West Point, GA -- The sign in front of Roger's Bar-B-Que restaurant in West Point, Ga., on March 21, 2006, upon the announcement that automaker Kia of South Korea would build a $1.2 billion plant there. AJC file

‘Globalism’ is becoming a dirty GOP word, and that bodes ill for the Southern economy

Upon learning of Donald Trump’s long-distance sacking of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson last week, former White House strategist Steve Bannon exulted – via Twitter, of course: “End of the globalists !!!”

Bannon may be a man on the outside, but he still reflects much of what goes on inside Trump’s head, and thus the president’s vocabulary.

Only days earlier, White House economic advisor Gary Cohn had announced his departure, once it became clear that the president would press ahead with import tariffs on steel and aluminum. “He’s been terrific. He may be a globalist, but I still like him,” Trump said of Cohn during an encounter with reporters. “He is seriously a globalist.”

“Globalist” and “globalism” are on their way to becoming dirty words in a rising Republican debate over trade, pitting protectionists against advocates of international trade in a fight the party hasn’t seen since World War II.

Decades of Southern economic strategy ride on the survival of the GOP as a standard-bearer of country-to-country commerce. Trump may want to bring back the steel mills of the industrial Midwest, but here in Georgia, we are what we are in large part because the Rust Belt rusted.

If you want a visual picture of the current Republican dissonance on trade, a measure of the policy gap that’s brewing between the White House and the Southern base of the GOP, be at the Atlanta History Center at 5 p.m. sharp on Tuesday.

That’s where the “Go Global” reception and fifth annual GLOBE awards ceremony will be held. The bash is put on by the state Department of Economic Development, intended to recognize Georgia-based companies that “have entered into a new international market within the previous calendar year.”

It is a state-sponsored celebration of globalism. The room will be filled with globalists. Many of them will be Republican.

Hard facts will be tossed around like confetti. Georgia exports increased by 4 percent exceeding $37.2 billion and tapping the economies of 215 countries. Aerospace and defense industries led the way — thanks in large part to a Lockheed Martin contract to send C-130Js the way of India. Agriculture was next, followed by automakers — i.e., Kia.

Yes, Coca-Cola was in the field first. But since Gov. George Busbee began making trips to Japan in the 1970s, much of Georgia’s growth can be traced to international investment and trade. It has been bipartisan. Look at the emphasis Gov. Nathan Deal has placed on dredging the Port of Savannah.

Asia has been the primary target. “Georgia really went out to get this direct investment,” said Phil Bolton, publisher of Global Atlanta, a news website that keeps an eye on international trade. (He started the publication in 1993, when technology required it to be called Global Fax).

There are people in the Trump administration who understand this history. They have lived it. I can name two of them.

My first extensive interview with Sonny Perdue came in November 2003, when I followed the new Georgia governor to Japan and Korea on his search for Georgia’s first automotive assembly plant. Nissan had spurned Georgia for Tennessee decades earlier. BMW had chosen South Carolina in 1993. Hyundai had dropped anchor in Alabama in 2002. All these new plants were based on the concept of an international supply chain.

The Perdue delegation treated me with courtesy, but kept me at a distance. Only afterwards would an aide tell me that I should have noted the make of the rented cars that carried them away from their hotel each morning. That would have identified the automobile manufacturers they were courting.

The aide was Nick Ayers, now chief of staff to Vice President Mike Pence.

That 2003 trip was exhausting. When I arrived for my wrap-up interview with Perdue, we were in Seoul and it was late. I knocked on the governor’s hotel room door. He was alone, and in his skivvies. He has always been an informal fellow.

While in those skivvies, the future U.S. secretary of agriculture for the Trump administration walked me through his Asian adventure, noting a parallel in the growth explosions occurring in both South Korea and Georgia.

“The history we have in the South, of really only beginning to grow 40 years ago, in the ’60s — the cultures are very similar. I think the hunger for business is very similar between the cultures. You can only sense that when you come here,” he said. “There’s a hunger to succeed in Japan and Korea that I sense in Georgia as well. We all have something to prove.”

Three years later, days before his re-election, Perdue was at the groundbreaking ceremony for the $1.2 billion, Kia assembly plant in West Point, Ga.

Over the last week, I’ve had many Republicans tell me that President Trump’s talk of setting off a worldwide protectionist contest – “Trade wars are good, and easy to win!” — is mere rhetoric, intended to wring concessions out of our trading partners.

But trade wars are like the real thing — in that, once started, escalation is in the hands of the other guy.

And so, Republicans in Washington and here, who understand that more than mere words are at stake, have been loudly encouraging Trump to narrow the focus of his tariff assaults. U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson has been blunter than his colleague, David Perdue, damning the tariffs as “a new tax on American consumers.”

The president has relented somewhat, exempting Canada and Mexico from his steel and aluminum tariffs, as long as the two countries give him what he wants in NAFTA renegotiations. Trump has hinted that exempting the tariffs for other allies would be determined on a case by case basis.

In Washington, that means the steel-exporting nations of Japan, South Korea and Germany will be on the block. In the American South, that translates to Nissan, Hyundai, Kia and BMW.

The pain of economic dislocation is real and afflicts many, no doubt. And trashing globalism may play well on the stump. But make that trip to the Atlanta History Center on Tuesday, look around – and understand that globalism is who we are.

About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.