As a general rule, presidents do not refer to themselves as a “nationalist” given the freighted history of the word.
But as President Donald Trump tries to galvanise his conservative base to turn out in the midterm elections, he has adopted the label as a badge of honour.
At a rally in Houston on Monday night, he embraced the term as unabashedly as he ever has.
“Really, we’re not supposed to use that word,” he told supporters in a nod to the usual political sensibilities that he relishes disrupting.
“You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, OK? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist! Use that word! Use that word!”
— Alphidius 🇺🇸 🇺🇸 🇺🇸 🇺🇸 🇺🇸 (@AlfidioValera) October 23, 2018
Asked in the Oval Office on Tuesday why he used that word given its association with racist movements, Mr Trump professed ignorance of its history but did not back off.
“I never heard that theory about being a nationalist,” he said. “I’ve heard them all. But I’m somebody who loves our country.”
Undaunted, he added: “I am a nationalist. It’s a word that hasn’t been used too much. Some people use it, but I’m very proud. I think it should be brought back.”
There is a reason other presidents generally do not use that word about themselves.
Typically, the term “nationalist” is employed by the US government to describe political figures and forces in other countries that sometimes represent a threat.
When used domestically, it is a word often tainted with the whiff of extremism, not least because a variant of it, white nationalist, describes racist leaders and groups. US politicians traditionally stick with the safer term “patriot”.
But in service of his agenda, Mr Trump has enthusiastically embraced words and ideas his predecessors shied away from.
He adopted the slogan “America First” to describe his foreign policy despite its association with the isolationists and Nazi sympathisers led by Charles Lindbergh before World War II, and he calls some journalists the “enemy of the people” despite the association with Stalin’s mass murders.
In Mr Trump’s view, the history does not matter because terms like nationalist and America First aptly sum up his priority of looking out for the United States first, a message that resonates with crowds like the one gathered in Houston’s Toyota Center. And if coastal elites who fly overseas on frequent flyer miles do not like it, so much the better.
“Radical Democrats want to turn back the clock” to restore the “rule of corrupt, power-hungry globalists”, he said in Houston, where he was campaigning for Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas.
“You know what a globalist is, right? You know what a globalist is? 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.”
Mr Trump’s opponents quickly denounced his comments, saying they were not-so-veiled appeals to racism and nativism; the word “globalist,” they said, appeals to anti-Semitism.
Let's be clear: Nationalism is not patriotism. Real patriotism involves strengthening our democracy, defending the ideals we share in common, and protecting the rights of all Americans. Nationalism is rooted in fear and division. We must reject it on November 6th.
— Robert Reich (@RBReich) October 23, 2018
“The President of the United States openly identifies himself as a nationalist, calls for the jailing of his political opponents, attacks the press & cozies up to dictators, while Republicans in Congress stand idly by,” Robert Reich, a former labor secretary under President Bill Clinton, wrote on Twitter.
Michael McFaul, a former ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama and a professor at Stanford University, wrote: “Does Trump know the historical baggage associated with this word, or is he ignorant? Honest question.”
The embrace of the nationalist label comes during a midterm election season in which Mr Trump has returned to some of his favourite hard-edged themes, particularly inveighing against immigration, both legal and illegal.
At one campaign rally after another, he invokes the menace of a caravan of Central American refugees and accuses Democrats of supporting “open borders,” protecting MS-13 gang members from deportation and wanting to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
He has also increasingly framed the choice facing voters in two weeks as continued prosperity or a turn to socialism.
The White House Council of Economic Advisers, usually a sober, policy-oriented body, even released a report on Tuesday outlining what it called the opportunity costs of socialism because “socialism is making a comeback in American political discourse”.
This is not the first time Mr Trump has adopted the nationalist label, but rarely has he been as full throated.
“You know, somebody said, ‘Oh, maybe he’s a total nationalist,’” he said at the White House in February 2017. “Which I am in a true sense.” A couple of months later, he tried to soften the edges of that. “Hey, I’m a nationalist and a globalist,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “I’m both.”
Former GOP Sen. Rick Santorum says Pres. Trump’s embrace of “nationalist” is an example of his “brilliance."
— The Lead CNN (@TheLeadCNN) October 23, 2018
When he visited Davos, Switzerland, this year to attend the annual World Economic Forum, the ground zero of globalism, he sought to reassure the international business and political titans that he was not rejecting the rest of the planet. “
America First does not mean America alone,” he told them. “When the United States grows, so does the world.”
On the campaign trail, however, globalists have become the enemy again, the ones who want to sell American sovereignty to other countries, let in dangerous migrants and make bad trade deals that result in shuttered manufacturing plants.
“For years, you watched as your leaders apologised for America,” he said in Houston. “They apologised. Now you have a president who is standing up for America.”
That of course elides his own history of talking down America. His most famous theme, “Make America Great Again” and his inaugural complaint about “this American carnage” evoked the image of a country that has not been great.
Asked once if President Vladimir Putin of Russia was a killer, Mr Trump said America was essentially the same.
“What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?” he said on Fox News, an equivalence that would have drawn sharp condemnation if made by another US president.
In his speech in Houston, Mr Trump boasted about how much the rest of the world dislikes him. He said only 30 per cent of people surveyed outside the United States supported him – and he wondered why it was even that high. If foreigners do not like him, he said, it was “because we’re not letting them rip us off any more”.
Mr Trump appeared to be referring to a recent 25-nation survey by the Pew Research Center, which found that a median of just 27 per cent of those interviewed outside the United States had confidence in him to do the right thing in world affairs while 70 per cent did not.
That figure was even lower among some of America’s staunchest allies 10 per cent in Germany and 9 per cent in France – and the lowest in Mexico at 6 per cent. But it has jumped to 69 per cent in Israel, which Mr Trump has backed strongly in its decades-old conflict with the Palestinians.
Still, Mr Trump’s ratings at home are on the upswing. A new survey by The Journal and NBC News put his approval at 47 per cent, the highest of his presidency in that poll. His message is being adopted by Republicans in red states like Texas, Mississippi and elsewhere. Party leaders detect new momentum.
In Houston, the crowd booed at the mention of the word “globalist” and cheered the word “nationalist,” erupting in a boisterous chant of “USA! USA! USA!” And that was all the approval Mr Trump needed, no matter what the rest of the world might think.
–New York Times