Recently, the president called himself a nationalist at a rally before the election to the thunderous applause of the attendees. This has sparked a fierce debate on social media and at news organizations about whether or not the term is appropriate for an American president to use. I’ve been watching people go back and forth talking about patriotism vs. nationalism, calling each other racists and many other things. It’s been festering among the public for a few weeks now. It seemed to come to a head when the White House held a press conference after the midterm elections. There was a lot that happened at that press conference, but the thing that stood out to me was when a journalist stood to ask the president about his calling himself a nationalist. She began asking whether or not using the term emboldens white nationalism throughout the country. He interrupted her by saying it was a racist question. (Of course I am not able to capture the extraordinary exchange between the two so I highly encourage those who haven’t seen it to watch the clip below)
After this insane press conference I heard my husband on the phone talking with a friend about nationalism and what it means. While they were talking, I found myself chewing on the subject. I got on Merriam-Webster dictionary and searched nationalism. The definition that comes up reads loyalty and devotion to nation.
Reading a literal definition of the word makes it seem totally harmless. The problem with literal definitions is that history, society and cultural movements can change the meaning or interpretation of a word. Take the word gay for example. The literal definition listed in this dictionary is happily excited, keenly alive and exuberant, bright, lively, brilliant in color and given to social pleasures. There’s nothing mentioned about sexuality until the fourth entry yet the cultural definition of gay is sexually attracted to the same sex. English teachers didn’t change the definition. Society did. If someone stands in front of a crowd and says ‘I’m gay,’ not a single listener would interpret that as the speaker feeling happy. There are many words that the cultural meaning is different than the literal one. Here are a few obvious ones:
- Faggot – a bundle of sticks or twigs bound together as fuel
- Bitch – female dog, wolf, fox or otter
- Ass – a hoofed mammal of the horse family with a braying call, typically smaller than a horse and with longer ears
Even typing those puts a pit in my stomach because they mean something offensive. Nationalism is similar in that the literal meaning isn’t quite in touch with what it means to people. Dictators, namely Hitler and Mussolini, used the term to manipulate the masses into believing that their nation was superior to others. It has been used historically as a way to create a hierarchy of human worth. Our nation is superior so we must keep inferior people out, that sort of thing. Hitler was able to define what a superior German was down to the eye color by exploiting people’s fears about the economy, vilifying Jews and other immigrants while fostering a sense of pride in being part of his nation. His speeches were riddled with language about how nation means everything, protecting the culture’s “founding race,” and many other phrases which instilled a belief among the people that unless you possessed all the qualities that made a person German, you were inferior. And, of course, the Holocaust followed.
So, what’s the responsibility of an American president when it comes to words? The president’s words have the power to unite us, to divide us, and to move an entire nation in a certain direction. The words of the president have shaped history for better or for worse. I’m not here to be the word police, but I do think the words he speaks hold more weight than any person on the planet. They must be chosen carefully and thoughtfully. The fact that this president chose to use nationalism means one of two things. The president is either unaware of the history of the words usage or he knows full well what it means and used it anyway. I would argue that the latter is more true. Before he announced himself as a nationalist he said, ‘I know I’m not supposed to say this, but…’ implying that he knows exactly what impact the word would have on people. If he really believes nationalism really just means patriotism then why would he call the journalist’s question racist? Patriotism has nothing to do with race or superiority, but nationalism sure does. He knows the weight of the word and used it purposefully. He talks of revoking birthright citizenship which would start a conversation about what makes a person American. What qualities does a person have to possess to be superior enough to be called an American? This vision of America betrays the very principle that this country was founded on, that all men are created equal. This is the muddy water that he wants. We, the people, rejected this way of thinking on November 6th, 2018 and I hope that the firm rebuke of nationalism continues on through 2020.