By Nicholas Buccola
The convergence of three things in my mind led me to the nightmare I am about to share with you. First, I have been thinking about the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, especially his reflections on the roots of resentment. Second, I recently had occasion to reread Norman Podhoretz’s famous 1963 essay “My Negro Problem and Ours.” Third, I have been thinking about White House Senior Policy Advisor Stephen Miller, who is reportedly crafting President Donald Trump’s address on race. The original plan was for Trump to deliver this address on Juneteenth, a day to celebrate black freedom, in Tulsa, the sight of one of the most infamous anti-black pogroms in American history. This is what we might call a “Stephen Miller Special,” white nationalist trolling on an epic scale.
Nietzsche, Podhoretz, and Miller: quite a cocktail to be sure. Allow me to explain.
One of Nietzsche’s great insights is that political philosophy is deeply autobiographical. This insight goes beyond the relatively trivial claim that our political views are shaped by our experiences to something far more profound. According to Nietzsche, moral and political ideas are often – at their very root – the unconscious confessions of their creators and defenders. In politics, this phenomenon can manifest itself in a variety of ways, but I find the following example from Nietzsche’s notes collected in Will to Power to be most revealing. Human beings, he wrote in 1888, “need an appearance of justice, i.e., a theory through which they can shift the responsibility for their existence, for their being thus and thus, on to some sort of a scapegoat.” We offer all sorts of compelling reasons in defense of our views of justice, but at bottom, the roots are psychological. “How can I help it that I am wretched!” we cry out, “But somebody must be responsible, otherwise it would be unbearable!” We invent responsibility, Nietzsche concluded, in order to create the “pleasant feeling” of “revenge,” which is, as Homer told us so long ago, “sweeter than honey.” To put it simply, our political views are often tools that help us feel better about ourselves and provide us with a basis to exercise our will to power in the world.
Enter Podhoretz. The year was 1963 and, in those days, Podhoretz was the editor of Commentary magazine and he considered himself to be a radical. His friend James Baldwin had just published “Letter from a Region in My Mind” in The New Yorker magazine and the essay was already being hailed as one of the best pieces of writing to emerge out of the Civil Rights Movement. Podhoretz read the essay and believed that it deserved “to be placed among the classics of our language,” but he was mad as hell at Baldwin for publishing it in The New Yorker. Podhoretz had commissioned Baldwin to write a piece for Commentary about the Nation of Islam and Baldwin ended up incorporating that piece into the New Yorker essay. Podhoretz believed Baldwin had betrayed him by giving the piece to the New Yorker and the two men decided to get together for drinks to hash things out.
When Baldwin and Podhoretz got together, they discussed the dispute over the essay and as they made their way to the second or third round of cocktails, their conversation moved onto different ground. Podhoretz confessed to Baldwin what he really thought about “the Negro Problem.” More specifically, he launched into a long monologue not about the ins and outs of public policy or methods of protest, but rather about his experiences being bullied by black kids when he was growing up in Brooklyn. These experiences, more than any moral argument or historical explanation, shaped his attitude toward “the Negro problem.” When Podhoretz finished the monologue, Baldwin leaned forward and said in a dramatic whisper, “Norman, you must write all of that down.”
And so he did. A few weeks later, Podhoretz published “My Negro Problem and Ours” in Commentary. In the essay, he did consciously what Nietzsche said most writers do subconsciously: he drew on his autobiographical experiences to explain the “special intensity” and “ferocity” of his views of black people. “[I]n my neighborhood in Brooklyn,” Podhoretz wrote, “I was as faceless to the Negroes as they were to me, and if they hated me because I never looked at them, I must also have hated them for never looking at me.”
This brings us to the face of Stephen Miller. Miller’s face is long and it is serious. By serious, I do not mean thoughtful. He doesn’t crinkle his brow in thought and he doesn’t seem quick to smile (at least not in a warm way.) He is, as colleagues have said, like a “machine,” sometimes giving the impression that he must have been created in a lab somewhere for the purpose of destroying anyone to the left of his former bosses, Michelle Bachmann and Jeff Sessions.
But in fact, Miller was not a created in a lab and he is not a machine. He is human, all-too-human, and he comes from the sun, wealth, and progressivism of Santa Monica, California. During his formative years at Santa Monica High School, Miller was a right-winger in one of the most left-wing cities in America. His parents were liberal and he went to a high school run by progressives and more than half his classmates were non-white. He rebelled against his liberal surroundings by subscribing to Guns and Ammo magazine and imbibing the writings of National Rifle Association leaders Charlton Heston and Wayne LaPierre. He became deeply enamored by the fast-talking, bombastic right-wing radio host, Larry Elder and the Communist-turned-reactionary provocateur, David Horowitz. With the ideas of these men as his ammo, he clashed with teachers, administrators, and classmates and trained his intellectual guns on multiculturalism, feminism, and other progressive causes. As he put it in a Washington Post profile published soon after Trump took office, it was back in his high school days that he embarked on his mission “to battle against slim odds, a stacked deck and powerful entrenched forces, in pursuit of justice.”
The profiles of Miller make it entirely clear that he was a deeply unpopular, marginalized figure in the progressive environs of Santa Monica High. At first glance, it might be tempting to accept what would appear to be the obvious story of causality: Miller’s far-right wing views in a very left-wing place led to his marginalization. Nietzsche would have us consider the alternative: perhaps Miller’s far right-wing views became his way to cope with his marginalization and awkwardness. Like any other ostracized person, he needed a “theory of justice” that would enable him “shift the responsibility” for his “being thus and thus” and provide him with an outlet for his will to power.
One can imagine that Miller might have a Podhoretz-like story to tell about his days at Santa Monica High. It is almost impossible to imagine that this robotic, awkward, reactionary kid did not get bullied on a regular basis and he must have blamed the causes he opposed – multiculturalism and feminism in particular – for his marginalization. What must the world have looked like through the eyes of that awkward fifteen-year-old kid at Santa Monica High? It mustn’t have been pretty. One can just imagine that while his classmates were out partying on the weekends, he was at home reading Guns and Ammo magazine and dreaming of the day when he would be able to exact his revenge.
Most of us grow out of what Nietzsche called the “fine indignation” that shielded us from the cruelties of high school by leaving the “cool kids” behind in our hometowns and moving on to good colleges and comfortable jobs. But Stephen Miller, alas, remains in a state of arrested development. He left Santa Monica for Duke and has been on a steady ascent in the world of right-wing politics ever since, but his armor of “fine indignation” seems still to be his constant companion.
As Miller has promoted his white nationalist ideology in the West Wing and performed his ritualistic worship of the “unquestioned” power and “strength” of President Trump, the Nietzsche in me hears him making a confession: I am a weak, pathetic, and small man and the time has come for the world to pay for the many sins that have been committed against me. Stephen Miller has been dreaming this sad dream of revenge for more than half of his life and now he is acting it out on a scale far grander than he ever could have imagined. Stephen Miller’s dream is America’s nightmare.