The Memo: Trump remark sparks debate over nationalism

Getty Images

President Trump incited a national debate about the other N-word at a rally in Houston on Monday night.

“You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, OK? … Use that word,” he told a crowd of cheering supporters.

The terminology, rarely heard from any modern mainstream American politician, brought condemnation from political and ideological critics, as well as from segments of the media.

Cornel West, the prominent academic and activist, told The Hill on Tuesday that there were many types of nationalism but that Trump was engaged in a “reactionary nationalism [which] is very dangerous at any time because it is shot through with xenophobia; and it is normally shot through, also, with an indifference to the poor and working class.”

{mosads}Michael McFaul, U.S. ambassador to Russia under former President Obama, wondered on Twitter on Monday night, “Does Trump know the historical baggage associated with this word, or is he ignorant? Honest question.”

Also on Monday night, CNN anchor Don Lemon protested that Trump’s use of the word nationalist was “loaded with nativist and racist undertones.”

And the next day, J Street, a liberal Jewish organization focused on the Middle East, issued a statement condemning the president’s “intensely xenophobic rhetoric and imagery.” 

The organization took exception not just to Trump’s use of the term nationalist but to the way in which he contrasted his views with those of “globalists.” 

The latter term, J Street said, was “used constantly by the white nationalist alt-right as an anti-Semitic dog whistle.”

Trump vigorously denied that he was sending any kind of signal to white nationalists or to the far-right during brief remarks to reporters at the White House on Tuesday.

“I’ve never even heard that,” he protested, describing himself as “somebody that loves our country.”

He added, “I’m proud of our country and I am a nationalist and it hasn’t been a word that has been used too much … I think it should be brought back.”

To his defenders, Trump is merely stating an ardent American patriotism, albeit in ways that might run afoul of political correctness. At rallies, his insistence that he will never apologize for America — as he accuses Obama of doing — is almost always cheered to the rafters.

But his detractors point to the fact that his use of the word “nationalist” comes against a backdrop that includes widely condemned remarks about last year’s violence in Charlottesville, Va.; complaints about immigrants from “shithole countries” in the Caribbean and Africa; and the speech with which he began his presidential campaign, in which he accused Mexico of sending “rapists” to the United States.

At a deeper level, Trump’s remarks are fueling a debate about shifting norms in American politics — and about what exactly the president’s brand of nationalism encompasses.

In Europe, for example, the term “nationalist” covers a vast spectrum of ideological thought, from shadowy far-right groups to moderates such as the Scottish National Party (SNP). 

The SNP’s leader, Nicola Sturgeon, in recent days refused to participate in a BBC event because an invite had also been extended to Stephen Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist. 

“I will not be part of any process that risks legitimizing or normalizing far right, racist views,” Sturgeon said, explaining her decision.

Bannon has always strongly denied holding racist views.

Even academic experts on nationalism were struck by Trump’s phrasing.

“There have always been these two strands of nationalism in the United States: one holds that the distinctiveness of America depends on conceptions of human rights and democracy; and the other strand of nationalism is a kind of ethno-nationalism that is more hostile to immigration, more linked to race and more linked to religion, especially to Protestant religion,” said Lloyd Kramer, a professor of history at the University of North Carolina, who specializes in the study of nationalism.

“It is a little unusual to have such a high profile political leader in the United States advocating that kind of nationalism — although it’s always been present,” Kramer added.

Peter Rutland, a professor of government at Wesleyan University who has been teaching courses related to nationalism for 30 years, called Trump’s remark “surprising.”

“The words ‘nationalist’ and ‘nationalism’ are not part of the normal American political vocabulary,” Rutland said. “It has got very negative connotations.”

Rutland added that although it was “possible” that Trump was using the term as part of a coded racial appeal, such an intent could not proven.

“I don’t think he is using it in as thoughtful an ideological way as the way Steve Bannon has talked about ‘economic nationalism,’ for example,” Rutland said. “It’s a word thrown out there to attract attention. It’s not necessarily racist. It could be standing up to China.”

Similar arguments were made about Trump’s use of the slogan “America First” during his 2016 campaign. The phrase had been used by American isolationists, notably Charles Lindbergh, as the U.S. debated entering World War II. But Trump and his allies have argued he meant it merely as a signal that he would put U.S. interests first on issues including trade and immigration.

He returned to that theme in his Tuesday remarks at the White House, saying, “I love our country and our country has taken second fiddle.” During his tenure, he added, he was “knocking out some of the worst deals I’ve ever seen” on trade.

For now, most Democratic politicians have not responded to Trump’s remark, perhaps fearing that the president could be trying to bait them into a dangerous political tug of war.

But that means the debate over what Trump meant — and what it means for the country — will go on, especially if he repeats his assertion.

“It’s not clear whether he was letting out a dog whistle,” said Paul DiMaggio, a New York University professor who has studied American nationalism. 

“It’s important to know how someone intends it, and President Trump seems to have left that a bit ambiguous.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.

Tags American nationalism Donald Trump Nationalism Steve Bannon The Memo Trump rally Types of nationalism

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video