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The GOP’s Sinister New Nationalism

The worst thing you could be in the Soviet Union in the late 1940s was a “rootless cosmopolitan.” The epithet sometimes came with a death sentence.

The Soviet Communist Party, under the strong guiding hand of Joseph Stalin, had long turned its back on the internationalism of its founders and their commitment to world revolution. In its place, Stalin vowed to “build socialism in one country.” And that ultimately required a new kind of nationalism.

“Rootless cosmopolitan” was not just a term for run-of-the-mill internationalists. It had a very specific meaning. Stalin was targeting Jews.

Ironically, most of the Jews who’d been so influential in the creation of Soviet Communism — Leon Trotsky, Grigory Zinoviev, Karl Radek — had already been purged or exiled. That didn’t stop Stalin from searching for other hidden enemies, such as a group of Jewish poets, or an imaginary cabal of Jewish doctors determined to assassinate the dictator. The anti-Semitic purges that Stalin began in the Soviet Union spread throughout Eastern Europe as well, as the Communist parties there took a hard turn toward nationalism.

History repeats, Marx once said, first as tragedy and then as comedy.

In mid-July, a group of putative conservative intellectuals gathered in Washington to confirm a new, nationalist direction for their movement. The conference featured the likes of John Bolton and Tucker Carlson, Peter Thiel, and Julius Krein. According to its mini-manifesto,

The conference on “National Conservatism” will bring together public figures, journalists, scholars, and students who understand that the past and future of conservatism are inextricably tied to the idea of the nation, to the principle of national independence, and to the revival of the unique national traditions that alone have the power to bind a people together and bring about their flourishing.

On the face of it, this ideological transformation mirrors Donald Trump’s assault on “globalists” and pledge to Make America Great Again. Lurking behind this fixation on the nation, as with Stalin’s earlier campaign, is the GOP’s own purge of cosmopolitanism, including the rootless variety.

In this comic reworking of the earlier Soviet tragedy, a key target is not Trotskyism but its distant cousin, neo-conservatism. Many of the neo-conservatives who proved so influential in the 2000s were Jewish — Bill Kristol, Elliott Abrams, David Frum. Some, like Bill Kristol’s father Irving, were once even Trotskyists, which helps to explain their peculiar transmutation of world revolution into global democracy promotion.

Mind you, most Soviet and East European Communists were not Jewish, and neither are most neo-cons. And the inspiration for this particular conference was Israeli author Yoram Hazony’s The Virtue of Nationalism. But it’s hard not see a similar anti-Semitic trope in operation behind the attacks on cosmopolitanism at the conference.

Trump didn’t attend the meeting, and the conference speakers avoided mention of his name. But his upending of the policy status quo has made this nationalist turn possible. Even before he stepped out of the closet to proclaim himself an unabashed nationalist in October 2018, Trump pushed back against the neocon obsession with democracy promotion abroad (indeed, the president doesn’t promote democracy at home either).

Instead, like Stalin, Trump is focusing his revolution in one country. The U.S. president is obsessed with securing the borders and cracking down on “rootless” immigrants. He has repeatedly trafficked in racist rhetoric of the “white makes right” variety. He has heaped scorn on cosmopolitan cities like Baltimore. He is not against Jews per se — witness his strong embrace of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel more generally — but only a particular kind of Jew, whose allegiance to Israel or the United States might be called into question because of liberal cosmopolitanism. He particularly bristles at Jews who accuse him (or he thinks have accused him) of anti-Semitism.

This new turn toward nationalism among American conservatives is troubling for reasons other than its implicit indictment of rootless cosmopolitanism. Right now Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and the undocumented are certainly more vulnerable to Trump’s attacks than American Jews. Trump is telling prominent people of color in Congress — not prominent Jewish politicians — to “go home.” The intended audiences for these messages can interpret the rhetoric according to their favorite intolerance: racism, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, xenophobia.

But the assault on globalists, on the elite, on financiers like George Soros all push in the same direction: against the internationalism that is in such short supply when it is needed the most.

Against the Globalists

It’s hard these days to find anyone in the United States in a position of political power who will put in a good word for internationalism.

The candidates for the Democratic Party presidential nomination have largely avoided foreign policy (though both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have issued good statements). And when the candidates do venture into matters beyond these borders, it’s usually to bash China (as several did during the first televised debate) or Russia or Trump’s policy on North Korea.

Then there’s the new Quincy Institute, which unites George Soros and the Koch Brothers in an effort to reduce the U.S. military footprint in the world. That’s all for the good, of course. But given the Koch funding and its transpartisan agenda, this new initiative is unlikely to embrace strong internationalist institutions and programs except on a strictly ad hoc basis (like support for the Iran nuclear deal).

But while the liberals are busy staying silent about internationalism, the right wing is conducting an all-out frontal assault. Gone are the days of overt enthusiasm for economic globalization or beefed-up security alliances like NATO and, frankly, good riddance. But Trump’s version of America First is spreading through conservative circles like some intellectual version of kudzu. The new fifth column in this nationalist assault are the liberal internationalists, the globalists, the cosmopolitans.

At the National Conservatism conference, for instance, Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) led the charge against this new enemy, arguing that an elite of the left and right had sold out the “American middle” to global interests. “Today’s leadership elite is a ‘cosmopolitan’ elite in the way defined by Prof Martha Nussbaum: ‘the cosmopolitan [is] the person whose primary allegiance is to the community of human beings in the entire world,’ not to a ‘specifically American identity,’” Hawley wrote in a follow-up tweet. “And the cosmopolitan agenda of hyper-globalization & disrespect for the American middle has been bad for workers, bad for families, bad for America.”

Hawley’s jeremiad against cosmopolitans drew charges of anti-Semitism from various organizations like the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee. Hawley refused to back down, saying that the “liberal language police have lost their minds.” He then cited his support for Israel and his opposition to the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement as proof of his philo-Semitism. Similarly, in 2017, when Trump advisor Stephen Miller accused a reporter of having a “cosmopolitan bias,” charges of anti-Semitic dog-whistling didn’t stick because of the obvious fact that Miller is the one who’s Jewish and the reporter, Jim Acosta, is not.

But again, the anti-Semitism in question is not directed at all Jews, just as Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign exempted Lazar Kaganovich, the only Jewish member of the Politburo in the 1940s. Kaganovich escaped censure because his loyalty, as an uber-Stalinist, was never in question. The charge of cosmopolitanism today is also about loyalty — to America, to Trump’s brand of nationalism, to Netanyahu’s right-wing version of Israel. If American Jews subscribe to that agenda, they can tell themselves that they, too, are exempted from the ugly name-calling.

This campaign against cosmopolitanism is strengthened by repetition across borders: throughout Europe, in Russia, and even in India. Vladimir Putin has his own brand of illiberal nationalism shot through with Orthodox Christianity. The leaders of Hungary and Poland are similarly ill-disposed towards any minorities that might dilute the presumed homogeneity of their countries. More explicitly fascist echoes can be heard in the far-right parties in France, Spain, Italy, and Greece. In India, Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi is challenging the secular, multiethnic, and cosmopolitan democracy enshrined in the constitution.

But here’s the difference with the Soviet Union of the early 1950s. Jewish poets didn’t conspire against Stalin; there was no such Doctor’s Plot. Those were paranoid delusions.

With Hawley and his fellow nationalists, however, some truth lurks in their accusations. A political elite of the left and right did partner with Wall Street and transnational corporations to promote policies that widened economic inequality within the United States and around the world. Neocons did push for military interventions that were wrongheaded and tragic.

But none of this had to do with cosmopolitanism. The perpetrators of these policies were just as vocally patriotic as their current detractors. They believed in American exceptionalism. They’d reject the notion that they’re world citizens first before American citizens. In fact, the people who pushed through the policies that Hawley now excoriates looked a lot like Hawley himself, a WASPish lawyer who graduated from Stanford and Yale and taught in London.

Against the Cities

The ultimate strategy behind this “anti-cosmopolitanism” is not just to pit a disloyal elite against the common American. It’s also to drive a further wedge between those who live in the cities and those who live elsewhere. Cities, after all, are the home base of cosmopolitans.

Case in point: Trump’s latest tweets demonizing Baltimore and its elected representative Elijah Cummings. The president has described the city as a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.” I’ve been living in Baltimore for the past year and it’s a wonderful place, full of museums and quirky festivals and vibrant neighborhoods. Yes, it has a high murder rate, many abandoned storefronts, and endemic poverty. But welcome to the modern American city, starved of federal funds and abandoned by the wealthy.

Baltimore shouldn’t take it personally. Trump has also gone after Chicago, Oakland, and Ferguson. It’s no accident that Trump singles out cities with large African-American populations for criticism. He knows that he can’t pick up any votes in these places. But he can win points with suburban and rural Americans who have traditionally been suspicious of what takes places in cosmopolitan places: “un-American” activities like race-mixing, gender-bending, and religion-avoiding.

Trump is engaged in political triage. He doesn’t bother campaigning in areas of the country where he’s disliked by the majority. He directs federal funding as much as possible to areas dominated by his supporters. He insults his blue state opponents with electoral impunity. It’s sobering to learn that, according to an analysis in the Cook Political Report, Trump could lose by five million votes — nearly twice the margin of the popular vote in 2016 — and still win the presidency via the Electoral College. Now that is a disgusting mess.

Reorganization of the Right

Not all conservatives have fully embraced this nationalist turn.

Take Bret Stephens, for instance, the New York Times columnist. He’s reluctant to give up on his bedrock commitment to free markets. He tries to stick up for immigration as an important American principle. But even in his explicit rejection of these national conservatives, he can’t resist a few potshots at globalists:

Nationalism offers protection to “somewhere people” against the political and moral preferences of “anywhere people.” And transnational bodies like the European Union have largely failed the test of democratic representation and accountability.

The once-grand coalition of conservatives that created the Reagan revolution — laissez-faire enthusiasts like Milton Friedman, America Firsters like Pat Buchanan, Christian conservatives like Jerry Falwell, neoconservatives like Jeane Kirkpatrick — no longer exists. The parochialists are displacing the globalists, and cosmopolitans are replacing communists as the enemy of choice. Even the mild dissenters within the conservative coalition, like Stephens, feel the need to give nationalism its due.

The Democrats are doing their best to sound the same themes. Elizabeth Warren’s domestic program, after all, is called “economic patriotism.” That’s fine for winning elections. But without a new internationalism, progressives will end up with the tired old foreign policy of the Blob — or worse.

More articles by:

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus, where this article originally appeared.

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