by Fernando Peinado, Univision News
Stephen Miller and Jason Islas grew up in sunny southern California in the late 1990s, united by their passion for Star Trek. But Miller stopped talking to his friend as they prepared to jump from Lincoln Middle School to Santa Monica High School.
Miller only returned Islas’ phone calls at the end of the summer, to coldly explain the reason for his estrangement. “I can’t be your friend any more because you are Latino,” Islas remembers him saying.
Islas recalled that Miller mentioned other reasons, which he considered “childish.” But that was his first sign of the change Miller would undergo when he was 14 years old: a political radicalization that defines his life even now as a senior White House adviser with direct access to President Donald Trump.
Miller, now 31, and Stephen Bannon, former executive director of the populist Breitbart website, have been described as the main architects of Trump’s immigration policies.
Several reports identified Miller as the brains behind the controversial executive order that temporarily banned people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. With Bannon, he also wrote Trump’s aggressively nationalist inauguration speech and in July wrote a draft of Trump’s acceptance speech to the Republican presidential nominating convention.
Miller’s precocious politicization as he entered Santa Monica High was even more surprising because the school, just blocks from the Pacific Ocean, prided itself as a multicultural space where diversity was celebrated. Hispanics were the single largest minority, with 30 percent of the 3,400 students, and ethnic clubs like MEChA and The Chicanx de Aztlan Student Movement. African Americans followed at 12 percent and Asians made up 5 percent.
In liberal Santa Monica, students in the city’s largest high school tended to hold progressive ideas, to be environmentally conscious and open minded.
But Miller went the other way. He quickly stood out as a contentious and provocative student whose conservative and ultra-nationalist politics put him continuously at odds with teachers, administrators and students.
Univision Noticias spoke with several classmates who said Miller had few friends, none of them non-white. They said he used to make fun of the children of Latino and Asian immigrants who did not speak English well.
Early on, Miller began to write opinion columns in conservative blogs, the local press and the high school’s own newspaper, The Samohi. He also contributed at times to the national radio show of Larry Elder, a conservative African American, and once invited him to speak at the school.
Displaying his hostility toward minorities, Miller complained to school administrators about announcements in Spanish and festivals that celebrated diversity.
In his third year at the school, the 16-year-old Miller wrote a letter to The Lookout, a local publication, about his negative impression of Hispanic students and the use of Spanish in the United States.
“When I entered Santa Monica High School in ninth grade, I noticed a number of students lacked basic English skills. There are usually very few, if any, Hispanic students in my honors classes, despite the large number of Hispanic students that attend our school,” Miller wrote.
“Even so, pursuant to district policy, all announcements are written in both Spanish and English. By providing a crutch now, we are preventing Spanish speakers from standing on their own,” he added. “As politically correct as this may be, it demeans the immigrant population as incompetent, and makes a mockery of the American ideal of personal accomplishment.”
In that article, Miller also complained about his school’s celebration of Cinco de Mayo, the existence of a gay club and a visit by a Muslim leader.
School Board member Oscar de la Torre said he had numerous verbal clashes with Miller, and recalled that Miller turned up one day for a meeting of a committee created to help Hispanic and African American students. But Miller was not there to help, de la Torre told Univision Noticias.
“He wanted to sabotage us,” de la Torre said. “He confronted everyone, denying that racism existed. He said that was a thing of the past.”
Univision Noticias requested an interview with Miller through several White House press officials, but received no reply. Subsequently, the White House rejected the veracity of this article and requested a rectification. But Univision has verified the credibility of the sources used in addition to Miller’s own writings. Univision again requested an interview with Miller to express his point of view, but did not receive a response.
Miller wrote about those meetings years later, during his time at Duke University. “I was quickly labeled a racist, and after the session de la Torre became combative. He, like countless others during my time at Santa Monica High, tried to convince me that blacks and Hispanics were all victims of inescapable discrimination, deeply ingrained in the white ruling class and all public institutions,” he wrote.
Natalie Flores, another student who witnessed Miller’s evolution from middle to high school, said he displayed “an intense hatred toward people of color, especially toward Latinos.” She and other students interviewed for this report recalled that Miller became angry whenever he heard students speaking Spanish in the hallways.
“I think his big problem was the Latinos. He thought they lived off welfare,” said Flores, now enrolled at the Teachers College at Columbia University.
Most of the students avoided arguments with Miller. Even though many thought he was quick and smart, they also saw him as incapable of calm dialogue. In private, they often made fun of him. His eccentricities were so notorious that The Samohi published a satire of his rants, expressing his joy over the cancellation of a food festival. “We are finally free, free to eat the bland and over-cooked food that is our birth right as Americans,” it said.
Miller appeared to enjoy his notoriety. He did not want to go unnoticed, and did everything possible to dramatize his confrontations.
Ari Rosmarin, editor of The Samohi at the time, recalled that Miller confronted him after he published an article arguing that drivers who put U.S. flag stickers on their SUVs were not really patriotic because their vehicles consumed imported gasoline.
“He came up to me after an assembly and put his finger on my chest, telling me that I was anti-American,” Rosmarin told Univision Noticias. “Then he opened up his shirt and showed me his t-shirt with an American flag. I was surprised by the melodramatic gesture,” said the descendant of Polish immigrants.
Rosmarin also recalled a Miller speech during a campaign for student council elections in which he attacked the requirement that students put their trash in garbage bins, saying that janitors were paid to do that.
Some of the students who knew Miller in high school said he had no interests other than radical politics, and that he always seemed unhappy.
“He had a lot of grudges. He didn’t go out of his way to go to dances or to have girlfriends,” de la Torre said. “I don’t remember ever seeing him smile.”
Others recalled that Miller was very sure of himself, and vehemently expressed his views.
“He always defended the ideas he believed in,” Mark Kelly, who was co-principal of Santa Monica High at the time, wrote in an email to Univision Noticias. “I am not surprised to learn that he is working for the Trump organization. We are proud of students who chose a career of service to the community or our country.”
His old friend Islas said he never spoke to Miller during their four years in the same high school. “Losing a friend didn’t bother me, because the fact that Miller rejected me because I am Latino showed me he was pretty much worthless,” he said.
Recalling their childhood friendship, Islas also found it ironic that Miller was a big-time fan of Star Trek, the TV series that promoted intercultural understanding.
Islas, now a journalist in Santa Monica, said he did not know why Miller became so radical at an early age. His family life seemed stable, and Islas was invited to his Bar Mitzvah.
The Los Angeles Times reported Miller’s family suffered a setback when its real estate business slipped, and had to move out of the tony north-of-Montana neighborhood, in Santa Monica, to a more affordable area in the south side of town.
Miller has said that he became a conservative after reading the 1994 book Guns, Crime, and Freedom by Wayne LaPierre, president of the National Rifle Association.
De la Torre said many people in Santa Monica were surprised that someone so conservative could have grown up in such a liberal city, but added that many residents secretly share Miller’s views.
“Santa Monica is liberal, but there’s a lot of racism and segregation,” he said.
The high school itself was highly segregated, said Cynthia Santiago, who was president of the student council and member of MEChA at the time. “There was a lot of separation among the races. The Anglo students kept to themselves, and the Latinos did the same.”
One event that marked Miller’s time in Santa Monica High School was the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. It reaffirmed his nationalist ideas, even as his fellow students opposed a military response.
In Time to Kill, the title of an article he published in The Samohi, Miller revealed his vision of Islam 15 years before he worked on the Trump executive order to ban the entry of people from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
“We have all heard about how peaceful and benign the Islamic religion is,” he wrote. “But, no matter how many times you say that, it cannot change the fact that millions of radical Muslims would celebrate your death for the simple reason that you are Christian, Jewish or American.”
Miller had no conciliatory departing words in his senior yearbook. “There can be no fifty-fifty Americanism in this country. There is room here for only 100 percent Americanism, only for those who are Americans and nothing else,” he wrote, quoting former President Theodore Roosevelt.
Miller graduated from Santa Monica High in 2003 and enrolled in Duke University to study political science. He continued pushing his ideals in the student newspaper and conservative media. He also was seen as associated to radicals like Richard Spencer, creator of the term Alt-Right (although Miller has distanced himself from Spencer), anti-immigration activist David Horowitz and white nationalist Jared Taylor.
De la Torre said that after many years without any news from Miller, the former student invited him to participate in a radio debate with Taylor on Hispanics’ growing influence. In a recording of the show on YouTube , Taylor is heard complaining that the U.S. government is not doing enough to halt an “invasion” by Mexican migrants.
Miller went to work in 2009 for then Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama, viewed as the most conservative and anti-globalization member of the Senate. Those who know him said it was not surprising to see him during the presidential campaign delivering fiery introductory speeches for Trump. Now he can be seen in the Oval Office, part of Trump’s inner circle.
Some of Miller’s fellow high school students now say they are alarmed by the power he seems to wield. “He is very dangerous,” said Islas. “One thing is a kid who makes inappropriate comments in the high school newspaper, and another is letting him write presidential orders.”
And they say they recognize Miller’s voice when they listen to Trump speeches. Rosmarin said that re-reading Miller’s writings in high school gave him an eerie feeling. “It’s like you’re reading Trump’s words, written by a 16-year-old kid from California,” he said.
Cynthia Santiago, today an immigration lawyer, said she was disheartened that Miller is now directly affecting the lives of some of her clients.
“A few days ago I spent a weekend at the Los Angeles airport volunteering to assist immigrants arriving from countries on the (Trump) executive order,” she said. “It upsets me that we were in the same school.”