The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s embrace of a fraught term — ‘nationalist’ — could cement a dangerous racial divide

President Trump labeled himself “a nationalist” on Oct. 22, joining a group of world leaders who have expressed similar sentiments. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

The Washington Post and the New York Times both wrote Monday night about President Trump’s increasingly overt attempts to divide the American electorate by stoking racial fears. That same night, Trump used a very telling word that both confirms that narrative and threatens to divide our country even more.

Trump decided to call himself 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 Texas. “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.”

And so we shall. This isn’t the first time Trump has acknowledged his own readily apparent nationalism — in February 2017 he agreed that the label described him “in a true sense.” But the context in which he said it and his embrace of it after conspicuously eschewing it for so many months suggest he’s decided to inject it into American politics for a reason.

The practical implications of that should not be understated.

As The Post’s Robert Costa noted Monday night, Trump has generally avoided the term because he didn’t want to associate himself too closely with some more troublesome elements of the hard right, including his own former strategist Stephen K. Bannon.

Bannon was understandably pleased that Trump used the word on Monday night.

The term is clearly a fraught one, as Trump himself somewhat gleefully seemed to note. A racially overt version of it — white nationalism — has been publicly ascendant since Trump launched his 2016 campaign by attacking undocumented Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “criminals” and later proposing a ban on Muslim immigration. Trump at one point denounced white nationalism, but he also suggested that some of the white nationalists who rallied in Charlottesville last year, where a counterprotester was killed, were “very fine people.”

In Europe, nationalism is on the rise, seizing upon growing suspicion and distaste for refugees and immigrants. The groups' leaders regularly confirm suspicions that their movements are really about thinly veiled racism.

Even as similar anti-immigrant and anti-refugee feelings have taken hold in the United States, the movement to this point hasn’t generally identified itself as being a nationalist one. The term “nationalist” has been so out of circulation in American politics that pollsters haven’t even tested it, outside the context of white nationalism, for decades.

But in 1993, a Times Mirror Center poll showed “nationalism and ethnic hatred” topped a list of the world’s biggest dangers. The 27 percent who cited it was slightly higher even than the 24 percent who cited nuclear weapons.

The poll question linked nationalism to “ethnic hatred,” and the latter phrase undoubtedly increased the number of Americans who cited it as the world’s biggest danger. But that’s also kind of the point. Over the years, nationalism has inextricably been tied to race and ethnicity — the very idea of a defined, national identity in which certain people don’t qualify. Trump will probably argue that his version of nationalism is more about doing what’s best for “America first,” or just simply about patriotism.

But as George Orwell wrote in 1945, there is an important distinction:

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 recognising 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.

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. Trump is also increasingly giving license to those with racial or nationalistic gripes to believe they have common cause with the president. It’s the most constant thread of Trump’s base strategy: Trump keeps employing coded language that carries with it plausible deniability, but he also paints a clear picture of dividing and singling out those he perceives as “the other.”

In some ways, Trump’s use of the word was long overdue. 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.