This is sabotage, and we’re about to learn how undermined we’ve been. The Chinese coronavirus isn’t some fluke of globalization- it is the inevitable byproduct of it…the people who told us there was no downside to living in a borderless world, were lying. Make them eat their words. Strip them of their power. Never listen to them again… Abandon globalism. Rebuild the country.
As the coronavirus crisis deepens, voices across the Right are mobilizing a politics of resentment to distract from the Trump administration’s botched response, and to advance an exclusionary nationalist agenda. Their antagonist is China and their scapegoat is the ‘globalist elite’, a shadowy internal enemy who, they insist, has stabbed the U.S. in the back, ensuring the nation’s vulnerability to coronavirus, humiliation before China, and economic collapse.
Using antisemitism and Sinophobia, the Right channels widespread suffering, uncertainty and resentment for economic inequality away from truly liberatory movement building and towards a xenophobic, anti-democratic, illiberal agenda. Unless progressives can mount a compelling, equitable and inclusive alternative, we may find ourselves cornered by a global economic depression and outmaneuvered by those on the right who have a very different revolutionary vision in mind.
In the first months of the coronavirus crisis, the Right has portrayed China both as a savvy enemy maneuvering, in a moment of global crisis, to erode U.S. power on the geopolitical stage, and as a primitive backwater whose customs are to blame for infecting humans around the world. President Trump and right-wing elected officials continue to call COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” and “Wuhan virus”, circulate conspiracy theories that the virus was engineered by China, and promote economic and political retaliation, and even war, against the named enemy. Many Democratic leaders, meanwhile, have followed suit, attempting to outflank Republicans in anti-China belligerence.
This rhetoric has helped the Trump administration distract from its monumental mishandling of the crisis, deflecting blame, instead, upon a familiar bogeyman. To do so, the Right has tapped directly into “Yellow Peril” tropes that have a long and sordid history in American politics, blending, as researcher Matthew Lyons has noted, racist demonization, anti-Communist fearmongering, and geopolitical arch-rivalry.
This rise in anti-China rhetoric has caused measurable harm, driving a spike in harassment and attacks against Asian American-Pacific Islander communities. Since its launch on March 19, the Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center has received over 1700 reports of verbal harassment, shunning and physical assault on Asian Americans.
In pursuit of its “goal of overtaking the U.S.,” China has “become America’s creditor, pharmacist, manufacturer and perennial villain,” lamented Ryan Girdusky, leading figure in the newly emergent “national populist” school of right-wing thought, in an April op-ed. But, he insisted, there remains a deeper and more foundational threat to American sovereignty, lurking behind China, facilitating the rival’s rise. “The U.S. will always be vulnerable to China,” he wrote, “so long as our leaders are committed to the ideologies of globalism and neoliberalism.”
If China serves as the outside enemy in this pandemic era, it is “the globalists” who predictably serve as the enemy within. “Globalism- and China- are the disease,” tweeted the white nationalist website VDare. “Nationalism- and America First- are the cure.”
For much of the Right, the spread of the coronavirus to the U.S. is the direct consequence of what they call globalism, and particularly a commitment to open borders. The virus was only able to migrate from ‘backwards’ China to the ‘advanced’ civilizations of the West “because of openness, because of travel, because of globalization, lax and loose borders, and population transfers,” claimed Nick Fuentes, leader of the America First/groyper movement, a prominent white nationalist formation attempting to make inroads on college campuses and mainstream conservative discourse. At a March 2 rally, President Trump celebrated his decision to “close our borders very early…from certain parts of the world” in response to COVID-19, and slammed the “fringe globalists who would rather keep our borders open than keep our infection [rates down].”
Prominent right-wing pundits like Tucker Carlson, Ann Coulter, Steve Bannon and Mike Cernovich claim the coronavirus is proof that globalist elites, by inextricably linking the U.S. economy to international supply chains, have betrayed the nation to China. Unable, due to decades of globalist-engineered outsourcing and deindustrialization, to manufacture its own medical supplies and other resources needed to combat the virus, the U.S. stands humiliated before, and subservient to, its ascendant enemy.
Right-wing populist elected officials have joined in, pointing blame at a treasonous cabal of globalists who have sold out the nation. “The Washington elites, the Wall Street types and the media establishment have all pushed closer ties with China for decades,” lambasted Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, widely viewed as the “face of the post-Trump Right”, echoing his widely-publicized 2019 antisemitic polemic against the “cosmopolitan elite.” “It’s been terrible for America, and now we’re waking up to the results.”
Hawley is now using the coronavirus crisis to call for the dismantling of globalist institutions like the World Trade Organization, which he claims is a vehicle for Chinese domination. Trump surrogate Florida Rep Matt Gaetz has struck a similar tone, pivoting, in a Fox interview, from advancing conspiracy theories regarding a Wuhan virology lab, to claiming that “we’ve been taken advantage of [by China] in globalist infrastructures [World Health Organization] for far too long…President Trump gives us the chance to liberate ourselves from this, and to put our people first.”
President Trump is feeding, and being fed by, this rhetoric, using the coronavirus crisis to elevate anti-globalist themes of his presidency. “This pandemic,” remarked Trump in an April press conference after slamming China for “ripping off our country” through bad trade deals, “has underscored the vital importance of reshoring our supply chains…What happens if you’re in a war and you have a supply chain where half of your supplies are given to you by other countries? Who are the people that thought of this? These are globalists — it doesn’t work.” Prominent anti-globalist activists have Trump’s ear during the COVID crisis, including Tucker Carlson, who emerged as an early voice warning Trump of the pandemic’s dangers, and extreme anti-China White House adviser Peter Navarro, who has urged Trump to adopt economic nationalist policies in a moment, as Navarro put it, “when globalist push comes to nationalist shove.”
As millions are thrown deeper into financial hardship in the COVID crisis, the far-right taps into potent currents of populist resentment by insisting that globalist elites continue to reap profits, lobby for bailouts and avoid accountability for engineering our dystopian predicament. For example, in the early days of the pandemic, America First leader and anti-immigrant pundit Michelle Malkin proclaimed “no bailouts for open borders globalists!” in response to the airline industry’s pleas for taxpayer-subsidized bailouts. The next week, a Florida health official lamented on Tucker Carlson’s Fox show that his state faced a shortage of N-95 face masks because the CEOs of U.S-based global distribution companies “decided to make a globalist decision and not put America First”.
In May, Ohio Rep Nino Vitale, expressing support for the campaign to ‘reopen’ Ohio, told constituents that “your basic human rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness do not come from an unelected Globalist Health Director,” singling out Ohio Department of Health Director Amy Acton, who is Jewish and who, Vitale alleged, signed an extension of the state’s stay-at-home order “in the dark of night.” Anti-globalist COVID conspiracism runs deep across the right-wing media ecosystem, while, within fast-growing state and county-level ‘ReOpen’ Facebook groups, the globalist epithet is hurled by participants at a wide range of named opponents of the movement, from Democratic state governors to Dr. Anthony Fauci.
The real disease, insisted the white nationalist Occidental Observer in an article entitled ‘Globalism, the Elites and COVID-19’, “isn’t COVID-19, it’s globalism. Like a disease, it spreads rapidly, destroying everything that comes within reach…unlike COVID-19, globalism does have an antidote: White nationalism.”
Rooted in Antisemitism
For economic nationalists like Steve Bannon, paleoconservatives like Patrick Buchanan and ‘national-populists’ like Yoram Hazony, the ‘globalist elite’ represents a bureaucratic ‘deep state’ of civil servants, technocrats and the ‘Davos class’, hell-bent on undermining American sovereignty and Western civilization through global economic integration and cultural liberalism. For patriot and militia movements, ‘globalism’ represents a sinister New World Order, intent on stripping Americans of constitutional rights and freedoms. For white nationalists, the end goal of the ‘globalist agenda’ is nothing less than ‘white genocide’, the destruction of the ‘white race’ itself through demographic replacement. For segments of the Christian and traditionalist Right, meanwhile, the word evokes a demonic, world-uprooting force of pure evil, to be vanquished by a return to traditionalism.
The globalist manipulator frame, of course, long predates COVID-19, and is saturated with antisemitism. It repackages the familiar trope of the ‘international Jew’, a conspiracy of subversive, all-powerful international elites, concentrated at the height of governmental, financial and cultural institutions, engineering exploitative political and economic systems, and advancing liberal causes, to ensure global dominance and widespread suffering.
Even when, as is sometimes the case, the globalists named are not Jewish, the spread of anti-globalist rhetoric across the center and peripheries of the Right puts Jewish communities in danger. As the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue massacre demonstrates, when right-wing elected officials and media figures use dog-whistle antisemitic conspiracism, it functions as stochastic terrorism, as a subset of militant followers hear ‘Jews’, and are inspired to take violent action against the named threat.
This isn’t the first time that U.S. right-wing populist political leaders and pundits have used antisemitic tropes to rally support, in a time of crisis, for exclusionary nationalism. For example, in the 1930s, as the U.S. remained in the throes of the Great Depression, popular antisemitic radio host Father Charles Coughlin inveighed against “international bankers” who he claimed opposed an America First agenda. Pennsylvania Representative Louis McFadden, meanwhile, quoted from the infamous antisemitic tract The Protocols of the Elders of Zion on the House floor, claiming that President Roosevelt’s New Deal was “written by the Jewish international money changers in order to perpetuate their power”.
Today, the spread of anti-globalism also functions, for white nationalists, as a discursive pipeline, offering new opportunities to disseminate ideology and new pathways to recruit adherents. In a moment when “alot [sic] of people are starting to realize that globalism not only caused the spread of this disease but exacerbated it,” remarked American Identity Movement leader Patrick Casey in March, “it’s more important now than ever for us to get out there on the internet…take 20 minutes, go into a Breitbart comment section…ensure that people who don’t fully get it are brought on board.” Anti-globalism can function effectively as a pipeline to white nationalism because “it is the ideology of antisemitism,” as renowned antifascist activist Leonard Zeskind put it, “with its belief that Jews act as an alien ruling class that needs to be overthrown, that transforms ordinary racists into would-be revolutionaries.”
A Dangerous Frame
In most respects, the anti-globalist framing turns the reality of the coronavirus crisis on its head. The virus did not spread due to lax border enforcement, and incarcerating and deporting immigrants and refugees, closing borders, and engaging in belligerent anti-China nationalism is not only immoral but also counterproductive. Stopping the virus will take, not rigid isolationism and anti-science conspiracism, but a robust public health response animated by coordination, collaboration and resource-sharing across communities and between nations.
In a broader sense, far-right anti-globalism is dangerously detached from reality. Absent large-scale civilizational collapse, the movement of goods, services, ideas and people across national borders will remain an inevitable feature of 21st-century human society. The notion that the U.S. should, or even is able to, shut itself from the rest of the world is a racist and paternalistic fairy tale.
The anti-globalist frame does, however, allow the far-right to express half-truths about the uneven and inequitable development of our globalized economy, through a distorted ultranationalist lens. Indeed, progressives have long criticized the exploitative, profit-driven ‘free trade’ and public sector austerity economic model of neoliberal globalization. Undertaken as a consensus project by both Democrats and Republicans over the last several decades, neoliberal globalization has wrought hardship and inequity for industrial cities and communities across the U.S., through deindustrialization, outsourcing, off-shoring, de-unionization, deepening wealth inequality, and more.
Progressives seek to resolve these contradictions by organizing for living wage jobs, a robust social safety net, and equitable development across and within national borders. Far-right anti-globalism, by contrast, seeks to radically contract the boundaries of the “we, the people” to exclude those, within and without, deemed undeserving of human rights. For communities ravaged by the accumulation strategies of global capitalist firms and the politicians who do their bidding, shutting down borders and stopping trade may possess an intuitive logic, though such acts ultimately would not solve deeply-entrenched inequities. The economic nationalism proposed, by many in the far-right, as an alternative to globalism, rather stands merely to create a new ‘nationalist elite’, benefiting from upward redistribution of wealth within national borders.
Scapegoating globalists helps the far-right tap into widespread resentment against the beneficiaries of runaway economic inequality by offering a conspiratorial caricature of 21st-century neoliberalism and its morbid symptoms. Here again, antisemitism plays a vital role. Reflecting on the ideology of German fascism, critical theorist Moishe Postone wrote that modern antisemitism functions as a “fetishized anticapitalism.”
Furnishing an imagined abstract, all-powerful and oppressive Jewish conspiracy, it offers “a comprehensive worldview which explains and gives form to certain modes of anticapitalist discontent in a manner that leaves capitalism intact, by attacking the personifications” of exploitation. “Antisemitism, for Bannon and the Right,” wrote critic Benjamin Balthaser in 2018, “should not be understood as simply hatred, dislike or aversion: it is a framework to explain the suffering of millions of people. If we do not develop a language and a politics that addresses the real devastation left by globalization then the party that does — in whatever language — will win.”
The far-right is correct that the neoliberal model of economic globalization is in profound crisis. Indeed, commentators across the political spectrum agree that global economic restructuring is inevitable, in the wake of coronavirus. To default to the austerity of neoliberalism, in this time of crisis, would allow far-right anti-globalism to capture the narrative. As Steve Bannon put it in a 2017 60 Minutes interview, “if we force the Democrats to defend the status quo, then we’ve won.”
As we work to face the crisis and envision a future beyond it, we must demand economic relief, quality health care, and a substantive social safety net for all communities. We must hold accountable the corporate and political leaders who have long stood in the way of this vision–not because they put globe over nation, but because they put profit over people. We must articulate concrete proposals to rectify the longstanding inequities and insufficiencies of profit-driven, neoliberal globalization, which the coronavirus crisis has brought further to light, while insisting upon international collaboration, fair trade, and the human rights of immigrants and refugees.
Thank you to Benjamin Balthaser for his thought partnership in developing this piece.