Our president has recently called himself a nationalist, saying that “that word” should be OK and should be celebrated in his group of supporters and followers. Why should we care? Among all of the things President Donald Trump has said, why should this instance matter in the slightest?
The reason is that language matters. The word “nationalism” has a past and is associated with a certain way of viewing ourselves and of viewing others. Merriam-Webster describes nationalism as “a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests.” In short, nationalism is the language of superiority, which insists that one nation is culturally superior to others.
By calling himself a nationalist, then, Trump has encouraged those who put American politics into the frame of race, culture and superiority to do so without limit. The president has chosen to position himself — and, by extension, his party — as not just the defender of American interests abroad but as the defender of “American culture” itself.
Just as important, Trump has chosen to defend a flavor of American culture that, as former Grand Wizard of the KKK David Duke put it on Twitter: “Of course fundamentally it is [white] as there is no ethnic or racial group in America more Nationalist than White Americans.” In calling himself a nationalist, our president has firmly committed himself to an ideology that is firmly rooted in race and racially divided culture.
So, what is the risk of nationalism? Its risk is that nationalism, when taken to its natural conclusion, is the promotion of one culture above all others. It is the promotion of, in this case, a white culture that should actively work to suppress the cultures and interests of just about every other ethnic group in the world. Nationalist language permeated the Rwandan Genocide, the Rape of Nanking, the Cambodian Genocide and the Holocaust. Nationalism feeds division, tribalism and racism by subsuming all other cultures and societies underneath the superior one, ending in dehumanization and destruction.
Nationalism is not the promotion of good trade deals and a fairer distribution of global trade, nor is it conservative. Nationalism’s ties to race and culture go deeper and more tribal; it is an ideology that time and time again has ended in war, brutal attempts to create ethno-states and, ultimately, genocide and ethnic cleansing.
As George Orwell put it, “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.” To nationalists, criticism of their culture is impossible, especially by those outside the tribe. Instead, shortcomings and frustrations are blamed on outsiders, and to which the only solutions involve the displacement, removal or destruction of others.
Even those doubting that Trump will endorse the cleansing of perceived outsiders from America will find concerns in the actions of his followers. Already white nationalists have pointed to Trump as a vindication of their beliefs and justification for their actions. They will welcome the normalization of this divisive rhetoric as America cares for a moment, and then forgets and moves on.
Trump’s unabashed nationalism should not be forgotten. This is the first time in the modern era that the leader of the most powerful country in the world has embraced the rhetoric of nationalism. The president has just endorsed the language that has been used to justify violence for over a century, America should listen and be concerned.
Landon Troester, Murray, is a student at the University of Utah Honors College double majoring in teaching history and business management.