So President Donald Trump said at a rally in Houston, "You know what I am? I'm a nationalist, OK? I'm a nationalist. Nationalist! Use that word. Use that word."
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines nationalism as "loyalty or devotion to a nation."
Nothing is amiss so far as it goes. Every president swears to faithfully execute U.S. laws and uphold the Constitution. So do most citizens, at one time or another.
“Really, we’re not supposed to use that word,” Trump told his flock of rally-goers Monday night.
But uttering this word is far from bold. On its own, Trump's deployment of it defies nobody and illuminates nothing. Calling yourself a nationalist while in public office is harmless to the point of banal.
But critics reacted reflexively with a magnified view of what it implies.
Michael McFaul, former ambassador to Russia, as quoted in The New York Times: “Does Trump know the historical baggage associated with this word, or is he ignorant?”
Well, Trump didn't say "white nationalist." He didn't say "ultranationalist." He didn't hail Russian nationalism (not on this occasion, anyway). He merely used a word that for many years was synonymous with patriot. Just how patriotic he truly is will be for voters and for history to judge.
The word nationalist doesn't necessarily imply right-wing or left-wing policies. Left-leaning American nationalists have been criticizing the NAFTA deal for years as aiding multinational corporations at American workers' expense.
And when a businessman sends jobs offshore, and then runs for office or donates to campaigns, don't the basis of his opponents' criticisms qualify as nationalistic?
And yet some mainstream Trump critics react as if he'd explicitly confessed to an affinity for chauvinism or fascism.
Former Clinton administration Labor Secretary Robert Reich tweets: “The President of the United States openly identifies himself as a nationalist, calls for the jailing of his political opponents, attacks the press & cozies up to dictators, while Republicans in Congress stand idly by.”
As Twitter isn't exactly a good medium for full explanation, Reich does not elaborate on why "openly identifying himself" as a nationalist belongs with these other, genuinely controversial Trump postures.
E.J. Montini commented in the Arizona Republic: "Trump feigns ignorance about the word, but he must know it rings like a dog whistle in the ears of every white supremacist and racist in the country, if not the world."
For his part, the president said rather innocuously in his Houston speech: "All I want is for our country is to be treated well, to be treated with respect, so in that sense I'm absolutely a nationalist, and I'm proud of it."
Of course, the question of whether his words and slogans — "drain the swamp," "America first," "MAGA," "lock her up"— match his real-life conduct, values or actions lends itself to a different discussion.
But serious concerns about the president's credibility, fairness and honesty do not turn on his use of an ordinary word.