No candidate in the election cycle had made such a direct nationalist clarion call: By denouncing the “false song of globalism,” Trump threw down the gauntlet. Here was the right-wing sovereigntist, championing America First. His opponent, Hillary Clinton, was the “globalist" -- a politician, he argues, in thrall to interests beyond the nation's borders and eager to let the alien hordes within them.
For a number of years, the term “globalism” or “globalist” has been bandied about the fringes of American political discourse as a catchall phrase for a host of perceived evils: The collusion of international finance with Washington insiders, the anti-national agendas of multinational corporations and conglomerates, the indifference of “coastal elites” to the concerns of ordinary folks in the hinterland.
“Globalism” didn't always carry this valence. In most contexts, “globalization” has been the more loaded, charged word — and the prompt for outraged left-wing protests at summits of international power-brokers for the past two decades.
Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye laid out the distinction between the terms in 2002.
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. It attempts to understand all the interconnections of the modern world — and to highlight patterns that underlie (and explain) them. In contrast, globalization refers to the increase or decline in the degree of globalism. It focuses on the forces, the dynamism or speed of these changes. In short, consider globalism as the underlying basic network, while globalization refers to the dynamic shrinking of distance on a large scale.
But in 2016, the “underlying basic network" -- the simple fact of the world's interconnectedness — seems to have come under attack. It's been fueled by American conspiracy mongers on the far-right, such as Alex Jones of the Infowars website, who has decried “globalism” writ large for at least half a decade.
And it has been made mainstream by Trump, who, while tapping into a long-standing vein of nativism in conservative American politics, has also cloaked his campaign in the rhetoric of right-wing European populism.
"This whole movement has a certain global aspect to it," Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon said on radio the week before the American election. "People want more control of their country. They’re very proud of their countries. They want borders. They want sovereignty. It’s not just a thing that’s happening in any one geographic space.”
That's the mantra intoned earlier this year by those who called for Britain's exit from the European Union.
“We literally have lost our sovereignty, lost our borders, lost our ability to regulate,” said Nigel Farage, a leader of Britain's xenophobic United Kingdom Independence Party, on the floor of the European parliament in June. “The problem you’ve got in the U.S. is illegal immigration. Our problem is legal immigration to half a billion people.”
Farage got his way this year: He was one of the champions of the pro-Brexit movement in Britain, which won a shock referendum in June when Britain voted by a narrow margin to quit the European Union. Trump hailed the referendum as “a great thing” and has gone on to liken himself to “Mr. Brexit.”
As other pro-Brexit figures backed away from the mess they created, Farage journeyed to America and campaigned on the trail with Trump. “Anything is possible if enough decent people want to fight the establishment,” Farage said at a rally in Mississippi in August.
In recent months, the Republican nominee's many surrogates in the media have also embraced this stance. Fox News host Sean Hannity railed against the globalism that embodied all of Trump's foes, including both the Democratic and Republican establishment. Irked by Trump's struggles in Utah, Lou Dobbs growled against the “globalist,” “Mormon mafia.” Trump ally and financier Roger Stone warned that “globalists” intend to start a new World War in the Middle East. Some Christian pastors even deemed globalism “demonic” and the “anti-Christ.”
Whatever the dubious and rather hysterical ideas underlying these claims, they feed into the broader message conveyed by Trump — that the system, as a whole, is rigged against his supporters.
“The problem is never the populist’s imperfect capacity to represent the people’s will; rather, it’s always the institutions that somehow produced the wrong outcomes,” writes Princeton academic Jan-Werner Müller in a new book on populism. “So even if they look properly democratic, there must be something going on behind the scenes that allows corrupt elites to continue to betray the people. Conspiracy theories are thus not a curious addition to populist rhetoric; they are rooted in and emerge from the very logic of populism itself.”
To be sure, disquiet about the forces of globalization and growing economic inequality within societies is not unique to the American right-wing. It animated Bernie Sanders's campaign on the left and will have to be reckoned with no matter who wins the election next month.
“I think we haven’t organized ourselves for the 21st century globalization,” Clinton admitted in an interview with the New Yorker's George Packer.
In a somewhat desperate plea, the conservative Federalist website urged Sanders voters to choose Trump and reject “dynastic globalism.” But the idea of “globalism" -- as it has been invoked by Trump and his backers — isn't simply an economic critique. As many now have already noted, the antiglobalist messaging of Trump's supporters in social media and on right-wing talk shows echoes a very dark past.
“The conspiracy theories Trump has been talking up recently play on long-standing tropes used against Jews for decades or even centuries, and the echoes are unmistakable for many of Trump’s alt-right followers and for Jews who are familiar with the history of anti-Semitism,” writes Cheryl Greenberg, professor of history at Trinity College.
She goes on: “Whether Trump is intentional about spreading anti-Semitism is, of course, largely beside the point. Like his more overt expressions of racism, sexism and Islamophobia, Trump’s anti-Semitic comments have made such conversation acceptable again.”
And it's almost certain that, no matter the victor on Nov. 8, the scaremongering over the “globalist” menace will continue.
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