The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The far-right slur at the heart of Trump’s economic agenda

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First he came for the solar panels and washing machines. Then he came for the steel and aluminum.

President Trump’s pledge to slap new tariffs on the vital manufacturing commodities roiled global markets and U.S. politics this week. It led to the resignation of his top economic adviser, Gary Cohn, and prompted frantic appeals to reconsider from within the ranks of the president’s own party.

But the president was hellbent on following through on one of his major campaign promises. And at a White House photo op Thursday, alongside senior administration officials and a coterie of steel and aluminum workers, Trump officially enacted a 10 percent tariff on aluminum and 25 percent tariff on steel imported into the United States.

He framed the move as essential to restoring American national security and industry and bringing new jobs and factories to the United States — although many economists aren’t so sure that’s what will happen. Trump also gave a temporary exemptions to Canada and Mexico, hoping not to rock the boat while the White House continues negotiations over amending the North American Free Trade Agreement.

What follows is going to be messy. The tariffs take effect in two weeks, and members of Congress may try to block them before then. Across the pond, top European Union officials have threatened to retaliate with tariffs on U.S. goods ranging from steel to blue jeans, targeting products that will create maximum discomfort in Washington.

“Europe must show its power and sovereignty,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told a French broadcaster. Tariffs “might be attractive for the United States now, but in the long term it will have detrimental effects on American’s worldwide influence.”

“We will defend our interests” if necessary, E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in Brussels. “Protectionism is not a good idea for the U.S. economy.”

Many Republicans in Washington, long accustomed to championing free trade, concurred. Some frantically tried to deter Trump ahead of his Thursday announcement.

“I have been placing calls over to the White House,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said in a radio interview. “I was able to visit with some folks in the vice president’s office [Wednesday] night. So I have not been able to speak directly to the president. I think there’s a lot of calls going to him right now from a number of congressmen, senators, that are displeased about the policy. This needs to be well thought through, and I think it just came out of the blue.”

But Trump’s move shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Trump has touted protectionist economic measures for decades, and his campaign-trail diatribes were loaded with attacks against free trade and the “false song of globalism.” That word — “globalism” — became a political bugbear for Trump, a catchall term to describe the perils of interdependence and immigration. His ultranationalist lieutenants, including departed chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon and others still within the administration, routinely labeled opponents as “globalists.”

After news of Cohn’s upcoming resignation broke this week, his rivals in the White House texted reporters gleeful messages using a globe emoji as shorthand for the former Goldman Sachs banker.

Even as the White House lavished parting praise on Cohn, “globalist” appeared again and again. “He’s been terrific,” Trump said at a Cabinet meeting Thursday morning. “He may be a globalist, but I still like him.” Mick Mulvaney, director of both the White House's Office of Management and Budget and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, tweeted a similar remark earlier in the week.

Thanks to its frequent invocation by Trump, his officials and his allies, the epithet has even crept largely unchallenged into the mainstream media as a kind of shorthand.

Of course, Cohn does not self-identify as a “globalist” — nor, really, does anyone else. The term is arguably an anti-Semitic dog whistle, recently made popular by far-right media outlets such as Breitbart News but harking back to days when some in Europe spoke of Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans” and enemies of the national interest. Nevertheless, Trump’s embrace of such messaging has played out well among his populist base.

“Anti-globalism is a very efficient net to unite disparate parts of the right,” Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, said to the New York Times in 2016. Globalism is “the defining folklore and narrative for the racist right,” he added, and it has become a “convenient boogeyman to explain the various declines that the United States is perceived to be in.”

Trump's embrace of that narrative also marks a fascinating rupture with the establishment wing of his own party. While mainstream GOP officials seemed to tolerate other occasions when Trump waved the flag of the far right — from his demonization of Muslim immigrants to his apparent coddling of neo-Nazis — the tariffs could prove a red line. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) urged Trump to narrow the scope of punitive measures even further. Sen. Jeff Flake (R.-Ariz.), an outspoken Trump critic, promised to draft legislation to “nullify” the tariffs.

But as Cohn exits, power is flowing to protectionists like Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro, a once-fringe trade-war advocate drafted into the White House after the president’s son-in-law encountered his anti-China writing on Amazon. Navarro and the president may be biting off more they can chew — or at least more than what the rest of the world and Washington may be willing to swallow.

An editorial in the Financial Times laid out what may come next: “There is good reason to worry that this is merely an opening salvo and that next in line is China. Mr Trump has already threatened to penalize Beijing for the alleged theft of US intellectual property rights, and is due to receive the results of a related investigation soon. Mr Trump has legitimate complaints about China’s trade policies. But he has given little cause for us to believe his response will be proportionate and effective.”

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