Stephen Miller
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

During his appearance at the White House press conference on Wednesday to defend Trump’s support for reforming legal immigration, Stephen Miller threw out a couple of dog whistles to his friends on the alt-right. They came during a rather heated exchange with CNN’s Jim Acosta.

Initially, Acosta questioned whether the reforms were in keeping American tradition on immigration—specifically as expressed by The New Colossus poem on the Statue of Liberty. Miller responded by talking about how the poem was added later and was not part of the original statue.

The notion that the sentiments expressed in The New Colossus are not central to the American tradition was shocking to those of us who heard this exchange. But what a lot of people didn’t know is that it is a popular refrain among white nationalists.

David Duke, a vocal Trump supporter and former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan has devoted an entire chapter in one of his books to Emma Lazarus, the author of the poem, and the Statue of Liberty. Duke says Lazarus was “anxious to turn America into a refuge for the castoffs of the world.”…, a popular website among white supremacists that boasts the tagline, “Every month is White history month,” has a numerous discussion threads on the topic, including one titled, “Give Me Your Huddled Masses — The Jewess who tried to destroy the US!” Contributors to the forum wrote the poem should be “considered graffiti” and stress that Lazarus’ sonnet is “not part of the original” statue at all.

Richard Spencer, a self-identified leader of the alt-right, tweeted this last January:

Eventually Miller went on a tirade about Acosta and accused him repeatedly of being “cosmopolitan,” as if that was deeply insulting. In my mind, that word describes someone who is a hip city-dweller. But the dictionary defines it as “familiar with and at ease in many different countries and cultures.” Perhaps you can see where this is going with the alt-right. But Jeff Greenfield explains that the word’s history has very deep roots.

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 yearslong 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.

Rebekah Entralgo fills us in on how white nationalists in this country have appropriated that history.

The word is frequently used across white nationalist websites and forums like Stormfront, which has its own section on the philosophy page devoted to the idea of “cosmopolitanism.” There, white nationalists espouse dangerous thoughts, including this one: “Confronted with the ruins of their culture, and having been abandoned by the state which purports to represent them, white Americans will have to fall back on their inherited racial and ethnic identities. Only then will the historic American people find the strength to turn the tables on cosmopolitan elites.” This, they claim, is the antithesis to the nationalist, who, above all, puts love of country first.

What we can learn about this is two things. First of all, it is obvious that Stephen Miller, a senior policy advisor in the White House, is seriously steeped in the culture of white nationalism. He parrots their viewpoints and has adopted their language. That isn’t breaking news to most of us, but this level of immersion is deeply disturbing.

Secondly, when it came time to defend the president’s proposed immigration reforms, the White House decided to give that job to Stephen Miller, who not only did so by fanning the culture war flames, he also sent out clear dog whistles to his white nationalist friends that this administration stands with them.

Nancy LeTourneau

Follow Nancy on Twitter @Smartypants60.