Stephen Miller, senior advisor to Donald Trump, and architect of some of his most controversial policies, was born in Santa Monica and attended Franklin Elementary School, Lincoln Middle School, and Santa Monica High, aka SAMOHI. The 33-year-old was bar mitzvahed at Beth Shir Shalom and confirmed at the Santa Monica Synagogue. To understand how one of the country’s most liberal communities could have spawned the ultra-right-wing Miller, I asked as many people who knew him growing up as I could find for their memories of his formative years. Many said no or didn’t respond—most notably, the teachers and administrators at SAMOHI, from which he graduated in 2003 (I did, however, speak with two school board members). Miller, described by one of his Hebrew-school instructors as a born oppositionist, repeatedly challenged those administrators and tested the limits of their beliefs.
Some wonder how it was that Santa Monica produced Miller; to others his provenance makes perfect sense.
Fifty-plus former classmates turned down my interview requests, whether out of respect, fear, or distrust of media I have no way of knowing. But I spoke to 20 people, not all
of whom are quoted here, who attended school or temple with Miller, who argued with him, who puzzled over him, and who watched with a sense of surreal recognition as he ascended to the White House and made himself instrumental in defining this administration’s unsparing stance toward immigrants and asylum seekers—positions so extreme that his own uncle and former rabbi have publicly criticized him. Some wonder how it was that Santa Monica produced Miller; to others his provenance makes perfect sense.
Born in 1985, Stephen is the middle child of Michael and Miriam, who, if they were once liberal, as has been reported, have not been so for well over a decade. The Millers manage a real-estate investment company and own and operate a handful of commercial properties as well as about 2,500 residential units under the name California Villages. As one family friend told me, Stephen pulled his parents to the right. The Millers supported Ted Cruz for president; they attended the 2016 Republican convention and were thrilled that their son—who was previously communications director to then-senator Jeff Sessions—wrote Trump’s acceptance speech. Friends say they were supportive parents to all three of their children. Their daughter, Alexis Miller Buese, is a partner at a Century City law firm, and their younger son, Jacob, is a litigator in Manhattan. Here’s what some others remember about Miller’s formative years.
Samohi Class of 2004, Special Education Teacher and Organic Farmer
>I was friends with Stephen’s best friend, Chris Moritz, who is funny and charming, and from middle school on they were inseparable. They dressed identically, first in khakis, polo shirts, and clunky white tennis shoes, and, later, in suits. They were the only two dressing like that. Stephen never hung out with women, though I do remember having a great time with him at an eighth-grade barbecue, where he was entertaining and irreverent and said things that were entirely out of left field.
Attorney and Radio Personality
>Chris Moritz was the one who introduced Stephen to conservatism. Stephen was a Santa Monica Jewish liberal just like his mom and dad. And Chris introduced him to works by Thomas Sowell and Milton Friedman.
>At our high school, half the graduating class went on to Ivy League colleges and the other half did not. SAMOHI was very open about actively trying to help minorities get into college, and it set up a Hispanic club for that purpose. Stephen deeply hated this club, and he saw its members as militants who did not want to be part of the English-speaking world and as threats to America. He also said that minorities are too busy complaining to succeed and that Hispanics are overrepresented in Congress. At the time there was no Google, so we couldn’t check his stats.
“I obviously loathe what he said, but I also have to applaud him for owning it.” —Kesha Ram
Samohi Class of 2003, Former Vermont State Legislator, Elected at age 22
>The nicest thing I can say about him is that he stared the future of the country—with all its diversity and glorious richness—in the face and rejected it openly. Some people hide behind a computer screen and say horrible things about other cultures and other identities, but he looked people in the eye and said, “I don’t think you should be in this country; I think your family should go back to wherever they came from or speak English more fluently.” I obviously loathe what he said, but I also have to applaud him for owning it.
Samohi Class of 2002, Deputy Director of the ACLU Campaign for Justice
>I remember one time Stephen protested a grade he got. He claimed the teacher was against him for his political views, and he wrote a piece about it. I thought, “Who is this crazy guy?” When I started paying attention I saw that he was very deliberate and strategic, attuned to the contemporary media environment and to what he could say that would be sure to inflame.
Samohi Class of 2002, Attorney
>In my senior year the school district held a multi-day community meeting and, for some reason, Stephen Miller was there. People were describing their experiences, how hard it is to be an immigrant. And Stephen stood up and said, “Well, my grandparents were immigrants and they got no help and they became wealthy, so there is no reason for any immigrant to complain.” He added nothing constructive. It seemed like he wanted people to hate him.
United States Congresswoman
>I was the school board president at the time. We were very focused on the achievement gaps in Santa Monica—it was a great district for high achievers, but minorities were not doing well. So we wanted to focus on students who were underperforming. We instituted a couple of bilingual schools, all kinds of things. Stephen would come to school board meetings and testify. Whatever we were for, he was against—against bilingual education and any assistance to English-language learners. You’ve seen the recording of the speech he gave when he was running for office at SAMOHI—he said the students shouldn’t pick up their own trash; that’s why we have janitors. His politics have been consistent since then.
>He was, I think, 14 years old [Editor’s note: Miller was 16] when he wrote to me about an issue that was concerning him at his school. Turns out they weren’t reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and raising the flag every day as is required by the California Education Code. Stephen made a lot of noise, but the administration wasn’t particularly concerned about it, and I thought it was an interesting issue. I had him on my show to discuss it. And he was so funny and so bright and so insightful that we ended up friends. He came on my show 69 times, and the reason I know that is because he counted.
>Stephen made some statements that there’s literally no way you can walk back from. For instance, his speech that we shouldn’t have to pick up our trash because that’s what janitors are for, which came on top of other statements he had made privately about kids whose parents were only fit to be janitors.
Oscar De La Torre
Santa Monica-Malibu School District Board Member
>When he gave the janitor speech, I thought, “This is coming out of a sweat gland; this is who he is.” I tried to argue with him at a school board meeting, I said, “Mexican Americans are Americans, are they not?” or “Racism exists.” He was not interested in listening to anybody. He would never acknowledge a point. He responded: “Incorrect” or “That’s not true.”
Founder and President of the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a Conservative Foundation
>Maybe I heard him on The Larry Elder Show, but I became aware that this high school kid was fighting a battle for the Pledge of Allegiance after 9/11. At least one teacher had laid the American flag on the floor so that the kids coming into his class had to walk on it. I spent many years on the left, so I know there’s a lot of anti-American feeling there.
I contacted Stephen, and he came over to my house. We had an affinity since I came from a left-wing family; his family was pretty much the same thing. He was obviously an incredibly smart guy, articulate and confident. I had great respect for him because he had courage. At Santa Monica High he was like Gary Cooper in High Noon; he stood alone.
He understood immigration and respect for the flag. He had a core connection with his principles—that we should have borders, that people should be judged on their merits without regard to race, creed, or color. Today’s identity politics ensure that the first thing you judge about a person is their race, gender, or sexual orientation. Politics has gotten so ugly; it’s not fun anymore. You can’t have a conversation.
“When he gave the janitor speech, I thought, ‘This is coming out of a sweat gland; this is who he is.'” —Oscar De La Torre
>I pitched the idea to the audiovisual club that we should do a documentary about Stephen Miller because he was such an outlier. My pitch was accepted, and Rachel Greenberg filmed it.
Samohi Class of 2003, Photographer and Web Designer
>Stephen’s mom did not want us to show the video. Right when everything was edited and ready to be turned in for a final grade, Miller no longer wanted to be in it. And he had the right to insist because, as novices, we had forgotten to get a release form from him. I think that his mom was embarrassed at what she saw, and she didn’t want it to affect his future career.
>Stephen and I had the same history teacher, Mr. Megaffin, though in different periods. After 9/11, when everyone was putting up flags, Mr. Megaffin lead a discussion about patriotism and symbolism. He put the flag on the floor and asked us, “What does the flag mean now?” It was a lesson to help us understand our feelings about patriotism. Stephen spoke about it on Larry Elder, saying that the teacher threw the flag across the floor and disrespected the flag. The teacher was in fact respectful and did not invite students to step on the flag.
The local newspapers did articles about Stephen, and he was flush with success—you could see the mirth in his eyes. I asked him, “Why didn’t you say that the flag incident was a teaching lesson?” He answered, “The truth doesn’t matter; it’s about what people want to hear.” I remember that very clearly.
Samohi Class of 2003, Attorney
>Mr. Megaffin was a very credible and respectful teacher. He never raised his voice; he always had a calm demeanor. He was asking, “Where do you draw the line between protecting the flag and protecting free speech?” He did not drag the flag on the floor, and he did not invite people to step on it. He may have raised a hypothetical—what if someone dragged it across the floor or stepped on it, how would you feel?
>I was invited to speak at SAMOHI because of Stephen, and that turned out to be an issue because the principal wanted my appearance to be “offset” by a liberal speaker so that the kids would have a fair and balanced point of view. Yet they don’t require left-wing speakers to be balanced by conservative speakers. I brought that up to the principal, and she didn’t have a real good answer for it, which Steve thought was entertaining.
>It took six or nine months to get me invited to speak at the school; they didn’t want me to come. When I was a radical in the ’60s, I always wanted to hear what the other side had to say. I thought it would make me a better radical. But today’s left doesn’t want to hear anything. I think it’s a terrible thing for our country and for their cause.
>Ralph Fertig, one of the Freedom Riders who protested Jim Crow laws in the South, came to talk to our class. He was this white, Jewish guy who got arrested in Selma, Alabama, for disturbing the peace while trying to integrate the bus system, and the sheriff there allowed vigilantes to beat him almost to death. It was the jail’s black janitor who saved his life. The only thing Stephen could focus on was that Fertig had broken the law; he asked him, “How do you feel comfortable with breaking the law?” Fertig answered that the law isn’t always just, but Stephen kept obsessing on this point over and over.
>The biggest argument he and I ever had was about whether climate change was man-made or caused by volcanoes. I think at the time one of the European volcanoes had erupted, and people were commenting on the particulate matter it had put in the air. He lived in a fact-free and cherry-picked-data universe.
>Stephen was curious. He wanted to know the truth; he was logical; he was reasonable; he felt the Constitution restrained the government and that people on the left don’t understand the importance of a restrained government. He had a deep and concrete understanding of the values and the constitutional principles that are the basis of our country to a degree that I’ve never seen in somebody that young.
At the same time, he thrived on being the opposition; he enjoyed the jousting; he felt that most people on the left come armed with emotion and not with facts, and so he felt comfortable about debating and confronting people who felt differently. He did this in an intelligent, often humorous way without anger.
I asked him, “Why didn’t you say that the flag incident was a teaching lesson?” He answered, “The truth doesn’t matter; it’s about what people want to hear.” —Jeness Hartley
>Stephen started to feel more conviction when he saw blind spots in the arguments that liberals were making. Santa Monica is a complicated place. It has huge wealth disparities. It is not on the front lines of building affordable housing. My Indian immigrant father and Jewish American mother ran an Irish pub at 26th and Wilshire, and they fought the city a lot. My dad tried to create a recycling program, and the city considered that a nuisance and a hazard at the time; it did not want to recycle. There were other hypocrisies that my father tried to point out to the community.
If you’re at a school where there’s a strong prevailing opinion, and you feel like people aren’t fully examining their own biases and hypocrisies, then you start to retrench even more and feel morally and intellectually superior because you’re seeing a groupthink mentality on the other side.
Samohi Class of 2003, Teachers’ Educator
>Stephen was a quiet, shy kid in middle school, and when he started being political he got attention, which he obviously liked. I think he began to believe his own rhetoric after a while. By the time Stephen gave that janitor speech in junior year, he was full-blown “this is the world I live in, it’s the Stephen Miller show, and you just happen to be here.”
>Even if he started out wanting attention and to shock people, I think he came to believe what he espoused, whether at that time or later in life. I can’t believe that he would play with people’s lives at this point simply for the ability to be a well-known person.
>At SAMOHI we always erred on the side of hearing other people’s opinions, should it not put anyone else in danger or put anyone down. So the way that Stephen got concessions was essentially to victimize himself. He said he felt excluded from our diversity festival, which is when everyone brought a plate of food from their culture. He made it about him and said, “What about my culture?” We all answered, “What about your culture? We live it every day.”
He said to a couple of people, “This is America, speak English only,” and the second someone would retaliate, either physically or vocally, he would run to an administrator and say that he was the one being bullied.
>No one that I saw was ever unkind to him. No one beat him up. He was the least victimized person, and yet somehow in his mind he was constantly put upon.
>He really, really disliked the school newspaper. We were at a liberal school, and it was usually the liberal students who cared enough to run the newspaper. He was one of the only people you could go to for a conservative opinion. That he saw himself as a victim of a liberal conspiracy was, in my view, disproportionate to the reality.
>He’s exactly the same as he was in high school—his manner of speaking, his permanent air of trolling. He has a drive for pissing off people. It’s a strange way to go about life, especially in high school.
I was the editor of the school newspaper, and he loved to come to the office to argue with us. It was always like, “Who’s going to go out and deal with Stephen?” It was an annoyance. You could see he loved the thrust and parry.
I had written an op-ed in the paper that was an open letter to drivers of SUVs, and I put flyers on the windows of SUVs that had American flags displayed somewhere on them. The flyers and the op-ed said, “If you’re really so patriotic, stop increasing our dependence on foreign oil.” Stephen was deeply offended by this attack on SUV drivers. One day, after a pep rally was dispersing, I was standing on a step in this huge auditorium, and he comes bounding up to me, saying, “I drive an SUV and I’m patriotic.” Then he opened up his shirt and pointed to what he was wearing underneath—a T-shirt displaying the American flag. This all happened very fast; there were no pauses. I thought, “Who is this for, this whole production? Was it for me, for himself, for the students standing around and watching?” Ultimately it was genuine in the sense that he committed to it, but it was not authentic.
>He never went to parties, didn’t express any interest in dating. He was a virtual loner obsessed with gun rights at age 17, which was scary.
>I think it’s a testament to our school that it created a space for people to feel heard and to exercise their free speech. And I don’t think we should be dismissive of Stephen; he is making a lot of policy in the White House. It’s still a problem on the left that we would rather marginalize and minimize his belief system than try to understand it, which would help us to be more thoughtful in our response.
If we write everyone off who is part of the alt-right as a sociopath, then we’ll probably miss something really critical in our effort to stop it. We should make sure that we are offering a great alternative to that way of thinking. It’s much too easy for us to stay stuck in a sensationalized and polarized fight than to do the hard work of adding value and closing the wealth gap and focusing on representing everyone well. Building a platform on hatred and division is dangerous, but the bigger question is, “Why is it working?”
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