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'I am a nationalist': Trump's embrace of controversial label sparks uproar

President Donald Trump speaks in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, on Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2018.

MANUEL BALCE CENET/AP

By WILLIAM CUMMINGS | USA Today | Published: October 24, 2018

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — President Donald Trump is facing criticism for stating what many observers of his politics and rhetoric would say is obvious: that he is a nationalist.

"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," Trump said at a rally in Houston Monday.

"You know, they have a word – it's 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, okay? I'm a nationalist. Nationalist. Nothing wrong. Use that word. Use that word."

When asked by CNN's Robert Costa if he was concerned that his embrace of the term could be construed as "coded language" or a "dog whistle" to Americans embracing a racist ideology, Trump said he was unaware the term carried any racist connotation and defended his use of the term.

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"I love our country, and our country has taken second fiddle," the president said, arguing that "we're giving all of our money, all of our wealth to other countries and then they don't treat us properly."

That philosophy from Trump is nothing new. It repeats themes that have been central to his political identity since he first declared himself a candidate for president. His explicit promise to put "America first" is a clear expression of his nationalist ethos.

Nor is his embrace of the term new – although it was never quite so full-throated.

While once again denouncing many free trade agreements as unfair to the United States, Trump told reporters at the White House in February 2017, that he is a nationalist "in a true sense."

Foreign policy expert Max Boot, in a radio interview on the "Michelangelo Signorile Show," noted that the "word nationalism is not inherently toxic."

But "in the 20th century, nationalism has come to be associated with far-right politics, with fascism, with leaders like Mussolini, Hitler, Pinochet, Franco and others. And that is perhaps part of the reason why previous American presidents did not describe themselves as nationalists. They called themselves patriots."

Boot, a conservative, called it "somewhat reminiscent of the way (Trump) adopted 'America First' as an earlier campaign slogan, seemingly oblivious to the fact that this was the name of the isolationist and pro-fascist policy of the 1930s, and now this is kind of more of the same."

Here's how John Breuilly, a professor of nationalism at the London School of Economics, summarizes nationalist belief in his book, "Nationalism and the State":

  • There exists a nation with an explicit and peculiar character.
  • The interests and values of this nation take priority over all other interests and values.
  • The nation must be as independent as possible. This usually requires at least the attainment of political sovereignty.

That definition appears to sum up Trump's political philosophy.

Steve Bannon, the former White House adviser who helped Trump craft his campaign, has long embraced nationalism and rejected "globalism." The right-wing website he edited, Breitbart, regularly expounded on such themes and has continued to do so after Bannon's departure.

After Trump's speech Monday, the site highlighted Trump's nationalist declaration on Twitter.

Breitbart's association with the neo-fascist movement calling itself "alt-right" has led to many conflating nationalism with "white nationalism," which not only claims a given nation should take priority over all others, but that the white race should be protected and valued above all others.

In Europe, many nationalist movements that oppose an international world order and immigration into the continent are often overtly aligned with white nationalism and anti-Semitism.

For many of the president's critics, Trump's embrace of the nationalist label signaled that he also embraces the racism and xenophobia associated with those movements.

"Does Trump know the historical baggage associated with this word, or is he ignorant? Honest question," tweeted former President Barack Obama's ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul.

"Trump's 'I'm a Nationalist' comment will likely represent the biggest boon for white supremacist recruitment since the film Birth of a Nation glorified the Klan in 1915 and gained the KKK 4 million members by 1925," tweeted reformed neo-Nazi Christian Picciolini.

Film director and liberal activist Carl Reiner compared Trump's nationalist embrace to Adolph Hitler in a tweet.

Several media outlets noted the words of late Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who warned of a "half-baked, spurious nationalism" in a thinly-veiled reference to Trump during an October 2017 speech.

They also pointed to words of former President George W. Bush, who decried "nationalism distorted into nativism" that same month.

During a speech in Kansas in 2011, former President Barack Obama invoked Theodore Roosevelt's 1910 call for a "new nationalism."

"We still believe that this should be a place where you can make it if you try," Obama said.

"And we still believe, in the words of the man who called for a New Nationalism all those years ago, 'The fundamental rule of our national life'  he said, "the rule which underlies all others – is that, on the whole, and in the long run, we shall go up or down together."

Several observers speculated that Trump's hearty embrace of the nationalist label is aimed to fire up his political base heading into the midterm elections.

"The president's not really a nationalist, by the way," former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci told CNN host Chris Cuomo. "He's an antagonist, he's not a nationalist."

"He's doing it because he wanted to antagonize people. He understands that he's a great wrecking ball for that establishment. And he knows when that ball hits into the establishment, it galvanizes his base and he instinctively knows it will turn out more voters for him come the midterm elections."

Trump has a long history of embracing, adopting and co-opting terms that are initially considered negative or off-limits.

He and his supporters embraced Hillary Clinton's "deplorable" label as a badge of honor. And the president has successfully managed to make "fake news" his own insult for media coverage he dislikes when it originated as a term for the proliferation of false news stories on social media during the 2016 election.

"Mostly, Trump's invocation of nationalism is yet another invitation for Americans to divide themselves over its true meaning and his use of it. Trump, as he often does, is goading his opponents to read the worst into his words, while knowing that his own supporters will rally around the term and believe those opponents are simply anti-Trump or even anti-American," wrote The Washington Post's Aaron Blake.

"In some ways, Trump's use of the word was long overdue," Blake said.

"It very much fits with his political strategy and his entire political ethos. His decision to inject it into a midterm election with two weeks to go is impossible to dismiss as a coincidence. And assuming he keeps using it and it leads to an American renaissance of the word – which tends to be the case with Trump – it will only further divide an already riven country."    

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