When TV news viewers saw Trump adviser Stephen Miller accuse Jim Acosta of harboring a “cosmopolitan bias” during Wednesday’s press conference, they might have wondered whether he was accusing the CNN White House reporter of an excessive fondness for the cocktail made famous on “Sex and the City.” It’s a term that’s seldom been heard in American political discourse. But to supporters of the Miller-Bannon worldview, it was a cause for celebration. Breitbart, where Steve Bannon reigned before becoming Trump’s chief political strategist, trumpeted Miller’s “evisceration” of Acosta and put the term in its headline. So did the white nationalist Richard Spencer, who hailed Miller’s dustup with Acosta as “a triumph.”
Why does it matter? Because it reflects a central premise of one key element of President Trump’s constituency—a premise with a dark past and an unsettling present.
So what is a “cosmopolitan”? It’s a cousin to “elitist,” but with a more sinister undertone. It’s a way of branding people or movements that are unmoored to the traditions and beliefs of a nation, and identify more with like-minded people regardless of their nationality. (In this sense, the revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine might have been an early American cosmopolitan, when he declared: “The world is my country; all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”). In the eyes of their foes, “cosmopolitans” tend to cluster in the universities, the arts and in urban centers, where familiarity with diversity makes for a high comfort level with “untraditional” ideas and lives.
For a nationalist, these are fighting words. Your country is your country; your fellow citizens are your brethren; and your country’s traditions—religious and otherwise— should be yours. A nation whose people—especially influential people—develop other ties undermine national strength, and must be repudiated.
One reason why “cosmopolitan” is an unnerving term is that it was the key to an attempt by Soviet dictator Josef Stalin to purge the culture of dissident voices. In a 1946 speech, he deplored works in which “the positive Soviet hero is derided and inferior before all things foreign and cosmopolitanism that we all fought against from the time of Lenin, characteristic of the political leftovers, is many times applauded.” It was part of a years-long campaigned aimed at writers, theater critics, scientists and others who were connected with “bourgeois Western influences.” Not so incidentally, many of these “cosmopolitans” were Jewish, and official Soviet propaganda for a time devoted significant energy into “unmasking” the Jewish identities of writers who published under pseudonyms.
What makes this history relevant is that, all across Europe, nationalist political figures are still making the same kinds of arguments—usually but not always stripped of blatant anti-Semitism—to constrict the flow of ideas and the boundaries of free political expression. Russian President Vladimir Putin, for example, has more and more embraced this idea that unpatriotic forces threaten the nation. As Foreign Policy put it in 2014:
“The new theme of Russian politics [is] the conflation of loyalty to the Kremlin with patriotism. It says much that dissidents at home, from journalists failing to toe the official line to protesters on the streets, are castigated either as outright ‘foreign agents’ (every movement, charity, or organization accepting foreign money must register itself as such) or else as unknowing victims and vectors of external contamination — contamination, that is, from the West, whose cosmopolitanism and immorality Putin has come to see as an increasing threat to Russia’s identity.”
That same notion has characterized the politics of the former Soviet bloc. In Hungary, the president of its Parliament has repeatedly denounced his political opponents as “people without a country,” loyal only to values like freedom, contemptuous of tradition and religion. Its prime minister, Viktor Orban, has openly advocated for “illiberal democracy” and launched a campaign against the Jewish financier and philanthropist George Soros. In Poland, the reigning Law and Justice Party sees the nation besieged by dangerous influences. An article last year in World Press succinctly summarized the situation:
“In the party’s propaganda the country is in ruins, its economy robbed blind by international capital, while the foreign ownership of some newspapers and other types of mass media outlets made Poland into a colony, infecting Poles’ minds with rootless cosmopolitanism. …What is at stake is Polish Christian national values that must be protected at all cost, namely the linguistic and religious homogeneity of the country. Only Poles should reside in Poland, and a proper Pole must be a Polish-speaking Catholic.”
In one form or another, such sentiments have been at play in the politics of the Netherlands, Germany, France, and (in less blatant form) in the Brexit vote in Great Britain last year.
And they undergirded much of Donald Trump’s campaign. One of its central premises was that “globalists,” regardless of ideology or party, were undermining American interests—by bringing low-skilled workers to our shores, by building factories in other lands, by letting international financial institutions grow rich while hollowing out American cities and towns.
“We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon,” Trump said in his inaugural address. “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be—always—America First.”
To be clear: Steven Bannon and Stephen Miller would angrily wave away any suggestion that they are echoing the sentiments of anti-democratic political movements, much less anti-Semitic dog-whistles. But there is no evading the unhappy reality that to label someone a “cosmopolitan” carries with it a clear implication that there is something less patriotic, less loyal … someone who is not a “real American.”
So maybe the next time Miller wants to duel with an obstreperous reporter, he might consider going back to “elitist”—that’s a real home-grown insult.