Trump Launches a Nationalist Salvo at the Midterms

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Speaking at a political rally in Houston on Monday night, President Donald Trump revisited some of his familiar “America First” themes. “We’re taking care of ourselves, for a change,” he advised an enthusiastic crowd, before slamming “corrupt, power-hungry globalists.” Then he pushed ahead, putting a label on that thing that ails him: “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, okay? I’m a nationalist. Nothing wrong. Use that word. Use that word.”

With that, the president — who rarely offers unvarnished, accurate descriptions of what motivates him when he’s out on the hustings — provided a candid, calculated and honest self-assessment. Hold on to that moment, because authenticity is a scarce commodity in the Oval Office. Ponder that moment, too, because it represents Trump pandering to his political base by lobbing racially charged grenades into the midterm-election frenzy — and reveling in it.

As a working definition of nationalism, one that has been making the rounds on social media over the last day, look no further than “Notes on Nationalism” by George Orwell: “By ‘nationalism’ I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions and tens of millions of people can be confidently labeled ‘good’ or ‘bad.’”

The term “nationalism” also evokes the Nazis and Aryan supremacy, of course, something some Trump’s supporters dismissed as an unreasonable interpretation of what the president meant when he described himself as a member of the nationalist club. The Nazis’ “nationalism was about racial purity, it was about blood and soil,” said Steve Cortes, a commentator and Trump backer, on CNN. “American nationalism — which by the way defeated Nazism — American nationalism is about shared ideals. It’s about a Constitution.”

There’s a bit of uncomfortable history with Trump and Nazism, though. His first wife, Ivana, told her lawyer during their divorce that Trump kept a copy of Adolf Hitler’s collected speeches by his bedside in their Trump Tower triplex. When a reporter questioned Trump about the book in 1990, he balked and then said it was a gift. “If I had these speeches, and I am not saying that I do, I would never read them,” Trump also told the reporter. (Trump doesn’t read books, or much of anything else, so he may have been telling the truth when he said he didn’t read the Hitler collection.)

Little Nazi-like things crept up in later years, too. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump retweeted an anti-Jeb Bush post from a Twitter user whose handle was “WhiteGenocideTM” and whose website featured a pro-Hitler documentary. Trump was also criticized during the 2016 campaign for tweeting an image of the Jewish Star of David that had reportedly been featured on a website favored by Neo-Nazis and white supremacists. In perhaps the most high profile example of the president’s coddling of this kind of extremism, he didn’t criticize Neo-Nazis and white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017 and helped stoke the riots there that left one woman dead.

After Trump declared himself a nationalist in Houston, he received a quick endorsement on Twitter from David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan who is a prominent white nationalist and white supremacist. Duke noted that what Trump was extolling wasn’t just nationalism but was “White Nationalism” because “there is no ethnic or racial group in America more Nationalist than White Americans.” (In interviews during the presidential election, Trump declined to disavow Duke and other white supremacists who were supporting his campaign. "I know nothing about David Duke; I know nothing about white supremacists," he told CNN.)

On Tuesday, reporters asked Trump at the White House why he would adopt the term “nationalist” given its association with racist movements. The president said he was unaware of the association and was still content to embrace the term. “I am a nationalist,” he replied. “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.”

Trump’s refusal to think more sensitively about race shouldn’t come as a surprise. As I’ve noted in other columns looking at the president’s long history of racism and race-baiting, he is someone who decided to buy full-page ads in New York newspapers in 1989 condemning black and Latino teenagers accused of assaulting a white jogger in Central Park. He did so to try to stoke racial animosities put on edge by the incident, so he could then exploit all of it for publicity. Even after the teenagers were fully exonerated, including by DNA evidence, Trump continued to insist on their guilt as recently as 2016.

Trump routinely speaks of himself and family members as having superior intellect and success in life because they have “good genes,” a worldview he may have inherited from his father. His decision to take on the mantle of being a nationalist can only be understood in the broader context of electioneering and race-baiting. Trump and his administration have described the migrant caravan winding its way through Central America in the most sensational and fabricated of ways, saying that it’s essentially an army of misfits populated by terrorists and Middle Easterners.

For a nationalist hoping to shore up his base before the midterm elections, demonizing and lying about unwanted outsiders is a card to play, even if it’s a morally bankrupt move. For others around the country, having become better acquainted with the president and perhaps less shocked by him, it’s time to discover how well they know themselves — and whether they’re ready to counter the nationalism Trump will continue rolling out.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Timothy L. O’Brien is the executive editor of Bloomberg Opinion. He has been an editor and writer for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, HuffPost and Talk magazine. His books include “TrumpNation: The Art of Being The Donald.”

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