In an interview in May, the senior Republican senator from Alabama, Tommy Tuberville — who is holding up hundreds of promotions for senior military officers because he disagrees with a Defense Department policy that facilitates abortion access for service members — was asked if he believes white nationalists should be allowed in the military.
His answer: “Well, they call them that. I call them Americans.”
It was an attempt to inject the idea of partisan subjectivity into the defining of the term, a tomato-tomahto innocuous differing of opinions, a cultural variation in how something is viewed and named. But the definition of white nationalism, a decades-old term, isn’t up for debate or a varied interpretation.
Tuberville doubled down on his definition on Monday night on CNN, saying: “My opinion, of a white nationalist — if somebody wants to call them a white nationalist — to me, is an American. It’s an American. Now, if that white nationalist is a racist? I’m totally against anything that they want to do, because I am 110 percent against racism.”
All the “ifs” and “opinions” here are intentional but unnecessary. Terms like “white nationalist” mean something: White nationalism is a form of white supremacy that advocates white dominance and white control. You don’t have to take my word for it, you can look it up. (On Tuesday, Tuberville admitted that white nationalists are racists.)
It’s not the first time that a prominent Republican has tried, particularly on the subject of race, to reduce fact to opinion — to convert the absolute into a matter of partisan interpretation. When they do, they’re engaged in a crusade of etymological alteration, of hijacking and bastardizing the meanings of words and phrases.
In 2018, Donald Trump proudly proclaimed: “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.”
He juxtaposed being a nationalist with what he described as a penchant among some Democrats to support “power hungry globalists.”
Though not explicit, whiteness is coincidental to the nationalism in this construction, but nationalism is cast simply as profound patriotism.
In June, Vivek Ramaswamy, who is Indian American and, like Trump, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, put his own spin on that kind of language assault, declaring himself a “nonwhite nationalist.”
Surely, Trump and Ramaswamy would say their comments had nothing to do with race — and that to suggest otherwise is, itself, racist. But in this stew of adulterated meanings, “white nationalist” gets conflated with being a white patriot and allows any suggestion of racism to become an aspersion cast at white nationalists without cause. Racism, to this way of thinking, can only be unambiguous, naked hatred. And by playing these word games, they are prying apart their politically necessary disdain of open racists from a calm and considered tolerance of intolerance, a muted acquiescence to a racial hierarchy — a skewed view of the history of racial contributions to humanity and the vaunted legacy of the founders of this country.
But that distinction cannot be made here. It is tortured logic and it will lead to ridiculousness.
Last week, Ryan Walters, the superintendent of public schools in Oklahoma, was asked how teaching students about the 1921 Tulsa race massacre could be done without violating the state’s ban on teaching what it calls critical race theory. Walters responded:
“That doesn’t mean you don’t judge the actions of individuals. Oh, you can. Absolutely, historically, you should. ‘This was right. This was wrong. They did this for this reason.’ But to say it was inherent because of their skin is where I say that is critical race theory. You’re saying that race defines a person.”
Be clear: White racists attacked and destroyed the Black community in Tulsa called the Greenwood District, also known as Black Wall Street. And that community was attacked because it was Black.
I guess Walters’s argument, as flimsy as it is, hangs on the word “inherent.” And no, white people are not inherently terrorists or racists. No people are. But, there have been white people who were terrorists and racists and wreaked havoc and destruction in this country. Indeed, there was a period in our country, certainly up to the Jim Crow era, during which many white Americans were at least acculturated to, if not participants in, racial terrorism — can anyone deny that about a deadly mob descending on a thriving Black Tulsa neighborhood?
Racism was preached in church. Law enforcement was part of the racial terror. Elected officials championed resistance to racial equality. People sold and sent postcards of lynchings.
And white nationalism became central to white power and white politics. The rise and maintenance of segregation was rooted in a white nationalist impulse. The rising popularity of hate groups today is due in part to the mainstreaming of white nationalist ideas.
When Fox News fired Tucker Carlson, the Southern Poverty Law Center noted that he had “repeatedly offered a platform to white nationalists” and “voiced fringe racial grievances in an apparent effort to give them greater cultural salience.”
In November, Trump dined at Mar-a-Lago with Kanye West, who now uses the name Ye, when the musician was in the midst of his antisemitic death spiral, and Nick Fuentes, an online commentator known for racist rhetoric.
These politicians are trying to use a distorted notion of patriotism and a distorted definition of nationalism to whitewash white nationalists and white nationalism.
That’s the reality. And I can’t change that to soothe anyone’s modern-day sensibilities anymore than I can change the color of the sky.
White supremacy, white nationalism and white terror were fundamental to the creation of America. Those facts don’t change because they make some uncomfortable or others angry. No one has the power to change a yesterday.
This current impulse to wish it away, to ban the books, to pressure the teachers, to alter the language, to muddy the waters, isn’t the answer. And it’s insulting.
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