MILLER WAS INTO MOBSTER MOVIES. Growing up, the walls of his bedroom were decorated with framed posters of Casino and Goodfellas—two of his favorite films. “It wasn’t that prototypical high school room that’s covered in dozens or hundreds of things,” Stephen’s friend Walter says. “Not early nineties girls in bikinis or rock posters. It was more elegant than that.”
The characters in the Martin Scorsese films are largely amoral, but they live by a code. In Goodfellas, Robert DeNiro’s character summed it up, “Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.” Stephen occasionally styled himself after DeNiro’s characters in those films. He wore a golden pinkie ring and slicked back his hair, polo shirts and button-downs with nice pants and a jacket—so he looked like a mobster. Classmate Jenness Hartley recalls, “He’d wear like a gold mafia-style ring on his finger. It was just bizarre. Everyone commented on his weird jewelry and I think he would wear a gold chain, too, occasionally.” 15
His favorite film, Casino, was based on the life of Frank Rosenthal, a former Las Vegas casino executive, handicapper and organized crime associate played by DeNiro as Sam “Ace” Rothstein. He and his violence-prone friends have a glitzy lifestyle. Rothstein opens the film: “[I] was a hell of a handicapper, I can tell you that. I was so good, that whenever I bet, I could change the odds for every bookmaker in the country. I had it down so cold that I was given paradise on earth. I was given one of the biggest casinos in Las Vegas.” Ace smokes cigarettes, wears all-yellow and all-pink suits and always stays cool, even as others scream their heads off at him in irrational and emotional ways. He asks a woman, Ginger, to marry him. She tells him, “I just don’t have those kind of feelings for you. I’m sorry. I’m not in love with you.” He responds, “What is love, anyway? . . . I’ll take care of you better than you’d ever imagine.”
He’s in control even when he’s not. His words are taken out of context by the press, his cocaine-snorting wife plots to kill him, and his gaming license is revoked, but he stays preternaturally calm and self-assured, fighting critics on television and placing carefully worded phone calls. His friends do his dirty work.
Stephen appeared to study DeNiro’s gestures—the loose hands, the fingertips-on-fingertips, the head tics—and incorporate them into his persona. Years later, he’d stand at podiums and conjure the old mobster in himself. “All these conservative guys can’t help themselves, it’s such a horrible cliché but they love the mafia,” re-calls one classmate. “The mobster is the perfect encapsulation of the conservative worldview, where there’s no real law and order apart from might makes right.” 16
Stephen loved Las Vegas. He spent time there with family and friends wearing outfits inspired by the movies. “I won’t describe what he would wear,” Walter says. “He wore clothes that it was impossible not to see him. It’s beyond peacocking . . . If you google Ace Rothstein casino outfits or suits, and you look at the pictures— you’re directionally there.” Stephen was skilled at craps. They ate at high-end steak restaurants, rented a cabana at the pool club and spent time in the sauna. They went to magic shows. Stephen wasn’t into clubbing or getting wasted. He liked a classier vacation. “If you’re not getting these hints about why he works for Trump, maybe it makes a little sense?”
The national attitude toward immigrants was less hostile than California’s. “Immigration is not a problem to be solved,” President George W. Bush said at a speech he gave in the summer of 2001 at Ellis Island. “It is a sign of a confident and successful nation.”
He and Mexico’s president Vicente Fox were in talks about a guest worker program to meet industry labor needs in a structured way.
It all came to a grinding halt on September 11, 2001, when the United States was attacked by terrorists. Miller watched the nightmare unfold on television: The Twin Towers were hit by two planes. The towers crumbled. People were burned alive, crushed to death or leaped from windows to their deaths. Another airplane crashed into the Pentagon. A fourth, believed to be headed for the Capitol, plummeted into an empty field after passengers overtook the hijackers. Nearly three thousand people were killed. It was the deadliest terrorist attack in history.
A multimillionaire Saudi extremist, Osama Bin Laden, had declared war on the US, citing its military presence in the Arabian peninsula, the war in Iraq and support for Israel. Bin Laden called those actions “a clear declaration of war on Allah, his messenger, and Muslims.” It was, in his view, a war between Islam and the West. Historian Bernard Lewis wrote in Foreign Affairs, “To most Americans, the declaration is a travesty, a gross distortion of the na- ture and purpose of the American presence in Arabia. They should also know that for many—perhaps most—Muslims, the declaration is an equally grotesque travesty of the nature of Islam and even of its doctrine of jihad . . . At no point do the basic texts of Islam enjoin terrorism and murder.”
Walter sat next to Stephen in homeroom that morning. Geographically, they were nearly as far from the attacks as they could be in the US, but the images on TV had left them stunned and confused. What was going on? The boys waited for their teacher, an older gentleman, to help them process the attack. “He went on as though it never happened,” Walter says. One student asked why he was ignoring it. “The teacher tried to be as calm and professional as possible with regard to describing this event,” Walter recalls. “He was probably unprepared to say something.”
Sarton Weinraub, a clinical psychologist who has done research on the trauma of Americans who witnessed the 9/11 attacks, says many people who were not in New York City had difficulty processing the attacks as well. “It’s almost as if the farther you go, the more that the ideas of what might have happened—the fantasy, the fear—was more intense,” he says.
Walter says the school’s response to 9/11 sparked Miller’s political awakening. One teacher suggested that the terrorist attack was America’s own fault for its actions abroad.
Miller wanted to stand in solidarity with the victims. Across California, as in other parts of the country, homes became decorated with American flags. He listened to “God Bless the USA” by Lee Greenwood. Meanwhile, President Bush’s conversations with Mexico’s president about a guest worker plan screeched to a halt. The US government created the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which replaced the Immigration and Naturalization Ser- vice (INS), with Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immi- gration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Stephen wondered why his school didn’t recite the Pledge of Allegiance. California’s Education Code requires a daily patriotic exercise. He called into The Larry Elder Show and complained about his school’s alleged reaction to the terrorist attacks. Stephen said a teacher had dragged the American flag across the floor and trampled it.
Other students recall it differently. The Canadian teacher pulled the flag from its stand and placed it on the floor. He asked students to discuss why a symbol, the American flag, mattered to them so much. Classmate Ben Tarzynski says he thought the lesson was valuable, but poorly executed. “He just kept the flag there even after his point had been made, [with] a smirk on his face.” He says it may have been “triggering” to some students still processing the attacks. “I don’t think he was hoping to engender a backlash that would reverberate for twenty years.”
Jenness Hartley confronted Miller about him twisting the details of the lesson about the American flag on The Larry Elder Show. Stephen replied, “It doesn’t matter what the truth is, but how it makes people feel,” echoing a sentiment increasingly prevalent on the right—to value the gut over the brain. Hartley says, “He admitted he was just saying crazy shit in the worst way possible to get these conservative white people riled up.”
Elder says, “[Stephen] came on my show and I thought he was amazingly articulate—full of energy and passion. And he seemed to understand concepts I didn’t get until I was much, much older.” He recalls that Miller told him how he prepped for his show. “He took it very seriously, almost like, like a game, like you prepare for a test or athletic contests. He said he thought about it all day, thought about what he was going to say . . . and I was just so impressed.”
Elder told him he could come on the show anytime. “Almost whenever he wanted to come on the air to talk about whatever was on his mind, I put him on. And he told me years later that he was on sixty-nine times. And I said, you counted them? He said yes.” Elder was impressed with Miller’s outfits. “He’s been dressing well for years. And I asked him why, and he said he wants to make a good impression. He told me he always likes to have something that stands out on him, like some sort of affectation—it might be a ring, it might be a pocket square or something. And if you notice, it’s always a little something . . . a little different.”
Miller brought his friends to the studio to watch him on air, railing against the school’s alleged liberal bias. “He made it seem like liberalism was the Antichrist,” says classmate Adrian Karimi. “You could very clearly tell he had some sort of animus.” Alex Marlow, a future Breitbart editor, was listening to Stephen on the radio. It inspired him to ask Elder for an internship. “I think I’ve given a lot of young people like Stephen and others a kind of confidence,” Elder says. “It’s not crazy to say that racism and sexism are no longer significant problems in America.”
Elder appears to relish wrapping himself in the cloak of the villain. In a chapter on media bias in his book The Ten Things You Cannot Say in America, he wrote about his mother’s hatred for a man named George who “was tall and muscular, with a beautiful face and sparkling white teeth.” She believed he was a bad person: a cheater and a fraud. Elder, then a child, argued that George was handsome. His mother so despised George that she couldn’t see his handsomeness. He compared his mother’s attitude to the media’s attitude toward conservatives, saying journalists are so convinced conservatives are evil, they can’t see anything else. “By the way,” he writes at the end. “Mom was right about George.”