To understand what the Trump administration is thinking about separating families and locking kids up at the border, you have to understand Stephen Miller’s foundational political belief: It’s better to stir controversy, at any price, than it is to engage constructively.
The architect of Donald Trump’s immigration policy and the White House’s resident troll, the 32-year-old White House senior policy adviser believes it’s good to “trigger the libs,” so to speak, with “the purpose of enlightenment.” To Miller, working constructively across the aisle isn’t as useful as “melting snowflakes.”
To Miller, there’s no reason to moderate a view or a policy, especially not when it comes to his deepest passion: immigration restrictionism. It’s subject he was passionate about even in high school and one over which he bonded with former boss, then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, a longtime immigration hardliner. It’s no wonder, then, that Miller designed the initial version of Trump’s travel ban, barring people from several majority-Muslim countries from entering the US for 90 days, and refugees for 120 days.
As Republicans are beginning to call the Trump policy of separating children and parents at the border utterly cruel, Miller’s response is a reminder that not only does he not care, the cruelty is by design. “No nation can have the policy that whole classes of people are immune from immigration law or enforcement,” Miller said in an interview with the New York Times. Enforcing that policy was a “simple decision.”
The popularity of the family separation policy is plummeting, and conservative pundits and politicians are jumping ship en masse. Even Trump administration officials who supported the separation policy in early 2017 are now attempting to pretend such a policy doesn’t exist.
Miller’s strategy of “melting snowflakes” might be his most deeply held belief. But on family separation, it’s divided the right and pushed the left back into the activist square.
Conservatives pushing back on Trump — and Miller
My colleague Dara Lind has a terrific explainer on the family separation policy:
Per Lind’s research, between October 1, 2017, and May 31, 2018, at least 2,700 children have been split from their parents.
Family separation isn’t based on any law, and such policies may have had their origins in previous administrations — as Lind pointed out, the law addressing unaccompanied children was passed in 2008 and signed by President George W. Bush. But while Trump administration officials argue that they’re simply “doing their jobs,” videos released by Border Patrol of young children and women being kept in cages are causing an uproar across the country.
Some conservative personalities have attempted to provide cover for the administration, arguing that cages aren’t cages, for example.
But overall, Trump’s White House is receiving significant pushback from conservatives, including members of Congress with high profiles within the right, and even pastors on Trump’s evangelical advisory board. Former first lady Laura Bush wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for a “more moral” answer to the problem of illegal border crossings, while Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) told CNN that Trump could “stop this policy with a phone call,” adding, “If you don’t like families being separated, you can go tell DHS stop doing it.”
Rep. Mia Love (R-UT) called the policy “horrible,” adding this message to Trump: “This is not a right or left issue. This is right or wrong. This is what it takes to be the leader of the free world. This is what it takes to be the leader of a free country.”
In a Facebook post, Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE) wrote of the policy: “Family separation is wicked. It is harmful to kids and absolutely should NOT be the default U.S. policy. Americans are better than this.” And Sasse pointed out that while “some in the administration have decided that this cruel policy increases their legislative leverage … This is wrong. Americans do not take children hostage, period.”
It’s that final point that’s received significant pushback — that children are being used as leverage to force Democrats to agree to a border wall or another form of immigration restriction. (Per a White House leaker: “The thinking in the building is to force people to the table.”) Even former Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly said that the Trump administration “will not win on this one.”
Cruelty as a feature, not a bug
The Trump administration hasn’t really tried to win the public conversation on family separations. As conservative writer Ross Douthat pointed out on Twitter, the policy didn’t begin with a public discussion or explanation for separating young children from their parents, or by making the case to Congress for more family detention facilities. It started by taking kids from their parents first and attempting to assuage demands for legislation later.
That’s not a bug within the Trumpian system, it’s a feature of Stephen Miller’s approach. It’s also similar to the approach of former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, who agreed publicly with Miller in 2016 about the purported “massive problem” of immigration and who said Sunday on ABC’s This Week: “I don’t think you have to justify it.”
Miller’s reason for being in the White House and in politics is immigration restrictionism. When he joined the Trump campaign in 2015, conservative polemicist and immigration hardliner Ann Coulter tweeted, “I’m in heaven!”
And nothing has changed since 2015. As Miller told Breitbart in May, he believes the border with Mexico “is the fundamental political contrast and political debate that is unfolding right now.”
But Miller has no interest in convincing the opposition of the correctness of his views. Like he did in high school and in college at Duke University, he simply wants to enrage. As National Review columnist Dan McLaughlin told me, this follows his boss’ style of political discourse. “A hallmark of the Trump approach to politics is the assumption that politics is all about activating emotional reactions, not persuading anyone to change their mind.” In short, “triggering the libs.”
Trump is making hardline immigration a 2018 issue
Republicans are trying to win the 2018 midterms. For members of Congress, that includes motivating the base — but it’s also about winning over moderates and independents too.
The Trump-Miller approach plays well with Breitbart readers and immigration restrictionists. But it’s not turning out to be hugely popular among Republicans. In the first Quinnipiac poll on children being separated from their parents at the border, voters oppose it 66 to 27. And though Republicans support it 55 to 35, that’s incredibly low in comparison to Republican support for, say, Trump himself.
Counselor to the president Kellyanne Conway distanced herself from the policy, telling Meet the Press that “nobody likes this policy.”
It’s no wonder, then, that faced with such opposition, members of the administration not named Stephen Miller have resorted to arguing that the family separation policy isn’t a real policy at all. (This was before saying a day later that children taken away from their families by that “nonexistent” policy were being well-treated.)
But despite the linguistic gymnastics, the fundamental policy remains unchanged, as does the political strategy. The outrage and hoopla around the cruelty of the policy is the whole point. Even if the strategy backfires in the fall midterms, Miller’s game — drive the outrage, refuse to retreat — will remain the same.