Take Trump literally—he’s a nationalist and a threat to our democracy as we know it
Last week, Donald Trump declared himself a “nationalist” while campaigning for Sen. Ted Cruz in Houston.
“We’re not supposed to use that word,’” Trump told his Texas acolytes. “You know what I am? I’m a nationalist. OK? I’m a nationalist.”
Believe him. Nationalism is the flag under which fascists and dictators have reigned for centuries. Adolf Hitler was defined by the rabid nationalism—and ethno-nationalism, in particular—he injected into German society. He rose to power by instilling a sense of pride in some Germans while demonizing others—Jewish people, in particular. He strove to create the greatest of nations by elevating the Aryan race as superior to all others and driving out anyone who might sully it in his view. Even writing about it, turns my stomach. But we must not forget what the word “nationalist” has been used in service of as we go to the polls Tuesday in what will be the most consequential midterm of our lifetimes.
Donald Trump has shown all the signs of someone who leads by other-izing, ginning up national pride as if it is the province of certain people but not others. He presents anything done in service of that pride as justifiable. His whimsical proclamations sometimes seem stunningly amateurish by virtue of how poorly considered they are. But don’t be fooled—time and time again Trump and a band of his racist, anti-immigrant advisors have followed through on his wildest musings.
In 2015, when Trump called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” as repulsive as putting a religious prohibition on entrants into the country seemed, no one really believed Trump would become president at that early stage of the campaign let alone follow through on something that appeared to be a campaign stunt. Yet the very first major directive of Trump’s presidency, the Muslim ban the White House called a “travel ban,” became perhaps the most instructive of his tenure. The executive order was shoddily conceived both legally and administratively and, in fact, fatally flawed when the Department of Homeland Security suddenly, without warning, began detaining travelers from seven majority-Muslim nations and blocking others from traveling here during the final weekend of January 2017. Though it would take Trump’s lackeys two more iterations before the Supreme Court finally decided the ban passed Constitutional muster, the intent was clear: block people of a certain faith and ethnic makeup from gaining access to the U.S. It was exactly as he had announced on the campaign trail even if the execution was disastrous.
The formula was one Trump has recreated repeatedly as president: Conjure up a policy that is racist, inhumane and likely unconstitutional and do it anyway, boldly and proudly, no matter how much chaos and human suffering it causes.
Unfortunately, the Muslim ban wasn’t the worst of Trump’s campaigns targeting outsiders despite the fact that this is a country of outsiders at its core. With the exception of American Indians, every single U.S. resident who’s here either came from abroad themselves or their ancestors did—some of them under force of slavery, some in search of more opportunity, and still others fleeing violence and persecution in their home countries. Yet, Trump has continually turned the full force of the presidency against refugees and asylum seekers at our southern border.
If the Muslim ban was cruel in part because of the capricious way in which it turned people’s lives upside down, Trump’s family separation policy stood apart for its absolute depravity. Under Trump’s direction, border patrol agents literally began kidnapping babies and children from parents at the border, most of whom were turning themselves over to U.S. authorities in order to make an asylum claim that would then be adjudicated in immigration court. These Central American refugees were nearly all fleeing violence in their native countries, only to arrive in America and have their children ripped from them at the hands of the U.S. government. And just like with the Muslim ban, the execution was horrific. Some children were literally caged, spent weeks or even months without having any contact with their parents, and hundreds of them still have not been reunited with their parents to this very day precisely because the Trump administration began enforcing the policy without any system for tracking the children and their parents.
Separating children from their parents is no accident. It is actually a tactic used by despots to instill fear in the hearts of targeted minorities, thereby disempowering and paralyzing them. As Russian American journalist Masha Gessen wrote in the New Yorker: “Hostage-taking is an instrument of terror. Capturing family members, especially children, is a tried-and-true instrument of totalitarian terror,” utilized by dictators like Joseph Stalin.
Now Trump tells us he wants to end birthright citizenship, which is enshrined in the Constitution in the Fourteenth Amendment. Believe him. The U.S. Constitution is none of his concern. Given the opportunity, he will use the levers of government to order it done, get taken to court, and chaos will ensue in the face of a constitutional crisis brought about by the man who has taken an oath to preserve and protect it. If he wins in court, he will send out a celebratory tweet just like he did with the Muslim ban. If he loses in court, he will trash the judiciary and say that he was treated very unfairly. And in the meantime, non-citizens who have children on U.S. soil within that time frame will surely become the collateral damage of yet another mean-spirited and clumsily conceived Trump policy.
And now Trump is sending more than 5,000 U.S. troops to the southern border to join the 2,000 National Guard personnel already there in order to supposedly head off a group of roughly 2,500 desperate migrants. They do not have diseases (as Fox News has falsely claimed), they do not include criminals or terrorists (as Trump falsely said). They are, in fact, more of a similar flow of migrants who have sought refuge in the United States since our nation’s founding. But Trump has dialed up the military and his vision is one of U.S. troops actually engaging in combat with this group of women, men and children pushing strollers toward a new and still uncertain life in America. The troops are headed there mainly to provide civil support to authorities and border workers, but Trump has conjured up images of an altercation and imagined troops firing on the unarmed migrants. “They want to throw rocks at our military, our military fights back … I told them to consider it a rifle,” he said Thursday. Believe him. Firing on unarmed innocents at the border is not what the military is trained for but it is what Trump wants.
In 2016, one journalist now famously observed that Trump’s followers took him seriously but not literally, while the media took him literally but not seriously. If that’s the case, both groups were wrong. Trump got elected and he followed through on many of the most consequential initiatives he touted on the campaign trail. He often did it badly and in many cases was forced to either change or reverse course. But many people were harmed irrevocably in the process. If Republicans retain both chambers of Congress in Tuesday’s election, Trump will only be emboldened to act on the most virulent of his nationalistic instincts.
And it will not stop with refugees and immigrants. Trump wants exactly what dictators want and indeed demand: subservient lawmakers, glowing press coverage, courts that rule to his liking, and followers who worship him while dissenters are ignored, marginalized, and even terrorized. This is Trump’s American vision and he has used his first two years in office to take steps toward it, however inexpertly.
With someone who has lied more than 6,000 times since taking office, it’s sometimes hard to know when his pledges are real and when they’re just an election stunt. Look at what he’s done—time and time again Trump has used the might of the federal government to target disenfranchised minorities and outsiders. And as he has campaigned over the past weeks to retain Republican majorities in Congress, Trump has repeatedly promised to go even further, continually finding new ways to abuse his authority in support of wreaking havoc and consolidating his power. Believe him and vote accordingly.