A neo-Nazi group met in Washington D.C. over the weekend celebrating Trump's victory. The keynote speaker proclaimed the superiority of whites (though he preferred the word "Europeans"), referenced Nazi Germany and ended his speech by shouting "Hail Trump! Hail Our People!" which was greeted with cheers and Nazi salutes from the crowd.
Since the election, Trump has unleashed Twitter storms against the media, anti-Trump protesters and the cast of Hamilton
, but the only comment about the neo-Nazi event and similar outpourings of racist and antisemitic hate around the country came from someone in his transition team who wrote, "President-elect Trump has continued to denounce racism of any kind." Weak tea from a man whose revels in full-throated condemnations of everything and everyone he's against. Trump's racist supporters know a mild statement like that is the equivalent of calling a naughty dog over for a hug. "Come here, you bad dog. Who's a bad dog? Who's my bad dog?"
At a meeting with the New York Times
Tuesday, Trump went a bit farther and decided to "disavow and condemn" the white nationalists, though he acted like he didn't know much about them and denied he had anything to do with their current prominence. At the same meeting, he said maybe there's something to climate change and maybe waterboarding isn't such a good idea after all. Oh, and after bashing the New York Times
at every opportunity, he called it a "great, great American jewel." That places his comment about the white nationalists as part of a temporary reversal while he was in the room with the Times guys. Someone accused his racist dog of crapping all over their lawn, and Trump gave the dog a light whack across the nose with a rolled-up newspaper.
A few different terms are used to describe the most racist and antisemitic of Trump's supporters—alt-right, white supremacists, white nationalists. Shades of meaning differentiate the three terms, but they're all in the same ballpark. Whites should rule the country. Non-whites should be kept in their place, and their numbers should be kept as low as possible. All three terms have well-deserved negative connotations, which is why Steve Bannon, Trump's chief strategist and the man who brags he created "the platform for the alt-right" at Breibart News, wants to normalize the term "White Nationalism" to a more neutral, even patriotic-sounding "Nationalism."
In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter
, Bannon claimed, "I'm not a white nationalist, I'm a nationalist. I'm an economic nationalist." Since I can't peer into his soul, I can't say if he's being truthful, but it hardly matters. He's made it abundantly clear that he wants the white supremacists and white nationalists to help bolster the Trump administration. However, it matters deeply if he manages to get the term "Nationalism" into the mainstream as a description of Trump's agenda. "Nationalism" sounds pretty good, even patriotic. Bannon contrasts it with "globalism," a term which which can be made to sound like it favors the interests of other countries over ours. If "White Nationalism" is normalized to "Nationalism" and is used as a synonym for "Patriotism," the Trump administration will have a powerful rhetorical weapon against people who oppose them. Remember the phrase "Why do you hate America?" thrown at people who objected to the Iraq War or other policies of the George Bush administration? Remember "My country, right or wrong," used in the 60s to portray people who questioned anything about the U.S. as traitors? That's how "Nationalism" can be used against dissent in the Trump era, and its connection to "White Nationalism" can make it a powerful weapon against people who want to protect or increase minority rights.
Words matter. Any student of poetry, advertising and politics knows that. The people who control the political vocabulary control the argument. If we allow "Nationalism" to be used interchangeably with "Patriotism," if we allow the term to be used to describe how we can "Make America great again," we'll be accepting the use of a racist dogwhistle to define what this country stands for.