A (White?) Nationalist President?
This is one of those times when I’m both thrilled to finally have a website and mad that I didn’t start one sooner. Months ago, I was having a conversation with a good friend, and we landed on the idea that Donald Trump was not racist (or, at the very least, not only racist – his claims to be “the least racist person” are a bit untenable) as much as he was nationalist. It’s therefore with some vindication (and a lot of trepidation for what this means for the country – worry that seems justified in light of last week’s horrible attacks) that I greeted the news that he had used that very label to describe himself at a rally for Ted Cruz a week ago. In case you missed the remarks:
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. 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, OK? I’m a nationalist. [Audience cheers]. Nationalist, let them use that word. [Audience begins chanting “U.S.A., U.S.A.”]
Since Monday, some people have argued that these remarks made plain that Trump’s Make America Great Again statements are barely concealed dog whistles for racists among his supporters, who have of late taken up labels such as “white nationalists” or “alt-right” as euphemisms for “white supremacists.” (President Trump, for his part, has either deflected or rejected that interpretation, including when speaking to a gathering a young black leaders ). Others point toward the connotations of fascism – an ideology manifested in historical cases such as Nazi Germany or Mussolini’s Italy that is often tied closely to racism and which has previously been echoed in President Trump’s rhetoric and admiration for authoritarian style rule – in the nationalist label.
While being fascist, racist and nationalist are not at all exclusive, and can very much go hand in hand, it’s important to acknowledge that words have meaning, especially the words that political leaders and their speechwriters carefully choose – and Trump’s nationalist sound byte was clearly scripted carefully. Assuming we take the President at his word, examining Donald Trump’s statements, revealed beliefs and attitudes through the lens of nationalism may provide some specific insight into his thinking and thus into the policies he will likely pursue, and such an analysis can help shape the discourse on issues ranging from violence to immigration to trade. In Part 1 of a three part analysis, we will examine what these words mean; later, we will look carefully at their implications for the United States and the world.
Some Quick Definitions:
Race, ethnicity, nationality: these are three terms that we often use fairly interchangeably in everyday conversation, but actually have distinct meanings.
Race, in the modern sense of the term, refers to “a group of people socially defined primarily on the basis of one or more perceived common physical characteristics,” such as skin color, hair texture, and facial features. This definition doesn’t change the idea that race is a social construct (these features are important enough to be linked to social, political and economic outcomes mainly because we’ve collectively decided they are, not because they’re intrinsically tied to anything other than physical appearance). This definition helps us distinguish race from:
Ethnicity, or membership in a particular “ethnic group,” that is, a group of people who are:
- Socially defined by a shared identity, often including culture, language and history,
- Sometimes associated with a particular geographical location, and who
- Exist as one of multiple groups within a state or within a group of states.
This sounds similar to race, but not the same. For one, members of an ethnic group don’t have to have shared physical characteristics as a defining element of group membership, and even when they do (due to descent from a common group of ancestors), a particular ethnic group is usually not the only group to share those physical features. Furthermore, depending on who’s doing the counting (and when), there are a handful of races in the world, while there are thousands of ethnic groups (leave it to missionaries to count them all) – some defined by language, some by geography, some by religion, and so on. An ethnic group is, in many respects, hard to distinguish from a:
Nation: a (large) group of people who are:
- Socially defined by a shared identity, often including culture, language and history,
- Usually associated with a particular geographical location, and
- Have, or are perceived as having, an independent political identity.
Ethnic groups and nations seem very similar; even size cannot be a hard and fast distinguisher, as some commonly recognized ethnicities (such as Han Chinese or Arab) are larger than most groups we think of as nations. One might say that nations are more or less ethnic groups that have their own states or groups that place a particular political significance on their shared identity.
Understanding these three concepts help us understand the “-isms” that are attached to them. Racism is based on the believed superiority of one’s own race, or more tellingly, the inferiority of some or all other races. Ethnocentrism (“ethnicism” hasn’t caught on as a term) places one’s loyalty, value and pride within one’s ethnic group, often meaning that other ethnic groups are seen as enemies or at least rivals. Nationalism is focused on the political identity of the nation: its independence, its prosperity and strength, who does and does not belong, etc.
Though similar, these “isms” often play out differently. Racisms tend to be universal in scope: e.g. the idea that all white people are, more or less, fundamentally superior to all black people, due to “science”, or the superiority of European culture, or God’s will, or whatever the justification. Ethnocentrism is often more context-specific. For example, the Italian-American mafia is a set of particularly ethnocentric criminal organizations (the popular term “Cosa Nostra” literally means “our thing.”) limited to immigrant families originally from Sicily in southern Italy. The Mafia probably doesn’t care much about the social position of Italians in Argentina or Germany, but they care very much about the relative power and influence of Italians in New York when compared to Russians, Irish or Jewish groups.
Nationalism, similarly, is context-specific, if on a larger scale. It’s sometimes a reaction to discrimination or oppression, the solution to which may be for the oppressed to create their own political entity within which they would no longer be oppressed: see Black Nationalism as a response to segregation and Jim Crow. It may also manifest in the belief that an existing nation-state needs to increase its security against enemy states (Europe, after it finished fighting over religion, went through many, many wars, including two that engulfed much of the rest of the world, based on this logic). And nationalism often manifests as suspicion, hatred and even violence directed toward perceived internal enemies (often identified on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, and so on) who live within the nation but don’t “belong” and who are feared for subverting or denigrating or otherwise being detrimental in some way.
What Does This All Mean for America?
On one hand, bias and bigotry are bias and bigotry, regardless of whether race or nation serves as the basis for dividing groups. On the other hand, however, it’s important to understand what self-proclaimed nationalists believe, especially when they occupy the most powerful office in the world, in order to best know what types of policies will be passed and how leadership will be exercised. Trump has been criticized for his own authoritarian tendencies, and for his admiration of a wide variety of strongmen and dictators. The description of President Trump as fascist is a bit overblown, that’s primarily because American institutions protect against a full-blown fascist government, not because this isn’t an appealing model for Trump. Fascism, as practiced by dictators such as Mussolini in Italy, combined a hyper-masculine, violent nationalism with a cult-like devotion to a strong, authoritarian male leader who became the defender and embodiment of the nation (sound familiar?)
Although democracies can be built upon or strengthened by nationalist sentiments, nationalism often lends itself to strongman-style leadership (of which fascism was just one type) in a way that racism by itself does not necessarily do (Italian fascism, for examples, was highly authoritarian but not explicitly racist, while apartheid era South Africa was an extremely racist state that was nonetheless democratic within the white minority population). Identifying nationalism, rather than (only) racism as underlying the current administration’s policies helps to know what types of U.S. institutions could be under threat, which groups or subgroups of people will be vilified or courted, and even which policy areas could allow for common ground and cooperation. Finally, if Trump’s policies and rhetoric are driven by nationalist sentiments rather than (directly) by racism, appeals to the best interests of the nation, crafted carefully and delivered forcefully by enough people, could conceivable increase pressure on the President to fully disavow and denounce white nationalism in America.