The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump refuses to acknowledge the fraught history of nationalism

The Debrief: An occasional series offering a reporter’s insights

President Trump speaks with French President Emmanuel Macron on Nov. 10, prior to their meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

President Trump took a peevish tone Tuesday as he revisited complaints about French President Emmanuel Macron, who used a weekend commemoration of the end of World War I to warn the president during his visit to Paris of the perils of the nationalist label he embraces and to suggest he has a lot to learn about history.

Macron called nationalism a dangerous trap and the opposite of patriotism while invoking the bloodiest episodes of 20th-century European history.

But Trump has shown little patience for the lesson Macron tried to impart or the two days of praise the young French leader has received since his not-so-veiled criticism of his U.S. counterpart.

Instead, Trump, who once avoided calling himself a nationalist, flaunted his embrace of the term and suggested that Macron do the same while arguing the French president was criticizing him to distract from his poor poll numbers.

“By the way, there is no country more Nationalist than France, very proud people-and rightfully so!” Trump tweeted Tuesday morning. He followed up with “MAKE FRANCE GREAT AGAIN!”

The taunts on Twitter showed again that Trump refuses to entertain arguments about the baggage that nationalism carries or show any signs that he is troubled by the historical antecedents to the rise of Nazism in Europe and its overlap with modern racists who call themselves “white nationalists.”

In fact, in his tweetstorm against Macron, Trump invoked the Nazi march across Europe — the very event the French president had warned of when he spoke about nationalism.

French President Emmanuel Macron hosted a ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe Nov. 11 to mark the moment guns fell silent across Europe at the end of World War I. (Video: Reuters)

“Emmanuel Macron suggests building its own army to protect Europe against the U.S., China and Russia. But it was Germany in World Wars One & Two - How did that work out for France? They were starting to learn German in Paris before the U.S. came along. Pay for NATO or not!” Trump wrote.

French Ambassador Gérard Araud corrected Trump to note that Macron had not suggested that Europe needs defending against the United States, just that it should not assume it can rely on its ally, and added some advice for anyone cheering Trump on.

“You should listen to Europe that has bred two WW and a genocide in two generations,” Araud wrote on Twitter, referring to World War I and World War II. “Nationalism is dangerous. Subject to miscalculation and misperception, it always carries the risk of conflict. Patriotism and cooperation.”

Trump has tried to define his brand of nationalism as a form of patriotism devoid of the darker aspects his critics warn the term conjures.

“It means I love the country, it means I’m fighting for the country,” Trump told Fox News host Laura Ingraham during an Oct. 29 interview, adding that he feels no need to clarify what he means by the term. “I’m proud of this country and I call that ‘nationalism.’ I call it being a nationalist and I don’t see any other connotation than that.”

For Trump, the terminology fits his political brand of anti-elitism, said University of Washington historian Margaret O’Mara. It’s similar to the “America First” slogan he has trumpeted since his presidential campaign, always shrugging off criticism about whether he was nodding to anti-immigrant fervor and isolationism.

“My inclination is that he does not really know the history because he’s, self-admitted, not a big book reader and not someone who marinates in this stuff,” O’Mara said. “Trump may or may not be thinking about Lindbergh when he talks, but it’s very effective for the political base he’s trying to reach — positioning himself as the adversary of these global elites, against internationalism.”

Aviator Charles Lindbergh, who wrote about “European blood” as the most precious American commodity, became the spokesman for a nativist, nationalist, antiwar movement called the America First Committee, which sought to keep the United States out of World War II. It was never a far leap from the “America First” agenda and the “nationalist” label, but Trump had not made such a direct link before the midterm election campaign.

Both terms hark back to dark periods of American history, and “nationalism” has become the preferred term for some white-power activists.

Campaigning in Houston on Oct. 23, Trump tried out the term.

“They have a word, it sort of became old-fashioned, it’s called a nationalist,” he said. “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. Nothing wrong. Use that word. Use that word.”

Trump’s use of the term was cheered by former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke, who tweeted that Trump was really referring to white nationalism.

“There is no ethnic or racial group in America more Nationalist than White Americans,” Duke wrote.

Trump says he is not a racist and does not endorse the views of Duke or others who call themselves white nationalists. But using the term is encouragement to those views, and it speaks to a rejection of the caution and centrism that past presidents have tended to adopt as they settled into the job, said Allan Lichtman, a presidential historian at American University.

“I generally see a progression on the part of the president to becoming more reckless, to really articulate controversial, outlandish things without regard to the consequences,” Lichtman said. “The more outlandish things he says, the more cheers he gets at his rallies and that’s what he cares about.”

Trump has had to contend before with the uncomfortable overlap between his message and political base and racism. During the 2016 campaign, Trump reposted a Twitter message from someone called “WhiteGenocideTM.” As president, Trump was criticized for equivocating about the culpability of white-power activists whose rally in Charlottesville ended in the death of a counterprotester.

Nicholas J. Fuentes, a white nationalist YouTube personality who attended that “Unite the Right” rally in 2017, live-tweeted election results as Democrats won control of the House on Nov. 6. He praised Trump and criticized national Republican leaders he views as too moderate or timid.

“The next two years will be tough but not impossible,” Fuentes wrote. “Hopefully this will be a wake up call [for Republicans] and most importantly Trump that the Heritage agenda just won’t win elections anymore. We have to fully embrace populist-nationalism or we’ll fail.”