Trump 'Demagogue' Stephen Miller Deserves Jake Tapper's CNN Smackdown

Stephen Miller attends a meeting with President Donald Trump and congressional leadership in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on November 28, 2017. Getty

I get why it's news that CNN host Jake Tapper shut down Trump adviser Stephen Miller. But things will be better when the world's Tappers shut down the world's lickspittles, and it's not news. That would signal that our politics is again healthy, and that liberal democracy is finally losing patience with intolerance.

Miller is the president's senior policy adviser, yet he says little to indicate he knows much about policy. This may not be surprising given this White House's dysfunction. But after watching Miller's dozen or so minutes on CNN's State of the Union, it's pretty clear understanding policy is, for the purpose of his job, secondary to something else.

And Miller's professional deficits don't end there. It's unclear whether this adviser understands normal democratic politics; Miller spent most of his allotted time attacking Tapper, rather than discussing anything substantial. Indeed, he appears to have forgotten to deny suspicion the president's son introduced Trump to Russian agents at Trump Tower in June 2016.

If policy and politics are not the primary concern of a president's "senior policy adviser," then what is? This is not a trivial question. It's not enough to say Miller is Trump's attack dog, because plenty of attack dogs possessed policy expertise. It's not enough to say Miller is the president's toady, because plenty of toadies are deeply versed in foreign policy and domestic affairs. It's correct to say instead that Miller is a demagogue.

A demagogue is usually understood to be a bomb-thrower willing to say anything, no matter how explosive, to gain power. But the conventional definition of demagoguery is about rhetorical style, not ideology. Patricia Roberts-Miller, author of Demagoguery and Democracy, said it boils down to a choice between us and them.

"Demagoguery depoliticizes politics," Roberts-Miller wrote, "in that it says we don't have to argue policies, and can just rouses ourselves to new level of commitment to us and purify our community or nation of them. It says that we are in such a desperate situation that we can no longer afford them the same treatment we want for us."

The "us and them" in Roberts-Miller's book is a rhetorical binary, and I think it explains a lot about Miller. He doesn't have to know anything because knowledge harnessed in the interest of policy objectives is beside the point for this administration. And because policy is beside the point, attacking the procedures, rules, conventions and institutions from which policy emanates—i.e., mechanisms of liberal democracy—becomes the only and paramount focus for an administration like Trump's.

But to truly understand demagoguery, we have to understand its philosophical underpinnings. Politics, to the ancient world, came down to the irreducible duality of "friend and enemy." This has animated authoritarians throughout history. To the demagogic mind, the political is different from everything else—it's about annihilation.

German philosopher Carl Schmitt wrote in The Concept of the Political that the political is "the most intense and extreme antagonism, and every concrete antagonism becomes that much more political the closer it approaches the most extreme point, that of friend-enemy grouping." Moreover, there is no neutral territory. Everything is political; the political has no end. Schmitt wrote in 1927: "The friend, enemy, and combat concepts receive their real meaning precisely because they refer to the real possibility of physical killing. War follows from enmity. War is the existential negation of the enemy."

I am not suggesting Miller is going to kill anyone, of course. (CNN's security did, however, escort him from the building after he refused to leave.) My point is that examining a demagogic mind like Stephen Miller's reveals how it divides reality between friend and enemy, and how seeing the world in such stark, threatening, and war-like terms means there's no room for anything else, even things we tend to believe are off-limits—like facts.

To journalists, facts are an irreducible singularity; there are no sides. Therefore, they are politically indifferent. Facts may be used for political ends, of course, but they are not subject to the demagogue's habit of "friend-enemy grouping."

To the demagogue, the journalist's quest to establish facts and hold power accountable is unacceptable. It is like hearing a language he does not speak. Nothing is off-limits to the political, because there exists only a clear duality—friend and enemy. To the demagogue, the journalist faces a choice but doesn't, and in not choosing, the journalist becomes the enemy.

Tapper said he ended his interview with Miller, because he was being obsequious. The clip went viral, and everyone had a good laugh. But there was more going on than that.

One person was seeking to challenge and understand, while the other sought to "annihilate." There's nothing to be done with a person like that, except to let them speak, then shut him down. Let's hope the rest of civil society follows Tapper's example. Liberal democracy must be tolerant, but if it is to survive those who wish to annihilate it, liberal democracy must make a choice: It can tolerate intolerance or it can shut it down.

John Stoehr is a fellow at the Yale Journalism Initiative, a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly, an essayist for the New Haven Register and a U.S. News & World Report contributing editor.