This is an excerpt of a Daily Kos guest column, originally published on May 4, 2020.
Fifteen days before the 2018 midterm elections, at a rally in Houston, President Trump declared himself to be a nationalist. He addressed the crowd and said,
“You know, they have a word, it sort of became old fashioned. It’s called a nationalist. And I say, really, we’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am, I’m a nationalist, OK. I’m a nationalist. Nationalist! Use that word!”
Trump had used some form of the words invader, invasion, criminal, animal, or killer with increasing frequency throughout the 2018 midterm campaign.
Trump said one or more of these words between eight and ten times per rally in early October. In the three days before the election Trump said one or more of these more than thirty times per rally. His rally speeches were further amplified by his social media posts. This way of speaking and the policies the language represents reflect priorities of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, and other white supremacists.
A Badge of Honor?
The reason people are often reluctant to use that word “nationalist” is its history of evoking white supremacy. The New York Times noted,
“As a general rule, presidents do not refer to themselves as a ‘nationalist’ given the freighted history of the word. But as President Trump tries to galvanize his conservative base to turn out in the midterm elections, he has adopted the label as a badge of honor.”
In his speech Trump contrasted his nationalism with globalism, which he had previously denounced as contrary to America’s interests:
“‘Radical Democrats want to turn back the clock to restore the rule of corrupt, power-hungry globalists. You know what a globalist is, right? You know what a globalist is? A globalist is a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly, not caring about our country so much. And you know what? We can’t have that.”
This was a dog whistle, and potentially a lone-wolf whistle. As Newsweek magazine explained that week,
“[T]he idea of globalism (sometimes called cosmopolitanism) has a long association with anti-Semitic movements, and the term ‘globalist” has often served as a dog whistle to mean Jewish people.”
Newsweek explained that the word has a sinister history that is well-known among white supremacists:
“In Nazi Germany, Adolf Hitler referred to Jewish people as ‘international elements that “conduct their business everywhere.” These ‘global Jews,’ he said, hurt Germans who were ‘bounded to their soil, to the Fatherland.’ The idea that Jews are not loyal to their country has long been used to ‘otherize’ them and undermine their autonomy. Today, the alt-right, white nationalists and neo-Nazis use the term online to refer to Jews. Protection from the “Globalist elite,” explained the Anti-Defamation League, is code for ‘mostly Jews.’”
The scholar of extremism J. M. Berger, in his 2018 book Extremism, notes that nationalism could be understood as promoting the interests of your own nation over the interests of others, typically combined with a feeling of national superiority. But national extremism takes this idea to a new level which asserts:
“[T]he nation must be protected by taking hostile action against out-groups. Sometimes this means taking action against other nations or the world at large, but nationalist extremism is frequently concerned with immigration – how citizenship is defined or bestowed. Because of this, nationalist extremism is often paired, implicitly or explicitly, with the idea of racial or religious restrictions on who can be a citizen.”
This is precisely the kind of language Trump had been using at the time.
Trump’s “I’m a nationalist” announcement came in the midst of his all-caravan-all-the-time pre-mid-term campaign. He said that the nation was being invaded by people from Latin America. In the context of his announcement, the nationalist extremism focus on immigration is a clue that he had a kind of white nationalism in mind.
When pressed about the racist meanings of the word, Trump feigned not to know, but insisted on using the word anyway. He had this exchange with reporters in the Oval Office:
“Q: Mr. President, just to follow up on your comments about being a nationalist, there is a concern that you are sending coded language or a dog whistle to some Americans out there that what you really mean is that you’re a white nationalist. THE PRESIDENT: I’ve never even heard that. I cannot imagine that. You mean, I say “I’m a nationalist” Q: You never heard that (inaudible)? THE PRESIDENT: No, I never heard that theory about being a nationalist. I’ve heard them all. But I’m somebody that loves our country… So I’m proud—I’m proud of our country. And I am a nationalist. It’s a word that hasn’t been used too much. Some people use it, but I’m very proud. I think it should be brought back.”
Note that in his initial announcement Trump said that “we’re not supposed to use that word” but then directed his audience to “use that word!” This suggests that he knew the controversy about the word.
Both nationalist and globalist were words used frequently by White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, both when he ran Breitbart News before becoming Trump campaign chair and in the White House itself. Indeed, when Bannon was once again a private citizen he continued to espouse nationalism and condemn globalism. Newsweek notes,
“At a meeting in France earlier this year with the far-right National Front party, which has often has been accused of espousing anti-Semitic sentiments, Bannon said, ‘Let them call you racists. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor.’”
Read the full guest column here.