Senior White House adviser Stephen Miller is an immigration hard-liner. He engineered the Trump administration's family-separation policy and its travel ban on people from some Muslim-majority countries.
But last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center detailed leaked emails in which it says Miller encouraged far-right website Breitbart to promote white supremacist ideas. In one message, Miller references a book of fiction: "Someone should point out the parallels to Camp of the Saints."
The Camp of the Saints is a 1973 French novel by Jean Raspail that has become a key inspiration within white nationalist circles. It portrays a dystopia, or perhaps an apocalypse: a flotilla of South Asian people who invade France and effectively overthrow Western society.
"The key themes are actually white supremacy and the end of white civilization as the West knows it — infestation, invasion, hordes of nameless, faceless migrants who come to indeed invade the West and bring about its end," says Chelsea Stieber, professor of French and Francophone studies at Catholic University of America.
Stieber says she became interested in the novel after she heard echoes of its rhetoric – its "not-normal political discourse" — in President Trump's inaugural address.
"I noticed a language that I was intimately familiar with because I study it — because I worked on far-right French nationalism and its literature and language for a long time," she says. "And I was sort of blown away. The alarm bells started going off."
Stieber teaches the book to students, who she says are generally "overwhelmed" by its content.
"The book itself is, I mean, from the pedagogic point of view, very effective because it performs the effect of infestation with its language and with its figures of style, repetition, metaphor," she says. "And so students feel quite invaded by the language — and it is an emotional and visceral reaction. ... To study it is so important to understand how it could quite literally infest a mind, a person to believe things."
In an essay for the publication Africa Is a Country, Stieber argues that everyone should read the book to understand how a racist ideology can take hold in language and narrative. But she does caution everyone to understand that it is fiction based on mistaken premises.
"And with my students, the thing that I do that I think is so important — and that I would guess encourage anyone who wants to read this book to do — is to ground ourselves first in humanity and humanism," she says. "We agree that we believe in the equality of humanity, the dignity of humanity. And when you start from that point of view, and you read this book, and you realize that a central conceit in the novel is that you cannot respect the humanity of all beings — that you must create a hierarchy and that the white West is the most human and thus must reject this subhuman group — it becomes easier to see how incredibly disturbing and wrong it is."
Historian Kathleen Belew is also familiar with the book and others like it — works of fiction like The Turner Diaries, "a piece of dystopic fiction that ends in a nuclear war after which all nonwhites are killed," as NPR's Andrew Limbong reported earlier this year. Belew says these novels morph from fiction to reality for white power activists.
"They fill imaginative holes that people can use in organizing, and they provide a map of ideology and operations that spur future activity," she says.
Belew, a historian at the University of Chicago, wrote Bring the War Home, a book about the roots of white power movements in the United States. She says The Camp of the Saints taps into a central belief of white nationalism: fear around the reproduction of the white race and thusly, the birth of white children.
"This is why you see people focusing on the birth rate, right?" Belew says. "We see the birth rate appearing in manifestos of violent actors. But to people in this movement, white reproduction is not just about a peaceful demographic transformation, but it's about this feeling of being overrun by immigrants, about being threatened with forced integration, and about the idea that the white race is under attack. And I think that sense of emergency that is depicted in works like Camp of the Saints and The Turner Diaries explains how white nationalism becomes such a captivating and world-consuming way of thinking about politics."
The Camp of the Saints has also been referenced by Steve Bannon, a former adviser to President Trump and a co-founder of Breitbart News, and by Republican Rep. Steve King of Iowa. Belew says that with respect to racial inequality or anti-immigrant xenophobia, this is an even bigger red flag than structurally unequal legislation or personal racial prejudice.
"But this is something else," she says. "This is a organized ideology. It has a coherent worldview that is not only deeply racist and xenophobic and anti-immigrant, but also, at times, un-American and dedicated towards war on the state. I think this represents a real difference in intent than a policy that's simply enacted with an after-effect of harm. This is about deliberate construction of a white nationalist public policy coming from the halls of power into our laws and into our nation."
As for Stephen Miller, she says the leaked emails obtained by SPLC show that he is clearly immersed in white nationalist ideology.
"I think that, to me, the important thing here is that this really shows that we can't consider the Trump immigration policy as sort of belonging to the unintentional harm category of white supremacist society," Belew says. "To me, it shows that this is a deliberate and intentional attempt to propagate that kind of a system."
Hiba Ahmad and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited the broadcast version of this interview. Patrick Jarenwattananon and Tom Cole adapted it for the Web.