President Trump took a moment Thursday to label his outgoing chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, with a derogatory term frequently employed by some of his most fervent supporters.
“He may be a globalist, but I still like him,” Trump said of Cohn on Thursday, during what would be the adviser’s last Cabinet meeting. “He is seriously a globalist. There’s no question.”
Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, also leaned in on the term.
“I never expected that the co-worker I would work closest, and best, with at the White House would be a ‘globalist,’ ” Mulvaney said in a statement after Cohn's departure was announced. “Gary Cohn is one of the smartest people I’ve ever worked with. Having the chance to collaborate with him will remain one of the highlights of my career in public service.”
The use of the term “globalist” to describe Cohn — seemingly framed as a joke, albeit a barbed one — might have appeared innocuous. But to some observers of extremism, the word speaks to something darker, whether intended or not.
“Globalist” is frequently deployed in far-right and conspiracy-theory-minded circles on the Internet as a Jewish slur. In this line of thinking, globalists are a shadowy cabal who run the financial institutions, corporations and media organizations around the world.
Cohn, of course, is one of the president’s most prominent Jewish advisers.
Still the word is not solely deployed as a religious slur.
It has also come to be used by right-wing media and figureheads as a pejorative way to describe people of a certain political ideology: those who believe in the benefits of globalization and generally support greater interconnectedness between countries and free-market trade policies.
In the Trump era, this consensus has come under fire by a sect of conservatives who have begun to favor economic nationalism, which is oriented toward protectionist policies, such as the tariffs Trump recently announced for imports of aluminum and steel.
There was a time when both parties favored the type of policies that facilitated globalization and the word “globalism” was merely academic.
“Globalism, at its core, seeks to describe and explain nothing more than a world which is characterized by networks of connections that span multi-continental distances,” Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye wrote in 2002 for a publication called the Globalist. “It attempts to understand all the inter-connections of the modern world — and to highlight patterns that underlie (and explain) them.”
But 2002 was many lifetimes ago in Internet years. And the meaning of words can shift.
On Thursday, many were quick to criticize the president for his remarks.
“Words matter,” the journalist Dan Rather wrote on Twitter. “And President Trump should know that the term ‘globalist’ is a dog-whistle for antisemitism. Ignorance, real or feigned, is not an excuse for a President, especially one with a track record like Mr. Trump.”
Aryeh Tuchman, the associate director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, spoke about the word’s dual usage.
“I don’t know what President Trump was thinking or what was in his mind,” Tuchman told The Washington Post. “But to use that word about a Jewish person is just really problematic. It’s a really unfortunate choice of words. ... People should be aware that when you’re using it about a Jewish person, you’re raising a whole host of associations that cannot be extricated from history of anti-Semitism.”
Tuchman connected the use of “globalist” as an ethnic smear to long-running conspiracy theories about Jewish populations not being loyal to the countries they live in and cooperating through secret international alliances. Henry Ford distributed pamphlets called “The International Jew” in the 1920s; in the Soviet Union, the government ran campaigns against “rootless cosmopolitans,” Tuchman said.
“And then you have today, where if you look in certain dark corners of the Internet, people use the word 'globalist' as a euphemism for Jewish,” Tuchman said, pointing out that it was frequently used in conjunction with the triple-parenthesis “echo” symbol, a virulent racist trope that has taken off on the Internet. “If you search for globalists with echo symbol, it’s going to come up all over the place. It’s like ‘I don’t want to say Jew, but I’m going to put it in parenthesis so you know what I mean.’ ”
At one point last summer, a headline on the conservative website Breitbart referred to Cohn with globes on either side of his name.
On Thursday, Trump seemed to bring up the question of loyalty by implying that even though Cohn was a globalist, “he loves our country.”
Tuchman pointed out there were many other words that could be used to describe a similar economic outlook that could be substituted for “globalist.”
“You could say, ‘I don’t like him because he’s a free trader.’ Or, ‘he likes NAFTA.’ You could get your point across without using the word 'globalist.' ”