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Cosmopolitanism, Trump and ignorance as a weapon

Ian Buruma, editor of The New York Review of Books, is Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism at Bard College, and the author of Year Zero: A History of 1945.

President Donald Trump's administration has announced that it wants to cut legal immigration to the United States by half and favour well-educated immigrants who speak good English. When CNN correspondent Jim Acosta, the son of a Cuban immigrant, challenged Mr. Trump's senior policy adviser Stephen Miller by stating that the United States traditionally welcomed the world's poor, most of whom did not speak any English, Mr. Miller accused Mr. Acosta of "cosmopolitan bias."

One wonders whether Mr. Miller had any idea of the historical use of cosmopolitan as a derogatory term. As the descendant of poor Jews fleeing Belarus more than a century ago, he should have.

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"Rootless cosmopolitan" was the code phrase used by Joseph Stalin for Jews. In the early years after the Second World War, the Soviet dictator launched a campaign against Jewish intellectuals, scientists and writers who were accused of disloyalty to the Soviet Union and bias toward the West. Not considered to be part of the native Russian people, Jews were assumed to belong to an international cabal, and hence to be inherently treacherous.

But Stalin didn't invent this idea. In the 1930s, Fascists and Nazis also denounced Jews, as well as Marxists and Freemasons, as "cosmopolitans" or "internationalists" – people whose loyalty was suspect. It is the kind of vocabulary that emerges from nativist movements that are hostile to ethnic or religious minorities, or to financial or intellectual elites who supposedly conspire to undermine the true sons and daughters of the nation.

To pre-war fascists, the United States was often regarded as the symbol of cosmopolitan decadence. The offensive use of cosmopolitanism, then, has a profoundly anti-American provenance.

One of the oddities of the Trump administration is that several of its main representatives have revived traditionally anti-Semitic rhetoric, even though some of them, like Mr. Miller, are Jewish. The chief ideologue of ethnic nationalism in the Trump Age, Steve Bannon, is a reactionary Catholic. He has a penchant for early-20th-century French and Italian fascist thinkers, such as Charles Maurras (of the Action Française) and Julius Evola, a sinister figure who admired Heinrich Himmler and worked for the German police during the Second World War.

But to see anti-cosmopolitanism as an especially Catholic pathology would be a mistake. The first offensive use of cosmopolitanism came as part of the Protestant rebellion against the Catholic Church. Rome, to Protestant rebels at the time of the Reformation, was regarded as the centre of a global "cosmopolitan" network which oppressed national aspirations. Traces of this prejudice can still be found in some opponents of the European Union, who see the EU's Brussels headquarters as the new Rome.

It is unlikely that Mr. Miller, who grew up in a liberal family in California, is an anti-Semite. Perhaps his early attraction to right-wing extremism was a form of rebellion, too, albeit a rebellion that soon put him in the company of toxic allies. As a student at Duke University, he became friends with Richard Spencer, who would later become a promoter of "peaceful ethnic cleansing" to preserve white civilization, whatever that may be.

One thing that unites many of Mr. Trump's followers – as well as right-wing populists in other countries, including Israel – is a shared grievance against Muslims and the liberal urban elites who are often accused of coddling them. When Mr. Miller speaks of cosmopolitan bias, that is probably what he means.

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But distrust of Muslims is only part of the story. Social elites, liberal intellectuals, and critical journalists are the enemy of those who crave power but feel looked down upon by people who appear to be more sophisticated. This is not always a matter of social class. President George W. Bush, for example, despised American reporters who spoke French.

This, too, is not a new phenomenon. The upper classes in many societies often like to distinguish themselves from the common herd by adopting the language and manners of foreigners whose cultures were thought to be superior. European aristocrats in the 18th century spoke French. Modern English nationalism started as a revolt against this kind of foppery in the name of John Bull, roast beef, and Old England.

Not all populist rebellions are inherently racist or fascist. Democracy, too, was a product of resistance to aristocratic rule. But it is hard to believe that Mr. Trump, or his ideologues, like Mr. Miller or Mr. Bannon, are interested in expanding democratic rights, even though they pretend to speak for the common – or as they like to say – "real" people. Mr. Bannon, for one, is proudly anti-liberal. He is said to have described himself as a Leninist who seeks to destroy the state.

Still, let us give Mr. Miller the benefit of the doubt. When he uses cosmopolitanism as a curse, he has no idea of the term's antecedents. The history of fascist, Nazi, and Stalinist anti-Semitism is unknown to him. The past does not really exist. He is simply an ignorant critic of what he sees as the liberal establishment. But ignorance can be as dangerous as malice, especially when it is backed by great power.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2017.

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