“You know, they have a word,” said President Trump told a rally last fall. “It sort of became old-fashioned. It’s called a nationalist. Really, we’re not supposed to use that word? You know what I am? I'm a nationalist. ... Use that word.”
This is classic Trump: someone is telling us not to do something, so let’s do it. I agree that political correctness (left, right, or center) is the pits, but word choice matters, because communication matters. Take it from Merriam-Webster: “In US usage nationalism is now perhaps most frequently associated with white nationalism, and has considerably negative connotations.”
When a black reporter asked Trump if it bothered him that white nationalists, who want the nation to be as ethnically “white” as possible, might take encouragement from Trump’s use of “nationalist,” he scoffed that the question was racist. (Is the dictionary racist?) He told another reporter that he did not know of any racist connotation of the word and said he just meant putting America first, as opposed to globalism, which he said was about looking out for other countries first and the USA second. He complained that “we’re giving all of our money, all of our wealth to other countries and then they don’t treat us properly.”
The best that can be said of Trump’s idea of “globalism” is that it’s a straw man. The USA has never been shy about asserting its own interests. Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, isolationists and interventionists will differ on exactly what those interests are and how they are best served, but the idea that our policymakers put other countries first is ridiculous. Our foreign policy has long been one of “realpolitik,” based on preserving American prosperity and military strength. Humanitarian factors are not entirely absent, but foreign aid takes up just one percent of the federal budget, and less than one-quarter of one percent of GDP. Our military commitments abroad, from NATO to the Middle East to South Korea, account for much more, but those too are usually justified (accurately or not) as good for our strategic purposes and influence. Anyway, Trump hasn’t exactly reduced those. He may have been referring to our trade deficit, which is about three percent of GDP, but that too is a straw man. Our trade deficit means that we use three cents of every dollar to pay China, Germany, etc. for goods and services that we want (over and above what we sell them), and people in those countries reinvest that money in American stocks, bonds and other assets. Globalism is an international business system, not a charity. One can argue that our trade agreements benefit American consumers, corporations and investors at the expense of many American workers, but either way they benefit some influential American interests, and that’s why we have them.
The worst that can be said about “globalism” is that it’s a dog-whistle to anti-Semites, conjuring up stereotypes of international Jewish bankers, from the Rothschilds on down, who pull the world’s strings. (For a detailed account, Google the Vox article by Yochi Dreazen or the Atlantic article by Ben Zimmer.) The white supremacist alt-right loves the word, as do right-wing conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones and high-profile professional racists like David Duke and Richard Spencer. Trump does not necessarily see eye to eye with these people, but they claim him as one of their own.
So if globalism is a bogus villain, what about nationalism? Trump is right that the word fell out of favor. But that was for good reason. George Orwell wrote a searing essay in 1945 called “Notes on Nationalism” that identified nationalism as a leading cause of World War II and the world’s ills. He said it should never be confused with patriotism, a “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 upon other people.” Nationalism, he said, was about grabbing “more power and more prestige” for one’s country, at the expense of other countries, as Germany and Japan had attempted before and during the war. Orwell called nationalism an unhealthy and insecure obsession, which led to callous indifference to people outside one’s country and to the truth. To a nationalist, Orwell said, actions are held to be good or bad depending on who does them. “The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.”
The aggressive, expansionist nationalism that Orwell described is not necessarily even the worst form of nationalism. Long before he became chancellor, Adolf Hitler described an internal version of white nationalism in Mein Kampf: calling for the expulsion of Greater Germany’s Jews, he wrote that "the nationalization of our masses will succeed only when, aside from all the positive struggle for the soul of our people, their international poisoners are exterminated."
After the war, “nationalist” was often applied to various independence movements by former European colonies around the globe, from Gandhi’s in India to Castro’s in Cuba. Many of these seekers of independence compared their movements to that of the 13 American colonies in 1776. This was a more benign form of nationalism than that of the Axis powers, but this “nationalism” had a negative connotation to many in America and Europe, not only because some of those governments became corrupt and tyrannical but also because many of them were seen as inimical to US military and business interests. Even if one sides with some of those pro-independence movements, it’s doubtful that nationalist is the best word to describe them. If Gandhi and Hitler were both nationalists, maybe we should be using different words?
In sum, the word “nationalism” has not fared well in the past century. The stand-alone version of the word is by now so vague as to be meaningless. To the extent it means anything these days, it’s only with a modifier like “white” or “ethno” in front of it. For example, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi calls himself a “Hindu nationalist,” as if to reassure India’s Hindu majority that he does not represent India’s 270 million non-Hindus. Ethno-nationalism is not necessarily as sinister as it may sound, as it describes the immigration policies of many countries around the world, such as Ireland and Israel, that make it easy for descendants of those nations to move back. But a country can have a policy like that and still be welcoming to diverse immigrants, as Ireland has done. By contrast, a common complaint among British ethno-nationalists who backed Brexit is that recent immigrants were making England less English. And supporters of the right-wing National Front in France similarly complain that France is losing its identity. Ethno-nationalism is identity politics in its purest form.
The USA, by contrast, is a nationality but not an ethnicity. (For example, my earliest American ancestors came over in the 1630s, but Ancestry DNA counts that part of my heritage as English, not American.) The only ethnic Americans are American Indians. The rest of us are mostly European, Hispanic, African, Asian, or some mix of those. What makes us a nation, and what some call “civic nationalism,” is not blood and soil but shared culture, ideals, and experiences. And diversity. It’s not just a buzzword, it’s who we are: the Land of E Pluribus Unum. Diverse cultures coming together have given us some extraordinary things, from Southern food to rock and roll.
Ethno-nationalism is basically impossible here, but white nationalism is a different and disturbing story. You have probably heard that by the year 2045 or so, non-Hispanic whites will no longer be the majority of the American population. Some people find this projection alarming and long for the America of, say, the mid-twentieth century, which was almost ninety percent white. While it’s only human to feel uncomfortable about becoming a minority, a few things are worth remembering. Every nonwhite group in this country has always been a minority. Second, even in 2045, whites are still projected to be the plurality of the population, about 49 percent, outnumbering Hispanics by two to one, so Spanish is supremely unlikely to replace English.
White nationalists in the USA, like their counterparts in Britain and France, may think they can turn back this tide, but it’s a doomed quest. Even if this country tried to turn back the clock by restricting nonwhite immigration (which was national policy before 1965), it’s unlikely to make much difference. White birthrates are lower than those of Hispanics and blacks. Non-Hispanic white immigration into this country is low, and most of the people who want to move here are nonwhite. The needs of employers, consumers and taxpayers (especially for financing our retirees’ Social Security and Medicare) make it hard for our society to do without immigrants. Rather than lament the “browning” of America, we need to make peace with it. Studies have found that current immigrant groups assimilate, over generations, just as fast as previous immigrant groups did. The more welcoming we are of immigrants, the faster they assimilate.
Where does that leave Trump’s “nationalist” rhetoric? Without a modifier, it’s a useless word that conveniently can mean just about anything. Trump has denied that he’s a white nationalist, but he sure is good at making white nationalists feel that he’s on their side. This goes back at least as far as his “birtherist” claim that President Obama might have been born in Kenya. Then there was his campaign claim that Mexican immigrants were rapists and drug pushers. And his complaint that too many of our immigrants come from “sh*thole countries” and that not enough come from Norway. And his recent blast at four Congresswomen of color, three of whom were born in the USA, telling them to “go back” to their countries. Whether Trump is a white nationalist or simply panders to white nationalists, the result is the same. Let’s be one nation without the “ism.”