“Use that word!” said Donald Trump to the cheering crowd in Houston on Monday as he proclaimed himself a “nationalist”:
A globalist is a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly, not caring about our country so much. 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. And I say, really, we’re not supposed to use that word. You know what I am? I’m a nationalist, OK? I’m a nationalist. ‘Nationalist.’ Nothing wrong—use that word. Use that word.”
It’s no surprise that he considers himself a nationalist, but why does he insist on “that word” for something that could be described less controversially—say by “patriot”? Mr. Trump is no intellectual, yet he understands that he and those who are broadly in sympathy with him are, like it or not, in a battle with the Left for the control of the language.
“The problem” with Mr. Trump’s self-description, according to Chris Cillizza of CNN, “is that words matter.” Boy! Do they ever. But as I have mentioned before (see here, for example), there is also a problem with the “matter” meme—now ubiquitous in advertising and propaganda like “Black Lives Matter”—which is that it is utterly meaningless without any specificity about to whom the thing alleged to “matter” matters. To the Left, the word “nationalist” matters in exactly the same way that the word “fascist” matters—as a useful epithet to attach to any political movement or tendency with which it disagrees as a short-cut to what has been called the argumentum ad Hitlerum.
Here, for instance, is how Mr. Cillizza goes on. “Then there [is] the historical context of the word ‘nationalism.’ It primarily conjures two close associations: Nazism and white nationalism.” Again, it “primarily conjures” these two “close associations” to the Left, because such associations are politically useful to them. Peter Baker in The New York Times makes a similar appeal to selective history:
There is a reason other presidents generally do not use that word about themselves. Typically, the term “nationalist” is employed by the United States government to describe political figures and forces in other countries that sometimes represent a threat. When used domestically, it is a word often tainted with the whiff of extremism, not least because a variant of it, white nationalist, describes racist leaders and groups. American politicians traditionally stick with the safer term “patriot.”
All no doubt true, but it is only another way of saying that “the United States government”—by which is clearly meant something other than Mr. Trump’s government—agrees with the Left in insisting that the word can only be used derogatorily.
But it has not always been so. The “historical context” is not, as such people pretend, limited to Nazis and white nationalists. Back in Woodrow Wilson’s day (remember “the rights of small nations”?) and again during the post–World War II breakup of the European empires in Africa and Asia—nationalism was seen as a progressive force against that other bugbear of the Left, “imperialism.” I am old enough to remember when the anti-war progressives of the 1960s used to pooh-pooh the contention of “the United States government” of the day that the Viet Cong were communists by insisting that they were nothing of the kind. They were mere “nationalists,” and Ho Chi Minh was the Vietnamese George Washington—presumably another nationalist.
Times change. Communists are now almost as completely rehabilitated in the lexicon of the American Left as socialists, while nationalists have taken their place as the dangerous “other” we must all be warned against because their once-respectable name has been appropriated by white nationalists. In fact, the self-appointed language police are tickled pink about this, because it gives them an excuse, every time they hear the word “nationalist,” to tack on “white” before it, even if this was never intended—as it was clearly not intended by Mr. Trump. All nationalists are white nationalists in the dictionary of the Left, and the rest of us are encouraged to adapt our vocabularies accordingly by the likes of Messrs. Cillizza and Baker. This raid on the English language is what Donald Trump was attempting to resist when he said: “Use that word.”