U.S. immigration policy: Damn those cosmopolitans

Cosmopolitanism is clearly a dirty word to the Trump administration, which is increasingly aligning itself with nativist movements hostile to ethnic or religious minorities. In the process Trump and his advisors are walking on thin political ice, argues Ian Buruma in his essay

By Ian Buruma

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 a CNN correspondent named Jim Acosta, the son of a Cuban immigrant, challenged Trump′s senior policy adviser, Stephen Miller, by stating that the U.S. traditionally welcomed the world′s poor, most of whom did not speak any English, Miller accused Acosta of ″cosmopolitan bias.″

Acosta asked whether the new policy would mean that only people from Britain or Australia would be allowed to come. He may have been a little provocative. But the implication of Miller′s complaint was that Acosta′s ″bias″ was a kind of racism. Coming from an administration that panders, at least occasionally, to white supremacists, this was remarkable, to say the least.

One wonders whether 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.

″Rootless cosmopolitan″ was the code phrase used by Joseph Stalin for Jews. In the early years after World War II, 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.

Cosmopolitans regarded as disloyal

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.

Klu Klux Klan and other right-wing groups demonstrate in the U.S. state of Virginia (photo: picture-alliance/dpa/AA/abaca/S. Corum)
Klu Klux Klan demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia: following an incident in which a right-wing demonstrator rammed a group of counter-demonstrators with his car, killing one woman, Trump failed to distance himself sufficiently from neo-Nazis, members of the Alt-Right movement and white supremacists

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 U.S. 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 Miller, are Jewish. The chief (ed: now dismissed) ideologue of ethnic nationalism in the Trumpian Age, Steve Bannon, is a reactionary Catholic.

Bannon has a penchant for early-twentieth-century French and Italian fascist thinkers, such as Charles Maurras (of the Action Francaise) and Julius Evola, a sinister figure who admired Heinrich Himmler and worked for the German police during World War II.

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.

Distrust of intellectuals and elites

It is unlikely that 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 civilisation, whatever that may be.

Ian Buruma (photo: Merlijn Doomernik)
″Cosmopolitan bias″: this accusation reflects ″a shared grievance against Muslims and the liberal urban elites who are often accused of coddling them,″ writes Ian Buruma in his essay. It is an attitude that unites many of Trump′s followers, as well as right-wing populists in other countries, including Israel

One thing that unites many of 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 Miller speaks of cosmopolitan bias that is probably what he means.

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 eighteenth 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 Trump, or his ideologues, like Miller or Bannon, are interested in expanding democratic rights, even though they pretend to speak for the common – or as they like to say – ″real″ people.

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 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.

Ian Buruma

© Project Syndicate 2017

Ian Buruma is a British-Dutch author and journalist. He has received numerous awards, including the Erasmus Prize in 2008. In September 2017 he will become editor-in-chief of the New York Review of Books.