This is what Trump’s really talking about when he says he’s a nationalist

"You know what I am? I am a nationalist, okay?"

President Donald Trump addresses a rally in Houston, Texas. (CREDIT: Loren Elliott/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump addresses a rally in Houston, Texas. (CREDIT: Loren Elliott/Getty Images)

At a political rally in Houston, Texas Monday evening, President Donald Trump proudly called himself a nationalist, and urged Americans to use the word to describe themselves too.

“You know what a globalist is?” Trump said after arguing that Trump was putting America first in opposition to the Democrats who want to “turn back the clock.”

“A globalist is a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly, not caring about our country so much,” Trump argued. “And you know what? We can’t have that. You know, they have a word. It sort of became old-fashioned. It’s called a nationalist,” he continued.

“And I say really, we’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am? I am a nationalist, okay? I’m a nationalist. Nationalist. Use that word.”

It’s a rare thing for the president of the United States to urge people to use the term nationalist. Trump himself has publicly used the term only twice before, both in conversations related to trade.


In February 2017, Trump was talking about trade during a meeting with the nation’s governors at the White House, and admitted he was a nationalist “in a true sense” for the first time as president.

“Because I believe in free trade,” he said. “I want so much trade — somebody said, oh, maybe he’s a total nationalist — which I am, in a true sense — but I want trade. I want great trade between countries.”

The other time was at a January 2016 rally in Reno, Nevada when Trump was talking about how he was “evolving on the whole thing with trade” and not wanting to trade with people “where we lose that much money.” He then added an observation about nationalism.

“I’ve become more and more when you talk about nationalist — you know, say what you want, some people say ‘oh nationalist that doesn’t sound good.’ I want our country to be great again, I want our country to be great again,” Trump said.

This time around, the comment wasn’t related to trade.

Nationalism is not the same thing as patriotism, or even protectionism or populism. The term nationalism — or the related American Nationalism, Constitutional Nationalism, or Christian Nationalism — has become embraced by white nationalists (who call themselves the “alt-right”) as those terms became synonymous with extremism. Michael Hayden noted on Twitter that the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer tried to change its brand from “alt-right” to “American Nationalist.”


And Trump’s placement of “nationalist” in opposition to “globalist” is telling, as the latter term has become a racist dogwhistle which fosters anti-Semitic and xenophobic visions of wealthy foreigners trying to take away America’s identity.

The right-wing site Breitbart published an article hours before Trump spoke in Houston defending the use of the word nationalism, saying “the widespread rise of nationalism does not suggest increasing racism or xenophobia.”

Former Klu Klux Klan leader David Duke retweeted a tweet from a far-right Twitter account which responded to Trump’s comments positively.

Trump’s mainstream defenders would argue that he is simply restating his patriotism and love for the United States. Yet nationalism is a political movement not unique to a conservative portrayal of patriotic economic populism. European nationalism movements have become stronger in recent years, tapping into extremism, opposition to even legal immigration, aggressive rhetoric, racial identity, economic protectionism, and other far-right priorities. These priorities dovetail with Trump’s.


Trump’s favorite media figures have flirted with or been embraced by white nationalists, including Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity.

Former President Barack Obama gave a speech in 2011 hearkening back to Teddy Roosevelt’s call for a “New Nationalism” asking Americans to work together “in a spirit of broad and far-reaching nationalism where we work for what concerns our people as a whole.” To Obama, this New Nationalism provided a path forward for a country that could be hobbled by divisions — it said that the federal government “belongs to the whole American people, and where the whole American people are interested, that interest can be guarded effectively only by the National Government.”

The American people are right in demanding that New Nationalism, without which we cannot hope to deal with new problems. The New Nationalism puts the national need before sectional or personal advantage. It is impatient of the utter confusion that results from local legislatures attempting to treat national issues as local issues. It is still more impatient of the impotence which springs from over division of governmental powers, the impotence which makes it possible for local selfishness or for legal cunning, hired by wealthy special interests, to bring national activities to a deadlock. This New Nationalism regards the executive power as the steward of the public welfare. It demands of the judiciary that it shall be interested primarily in human welfare rather than in property, just as it demands that the representative body shall represent all the people rather than any one class or section of the people.

Now the man who lives in the White House is urging people to use the word in a more “old-fashioned” manner — pleasing the white nationalist and far-right figures who have stuck by him and helped fuel his political ascent.

UPDATE (10/23/18): Trump was asked about his assertion that he is a nationalist on Tuesday afternoon by reporters in the Oval Office, and he professed to have no idea that it might be a dog whistle to white nationalists:

“I have never even heard that I cannot imagine that,” Trump said. “I’m a nationalist. No, I never heard that theory about being a nationalist. I have heard them all. I’m somebody that loves our country. When I say a nationalist, I don’t like it when Germany is paying 1 percent of GDP for NATO and we are paying 4.3 percent. I don’t like that. That’s not fair.”

Asked again, Trump said he thinks the term should be brought back:

“I’m proud. I’m proud of our country. And I am a nationalist. It’s a word that hasn’t been used too much. People use it. But I’m very proud. I think it should be brought back. I’m somebody who wants to help other countries of the world. But I also have to take care of our country.”

In case there was any confusion, Trump claimed that because other countries have not treated America fairly, “in that sense I’m absolutely a nationalist. And I’m proud of it.”