TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
It's impossible to understand the Trump era, with its unparalleled polarization, without tracing Stephen Miller's journey to the White House. That's what my guest, Jean Guerrero, writes in her new book, "Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, And The White Nationalist Agenda." She describes Miller as the architect of Trump's border and immigration policies, helping Trump, quote, "conjure an invasion of animals to come steal American jobs and spill American blood," unquote. She describes the ideological arc of Miller's life and investigates his ties to right-wing mentors and far-right groups. She adds, many are baffled at how someone so young with so little policy or legal expertise gained so much power, outlasting and overtaking his mentor, Steve Bannon, Trump's former chief strategist. Her book helps show how he did it.
Guerrero is an investigative reporter who formerly was with KPBS, the radio and TV station in San Diego. She previously covered Mexico and Central America for The Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires. She's the author of a previous book called "Crux: A Cross-Border Memoir" about growing up with a Mexican father and Puerto Rican mother.
Jean Guerrero, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's talk about the arc of Stephen Miller's ideology. He was anti-immigration in high school, and you describe him as growing up in California at a time when there was a strong anti-immigration movement. What are some of the things in his world, in his personal life that you think helped lead to his extreme views on immigration?
JEAN GUERRERO: Right. So this is one of the reasons I was drawn to Stephen Miller's story, the fact that he grew up in Southern California in the '90s at the same time that I did. You know, I'm a couple years younger than him, and I grew up just a couple hours south of where he grew up in Santa Monica, Calif.
And I remember, you know, the incredible anti-immigrant hostility that was pervasive in California at the time, which may be surprising to people because California is known as such a deep-blue state and kind of leads the charge against the Trump administration today. But in the '90s, it was sort of ground zero, like a microcosm for what we're seeing nationally today. There were unprecedented attacks on immigrants through a proposition called Prop 187, which, you know, targeted social services for children of undocumented migrants. It was later ruled unconstitutional. There was also attacks on bilingual education statewide. There were attacks on affirmative action.
And the Republican governor of California at the time, Pete Wilson, you know, was repeatedly railing against what he called the invasion at the border - the same language that you see Trump using today - and blaming all of the state's fiscal problems on immigrants, you know, running these ads on television that I remember watching about how - you know, showing families coming across the border, and there's this ominous narrator over the video saying, they keep coming.
And from my reporting, it became clear to me that Stephen Miller is truly a product of this environment. He was internalizing a lot of these white supremacist and racist narratives that were common in the state and acting them out, you know, in his high school. He ends up going to Santa Monica High School, this public high school that's very diverse. And he would go around, from a very young age, expressing, you know, racist viewpoints, telling his Mexican classmates to speak English and to go back to their countries if they couldn't learn the American way. He, you know, would go to school board meetings to argue passionately against measures to improve racial equity. Around this time, he broke - he ended a friendship with a Mexican friend, telling him that he could no longer be friends with him because of his Latino heritage.
So, you know, from a very young age, expressing these viewpoints that would later manifest in the immigration policy and the rhetoric that we're seeing out of the White House. And I truly see it as a case study in radicalization.
GROSS: So during the period of Stephen Miller's life when he started to be kind of radicalized about immigration, be very anti-immigration, it was also the period when his father had one or more economic setbacks. What was going on in his family at the time?
GUERRERO: So Stephen Miller's family was going through a period of turmoil that, you know, kind of mirrored the period of turmoil that California was experiencing at the time. You know, Stephen Miller's dad - he was tangled up in numerous legal disputes related to his real estate company. One of them was a fight that he got into with his brother, so Stephen Miller's paternal uncle, about - you know, Stephen Miller's uncle was accusing Stephen Miller's father of dishonesty in the real estate company and not being honest with investors about how their money was being spent. And, you know, they get into this prolonged multiple legal disputes. And meanwhile, Stephen Miller's father is also suing his former law firm for allegedly kicking him out of the law firm, which allegedly violated their partnership agreement.
And anyway, he ends up losing a lot of money during these legal disputes that he's tangled up with. He also has a bunch of bankruptcies related to the fact that there's this earthquake in Los Angeles at the time that leads to all this damage to his real estate properties. And Stephen Miller's family at this time ends up having to move from this very affluent part of Santa Monica to a less - a slightly less affluent part. It's still a nice house, but, you know, it's a less affluent part of town, and it's a more diverse neighborhood. And Stephen Miller, instead of attending a private high school the way that his brother - his younger brother later would, he ends up having to go to this public school, Santa Monica High School.
GROSS: Back when Stephen Miller was in high school, he listened to right-wing talk radio. He listened to Rush Limbaugh, who was broadcasting out of California then. And he listened to a show called "The Larry Elder Show" on KABC. The LA Times described Larry Elder as a darling of white listeners who seemed to almost gush when they telephoned him on KABC talk radio, astonished to find a Black man who not only wasn't going to chastise them but who often agreed with them. So he starts off listening to "Larry Elder," then he calls in to "Larry Elder," then he becomes a guest on "Larry Elder." How did he get to the point of being a guest on right-wing talk radio?
GUERRERO: Yeah. From a very young age, Stephen Miller has been really great about using the media to forward his views and to get power. And, you know, when he was a teenager, Larry Elder, when he heard Stephen Miller call in and start to criticize his high school for its multiculturalism and alleged lack of patriotism, you know, regurgitating a lot of the views that Stephen Miller had been hearing on "Rush Limbaugh," Larry Elder was just super impressed. He tells me that he just couldn't believe that there was this teenager who was so articulate and, you know, so passionate about these issues. Stephen Miller didn't really, you know, um or like, like other teenagers. He was very articulate. And so Larry Elder starts to invite him as a guest regularly because he was so impressed with him.
GROSS: And it was through being on Larry Elder's show that David Horowitz heard him. Describe who David Horowitz is.
GUERRERO: Yeah. So David Horowitz is a former Marxist who became a conservative writer. And during this time that he met Stephen Miller, he was really focused on teaching young conservatives like Stephen Miller how to use the language of the civil rights movement, which David Horowitz was familiar with, against the civil rights movement. So casting white men as victims of discrimination based on their skin color and calling liberals and people of color the real racists and calling liberals and people of color oppressors.
And David Horowitz - it wasn't just - David Horowitz was listening to Stephen Miller. But, I mean, there were a lot of people listening to Stephen Miller on Larry Elder, a lot of people who later went on to shape Trumpism. There was - Steve Bannon heard him. You know, Andrew Breitbart heard him - Alex Marlow. And a lot of these people remember listening to teenage Stephen Miller on The Larry Elder Show and being very impressed with him. But David Horowitz - you know, when he gets a call from Stephen Miller inviting him to speak at the - at his high school, he agrees because he also was just - you know, he saw Stephen Miller as a kindred spirit. And he thought he was really gutsy for going out there with his views against multiculturalism and against his school. And David Horowitz kind of takes Stephen Miller under his wing and becomes almost like a father figure to Stephen Miller really early on, inviting him over to his house to talk about ideas and, later on, really fostering his career.
GROSS: And he told Stephen Miller hope and fear are the two greatest weapons in politics. But fear is more compelling and that Republicans should appeal to Americans' base instincts rather than talk about Republicans' success at job creation. Instead, attack the Democrats as job destroyers.
GUERRERO: Yes. He is the one who really taught Stephen Miller the importance of appealing to people's base instincts. He eventually feeds a strategy paper to Stephen Miller that talks about the political utility of these emotions and how the Republican Party needs to remake itself around demonization of its political opponents.
I did want to say one other thing about David Horowitz. David Horowitz is a man who - you know, he introduced Stephen Miller to the idea that he needed to save the United States from certain destruction in the form of the Democratic Party because of its alliances with people of color. So David Horowitz is a man who - even though he says he is - he insists that he's not a racist, and he insists that he's not a white supremacist. But if you look at his writings, they're very much steeped in race. He says that white men are responsible for all of the things that we hold dear in America - things like freedom and equality, which is ahistorical, obviously, because it ignores the central role played by people of color in American history, particularly in the civil rights movement in making these once false ideals, like liberty and equality, actually true.
But David Horowitz, you know, indoctrinates Stephen Miller at a very young age in this idea that American civilization is being threatened by too many brown and Black people coming here because white men are responsible for this unique culture that we cherish and that too many brown and Black people would destroy it. And so Stephen Miller - you know, this is when he starts to really see a mission in his life and a sense of purpose. And David Horowitz gives him the tools for fighting this mission, you know, inverting the language of the civil rights movement and, you know, using fear and hostile emotions in order to rally people around his cause.
GROSS: So David Horowitz, who we've been talking about, who became a mentor, a far-right mentor to Stephen Miller - you know, Horowitz started off as as a leftist. He was one of the editors of the leftist magazine Ramparts. He, I think, was, you know, an ally of the Black Panthers. Like, what do you know about why and how he changed so radically? He moved from, like, one pole to the other.
GUERRERO: Yeah. I mean, David Horowitz had recommended his friend Betsy to work on the accounting for the Black Panthers. She's a white woman. And she ended up being murdered. And the murder was never solved, but David Horowitz blamed the Black Panthers Party and became convinced that they had murdered her. And after that, you saw David Horowitz go through this transformation where he became convinced that the movement that he had been a part of, the left, had waged a unfair war on whiteness - is what he called it. He felt that whiteness was actually something that needed to be preserved.
And, I mean, he tries not to write about it outright as whiteness being preserved. But he - you know, he talks about how the only important racism in society is racism against white people and that racism against Black and brown people is a figment of your imagination. And it really goes back to the murder of his friend Betty, who he blamed on the Black Panthers.
And it really started to lean into these, you know, misleading statistics that are put out by publications like American Renaissance, this white supremacist publication that paints brown and Black people as innately more violent than white people. And David Horowitz is the one who introduced Stephen Miller to websites like American Renaissance. He describes the founder of American Renaissance, Jared Taylor, to me, as a very smart man, who he claims has a perverse ethnic view because, again, David Horowitz, you know, tries to distance himself from the white nationalist movement because he knows how important it is to launder these ideas through the language of heritage and national security if you want them to appeal to the mainstream.
GROSS: We have to take a short break here. So let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jean Guerrero, author of the new book "Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, And The White Nationalist Agenda." We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jean Guerrero, author of the new book "Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, And The White Nationalist Agenda." She is a former investigative reporter for KPBS, the public TV and radio station in San Diego. She's now freelance and continues to report for public media. She previously covered Mexico and Central America for the Wall Street Journal and Dow Jones Newswires.
So we've been talking about how David Horowitz mentored Stephen Miller. And Horowitz helped Stephen Miller launch his career. He first got him a job with Michele Bachmann when she was elected as a congressperson, and she was very conservative. So what job did he get working with Michele Bachmann?
GUERRERO: He was hired as a press secretary for Bachmann, and that was his first job. And that's kind of where Stephen Miller starts to learn about, you know, how to write these very hyperbolic press releases. And he starts to, you know, bombard reporters late into the night with his press releases and links and FYIs.
GROSS: So David Horowitz first gets Stephen Miller a job with Congressperson Michele Bachmann. And then from there, Horowitz gets Miller a job with Jeff Sessions when Jeff Sessions was a senator from Alabama who, like Stephen Miller, was very anti-immigration. So what was the relationship like between Sessions and Miller when Miller was working for him?
GUERRERO: So Miller - you know, he really helped to turn Jeff Sessions into sort of a very combative personality. He - I mean, Sessions was already a leading nativist on Capitol Hill when Stephen Miller joined. But Stephen Miller started to model Jeff Sessions, his remarks, after the far-right, combative media personalities that Stephen Miller had been familiar with his entire life - so really pulling, you know, talk radio talking points onto Capitol Hill and having Jeff Sessions, you know, talk about how too much immigration is going to, quote, "decimate" this country and how anyone who supports immigration reform is part of a globalist elite who wants to destroy the country through limitless importation of cheap labor in the form of mass migration. So these ideas of demonization Stephen Miller really incorporated into Jeff Sessions' rhetoric.
GROSS: So he becomes Jeff Sessions' press secretary, and then Sessions and Miller end up in the Trump administration. And Steve Bannon helped get Stephen Miller into the Trump administration, and Bannon was another one of Stephen Miller's mentors. What was Bannon's role in Stephen Miller's life before Bannon was pushed out of the Trump administration?
GUERRERO: So Bannon, you know, gives Stephen Miller a platform on Breitbart while Stephen Miller was working for Jeff Sessions. Basically, Stephen Miller was given free reign over a lot of the writers at Breitbart to just kind of shape their stories and provide them with ideas that they were expected to turn into stories. And during this time is when Stephen Miller was feeding, you know, articles from white nationalist and white supremacist websites to Breitbart and having them do stories about them, you know, painting immigrants as an existential threat.
So Bannon - you know, he gives him a platform on Breitbart and helps connect him with the people on the Trump campaign, where Stephen Miller was initially providing free labor for the Trump campaign, you know, sending over talking points and memos and then eventually gets himself hired in 2016 as the senior policy advisor and top speechwriter for President Trump.
GROSS: Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jean Guerrero, author of the new book "Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, And The White Nationalist Agenda." She's an investigative reporter who has covered the border, Mexico and Central America for years. We'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TAYLOR HASKINS' "ALBERTO BALSALM")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Jean Guerrero, author of the new book "Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, And The White Nationalist Agenda." She describes Miller as the architect of Trump's border and immigration policies. She writes about the ideological arc of Miller's life, his ties to right-wing mentors and far-right groups, how he managed to enter and stay in the Trump administration and pressured the Department of Homeland Security to focus on immigration.
Guerrero is an investigative reporter who formerly reported for KPBS, the public station in San Diego. She continues to report freelance for public radio and television. And she's reported on Mexico and Central America for years.
So Stephen Miller, in the meantime, had been cultivating ties to far-right, anti-immigration groups like FAIR - the Federation for American Immigration Reform - and CIS - the Center for Immigration Studies. These are two groups that the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as hate groups. What are some of the views that you think Stephen Miller picked up from these far-right, anti-immigration groups?
GUERRERO: Well, Stephen Miller ends up actually adopting almost verbatim the immigration policies that were recommended by these think tanks, particularly the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which issued a blueprint for the Trump transition team in November of 2016 that you saw Stephen Miller, you know, echo almost verbatim in immigration policies. And these are think tanks that were created by a man named John Tanton, who was a eugenicists and a white supremacist who believed in population control for non-white people and believed in the genetic superiority of whites and in race-based pseudoscience.
And he funneled funding into these organizations, which he believed would help him, you know, stop immigration from mostly brown and Black countries into the United States, in order to preserve a white majority. And these think tanks served the purpose of, essentially, laundering the white supremacist ideas of Tanton in the language of heritage and the language of economics and the language of national security.
So making the reengineering of demographics in this country into something that had to do with keeping Americans safe or preserving America's jobs, so putting it in language that appeals to the mainstream and doesn't seem to be about race. But when you actually connect the dots between what these think tanks are pushing for and where they're deriving their ideas, it all comes down to white supremacy and this idea that you need a white majority in this country.
GROSS: The kind of over-the-top language that Stephen Miller uses when he speaks and when he writes speeches for President Trump - the "American Carnage" kind of language - you connect that, in part, to a novel called "The Camp Of The Saints" from 1973, a dystopian novel that influenced John Tanton, who founded the anti-immigration groups that you were talking about, influenced the person who funded those groups. And I think Stephen Miller read that book, too?
GUERRERO: Yes, Terry. This is a book that Stephen Miller actually promoted in 2015. It's - he sent an email to some Breitbart writers telling them to write an article showing parallels between the book and real life. And the book, it's about the destruction of the white world by brown refugees who are described in really horrific language that is meant to get you to feel disgusted by brown and Black people. It refers to them as monsters and beasts and teeming ants toiling for the white man's comfort. You know, it refers to them as centipedes - just really dehumanizing language.
And in addition to that, it also explicitly endorses hatred and violence against people of color as a survival mechanism against this imagined white genocide. So this is a book that, for me, when I read it, was a real turning point in my understanding of Stephen Miller. You know, aside from already being very familiar with his demonization strategies and his anti-immigration policies, this made it very clear to me that, you know, Stephen Miller ascribes to this white supremacist idea that brown and Black people pose some kind of threat to America.
GROSS: And the title, "The Camp Of The Saints," comes from something in the book of Revelation. So it's very apocalyptic. So you know, what I'm hearing you say is that Stephen Miller, who is very important in the Trump administration - writes some of his speeches, has had a huge impact on immigration policy in the Trump administration - that he is deeply influenced by apocalyptic, white supremacist thinking.
GUERRERO: Yeah. I mean, and if you look at the way that this book demonizes the allies of people of color - because that's another core component of this book. In addition to demonizing...
GROSS: The book "The Camp Of The Saints."
GUERRERO: "The Camp Of The Saints," yeah. It demonizes people of color. But it also demonizes their allies. It demonizes anti-racists as agitators and anarchists and as mobs, which you then now see Trump using that exact same language to talk about anti-racist protesters ever since, you know, the police killing of George Floyd. So Stephen Miller is really drawing - whether he's doing so consciously or not, I mean, Stephen Miller read this book. He promoted this book. And a lot of the language in this book you are now seeing Trump using.
GROSS: You write that Stephen Miller pushed for the daily demonization of migrants in press releases about their crimes. So how did he do that?
GUERRERO: One of the first things that Stephen Miller did when he entered the White House was work on an executive order that established an office that was dedicated to the daily demonization of immigrants. It's called the Victims of Immigration and Crime Engagement - VOICE. And it essentially is tasked with issuing regular press releases about the crimes of immigrants. And, you know, from my conversations with White House officials, he would repeatedly push for including photos of immigrants who looked particularly, you know, it was scary. Like, he was obsessed with pointing out people's tattoos in photographs and trying to create this image that immigrants are committing crimes across our country and are very dangerous.
GROSS: And that they have gang tattoos?
GUERRERO: Yes, gang tattoos. He was obsessed with showing the gang tattoos.
GROSS: Was Stephen Miller the architect of the family separation policy that separated children from their parents?
GUERRERO: Stephen Miller was one of the primary advocates of this policy. He didn't come up with the idea. It was actually an official at ICE who brought it to the table, but Stephen Miller became, you know, its primary advocate and making sure that it was actually pushed through because there was this idea that if you systematically separate children from their parents, then families are no longer going to want to come here. So again, it goes back to trying to deter family immigration into the United States through the performance of cruelty as a deterrence strategy.
GROSS: Do you have any insights into whether Stephen Miller ever had any pangs of guilt about separating children from their parents and basically putting them in cages, about having a policy with no way of connecting parents and children? Aren't there still children who have not been reconnected with their parents and parents who were deported without their children?
GUERRERO: Exactly. Hundreds of parents were deported without their children. And people were lost in this process because there wasn't sufficient coordination between the Department of Homeland Security and the Health and Human Services Department because Stephen Miller had rammed this through kind of without going through the normal policy process.
And I have no indication from my conversations with people who know him and who've worked with him that he ever questioned his advocacy for this policy. He truly believed that it was going to work. And when it was stopped by a federal judge in San Diego, he was very upset. You know, he would be on phone calls yelling about how people are dying. He repeatedly screamed that people are dying and that the family separation policy was necessary in order to, you know, protect Americans from dying from the threat of immigrants.
And this is part of why I truly see Stephen Miller as a case study of indoctrination - because he is one of the few people in the administration who really believes in this ideology and believes that he is saving the country and protecting the country by pushing through these performatively cruel policies targeting mostly, you know, the world's most vulnerable people who are fleeing violence and persecution at home.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jean Guerrero, author of the new book "Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, And The White Nationalist Agenda." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAQUITO D'RIVERA'S "CONTRADANZA")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jean Guerrero, author of the new book "Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, And The White Nationalist Agenda." She's an investigative reporter who formerly worked for KPBS, the public station in San Diego. She's covered the border, Mexico and Central America for years and used to work for The Wall Street Journal and the Dow Jones Newswires.
The National Security Council historically coordinates refugee admissions with the State Department, the Department of Defense and intelligence agencies. Did Stephen Miller try to minimize their role?
GUERRERO: Yes. From the very beginning, he tried to completely elbow them out. He tried to make himself be the only person in charge, but he wasn't able to succeed in completely eliminating their voices from the discussion. So you don't see refugee admissions being zero, although that is what Stephen Miller has said that he wants. But you have seen them slashed to new historic lows every year. And it's because Stephen Miller believes that refugees - he said that he would be happy if never again did a refugee step foot in this country.
GROSS: How did Stephen Miller get the power to try to shut out the National Security Council?
GUERRERO: Well - so Stephen Miller found ways around the bureaucracy. So he was repeatedly calling - he would reach deep into the bowels of agencies to call lower-ranking officials and and make his demands - so constantly skirting the normal bureaucracy and deliberative policy process to push his agenda through. And you know, with the refugee admissions, he initially tasked - I believe it was - the State Department with creating a report on the cost of refugees for the United States. And he told them that, you know, this report better not embarrass the president - so essentially asking that the research that was produced imply that refugees are very costly and, therefore, we need to slash refugee admissions. And when a copy of the report was leaked and showed that, in fact, they were a net gain for our economy, Stephen Miller was very angry and ignored the report and continued to push for a decrease in the refugee admissions - so constantly disregarding the inputs of the actual experts who were bringing research to the table and pushing his agenda through.
He also always made sure in meetings that he was the last person talking to President Trump. And Trump tends to go with whatever advice was whispered into his ear last. And so Stephen Miller, you know, he has direct access to the president, and he's able to have this outsized influence by, you know, his access to him. And also, he just has this discipline and this work ethic and this obsessiveness where he's working late into the night and, you know, bombarding people with emails. And - oh, I'm sorry, not emails with phone calls because he doesn't email anymore. But yeah, he's just - he has this outsized influence because he's able to work a lot harder than other White House officials.
GROSS: Well, among the many riddles surrounding Stephen Miller is - you know, he's Jewish. His grandparents were immigrants. And he espouses some views that are espoused by white supremacists. White supremacist hate Jews.
GUERRERO: Mmm hmm.
GROSS: They would like Jews to, like, leave the country or at least live in a separate space on their own. How does he reconcile that? I'm sure you don't know the answer to that. But don't you wonder?
GUERRERO: I do. You know, I - one of the stories that I found the most interesting in my research for the book is the story of Stephen Miller's grandmother Ruth, who on his - his grandmother on his mother's side who spent her retirement compiling the family history, you know, how they were refugees who fled the nationalist agitators and, you know, these pogroms against the Jews, these massacres against the Jews and came here to the United States. And she recorded the family history. She said she was recording it for her grandchildren, like Stephen Miller, so that they would never forget the value of people who come to this country with nothing but the clothes on their back and speaking no English, just as Stephen Miller's ancestors came to this country.
GROSS: How have people in Stephen Miller's extended family reacted to his extreme views?
GUERRERO: You know, I interviewed a number of his relatives. And most people in his family, with the exception of his parents and his siblings, who declined to talk to me - they're very ashamed to be associated with Stephen Miller and the legacy that he's created around the family name because of the fact that, you know, they know where they - where the family comes from and the fact that they - you know, they initially came here without any knowledge of the English language and without any money in their pockets and started out as, you know, peddling fruit on the streets and eventually made their way up and made something of themselves and contributed in a very strong way to this country in the way that, you know, many immigrants do.
And so a lot of them told me that they see him as someone who needs to be punished for crimes against humanity. You know, one of his aunts was telling me that she truly believes that he's unleashed what she calls a Pandora's box of hatred in this country that is going to be very difficult to contain after they leave office, if they do.
GROSS: You know, for the most part, President Trump has really downplayed the pandemic. He's talked about how we have the best numbers in the world, how it's going to just miraculously disappear. There's going to be a vaccine, like, really soon. And he just hasn't really recognized how damaging the pandemic has been to every aspect of life in America and how Black people and people of color have been especially hard-hit by the pandemic. Stephen Miller's grandmother died from COVID-19. And she is the daughter of Jewish refugees who fled before the Holocaust. What questions does that raise for you?
GUERRERO: Yeah. I mean, Ruth, who died of the coronavirus - she's the one who recorded the family history with the idea that she wanted to be a bridge between the refugee generation and the generation of Stephen Miller so that they would never forget the value of people who come to this country with nothing but the clothes on their back and speaking no English. And so she wanted to be a bridge. And she stood for the importance of remembering. She believed that remembering was an act of defiance against the Nazis.
And so for me, I've - you know, one of the first questions I would ask Stephen Miller if he ever spoke to me is, what do you think about these lessons that your grandmother tried to immortalize for you? And did you talk to your grandmother when she was on her deathbed. You know, she was dying from the coronavirus for four months. I mean, she survived the - it's amazing. She's 97 years old, and she survived the initial infection. But she died from complications from the coronavirus. Her death certificate says she died of the coronavirus.
And the Trump administration is in complete denial. Stephen Miller has you know, he's put a - they've put out a statement saying that Stephen Miller's grandmother did not die from the coronavirus. So continuing to try to justify their reaction to the coronavirus, which - instead of being focused on distributing masks and medical equipment and responding to the scientists, they were very focused on further shutting the door to refugees like Stephen Miller's great-grandparents.
GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Jean Guerrero, author of the new book "Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, And The White Nationalist Agenda." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF STEFON HARRIS AND BLACKOUT'S "UNTIL")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Jean Guerrero, author of the new book "Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, And The White Nationalist Agenda." She's covered the border, Mexico and Central America for years. She reported for The Wall Street Journal, for KPBS, the public TV and radio station in San Diego, and is now working freelance.
So this is just a personality thing or a quirk. I don't know how to describe it. But you write about how Stephen Miller loves Vegas, loves gangster movies. A favorite of his is Martin Scorsese's film "Casino." He's tried to, like, emulate Robert De Niro in "Casino" (laughter) in terms of his dress and and hand gestures. What do you know about what that's about?
GUERRERO: He loves Las Vegas. He likes to celebrate his birthdays there. And his friends tell me that he would, you know, wear these very brightly colored suits to try to emulate Robert De Niro's mobster character in that movie "Casino," which is one of his lifelong favorite movies. And for me, it goes back to his childhood, you know, getting really, like, into this, like, tough guy persona, you know, getting really into John Wayne movies, getting really into Rush Limbaugh - just consistently finding attractive these male personalities who kind of disregard everyone else and just exert their will in the world.
And it goes back to this toxic notion of what it means to be a man that I think that Stephen Miller and Donald Trump share because they were, you know - they grew up in very similar cutthroat families that were very combative about their business dealings and often accused of cheating people out of money and of, you know, not being honest in their business dealings.
GROSS: Your previous book was a memoir. And it was about growing up with a Mexican father and Puerto Rican mother. And you lived in California?
GROSS: Was Spanish your first language?
GUERRERO: It was, yeah.
GROSS: So when you - I think when you went to elementary school, there was this movement to prevent children from speaking Spanish in school. I mean, I think there was a movement to prevent Spanish speaking (laughter). Correct me if I'm wrong on that. But what was it like for you to go to school with Spanish as your first language knowing that, like, it was supposed to be a bad thing to speak it?
GUERRERO: Yeah. You know, I remember associating speaking Spanish with criminality. And I was kind of, you know, a goody-two-shoes as a kid. And I wanted to impress the teachers and get good grades and stuff. So I just - I stopped speaking Spanish altogether in school because I just - I associated it with being bad. And for me, like, having that experience is part of the reason I wanted to write about Stephen Miller because I remember how powerful these narratives were that shamed people about being immigrants and that created this hostility towards immigrants and foreigners.
And so a part of me kind of empathized with the young Stephen Miller who internalized this white supremacy that I remember internalizing, the racism. And the problem is that Stephen Miller, you know, he sounds the same today as he did when he was 16. So he never outgrew this mentality. And for me, like, I, over time, began to realize, like, how destructive it was to renounce my Mexican and Puerto Rican roots, and realizing that, you know, it was much more empowering and healthy to embrace these parts of myself and, you know, become a reporter really focusing on these areas of the continent.
GROSS: Was it upsetting to your parents when you didn't want to speak Spanish anymore and you had kind of absorbed the idea that Spanish was bad and it was bad to speak in Spanish?
GUERRERO: It was upsetting to my grandmother and to my grandparents in general. But my mom, you know, she's a physician from Puerto Rico. And she faced a lot of discrimination because of being perceived as other and being perceived as Puerto Rican because of her accent. And so she always would tell me as a kid, like, you are American. You're not Mexican. You're not Puerto Rican. You're American. And, you know, in retrospect, I realize that this is because she wanted me to feel a sense of belonging and to be seen as belonging in a way that she hadn't been. But after a time, I began to realize that you can be American and you can also be Mexican. You can also be Puerto Rican. And over time, my mom started to realize that as well after the rhetoric started to move away from demonizing people from other places. But you see it coming back now under Trump.
GROSS: Jean Guerrero, thank you so much for talking with us.
GUERRERO: Thank you so much, Terry.
GROSS: Jean Guerrero is the author of the new book "Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, And The White Nationalist Agenda." Tomorrow on FRESH AIR we'll talk about Fox News and Donald Trump with Brian Stelter, author of the new book "Hoax." Stelter is CNN's chief media correspondent. He says his book is about the Trumpification of Fox and the Foxification of America and the difference between news and propaganda. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Joel Wolfram and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF ANAT COHEN'S "VEINTE ANOS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.