing slavery and establishing the principles of ethnic and racial inclusion,” he wrote in his book Hating Whitey. “We are a nation besieged by peoples ‘of color’ trying to immigrate to our shores to take advantage of the unparalleled opportunities and rights our society offers them.”
Horowitz, who is Jewish like Miller, argues that Protestant Christian doctrines are fundamental to America and are under direct assault by Muslims, progressives and anyone who argues with his ideology. Having leaped from left-wing radicalism to right-wing radicalism, he uses the language of the civil rights movement to attack it, painting conservative white men as victims of discrimination and defending hate speech with appeals to “intellectual diversity.” “Academic freedom is most likely to thrive in an environment of intellectual diversity that protects and fosters independence of thought and speech,” reads the “Academic Bill of Rights” he created for his youth group, “Students for Academic Freedom.” Meanwhile, his acolytes learn to invert and deflect criticism. Liberals and people of color are “bigots,” “racists,” and “oppressors,” Horowitz has said multiple times. “The racists here are blacks who have been brainwashed into thinking all cops are white and oppressing them,” Horowitz has tweeted.
When Miller invited Horowitz to speak at his high school, the goateed older man had recently been defending young conservatives in several cases against allegations of racism, sexism and homophobia. For example, a university fraternity had been suspended for posting racist flyers at Cal State Northridge. Horowitz says he thought the protests were “over-wrought.” He helped connect the fraternity with an experienced San Diego attorney. In the spring of 1993, the fraternity was reinstated amid threats of a lawsuit by its attorney, alleging free speech violations.
Days before Horowitz’s scheduled visit to Miller’s high school, administrators canceled, giving vague excuses about why. Miller complained as a guest on The Larry Elder Show. The administrators relented, and Horowitz was allowed to speak. Horowitz told students, “There is no exodus of people fleeing America because it is oppressive or racist. That tells you that people who argue that it is [oppressive or racist] are selling you a bill of goods.”
Horowitz spoke to me in a raspy voice that dripped a kind of fatherly exhaustion. He recalled worrying that the teenager would not get admitted into a top-tier university; perhaps he wouldn’t get recommendation letters from teachers.
Horowitz let Miller publish a self-promotional article on his website: “How I Changed My Left-Wing High School.” Miller recapped his successes at influencing school administrators, such as with the Pledge of Allegiance. He wrote, “In the 1970s, students started a political revolution on campus. Now is the time for a counter-revolution—one characterized by a devotion to this nation and its ideals. David Horowitz will soon launch ‘Students for Academic Freedom,’ an organization dedicated to just these principals [sic]. Acting together, we can succeed.”
Miller got into Duke University. Horowitz was relieved. His young protégé would go on rising. And he would take Horowitz’s ideas with him; he started with a launch of a Duke University chapter of Horowitz’s Students for Academic Freedom.
At Duke, Miller battled multiculturalism and campus liberalism by appealing to desires for diversity––in his case, diversity of opinion—as Horowitz had taught him to do.
In 2004, as a sophomore, Miller became outraged that Duke was hosting a Palestine Solidarity Movement conference. A few days before the conference, an inflammatory email impersonating PSM organizers went out to thousands at Duke. “The message included statements in support of terrorism and a slogan used by the extremist group Hamas,” wrote John F. Burness, senior vice president for public affairs and government relations, in a letter to students and faculty. “The students did NOT send this message, which appears to be a deliberate act of disinformation and provocation on the part of people who do not want the conference to take place.” Computer security staff investigated. They concluded only that the message originated in California.
Miller handed out flyers linking the PSM to terrorist groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. He met with Burness to complain about alleged PSM terrorist-recruiting. Burness was struck by the vehemence of the young man’s statements and his self-assuredness. Burness says the encounter was one of many he would have with Miller.
Burness knew him as a Horowitz acolyte, and always had the sense Miller had just been consulting with him. “The language he would use occasionally sounded exactly like Horowitz,” he says. (Horowitz has long denied that Palestinians have a right to a national identity, tweeting in 2018: “There is no Palestine. There are no Palestinians.”) Burness defended the decision to host the conference, saying the organizers had followed the proper channels. He thought it was ironic that Miller, relying on academic freedom arguments, took issue with them applied to the opposite side. “He conveyed a sense that he had all the answers and that mine were made up,” Burness says.
Miller wrote a piece for a conservative online forum, encouraging people to call or email Duke’s president and stop supporting Duke. He wrote that Duke’s president had “prostituted the campus to terror.” He said he was shocked at the Jewish students supporting the PSM, describing them as “disenfranchised college kids looking for a sense of belonging, of personal power.”
Miller visited Horowitz back home a few times in college and attended his annual Restoration Weekends and West Coast Retreats run through the David Horowitz Freedom Center. At luxury resorts in California and elsewhere, the events united conservative lawmakers and media personalities. (Registration for the 2019 West Coast retreat was between $1,400 per person, with sponsorship options of up to $20,000.) Miller was on a student panel in 2006 discussing the alleged bullying of conservatives in schools. He mingled with prominent right-wingers, including former Attorney General John Ashcroft, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre and Andrew Breitbart.
In his junior year, he secured a column in the campus newspaper, The Chronicle. According to a classmate who worked at the paper, he was given the position on the paper because some staffers saw him as adding to the university’s intellectual diversity. Miller attacked multiculturalism, singled out minority students and denied the idea of systemic racism, citing “racial paranoia.” He wrote: “For many members of the political left, the belief in a racist society is an article of faith-beyond all reason, question or rational discussion.”
He invited Horowitz to speak at Duke University in 2006, and Horowitz recruited Miller to lead a national Terrorism Awareness Project 2007. Its website contained such statements as “The goal of the Arabs is the destruction of the Jews” and “There were no Arabs in Palestine until the Muslim invasions.” A button labeled “Ammunition” led to a page advertising anti-Islam books, including some by self-described Islamophobe Robert Spencer, who wrote an article entitled “The Case for Islamophobia,” published on Horowitz’s website. The Terrorism Awareness Project website claimed the goal of Muslim “jihad” is “world domination.” Most Muslims interpret “jihad” as the struggle to be a good Muslim. Only extremists see it as a call to holy war.
Miller was invited onto Fox & Friends in 2007 to discuss his thwarted efforts to run advertisements in campus newspapers with Horowitz’s interpretation of jihad.
Despite the attention, Miller was seen by his classmates as a fringe figure. He graduated without a job. He drifted awhile, going to Israel on a birthright trip and traveling in Europe. In the fall, Horowitz asked him to help coordinate an Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week on college campuses, featuring speakers, film screenings and other events to “educate” people about the threat of “Islamo-Fascism.” Critics called it an “Islamophobia tour.” “We’re not going to back down an inch,” Miller said.
Horowitz wanted to help Miller find employment. He remembered Michele Bachmann, a first-term Tea Party Minnesota congresswoman he’d met at one of his restoration events; she was one of the few Republicans with a perspective about jihad that aligned with his own.
Horowitz connected the two; Bachmann hired Miller as her press secretary. Soon, Miller tired of working for Bachmann, according to Horowitz. (Horowitz developed a negative opinion of Bachmann as a “flake” and says he suspects Miller did, too.) Horowitz helped him land a job with ultra-conservative Arizona Congressman John Shadegg in early 2009. But after just a few months, Horowitz learned his old friend, Sessions, was looking for a press secretary. Horowitz recommended Miller to him.
Sessions had been denied a federal judgeship as a U.S. attorney in the eighties amid allegations that he had improperly prosecuted Black voting rights activists and used racially insensitive language. (Sessions defends the prosecution as warranted.) “As you can imagine, I couldn’t have given [Miller] a higher recommendation, both because of his intelligence and his courage under fire, and because of how responsible he was,” Horowitz says.
As Sessions’ press secretary, Miller began to communicate regularly with bloggers at Breitbart. Breitbart editors had given Miller free reign to pitch articles, and Miller began sending links from around the internet, according to former Breitbart writer Katie McHugh. Miller sent them to a white nationalist website created by Peter Brimelow, whom Miller had invited to speak at Duke University in collaboration with Duke Conservative Union colleague Richard Spencer, now a well-known white nationalist. Brimelow’s website promotes the white genocide conspiracy theory, which says white people are being systematically replaced by people of color––often cited by white terrorists to justify violence against people of color.
Miller encouraged Breitbart bloggers such as McHugh to pull from the white supremacist website American Renaissance, which he referred to familiarly as “AmRen” and which highlights the crimes of Black and brown people. It has a “Blacks versus Hispanics” archive. Horowitz told me he thinks Miller was probably “influenced” in 2002 by the fact that Horowitz posted an American Renaissance piece on his homepage. Horowitz says he sees the website founder Jared Taylor’s interracial crime articles as informative and thinks of the white supremacist as a smart man. But he claims he rejects Taylor’s “perverse” idea that whites need to organize under white identity. He calls that perspective “racial,” rather than “racist,” adding: “You can call it racist but it is no more racist than the general attitude in the Democratic Party.”
“I haven’t discussed this with Stephen,” Horowitz wrote me in an email, “but I’m certain his intention was to use the reporting of American Renaissance on inter-racial crimes to emphasize that cultural differences are important and that unvetted illegal immigration is problematic. If you look at the statistics of crimes committed by illegal immigrants across the southern border, you will see this is a reasonable concern, and has nothing to do with racism.”(In fact, crime statistics show that non-citizens are no more likely to commit crimes than U.S. citizens).
Sessions participated in one of Horowitz’s West Coast retreats with conservative lawmakers in February 2013. At the Terranea Resort in Palos Verdes, Sessions gave a keynote speech praising Horowitz for his “profound contribution.” He described a revelatory experience in bed while reading one of his books, Radicals, which portrays Obama as a totalitarian extremist trying to destroy America. He praised the papers Horowitz had written. He declared that the man was making “a difference in the way we approach things.” He said, “I’m learning, David.”
One of Sessions’ signature achievements while Miller worked for him was helping torpedo an immigration reform bill backed by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers known the Gang of Eight. It’s easy to see echoes of Horowitz’ advice about stoking fear and demonizing Democrats, offered just a year earlier, in their campaign to sink the bill. Together, they painted its supporters as elites, part of a “donor class” seeking cheap labor. Miller wrote a handbook that Sessions’ office distributed to Republican members of Congress, suggesting talking points to use against Democratic supporters such as: “My Democrat colleagues think the first goal of immigration policy should be bringing in more low-wage workers to replace them.” The handbook also repeatedly uses the phrase “criminal aliens,” as in: “Overall, there are about 167,000 convicted criminal aliens who were ordered removed that are now at large in the United States, and almost as many at large who were released before being ordered removed.”
Miller started reaching out to the Trump campaign soon after it launched. He bombarded campaign manager Corey Lewandowski with emails at strange hours, such as two o’clock in the morning. “We have to talk immigration, we have to talk immigration,” Miller said, according to Lewandowski. “Let me come to the campaign.”
In January 2016, he was officially brought on to shape Trump’s speeches and immigration policy; it’s easy to hear similarities to Horowitz’s arguments, as well as his advice on style, in Trump’s speeches today.
That might be because almost from the beginning of Miller’s new role, he went to his old mentor for speech ideas and policy advice, according to correspondence Horowitz shared with me. On May 9, 2016, Miller emailed him. “What are some ways the government and the oligarchs who rely on the government have ‘rigged’ the system against poor young blacks and hispanics?” In his strategy paper about appealing to fear, Horowitz had urged Republicans in their war on Democrats to “put their victims—women, minorities, the poor and working Americans—in front of every argument.” Accordingly, he responded to Miller with what he called a “soundbite”: “Everything that is wrong with the inner city, everything that stifles the aspirations of minorities and the poor and blocks their advancement, that policy can effect, Democrats are 100% responsible for.” He shot back a list of items, such as “dead-end welfare” and “hand-cuffed police,” adding: “The inner cities are war zones … BLM [Black Lives Matter] makes criminals into martyrs, and incites violence against the police.”
Soon after, Trump ramped up mentions of the inner cities and compared them to “war zones.” “You can go to war zones in countries that we are fighting and it is safer than living in some of our inner cities that are run by the Democrats,” he said in Akron, Ohio on August 22.
On August 14, 2016, Miller again wrote Horowitz. “The boss is doing a speech on Radical Islam. What would you say about Sharia Law?” Miller asked. “Islamic law is incompatible with the religious and individual freedoms guaranteed by our Constitution,” Horowitz wrote. “I would give specific examples … Gays hung from cranes, jail for holding hands in public if you’re not married … Although Islam itself is definitely the problem, I would be extremely careful about focusing the attack on Sharia – the idea of Islamic law – and not Islam as such,” he wrote. “Referring to it as ‘Radical Islam’—though inaccurate—is a good and necessary idea. Necessary because Trump is under such unprincipled attack from left and right.” (Horowitz explained to me that in his view, all of Islam is “problematic” because of a passage in the Quran calling for violence. The Christian Bible also has passages calling for violence.)
The next day in Ohio, on August 15, Trump gave a speech about the threat of “radical Islamic terrorism.” He painted a gruesome image: “Children slaughtered, girls sold into slavery, men and women burned alive … We will defeat radical Islamic terrorism, just as we have defeated every threat we have faced in every age before. But we will not defeat it with closed eyes, or silenced voices. Anyone who cannot name our enemy, is not fit to lead this country.”
Horowitz emailed Miller the next day, thrilled that his mentorship had paid off.
“Great fucking ground-breaking speech,” Horowitz wrote. “I spent the last twenty years waiting for this. Good work.”
This summer, as the economy strained under the weight of Covid-19 and tens of thousands of Americans died from the virus, Trump has increased the fear and vilification factors in his tweets and speeches. “Angry mobs are trying to tear down statues of our founders, deface our most sacred memorials and unleash a wave of violent crime in our cities,” he warned in his July 4 speech at Mt. Rushmore. The speech, which mentioned “far left fascism,” was written by his team of writers in the West Wing, led by Miller.
In mid-June, Trump promoted Horowitz’s book on Twitter: “Hot book, great author!”
Adapted with permission from HATEMONGER: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda by Jean Guerrero. Copyright © 2020 by Jean Guerrero. Reprinted by permission of William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.