“You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, okay? I’m a nationalist,” President Trump shouted at a rally in Texas on Monday night. Just before saying this, Trump claimed that “we’re not supposed to use that word,” suggesting that it required great courage to make this declaration.
Sure enough, the rally crowd followed Trump’s cue and roared with approval at his brave act of defiance.
But “nationalism,” in and of itself, is not necessarily controversial in certain contexts. The sentiment known as “civic nationalism” is routinely expressed by politicians in both parties. There are even aspects of Trumpian nationalism that are unremarkable, such as the economic nationalism embodied in his campaign promise of an infrastructure package (which he has abandoned). What would make his claim controversial is if Trump actually meant “racial nationalist” or “white nationalist.”
Which, of course, is exactly what he did mean. By claiming to be breaking a taboo by using this particular N-word, Trump basically confirmed that without saying it out loud.
The Post and the New York Times both have big pieces documenting that the closing Republican message in the midterms rests on brazen racial and xenophobic fear-mongering. This is evident in TV ads that GOP candidates and allied groups are running across the country. I’ve highlighted the coding for you in the Times’s summary:
In upstate New York, Republican political groups have aired ads branding a Democratic congressional candidate, Antonio Delgado, who is black, as a “big-city rapper” and accusing him of seeking to give government “handouts” to food-stamp recipients. In Dallas, a political committee aligned with Mr. Trump, America First Action, has disseminated an online ad branding Colin Allred, a black civil rights lawyer, as hostile to gun rights — accompanied by the image of a white woman with a dark-skinned hand smothering her mouth.
Two House Republicans, Chris Collins of New York and Duncan Hunter of California, who have been indicted on charges of corruption, have aired ads widely denounced as racist. Mr. Hunter has branded his Democratic opponent, Ammar Campa-Najjar, who is Arab-American, a “security risk,” while Mr. Collins has run an ad showing his Democratic challenger, Nate McMurray, who is white, speaking Korean, insinuating that he favors Asian economic interests over those of the United States.
Buttressing all this, Trump is relentlessly highlighting the Central American migrants heading toward the southern border, which he railed about while declaring himself a “nationalist.” As one GOP strategist candidly admits: “It’s a standard tactic to use fear as a motivating choice.”
To that end, Trump has punctuated his caravan chatter with lies, such as the claim that unknown criminals and “Middle Easterners” (hint, hint) have infiltrated the migrants, or that Democrats orchestrated their northward journey. But it bears pointing out that we’ve seen all this before.
An old GOP strategy infused with uniquely Trumpian ugliness
During the 2014 elections, numerous Republican candidates offered similarly creative versions of the brown menace breaching our border. Some claimed people crossing were carrying Ebola. Republican ads charged that the borders are overrun by terrorists.
So in certain respects, Trump’s demagoguery about the caravan is not new. But this time, Trump has added a zero-sum xenophobic populist nationalism that wasn’t present in this form before. During his speech declaring himself a “nationalist,” Trump also railed against “globalists” who want “the globe to do well” (what a horror!) at the expense of the United States. Trump allies and GOP candidates invoke George Soros.
This brand of right-wing populist nationalism requires the scapegoating of an “other” below, but also a global elite that is supposedly conspiring with that other — and exploiting cheap labor abroad, adding a yellow menace to the mix — to rip off and weaken the sovereignty of the “real” American people. Thus it is that Republican ads painting Asians as an economic threat are now joining more traditional GOP racial fear-mongering ads. This is the “nationalism” Trump is openly declaring.
It is true that in general Democrats want higher immigration flows, and want to admit more refugees, than Trump does. But this is because Trump wants to dramatically slash both. On reducing legal immigration, Trump doesn’t even have sufficient support among Republicans. On refugee flows, Trump is inventing reasons for cutting them, and his demagoguing of them as criminals and terrorists or stooges in a globalist plot is particularly reprehensible, since many are desperately fleeing horrific conditions at home.
Racial nationalism vs. civic nationalism
At this point, someone will point out that Trump is speaking to angst about globalization that does have some legitimacy, and that progressives and Democrats need to come up with their own nationalism that speaks to that angst. But Democrats already have such a nationalism: It’s the “civic nationalism” that has a long history in this country. As historian Gary Gerstle has detailed, this civic nationalism has long vied with the racial nationalism that is now resurgent under Trump.
This civic nationalism locates the key source of national pride in adherence to the American creed’s promise of political equality and economic opportunity for all, regardless of race. It’s the civic nationalism that Barack Obama spoke to in his Selma speech, by prodding Americans to “remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals.”
In this nationalism, there is a response to angst about globalization. It centers on investing more money in workers displaced by the globalizing economy, and on immigration reform that recognizes most undocumented immigrants as “Americans in waiting,” while targeting enforcement at serious threats and at the border, and seeking regional solutions to the root causes of migrant surges.
One can quarrel with the particulars of that agenda. But it does embody a genuine response to anxiety about globalization. It’s true that Democrats are not making the elections about this contrast in nationalisms, but this is a strategic choice to make them more about health care.
Will Trump’s racial nationalism win the midterms? As noted above, immigration fear-mongering worked last time. But as Dave Wasserman points out, the energy unleashed by the anti-Trump backlash ensures that the electorate this time will be “younger” and “far less white” than in the last midterm.
Now that Trump has infused that fear-mongering with even uglier elements of xenophobic populism, we can only hope that this electorate will deliver a massive repudiation of it.