Opinion writer

President Trump declared at a rally in Houston, “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.” No sooner had he uttered the words than the scramble to analyze Trump’s motives began.

As a preliminary matter, the media should pause before jumping to the TV-perfect confrontations. If the media actually wants to enlighten readers and viewers, the media’s first task should be to explain what “nationalist” means and why it is anti-American and anti-democratic. “White nationalism,” to which Trump’s critics believed he was referring, is only one form of nationalism, albeit a heinous variety to which Trump has often winked and encouraged. (“Some fine people” he said were among the neo-Nazis in Charlottesville.)

Nationalism has a larger meaning than simply the anti-Semitic and racist chants of khaki-clad, Tiki-torch-toting Nazi-wannabes. George Orwell wrote the seminal explanation:

By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled ‘good’ or ‘bad’. But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.

We now see illiberal regimes — in Poland, Hungary and Russia, to name three — evoke the mantra “blood and soil,” or rather, “blood, soil and Christianity” as their defining national characteristics; outsiders, the regimes claim, threaten to dilute the “real” nation. They are in a civilization struggle, nationalist leaders will tell you, against foreign influences. (The right-wing government in Poland, for example, espouses “a combination of Polish nationalism, religious conservatism, anti-elitism and attacks on those supposedly seeking to dictate to Poland about values and migrant quotas.”) This is precisely the ideology Stephen K. Bannon attempts to promote, and for which his former boss seemed the ideal vessel.

Nationalism is antithetical to America’s founding creed (“All men are…”) and contrary to the principles of a multiethnic, multiracial democracy. As with all radical, racially based dogmas, it countenances, indeed promotes, ends-justify-the-means politics, seeks to discredit the free press, and traffics in lies both big and small.

So back to Trump. Three theories emerged to explain Trump’s nationalist utterance.

One has us believe that Trump is an empty-headed dolt who has no idea what he is saying. He either ignored Bannon or forgot what he said. Like a child who doesn’t know what a “bad word” really means, he says it simply because it is socially forbidden (“we’re not supposed to use that word”). The explanation is appealing in many ways, both because it recognizes Trump’s appalling ignorance, and because his followers can disclaim the accusation that they, too, are racists (“deplorables”). Somehow, following an ignoramus and inadvertent racist seems less objectionable than following an out-and-out racist.

Another explanation is the cynical one, advanced most clearly by the former (briefly) communications director Anthony Scaramucci. He insisted on CNN on Wednesday morning, “No, I’m not a nationalist. He’s not a nationalist. He’s saying he’s a nationalist because he wants you to be upset about it, but he’s really not a nationalist.” In other words, Trump supposedly is smart enough to know what “nationalist” means, but he is falsely associating himself with the term. Scaramucci continued, directing his advice to Trump, “I understand that he wants to put American working-class families first and he wants to put middle-class families first and so he’s conflating the word ‘nationalism’ for that and for those principles and policies, but if you really understand the historical context of what it means to call yourself a nationalist, you’re actually not a nationalist, so stop saying it.” Why anyone would want to lie about his association with a horrible ideology (“Yeah, that’s the ticket — I’m a misogynist!“) is a bit confusing, but it’s a way of mocking a term of derision (e.g. “Yes, I’m a deplorable!“), I suppose.

The third take on Trump’s nationalist lingo is the simplest: He knows exactly what it means, his base knows exactly what he means and he knows the strongest bond with followers is xenophobia. Immigration and bogus issues such as the caravan are his go-to topics when he needs to juice up his followers.

I tend to think that the last explanation is the right one, but it hardly matters. What does matter is that Trump is normalizing a hateful political philosophy that is contrary to our deepest-held beliefs. He fuels divisions and anger, and in doing so, fails in his most sacred obligation — to defend the most diverse democracy the planet has ever known and to protect the institutions that secure our freedoms.