Donald Trump’s Politics of White Fear Have Roots in Southern California

From the Claremont Institute’s apocalyptic rhetoric to Stephen Miller’s anti-immigration fervor, the right-wing’s most controversial messaging has a long legacy in the region
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An hour east of Hollywood, where America’s cultural fetish for stories of apocalypse and antiheroes is made, the Claremont Institute lies in a nondescript beige building in the Pomona Valley. Created in 1979 to educate a new generation of conservative leaders through the study and reinterpretation of the American founding, the think tank has long peddled dystopian delusions, including that the U.S. faces an existential threat from a “Third World” invasion; that diversity “dissolves” the country’s unity; and that the many-headed monster of “wokeness,” “identity politics,” and “multiculturalism” seeks to “destroy the American way of life.”

“The mission of the Claremont Institute is to save Western civilization,” buttoned-up president Ryan Williams, who has been with the institute since 2005, declares in a welcome video on the Claremont’s YouTube page. “We’ve always aimed high.”

The institute was founded by students of the political scientist Harry Jaffa, who in the 1960s helped radicalize the Republican Party through his participation in the presidential campaign of the right-wing zealot Barry Goldwater, writing the lines of his acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican National Convention: “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” Jaffa was a prolific author and scholar of Abraham Lincoln and other founders. He likened “political correctness” to Leninism and Stalinism.

The Claremont Institute, which has no affiliation with the Claremont colleges, publishes the Claremont Review of Books and awards fellowships to applicants interested in studying the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and other founding documents. Last year, it awarded a fellowship to Jack Posobiec, a Pizzagate conspiracy theorist with ties to neo-fascist groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The institute teaches and publishes new takes on America’s founding that whitewash history, insisting that the country was never racist and that those who argue otherwise seek to annihilate the United States. The mission statement says it seeks to “restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life.” Its scholars launder white supremacist ideas through the language of heritage and the self-aware performance of erudition.

Most recently, Claremont Institute helped perpetuate the racist birther lie that Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris isn’t a legitimate American citizen. Senior fellow John C. Eastman wrote the debunked article in Newsweek questioning Harris’s citizenship with his tortured reading of the Constitution. The institute has long challenged birthright citizenship, which is enshrined in the Fourteenth Amendment. Newsweek editors have since apologized for the op-ed, albeit after saying it had “nothing to do with racist birtherism.” Notably, Newsweek opinion editor Josh Hammer is a former fellow of the institute. Trump refused to condemn the birther lie, calling Eastman “brilliant” and saying he won’t be “pursuing” the theory but adding, “You would’ve thought [Harris] would’ve been vetted by Sleepy Joe.”

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It is no accident that the white supremacist fantasies buttressing Trump’s reelection campaign were born in Los Angeles County. The region gave us Trump’s chief advisor and top speechwriter, Stephen Miller, whose parents have donated to the Claremont Institute and whose indoctrination in white supremacist ideas I report on in my book Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump and the White Nationalist Agenda. Miller’s father Michael is a former Democrat who veered right in his politics after troubles with his real estate company led him to complain of the “ridiculous liberal elite” and their intrusion into his personal and business affairs, according to his brother-in-law David Glosser and others who knew him. He complained that universities were all controlled by left-wing extremists, a view espoused by the Claremont Institute.

California revealed the political utility of white fear for the state’s Republican Party in the ‘90s of Miller’s youth, when non-Hispanic white people became a minority in the state, triggering a backlash with bipartisan attacks on bilingual education, affirmative action and more. In 1994, deeply unpopular Republican Governor Pete Wilson won reelection by blaming all of the state’s problems on a migrant “invasion.” Proposition 187, launched that year in Orange County by people fearing a “Third World” takeover, targeted social services for undocumented migrants, including public school for migrant children. (The prop was later found unconstitutional).

In his 1996 book The Coming White Minority, Dale Maharidge—a professor of journalism at Columbia University—predicted of California: “The depth of white fear is underestimated … these anxieties will blow east like a bad Pacific storm as whites are outnumbered in other parts of the country.”

The wind that blew the white fear east came from think tanks like the Claremont Institute, the David Horowitz Freedom Center, and other groups funded by the Scaife Foundations that helped give white supremacist ideas a pseudo-intellectual air and an exciting cinematic veneer by casting them as the “light” side in a battle between light and dark forces. Located in Sherman Oaks,  the David Horowitz Freedom Center is led by David Horowitz, Miller’s lifelong mentor, who says liberals pose “an existential threat” to the country because of their allyship with Muslims and others. Both the David Horowitz Freedom Center and the Claremont Institute co-sponsored an event this April to bring the Dutch politician and Islamophobe Geert Wilders to Chapman University and screen a film painting Muslims as a danger to civilization. Both think tanks deny the existence of systemic racism against dark-skinned people while at the same time arguing that multiculturalism is deadly to America. The Claremont Institute’s podcast cheekily debates the merits of eugenics, and features a clip from the band Imagine Dragons’ song “Monster”: “I’m taking a stand to escape what’s inside me: a monster, a monster…and it keeps getting stronger!”

Members of California’s far right seem to revel in their antihero status. When I visited the Claremont Institute last year, president Ryan Williams told me conservatives like him see human nature as fixed and flawed, unlike liberals who see it as “perfectible.” The policies they support reflect their pessimistic view of humankind. They see themselves as clear-eyed warriors in a dystopian drama, living out the white supremacist conspiracy theory that says brown and Black people are replacing whites and endangering civilization. This false notion of white genocide, or the “great replacement theory,” has motivated self-styled heroes to commit acts of white terrorism, such as the massacre of 23 people in El Paso, Texas, last summer.

California has also bred commentators such as Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carlson, whose Hollywood-style apocalypse-mongering was noted with appreciation by the Claremont Institute: “[Republicans] would do well to follow Tucker Carlon’s lead. Night after night, in appropriately apocalyptic terms, Tucker explains the revolution,” the chairman of the Claremont Institute’s board, Thomas D. Klingenstein, told Orange County conservatives in August. Carlson has called himself a “libertarian right-winger,” which is how Miller identified in college.

In California, the myth of rugged, rigid, ruthless individualism that feeds right-wing libertarianism is trafficked like a drug alongside similarly addictive dystopian fantasies that inflate self-importance. Miller recently tried to justify the use of federal forces to crack down on antiracist protesters by telling Carlson on his show, “This is about the survival of this country and we will not back down.”

California conservatives like Miller and Tucker Carlson have mastered the art of conflating people of color and their allies with welfare-guzzling criminals: dog whistling, demonizing, and declaring doomsday in response to anything threatening the dominance of white men. The birther lie attacking Senator Harris is rooted in apocalyptic racism, as is Trump’s immigration agenda.

Miller’s immigration policies come from the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), an anti-immigration think tank created by John Tanton, a white nationalist who believed in population control for non-white people and led successful efforts in California to mandate English as the official language. Tanton, who passed away in 2019, sought to coordinate attacks on affirmative action with Frederick R. Lynch, whose article “Immigration Nightmares,” was published by the Claremont Review of Books in 2003, arguing that California was turning into “Mexifornia.” Tanton also published an English translation of a novel about the destruction of the white world by subhuman brown refugees, The Camp of the Saints, which spoke to Miller and which he promoted through Breitbart in 2015.

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It’s important to connect the dots between the White House and California’s long legacy of white supremacy to demonstrate that Trumpism is not an aberration but rather the culmination of long-fueled politics of hate. In 1991, when Miller was five years old in his home city of Santa Monica in 1991, hundreds of families with Hispanic surnames received a letter in their mailboxes that appeared to be from the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District headquarters. It featured the district’s bulk-mail permit number and address labels. Inside was a typed, one-page hate screed. The author said Mexicans were making the community unsafe and using up welfare. It called Mexicans “brown animals” and read: “We’ll gas you like Hitler gassed the Jews.”

The screed denied the existence of racism among white people and accused Mexicans of being “the real racists.” It singled out Mexican American Santa Monica High School alumnus Oscar de la Torre, alleging that he had been elected student body president the previous year because he was Mexican. “Why should there be a double standard for these wild beasts?” the letter asked. It called for a boycott of Mexican celebrations such as Cinco de Mayo, and of the student group MEChA, the Chicano Student Movement of Aztlán. The letter said Mexicans “infest our community with gays and lesbians.” It encouraged them to put on bulletproof vests and get ready for the gun battle.

De la Torre was 19 at the time, and his family received the screed under the letterhead of a “Samohi Assn. for the Advancement of Conservative White Americans” (Samohi is a nickname for Santa Monica High School). De la Torre called for an investigation of the hate crime. Police said they suspected someone in the school was responsible, but the crime remains unsolved three decades later. A public records request turned up a single police report. In an interview last year, de la Torre told me the lack of a resolution is indicative of how Santa Monica leaders felt, and feel, about racism. “Put it under the rug, let’s not talk about it,” he says.

In 2001, ten years after the letter was distributed, de la Torre was a counselor at Samohi and co-chaired a committee on equality. Stephen Miller, then a teenager, showed up to one of the first meetings. “Racism does not exist,” de la Torre says Miller told him. According to de la Torre, Miller also said the school was excusing black and Hispanic misbehavior by holding those students to a lower standard. Miller became a regular at the meetings, arguing against bilingual education, Spanish-language announcements, and multicultural activities such as Cinco de Mayo celebrations. He reportedly said the club for gay people was ruining the school.

It didn’t escape de la Torre that Miller’s rhetoric echoed that 1991 hate letter. Miller came to personify the nameless author who had haunted de la Torre for years.

“Stephen Miller did not invent that ideology,” he says. “He learned it from somewhere. And the person who wrote that letter also learned it. These feelings that divide our country, they exist, they can morph, they can grow.”

Jean Guerrero’s book, Hatemonger: Stephen Miller, Donald Trump, and the White Nationalist Agenda, is on stands now.


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