Don’t say nationalist, populist or authoritarian

Posted on July 14, 2021

Political labels tell a story about politicians or constituent groups. Unfortunately, the media and even progressive activists often use the wrong label. The audience, as a result, gets the story wrong.

Let’s focus on labels that have often been used to describe Donald Trump, his allies and supporters.

Don’t say “nationalist”

Donald Trump labeled himself a “nationalist.” He likes the term because, to the less educated, it sounds patriotic, as if it means support for the United States. That’s not what it means, and yet many mainstream news outlets used the term to describe Trump or Trumpism, including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, Forbes, the Economist, Reuters, and many more.

“Nationalist” makes no sense when applied to the United States. It is a label that was popularized by the rise of ethnic divisions in Europe. The different cultures and ethnicities clashed, creating German nationalism, French nationalism, Italian nationalism, and so forth. But the United States has no unifying culture or ethnicity. Rather, 98 percent of U.S. residents are immigrants or their descendants. There’s no such thing as U.S. “nationalism.”

You could say “white nationalist,” only because that’s generally understood as a white supremacist. But it’s likely someone will reinterpret your words as simply “nationalist.” In addition, “white nationalist” is a contradiction in terms. About 40 percent of the U.S. is currently non-white or Hispanic, so “white” does not in any way describe our pluralistic nation.

Finally, Trump policies were not even pro-USA. He did the bidding of Russia, Saudi Arabia and the Netanyahu administration in Israel over and above U.S. national interests. His trade war with China hurt us more than it hurt them. And certainly, U.S. interests were damaged by his abandonment of our traditional Western allies.

Bottom line: Describing Trump and his people as “nationalists” is just a weak euphemism for “racists.” Don’t aid in that coverup.

Don’t say “populist”

The use of “populism” spiraled out of control in 2016 as a result of Trump’s election and the approval of Brexit. (The Cambridge Dictionary chose it as their 2017 “Word of the Year.”)

As Paul Krugman warned years ago, “stop calling Trump a populist.” Trump spread the fantasy that he would represent common people against the elites which, obviously, is politically popular. But, in reality, he is a billionaire who consistently fought for the rich and powerful against average Americans – the opposite of a populist.

Also, labeling Trump a “populist” is a grievous insult to real populists! Its use in the U.S. originates from the 1890’s People’s Party which supported William Jennings Bryan and his economic program against the rich. They supported unions, federal regulation and a progressive income tax. Then and now, real populism is based on economics, not bigotry.

Bottom line: Just as it’s false to call Trumpers “nationalists” because they are actually anti-nationalists (and pro-Russia), it’s outrageous to call them “populists” because they are thoroughly anti-populists (and pro-oligarchs).

Don’t say “authoritarian”

Academics and the media called Trump an “authoritarian” throughout his presidency, and they were right. An authoritarian seeks to consolidate power behind a single executive, putting aside democratic decision-making, checks and balances, and individuals’ constitutional rights.

But the problem is, average people don’t have a good grasp on what it means. Sure, it’s accurate, but for practical purposes it’s a technical term, like “sternum” or “sprocket” or “cloture.” So “authoritarian” loses its power to condemn.

Let’s use language that persuadable Americans can understand. Trumpism is the opposite of democracy, the opposite of the rule of law, the opposite of checks and balances, the opposite of honest government, and the opposite of fundamental freedom for every American. This is what our Founding Fathers revolted against in 1776. It is what our fathers and grandfathers fought against in the Second World War.

For that matter, Trumpers are not even “conservative.” But we’ll save that for another column.