The politics that left many Californians confused and concerned late into the evening on Election Night actually played out in a Samohi classroom more than ten years ago. Just as many Santa Monicans on Nov. 8 were stunned a man like Donald Trump could captivate nearly half the nation and win the presidency, back in 2003, members of Santa Monica’s AP Government class wondered how one of their classmates could suddenly shift so far to the right.
That same classmate will have the country’s full attention at President-elect Trump’s inauguration, as the new president’s principal speechwriter and chief strategist.
“What Stephen does for Trump now is stoke the fire of fear,” said former classmate Adrian Karima who vividly remembers that AP Government class. “Stephen was very good at doing that.”
Stephen Miller grew up north of Montana Avenue in Santa Monica, the son of affluent, Jewish parents who are liberal according to friends of the family. In High School, Miller’s politics suddenly shifted radially to the right and he made it known to everyone: writing editorials, calling in to conservative talk radio shows, and battling with his progressive public high school’s administration.
“Osama Bin Laden would feel very welcome at Santa Monica High School,” Miller wrote in an op-ed in the Santa Monica Lookout when he was 16-years-old. Miller did not respond to the Daily Press’s request for an interview. As a teen, Miller complained after 9/11 when the campus invited a Muslim leader to explain Islam. He said the administration and teachers were unsupportive of the War and of America in general. The next year, Miller wrote another op-ed “How I changed my left-wing high school” and called himself “something of a persona non-grata.”
To those who remember Miller’s days at Samohi, his self-description is spot on.
“Stephen was an ultra-right wing conservative in training at the time,” Oscar de la Torre, a current School Board member said of Miller. De la Torre was a counselor while Miller was forming his ideology and remembers working with Miller on a district committee to address equality in funding among different campuses.
“He was against African American studies. He was against ethnic studies. He was against anything in the curriculum that celebrated the diversity of our country,” de la Torre said.
The school board member is not the only person to outright call Miller’s teenage political philosophy as racist.
“I don’t know what else to call it,” said former classmate Jake Zambas. Zambas said learning Miller was behind Trump’s campaign brought in to focus Trump’s stance on immigration and the Syrian refugee crisis. In his teenage writings, Miller said Spanish language materials in his high school were a “crutch” to the immigrant population that made a “mockery of the American ideal of personal accomplishment.”
Those kinds of statements, along with other assertions that the schools’ gay/straight alliance should out students to their parents and that the school should stop providing free contraceptives caused Miller to lose friends and make adversaries.
“It still seems like it’s out of left of field that the shift would happen so quickly,” said classmate Taylor Brinckerhoff, who grew up spending every Passover at Miller’s home with their two families. Although they were close growing up, Brinckerhoff and his brother lost contact with Miller when his politics changed.
“We didn’t want to be associated with that kind of propaganda and discrimination,” Brinckerhoff said.
Many former Samohi students who spoke to the Daily Press remember when Miller brought conservative writer David Horowitz to speak on campus. Horowitz has written extensively against political correctness and liberal ideology on college campuses. A campaign by Miller brought back the daily Pledge of Allegiance at the high school.
“He was a very confident and opinionated student and always stood up for what he believed in,” said Dr. Mark Kelly, who was co-principal at Samohi when Stephen was a student there and is now Interim Deputy Superintendent of the District.
“It is not surprising to learn that he is working in this capacity in the Trump organization. We are always proud of students who go on to prominent careers serving their community or our country.”
Miller’s conservative beliefs deepened while he was an undergraduate student at Duke University and then as a staffer for Representative Michelle Bachmann and Senator Jeff Sessions. When he began warming up arenas before Trump’s speeches and appearing on cable news, his former classmates were astonished but not surprised.
“The view I had of Stephen back in the day: this guy is a loudmouth, very opinionated and outspoken about his conservative beliefs,” Karima said. “A lot of people just brushed him off thinking he would simmer down when he got older.”
“With Trump, a lot of people did the same thing: brushed him off as some loudmouth and now he’s president.”