The Believer

trump politico

Before Donald Trump took the stage in Dallas on a June evening, a string of warm-up acts—mostly local politicians and conservative personalities—took their turns addressing the crowd. A local talk-radio host growled that if any of the other 16 Republican contenders would have been fine soldiers in the fight to advance the evangelical agenda, “then Donald Trump is an M1 Abrams tank in that fight.” The crowd whooped and cheered. Then came the last salvo before the Trump tank rolled onstage: a svelte young man dressed in a thin-lapelled suit with a pocket square, and a hairline receding to reveal a strong, luminous forehead. Please give a big Texas welcome, announced a voice in the darkness, to senior policy adviser to Donald Trump, Steve Miller!

“How’s everybody in Texas doing today?” Miller said, grinning and flashing a peace sign as men in the crowd bellowed “Steeeeeve!” Miller has been warming up the crowd at pretty much every Trump rally since March, with fiery speeches full of conspiratorial populism delivered with a nearly immobile face. This time, he began with Hillary Clinton. “In recent days, I’m sure you’ve seen Hillary Clinton step up her attacks on Donald Trump,” he intoned, and then closed his eyes and nodded, savoring the crowd’s boos. “And you’ve seen all the usual special interests, all the special interests step up their attacks on Donald Trump, too. And the one thing, the one thing that aaalllll these groups have in common is that they run the show now, and they want to make sure they run the show forever.”

The point, as Miller would lay it out in Dallas and has laid out countless times before, is that there is a vast conspiracy that blurs together all wings of the American political spectrum in its quest to keep the American masses down. “That’s what this all comes down to,” Miller said, picking up steam and poking the air with his index finger. “Everybody who stands against Donald Trump are the people who have been running the country into the ground, who have been controlling the levers of power. They’re the people who are responsible for our open borders, for our shrinking middle class, for our terrible trade deals.” His voice stiffly added decibels. “Everything that is wrong with this country today, the people who are opposed to Donald Trump are responsible for!”

Trump had been coming under fire for his response to the Orlando shooting, and that night in Dallas Miller pivoted from whipping up fear and loathing to whipping up fear and loathing and then calling it love. As the crowd began to chant “Build the wall!” a grinning Miller explained. “We’re going to build that wall high and we’re going to build it tall,” he said. “We’re going to build that wall, and we’re going to build it out of love. We’re going to build it out of love for every family who wants to raise their kids in safety and peace … We’re building it out of love for America and Americans of all backgrounds.”

Miller is 30 years old, and in some ways a quintessential member of the Trump 2016 menagerie: an obscure character suddenly elevated to a national role by dint of hard work, loyalty and the boss’s favor. He’s often overshadowed by the campaign’s more flamboyant figures, even as he’s begun appearing on CNN and Fox to defend Trump and explain his policies in strikingly complete and adamant sentences. But among this roster of political outsiders, Miller stands out, especially for people who understand the new forces afoot in Republican politics. He’s deeply connected to some of the most powerful insurgent threads in the Washington GOP, most notably Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions and the Breitbart media machine. As an aide on Capitol Hill, he was a behind-the-scenes architect of the successful effort to kill comprehensive immigration reform in 2014. And while it’s hard to gauge how much Trump is amenable to influence by anyone—at least, by anyone that he didn’t beget—there is no question that Miller is deep, and serious, on the one question that most drives Trump’s unlikely campaign.

Miller’s talent for combining operational zeal with the ability to effectively frame an idea into one devastating laser beam made him a prized Sessions lieutenant in Washington. “When it comes to issues and messaging and policy, there isn’t anybody else that I’ve known that would be as valuable to a presidential campaign as he,” Sessions told me. “Maybe other than Karl Rove.”

“When it comes to issues and messaging and policy, there isn’t anybody else that I’ve known that would be as valuable to a presidential campaign as he,” Sessions told me. “Maybe other than Karl Rove.”

But Miller also cuts a deeply unsettling figure, even to many in his own party. His nine-year career working for some of the most politically fringe figures on the Hill—he also worked for Michele Bachmann and helped David Brat in his primary defeat of Eric Cantor—was preceded by a trail of writings and provocations that go all the way back to high school, one that has raised the eyebrows of even conservative Republicans.

There is something eerily vintage about Miller’s stump speeches. The combination of their substance—vilifying immigrants as killers, the promise of nativist glory days ahead—and their delivery with a calm face around a loud, droning mouth, slicked-back hair and sharp suit, floridly invoking powerful cabals against the people: All of it harks back to an earlier time. It’s as if the video should be in black and white, and the microphone in front of Miller an antique, metallic affair. This is an image Miller assiduously cultivates, smoking like a chimney and dressing in suits that earned him the nickname “Mad Men” on the Hill. “You almost want to put him in a previous era,” says Marcus Peacock, who worked with Miller on the Senate Budget Committee.

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