President Trump: "I'm a nationalist." pic.twitter.com/3lxCrtSkrN— MSNBC (@MSNBC) October 23, 2018
Some reactions from history:
“You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, okay? I’m a nationalist,” President Trump shouted at a rally in Texas on Monday night. Just before saying this, Trump claimed that “we’re not supposed to use that word,” suggesting that it required great courage to make this declaration.
Sure enough, the rally crowd followed Trump’s cue and roared with approval at his brave act of defiance.
But “nationalism,” in and of itself, is not necessarily controversial in certain contexts. The sentiment known as “civic nationalism” is routinely expressed by politicians in both parties. There are even aspects of Trumpian nationalism that are unremarkable, such as the economic nationalism embodied in his campaign promise of an infrastructure package (which he has abandoned). What would make this claim controversial is if Trump actually meant “racial nationalist” or “white nationalist.”
Which, of course, is exactly what he did mean. By claiming to be breaking a taboo by using this particular N-word, Trump basically confirmed that without saying it out loud.
At this point, someone will point out that Trump is speaking to angst about globalization that does have some legitimacy, and that progressives and Democrats need to come up with their own nationalism that speaks to that angst. But Democrats already have such a nationalism: It’s the “civic nationalism” that has a long history in this country. As historian Gary Gerstle has detailed, this civic nationalism has long vied with the racial nationalism that is now resurgent under Trump.
This civic nationalism locates the key source of national pride in adherence to the American creed’s promise of political equality and economic opportunity to all, regardless of race. It’s the civic nationalism that Barack Obama spoke to in his Selma speech, by prodding Americans to “remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals.”
In this nationalism, there is a response to angst about globalization. It centers on investing more money in workers displaced by the globalizing economy, and on immigration reform that recognizes most undocumented immigrants as “Americans in waiting,” while targeting enforcement at serious threats and at the border, and seeking regional solutions to the root causes of migrant surges.
One can quarrel with the particulars of that agenda. But it does embody a genuine response to anxiety about globalization. It’s true that Democrats are not making the elections about this contrast in nationalisms, but this is a strategic choice to make them more about health care.
Will Trump’s racial nationalism win the midterms? As noted above, immigration fear-mongering worked last time. But as Dave Wasserman points out, the energy unleashed by the anti-Trump backlash ensures that the electorate this time will be “younger” and “far less white” than in the last midterm.
Now that Trump has infused that fear-mongering with even uglier elements of xenophobic populism, we can only hope that this electorate will deliver a massive repudiation of it.