This is a transcript of from the May 8 edition of The Gist, a daily podcast hosted by Mike Pesca. Slate Plus transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
As a high school student in Santa Monica, Stephen Miller, future senior adviser to Donald Trump, clashed with administration and fellow students. He decried multiculturalism, bilingualism, and liberalism. No ordinary iconoclastic young conservative eager to brand himself an outcast in a liberal enclave, he actually became something of a national figure, going on national conservative radio, like The Larry Elder Show, to grouse:
Stephen Miller: Am I the only one who is sick and tired of being told to pick up my trash? We have plenty of janitors who are paid to do it for us.
When it came time for college, Miller went to Duke, and there he was handed a horrible kind of gift: the Duke lacrosse case, in which a team of privileged white players were accused of raping a black stripper. The players were eventually exonerated. The state actually took the unprecedented step of declaring them innocent, and prosecutor Mike Nifong was disbarred.
There, opining the whole time, was Stephen Miller. Everything he ever said about liberal media and liberal colleges was being vindicated before his eyes, and increasingly, before the eyes of the nation, as the college undergrad got booked on CNN, CNN Headline News, and here, on the O’Reilly Factor, on Fox.
Stephen Miller: On the one hand, they realize there is absolutely no foundation for anything they did, but on the other hand, they’re not going to confront the flaws of their own radical and divisive ideology.
But it wasn’t just Miller whose persona was forged by the Duke lacrosse case. Also on campus was a grad student named Richard Spencer. The case made him, too, and he went on to rebrand American neo-Nazism as the alt-right.
To learn more about the formation of Stephen Miller, I spoke to Reeves Wiedeman, who wrote about the Duke as crucible case for New York.
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Mike Pesca: Who was Miller on campus before this scandal hit? Just an annoying dude with a column?
Reeves Wiedeman: It probably depended on your own political views.
At Duke, people knew who he was. He was the most vocal conservative voice on campus, opining on the typical issues: the war on Christmas; Hollywood is terrible. But it wasn’t really until the lacrosse case that he became a much bigger figure.
Pesca: Because then the stakes were higher. It wasn’t just him opining about reheated Fox News tropes. This was something really happening that he had near-firsthand knowledge of.
Wiedeman: Yeah, and he became the go-to expert early on. He was on CNN. He was on Fox. He was on Nancy Grace at one point five nights in a week.
It is easy to find a liberal student on an elite campus. It’s harder to find a conservative student that is willing to speak out. At the time, particularly early on in this case, people were not speaking out in defense of these players. It was an extremely unpopular position for him to take.
Pesca: You, I assume, read all the columns you could get your hands on and saw all the opinions.
Wiedeman: I did.
Pesca: Did he immediately weigh in, or did he wait at all for some facts to come out?
Wiedeman: He wrote a strange column right away. I believe it was called either “Welcome to the Durham Petting Zoo,” or something related to the Durham petting zoo.
Durham is the city that Duke sits in. It has a large black population. At that point, early in the case, one of the bigger themes was Duke students hadn’t done a good job of engaging with the community. That in fact it was separated off. That in some way they looked down on the people of Durham. Miller wrote a column where he said, “I look down on the city of Durham.”
Pesca: Early on, was he just reacting to the rush to judgment? You didn’t even have to have all the facts in. I covered the case from a media perspective and I had no idea what the truth was, but it did strike me that the media was creating these grand narratives of town versus gown, and white versus black, without even knowing what possibly happened in that lacrosse house.
Wiedeman: Yeah, his reaction early on was, like, we don’t know know the facts. And the convenient thing for him was it did fit his narrative. He had talked before about how the faculty was all leftists, so he would make this argument that the players’ due process rights are being trampled, but then he would pivot immediately to just lambasting the university, lambasting the media, and everyone who was rushing to judgment.
Pesca: To be fair to him, Nancy Grace—maybe my listeners don’t realize it if they think of her as a conservative rush-to-judgment type—she did rush to judgment. She was essentially saying, “Why do the lacrosse players need a lawyer? If I didn’t do anything, I need a lawyer?” Of course they needed a lawyer. Without a lawyer, they might still be in jail.
When you watched his appearances on Nancy Grace, was he essentially making good points, do you think?
Wiedeman: He was. He was making the point that we just don’t know. He, in a lot of ways, was the good guy in this case. He was vindicated.
Pesca: He was right. He was on the side of the right.
Wiedeman: The thing that worked well for him was he had the facts on his side—the facts in this case were that we don’t know the facts. He stayed within what was known rather than rushing to judgment, which is maybe something that has shifted over time. Ultimately, because he stayed within that, you’d have Nancy Grace just beating on him and he would stand there, take the beating, and say, “We don’t know.”
Pesca: Yeah. Let’s talk about Richard Spencer. He was a grad student at Duke at the time?
Wiedeman: He was going for his Ph.D. in the history department in, I think, European intellectual history.
Pesca: But he wasn’t being quoted. He wasn’t being invited on Nancy Grace. He wasn’t a big spokesman for this.
Wiedeman: No, not at all. The case broke in March 2006. He was not speaking out, then the first time that he really spoke out was in January 2007, in a speech for this paleo-conservative club in Virginia that he had kind of gotten involved in.
Around that time, as the case unfurled, he did get involved in this Duke conservative student group that Miller was the head of. Richard Spencer became sort of a graduate adviser. What relationship they have is sort of in dispute.
Pesca: That is big. Miller always distances himself and specifically says, “I didn’t know him,” or “I barely knew him,” whereas Spencer says what? What did Spencer tell you about the relationship?
Wiedeman: We didn’t talk too much about that. Spencer has previously said that he was a mentor to Stephen Miller. Miller said that’s not true, and Spencer walked it back a little bit and was like, Well, we talked.
Pesca: Again, to be fair, mentor/mentee, the more outspoken one was the undergrad—Miller.
Wiedeman: Yes, totally. And Spencer admitted that, in this case, he learned from Miller.
As he told me, he at least claims he was intellectually formed at the time, but in terms of the way to work the media, how to stand in the face of arguments and criticism, Spencer says he learned how to do that from the Duke lacrosse case.
Pesca: Did he tell you that his opinions changed? Was he radicalized in terms of tactics, or in terms of what he actually thought about races?
Wiedeman: He says it was more tactics. Everyone who knew Spencer when he was at Duke and in the immediate years after—he went to work for this magazine, The American Conservative, that is not a far-right magazine—everyone who worked there or knew him at Duke says he would inch toward things where you were wondering where he was heading, but it certainly wasn’t anything like what we hear today. He says, “Before that, I was on an academic path. After that, I was like, ‘OK, this is a fight that I need and want to fight more publicly.’ ”
Pesca: What do you see in how Miller argues now? I’m thinking of that one weekend when he was trotted out for all the Sunday shows.
Wiedeman: And he hasn’t been back, so far as I know.
Pesca: And hasn’t been back. It was sort of disastrous. Maybe the Trump White House thought it was good, but he yelled, “The president will not be questioned.” Is that the tactic he would take before he was actually a senior White House adviser?
Wiedeman: It was similar in terms of his steadfastness. I remember watching him talk to George Stephanopoulos, he just kept coming back to the same talking points. He would do that in the Duke case. In this case, he was defending Trump’s claims of voter fraud in New Hampshire; Stephanopoulos kept asking, “What are the facts?”
Stephen Miller: George, it is a fact, and you will not deny it, that there are massive numbers of noncitizens in this country who are registered to vote. That is a scandal. We should stop the presses, and as a country, we should be aghast about the fact that you have people who have no right to vote in this country registered to vote, canceling out the franchise of lawful citizens of this country. That is the story we should be talking about, and I am prepared to go on any show, anywhere, anytime, and repeat it and say the president of the United States is correct 100 percent.
Wiedeman: He was trying to do the same thing, of “I’m just going to keep making the same argument,” but it doesn’t work if you don’t have the facts to back it up.
Pesca: Maybe we could say what he learned was evincing certainty plays well, only it doesn’t play that well when you don’t have the facts on your side.
Wiedeman: I hope so. Spencer certainly said to me that one thing he learned is if you just stick with it and keep pushing back, people either get worn down or you break through.
It’s the lesson of the whole Trump campaign. Push through criticism. Even if you don’t have the facts, if you just push through and speak to your people, then maybe it works.
Pesca: I think Spencer and Miller are aiming for different constituencies now.
Pesca: Spencer knows that he’ll never get most people on his side. I don’t know if Miller thinks most is important, but there are enough built-in people who will support Trump or support a robust defense of Trump that he really is trying to convince a different kind of crowd than Spencer is.
Wiedeman: Yeah, I think that’s right, and I think one thing I noticed and someone also mentioned to me about Miller’s appearance when he’s speaking on behalf of the White House is he was a little less combative. He was a little more “I represent the White House now. I’m not just this Duke student.” To some degree, he has pulled it together.
Pesca: Yeah, and at times, he deferred: “You’d have to ask them,” which was a constant trope.
Do you think that if the lacrosse players wound up being guilty, or if Stephen Miller wound up being wrong, he wouldn’t exist today on the national stage? He needed the circumstance of having the facts on his side, which forged him, and from there he was propelled to stardom?
Wiedeman: I wouldn’t go quite that far. I think he had his conservative credentials. He had brought speakers to campus to criticize the faculty even prior to the lacrosse scandal.
His trajectory—no one could have predicted that he would be at this point. I do think it did give him a bit of a boost, and certainly formulated his way of thinking. He has referred to it as one of the proudest moments of his career. He would constantly show his appearances to other congressional staffers—
Pesca: That’s what made him so popular.
Wiedeman: Yeah, right.
Pesca: He was legendarily the least-liked guy on Capitol Hill.
Wiedeman: Right. I also talked to Duke graduates who are horrified by whatever small role they had played. I talked to one guy who even went so far as to try to get Miller banned from his upcoming 10-year class reunion, which of course the person realized was probably not the best way to go about this.
Pesca: Those who criticized the players, did any of them rethink their tactics from the time? Like, “We went overboard? We were part of a rush to judgment.” Miller stood against that rush. He was proven right, therefore, we bear some responsibility for being wrong.
Wiedeman: I tried to talk to a number of professors who had been outspoken. Some declined to speak, because I think for many of them, it is an embarrassing moment, a little bit. My general sense is there weren’t many apologies.
Pesca: Did you watch any tapes of when Miller was essentially the warm-up act for Trump on the campaign trail?
Wiedeman: I did not, really. I’ve read a little about it, but I haven’t watched too much of it. What was he like?
Pesca: Some of what we saw on the Sunday shows, that he will not be questioned, and working himself up into a lather. You’ll hate the Hitler comparison, but he is this skinny guy with a squeaky voice, and of all the crazed ranters, he, at times, reminded me the most of the führer vein of things.
Wiedeman: I’ll leave that one for you. But several people have told me that that it was clear was that he liked the fight. There were other people who appeared on shows with him, on Nancy Grace with him, and they said it was like he liked it. He liked being the conservative voice on campus, the controversial voice. He didn’t feel like he was sacrificing by doing this. He liked being the firebrand.
Pesca: The other thing, I don’t know if anyone brought this up to you or thought about it, but the historic parallel it reminds me of is Roy Cohn and Alger Hiss. Because Alger Hiss was a communist spy, all evidence seems to be, and Roy Cohn went strong, and then everything that Roy Cohn did afterward was because he had this one experience where he was right and definitely felt vindicated about it. He acted that way all throughout his life and was an excessive demagogue.
Wiedeman: Yeah. Who knows what would happen to his career path, but there is something to being vindicated early on that is just going to make you think that the next time you do it it’s going to be OK, and the next time you do it it’s going to all right again. I’m sure it builds up some muscles there.
Pesca: Also, Roy Cohn was a key adviser to Donald Trump, and now Stephen Miller is a key adviser to Donald Trump.
Wiedeman: It all comes together.