HH: I’m joined by McKay Coppins of The Atlantic, who has written one of the more interesting profiles I have read in a very long time. It’s of Stephen Miller, assistant to the President for everything. And McKay, good morning, good to have you.
MC: Thanks for having me, Hugh.
HH: Lots to talk about. I saw you on Morning Joe earlier talking about how Stephen Miller is sort of the beta troll, right, the absolute troll of trolls. I would argue about other people for that role, but I want to go to the heart of your article, because the heart of your article is the lacrosse scandal at Duke.
HH: And it actually explained not just Miller, but so much more. Would you explain to people why that matters so much to Miller, and why it matters so much to the media of today and their relationship with their audiences?
MC: Yeah, so Stephen Miller had, you know, grown up in Santa Monica in a pretty liberal culture, and then he went to Duke. And on campus, he was known as kind of this conservative firebrand who was, you know, always at the center of various campus controversies. But it was, I think, at the end of his junior year that the Duke lacrosse scandal happened where three white lacrosse players were accused by a black woman of raping her. And it became, you know, instantly this huge national story. You know, reporters swarmed the campus. You know, demonstrators and protesters marched through Durham banging pots and pans. It was just a huge national controversy. And while most of the students at Duke tried to kind of keep their heads down and avoid the controversy or stay out of it, Stephen Miller sort of charged right into it. And the role he played was kind of advocate for the lacrosse players’ rights. He was writing columns for the Duke student newspaper and then showing up on Fox News and Nancy Grace basically making the case that the lacrosse players were being, that there was just this big rush to judge them based on political correctness and kind of the dogmas of the new left. And he thought that it was really unfair. And at the time when he started doing this, it was very unpopular, and he was seen as kind of this you know, ridiculous opportunist, and was accused by many of his fellow students of being racist. And then, you know, a year later, the case completely unraveled and the students were exonerated. The Durham district attorney who was prosecuting the case actually was subsequently disbarred, and Miller was kind of left vindicated. And so when I talked to Miller for this piece, he pointed to that moment, that kind of whole episode as the thing he was most proud of in his college activism. But I think it also explains a lot about how Miller interacts with what he calls the new left and how he feels that, what he calls the totalitarian tendencies of the left are, and kind of this social justice culture need to be pushed back on and disrupted at all cost.
HH: Now I want to quote McKay Coppins’ piece, and I’ve just tweeted it out. Go and read it. “To many, Miller’s position seemed not only wrongheaded, but outrageous. But then, the case unraveled. By the time Miller graduated, the lacrosse players had been exonerated, and the Durham County district attorney was later disbarred. Miller was vindicated.” I would have added, McKay, that the media was discredited. And to that, I would add the Rolling Stone-University of Virginia story. I would add the Claremont professor who faked it. I would add a litany. I wish you would write this, actually, of the number of highly-publicized episodes in America where it turns out that the original narrative was not just wrong, but badly wrong. And indeed, you know how we always say first reports are always wrong from the scene of a disaster, a massacre or anything?
HH: First reports in the media about highly-charged allegations are often wrong. And America has learned not to trust media. I mean, I think it’s, that’s why trolling has risen. It’s easy not to trust media.
MC: So I think that there’s an important point here, which is that you know, I write about in the piece his kind of sparring with Nancy Grace at the time.
MC: Where he would go on Nancy Grace’s show and kind of the contrarian for the segment, right? And so she and all her other guests would be talking about how you know, basically casting these lacrosse players as clearly guilty, and then they would have Stephen Miller come on and make the case for the players. And it wasn’t just that they would, that Nancy Grace would kind of argue with him. She would roll her eyes, right? She would roll her eyes and say oh, come on, which I think that sense of dismissiveness, that kind of condescension and smugness that permeated a lot of the coverage of this, of this case, did leave a mark. And I think you’re right. I mean, there’s no question that part of the reason that there’s been this rise of kind of a trolling culture on the right is because of not just the wrongness sometimes of the media like you point out, but also the smugness of a lot of the coverage of this. And you know, oh go ahead.
HH: I want to say, but that trolling culture is on the left. I’ve got to bring up two examples. I had Diane Black on today. HuffPo trolled her on her very detailed assessment of why school violence has skyrocketed. They trolled her and said she blamed pornography, and in fact, they kind of admitted it in the article. And I got trolled last week by some actor about saying I wanted trench coats banned. I didn’t, and, because they took my STOP order soliloquy on Meet the Press and on this show, and they trolled it into banning trench coats. It happens on the left and the right.
HH: But I think the response of the middle is I don’t believe anybody about anything anymore.
MC: Yeah, yeah. No, and that’s a huge problem. I mean, this is the problem with this trolling culture, and you’re right. It does happen on both sides. So I would argue that there is more, let me just put in a quick plug for a New York Times piece that Katherine Mangu-Ward wrote earlier this year called When Smug Liberals Met Conservative Trolls. It really gets to this dynamic. But I think that part of the problem is that this pollutes the discourse in a way that there is so little goodwill, so little belief that anyone is operating in good faith that it makes it almost impossible for us to have a real dialogue. People are just constantly talking past each other, or even kind of yelling past each other.
HH: Well, I had Chuck Todd on last week, and Chuck made the comment only Sunday mornings are left…
HH: …that cable is largely now the reaffirmation of what you believe. You go there for reassurance that you’re not crazy, because you can find people saying the stuff that you say to your friends, and that you know, for a conservative like me to live at MSNBC is strange, and I don’t know that Mara Liasson doesn’t have the same reaction at Fox, right?
HH: There are some of us embeds like transplanted organs. Sometimes you take, sometimes you don’t. But I’ll tell you, trolling is not Stephen Miller’s invention, though he’s very good at it. And he’s not Milo, right?
HH: Milo is not only a bridge too far…
HH: He’s an interstate too far from reality.
MC: Well, and that’s the thing about Stephen Miller. And you know, he, this is a decade ago that he was at Duke, or a little more than a decade ago. And the way that he was kind of trolling campus liberals was more, a lot more discrete than like you said, Milo Yiannopoulos. But I think that the kind of same incentive structure has continued, and it’s just been put on steroids, right? The more there’s a culture that conservatives feel is stifling and claustrophobic on their college campuses, the more they want to push back and disrupts, often in like completely outrageous ways. And that’s why you see student groups inviting people like Milo. You know, I talked to Stephen Miller. I asked him about people like Milo and these kind of provocateurs who are invited to college campuses, and he didn’t want to talk about Milo in particular, because he didn’t want to drag the White House into some kind of fight about Milo. But what he did say is that there is a, in today’s college campuses, a non-conformist are conservatives. And so whereas in the 60s and 70s, you had the kind of leftist radicals who saw themselves as raging against the system. Today, it’s the conservatives on campus who rage against the system, and they’re wearing Make America Great Again hats, right?
HH: But of course, at the UCLA college…
MC: And that’s, I think…
HH: The UCLA college Republican advisor said I am not going to be your advisor if you invite Milo.
HH: It’s your choice, because he’s not a conservative.
HH: He’s not a Republican. He doesn’t stand for anything that Reagan did or W. or even most of the Trump agenda. I want to put out to you, McKay Coppins, the President’s tweet from 23 hours ago. The fake mainstream media, he wrote, has from the time I announced I was running for president run the most highly-sophisticated and dishonest disinformation campaign in the history of politics. No matter how well we do, they find fault. But the forgotten men and women won. I’m president. I think this has actually not gotten much attention, but it’s like the core of your article, the core of his argument. And when he says politics, he’s not talking about history. He’s talking about domestic politics here.
HH: And it does crystalize the attitude of the Trump base towards us.
HH: And by us, I mean anyone with a broadcast platform.
MC: Yes, there is no question. I think it’s funny that that tweet didn’t get a lot of attention, probably because it’s the core of the argument that Trump has been advancing for a long time now about the media. And there’s, I mean, we’ve gone over this a million times. The media got the outcome of the election wrong. Everyone in the media thought that Trump was going to lose, right?
HH: Me, too, yeah.
MC: So did I. No, me, too. That’s what I’m saying. And there’s been a lot of, you know, soul searching, especially right after the election. There was a lot of soul searching about this. But what that did was it kind of solidified this idea among some people, among a lot of people on the right, that it doesn’t matter what Trump does. It doesn’t matter how they vote, that there is going to be a large segment of the mainstream media that’s just going to dismiss them or ignore them or whatever. And the response to that is often to kind of troll media, to you know, not to just ignore us, but to try to make us into laughing stocks. And you know, Stephen Miller doesn’t, like you said, he’s not out front. He’s not on TV all the time. But he does his trolling behind the scenes. And part of the piece that, or the thing that I tried to get at, at the end, is that he doesn’t just do it with the speeches that he helps write for the President, or the messaging that he helps craft. Even when he is kind of shaping or advising or helping to shape policy, there’s always this idea in the back of the mind is how is the media going to react, how is the left going to react. And frankly, if the left is going to overreact, or if the media seems like it’s going to overreact, they count that as a political win.
HH: And so do you think the essential difference, say, between, this is my assessment, the essential difference between trolls and conservatives, between maybe Stephen Miller and Jonah Goldberg, though I don’t think Stephen Miller is just a troll. I think he’s also a conservative intellectual of some sort, is the difference between provoking and persuading.
HH: I think when Jonah writes, he’s trying to persuade people. I’m not sure Stephen Miller’s trying to persuade anyone. He’s trying to provoke a reaction that will in turn persuade people.
MC: That is exactly the difference. It’s the same with you, right? When you’re writing your columns, or when you’re doing your show, you’re calibrating your arguments for persuasion, right?
MC: You’re trying to make the case…
MC: You’re at least trying, right? I don’t think that that’s Stephen Miller’s main objective. I think he would be happy if he persuaded people, but his arguments are often more calibrated to agitation. And that’s the difference. And it’s a sad symptom of kind of the discourse in general and our political culture, but he’s not alone. And it’s a culture that’s grown worse and worse in our politics right now.
HH: Who is his mirror on the left?
MC: Well, it’s hard, because it has to be somebody who would have a lot of political power. There’s certainly, a lot of, you know, left-leaning….
HH: Come on, it’s Crooked Media. It’s Jon Favreau. You flunked, McKay. You flunked. But by that, I’ll wait for the profile.
MC: Oh, man.
HH: Come on, it’s Crooked Media, isn’t it? Am I right? Am I right?
MC: Oh, man. No, I don’t, I’m not going there.
HH: Come on, you’re not going there, because he’s a liberal and you don’t want to offend a liberal. But you’ll offend a conservative, McKay.
MC: No. Please, please…
HH: McKay, good to talk to you as always. Go read his piece. We’ll read his next one on Jon Favreau soon.
End of interview.