What President Trump’s “Nationalism” Means for the Country

In Part 1 of this exploration of President Donald Trump’s nationalism, I explored the differences and similarities between race, ethnicity and nation and the “-isms” – racism, ethnocentrism, nationalism – attached to each. Why is this all important? One could argue that Donald Trump, and/or the white nationalists among his base of supporters, demonstrate all three “isms” in a mutually reinforcing way: they view themselves as members of a superior group defined by race (white), nationality (American) and ethnicity (shared English speaking, Protestant heritage and so on).  And while this is a tempting place to stop the analysis, Trump is not an ideologue, and his displays of nationalism don’t fit as neatly into the standard models of white supremacy as his detractors might think. I believe there is actually more to unpack concerning the President’s version of nationalism.

Donald Trump’s Nationalism: Who is American?

Like most of his ideas, President Trump’s nationalism does not appear particularly philosophical or intentional, and is more likely to be discerned from his disparate statements and actions rather than deduced from a broader set of principles. It’s clear that Donald Trump cares about “winning,” more than just about anything else.  Ultimately, the victories he values are extremely personal in nature; he wants to demonstrate that Donald Trump is smarter, more skilled or just plain better than his opponents.  Trump is willing to extend this drive to win at all costs to his “team,” whether it’s a brand, a corporation of a country (as long as the team bears his name and image). As much as he cares about politics or governance (which I’d argue is “not much,” something that is rather unusual for a President of the United States), it’s in terms of his team.  Having succeeded pasted his brand over the Republican Party, he will vilify Democrats and stump for Republicans who adopt the Trump label.  And through his Make America Great Again merchandising, Trump has essentially turned American nationalism into a Trump brand product.

Donald Trump views race relations, like he does everything else, through the lenses of personal image, competition and winning. To understand how this manifests in Trump’s current role as President, it’s useful to take a look back at his other two most notable leadership positions: head of the Trump Organization, and host of the reality show The Apprentice. Past employees of the Trump Organization describe Donald Trump as a boss who could be extremely loyal to those who agreed with him or boosted his ego but intolerant of criticism or disagreement with his positions.  And The Apprentice presented a supremely self-confident judge who made snap judgments and ultimately sought to make would-be members of his team fight it out to prove their worth to the Donald. These two leadership roles essentially demonstrate the approach that President Trump has taken to race relations in America.

Race, Ethnicity and Nationalism in Donald Trump’s America

Now that America is his team, it’s important to President Trump that he promotes his team’s winning and controls who can and cannot be a member of that team; that is, who is a “true” American. Much of my hesitancy to simply label Donald Trump as a racist is that I don’t think he’s thought things out far enough to form an ideology. His worldview of who is and is not part of a “Great” America stems from a combination of simple observations, personal experiences and naked self interest.  The United States has officially been a majority-white country since its founding, and will be for at least a few more years, demographic trends that seem to have strongly motivated Trump supporters.  Trump is white, white people like him, and those white people whose whiteness is really important to them really like him: therefore, Trump likes white people and sees them as “real Americans.” Seriously, I don’t believe his thought process is much deeper than that.

Those who argue that Donald Trump holds racist views towards African Americans have ample evidence to back up their claims, found in Trump’s past business policies, his current rhetoric, his encouragement of white supremacists, and very contentious relations with black America,  including a tendency to dismiss African American critics in racially-loaded terms.  And yet, listening to candidate turned President Trump and watching some of his more bizarre moments, like the Kanye West (and Jim Brown) White House visit, there is a sense that Trump seems to somehow view African Americans as members of his Team America (he often brags, sometimes falsely, about his support among African Americans), and he has made a number of overt, if extremely awkward, attempts to court the black vote.  Furthermore, as Kanye West observed before his bizarre, but seemingly strategic, White House appearance, Donald Trump  remembers once being “cool” within black popular culture, and is eager to regain that status, and believes that high-profile gestures, meetings and public rhetoric can make this happen.

This regard for African Americans (or, much more accurately, for their approval), however, does not extend to more recent African immigrants or to the rest of the African diaspora.  Trump’s championing of the birther conspiracy theory about President Barack Obama is notable, not just because it was a racially-charged attack against the country’s first black president, but because it was an attack based not simply on race (“he’s black”), but on nationality (“he’s a foreigner”  – which, just for the record, he’s not). Trump’s nationalism is perhaps more accurately labeled as xenophobic rather than racist. Similarly, his disparaging remarks against Haiti and African countries were dismissals of “shithole countries”; no less offensive, but notably framed in national rather than personal terms.

As far as there is an ideology in Donald Trump’s thinking, this revealed distinction seems to be where Trump’s nationalism draws the line that defines “true” Americans. Those with long-held roots in the United States – such as white and African American populations – are regarded as part of the team, as his employees at the Trump Organization were, and he can be pathological in seeking his team members’ approval, but vicious towards those – Democrats, or former employees like Omoarosa Manigault – who disagree or break ranks.  Those without longstanding roots, in Trump’s eyes (which may or may not match history), are outsiders, reality contestants to be vetted and subjected to snap judgements about their worthiness to join Team Trump.

The American Apprentice

Donald Trump’s animosity for Hispanics has been a key feature of his campaign and presidency, from dismissing Mexican immigrants as drug dealers and rapists to The Wall to his tepid and indifferent response to Hurricane Maria‘s devastation of Puerto Rico to his assertion that Indiana-born Judge Gonzalo Curiel was biased against Trump because “He’s a Mexican.” These racist, ethnocentric views, reflect a deep-seeded xenophobia pointed toward the southern border.  In Donald Trump’s eyes, people entering the U.S. from Mexico or further south are invaders or freeloaders, while even Puerto Rico is treated as a financial burden. The anti-Latinx animosity has this week culminated in calls by the President to strip the U.S. born children of (Hispanic) immigrant children of their constitutionally protected citizenship; President Trump is proposing to simply dismiss Hispanic citizens as he did with his “you’re fired” catchphrase on the Apprentice.

President Trump’s policies to keep out Muslims (through three iterations of a travel ban) and/or “unknown Middle Easterners,” as he’s labeled the seemingly non-existent infiltrators of the refugee caravan heading toward the southern border, are similarly evident.  While trying to keep out Latinx and Middle Eastern immigrants, however, Trump has been eager to admit more individuals from European and Asian countries (this was the context in which he made his infamous “shtihole countries” remark).  Asian Americans for Trump largely fall under the all-too-common model minority stereotypes, which aligns with a recent conservative strategy to align the interests of white and (some) Asian Americans contra other minority groups.  This strategy places Asian Americans as “hard-working, strong” minority Americans, who (like white Americans) should be defended against liberal-driven policies like Affirmative Action.

Finally, the United States’ Native American population present a bit of a special case; they clearly have more claim to long-standing roots than any other Americans, and yet their existence as pre-existing nations presents a challenge to a simplistic nationalistic view of America.  Looking back to the days before his presidency, Donald Trump has had a contentious personal relationship with Native American communities dating to slanders he used against Native American competitors in the casino business, including questioning the heritage of his opponents.   These days, President Trump’s views toward Native Americans are largely judged as dismissively racist, based largely on his repeated mockery of Senator Elizabeth Warren with the “Pocahontas” slur.  Even during a photo op with World War II Native American code talkers, Trump has been callous enough to repeat the Pocahontas jab and tone-deaf enough to hold such events under the portrait of “Indian killer” Andrew Jackson. Meanwhile, his administration’s efforts to strips Native nations’ of their rights and land, and more fundamentally, undermine the constitutionally-protected status of Native nations as political entities retaining limited sovereignty within the United States. Trump’s America seems to leave no room for 573 other nations within its borders.

In short, we find ourselves in a situation where, in order to be remain in or be admitted to Donald Trump’s team, which is now “America,” racial and ethnic groups have to prove themselves loyal and worthy, much like contestants on his reality show competed to ultimately gain a place within the Trump Organization.  In Trump’s eyes, some groups (for example, East Asians) are winning this competition, while others (e.g., Hispanics) are losing, and he seeks to use the power of the federal government to “hire’ and “fire” American residents accordingly (and in case this seems a far-fetched interpretation, don’t forget that Trump once literally proposed such a race-based competition for The Apprentice).

131 thoughts on “What President Trump’s “Nationalism” Means for the Country”

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