What Trump Means When He Calls Gary Cohn a 'Globalist'

On Thursday, the president applied an epithet with a troubling, anti-Semitic history to the outgoing director of his National Economic Council.

Gary Cohn and Donald Trump
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

The term “globalist” is a bit like the term “thug.” It’s an epithet that is disproportionately directed at a particular minority group. Just as “thug” is often used to invoke the stereotype that African Americans are violent, “globalist” can play on the stereotype that Jews are disloyal. Used that way, it becomes a modern-day vessel for an ancient slur: that Jews—whether loyal to international Judaism or international capitalism or international communism or international Zionism—aren’t loyal to the countries in which they live.

That slur has a long, dark history. The infamous 1903 forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, warns that, “The nations of the West are being brought under international control”—by Jews. In 1935, Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels railed against “the absolute destruction of all economic, social, state, cultural, and civilizing advances made by western civilization for the benefit of a rootless and nomadic international clique of conspirators”: Jews. David Duke called Brexit a triumph over the “Jewish globalist agenda.”

On Thursday, President Trump saluted his outgoing director of the National Economic Council, Gary Cohn. “He may be a globalist,” Trump declared, “but I still like him.”

The generous interpretation is that Trump was merely referring to Cohn’s support of free trade, as illustrated by his opposition to the steel and aluminum tariffs Trump just imposed. Cohn’s Jewishness had nothing to do with it.

That’s conceivable. Not all the people who Trump’s supporters call globalists are Jews. Breitbart enjoys hurling the term at National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who it considers too supportive of military intervention. And some Trump administration Jews—for instance, Stephen Miller, a fierce opponent of immigration—are rarely called globalists.

It’s possible to use the term “globalist”—even about a Jew—innocently, just like it’s possible to use the term “thug” about an African American with no racist intent. And perhaps that’s what Trump was doing when he applied it to Cohn. The problem is that this requires giving Donald Trump a benefit of the doubt that he forfeited long ago.

In his 1991 book, Trumped, Trump Plaza Hotel and Casino President John R. O’Donnell quotes his former boss as saying, “The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes.” (Trump has denied saying this.) In a December 2015 speech, Trump told members of the Republican Jewish Coalition, “You’re not going to support me because I don’t want your money.” He later asked, “Is there anyone in this room who doesn’t negotiate deals? Probably more than in any room I’ve ever spoken.” In July of 2016, he retweeted an image of Hillary Clinton surrounded by dollar bills and a six pointed-star. (Trump claimed not to know that the six-pointed star is a Jewish symbol). And in its closing ad, the Trump campaign declared that “The establishment has trillions of dollars at stake in this election.” It warned of “those who control the levers of power in Washington” and the “global special interests” and the “global power structure that is responsible for the economic decisions that have robbed our working class, stripped our country of its wealth.” Besides Hillary Clinton, the ad featured images of only three recognizable Americans: the investor and philanthropist George Soros, Goldman Sachs Chairman Lloyd Blankfein, and then-Chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen, all Jews.

When Trump uses anti-Semitic language, his defenders often counter that his daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren are Orthodox Jews. Sure, but even bigots contain multitudes. Trump may feel genuine affection for Jared Kushner, and likely Gary Cohn too. But that doesn’t change the fact that he employs anti-Semitic tropes in ways that make him almost unique among contemporary American politicians. After all, history is filled with politicians who fomented anti-Semitism yet enjoyed warm relationships with individual Jews.

For Cohn, there’s a sad irony here. He reportedly considered resigning after Trump’s equivocal response to last August’s outbreak of white supremacism in Charlottesville, but stuck it out, and instead resigned over Trump’s tariff policy. What thanks did he get? A presidential tribute using language that would have made the Charlottesville marchers smile.