Such is our world that nationalism and classist autocracy do not always travel together. Trump has enough in common with Mussolini to merit Cole’s comparison. But since each election brings us a choice of two autocrats, we ought to use some care in categorizing them.
It is really not certain to what extent or in what sense Trump is a nationalist. A nationalist is a patriot and vice versa, though Cole objects. A nationalist is the patriot of a nation. The words feel different because they refer to two views of the same entity.
The term White nationalist is something else. These are people who feel that social bonds should be extended and withheld by race, or by whatever particular class of characteristics they understand as designating a race. These are not just bigots. They are also not patriots, strictly, at least not in any usual sense, because there is no white nation. A White nationalist has a loyalty to a race (as understood) and a creed of sorts.
I don’t mean to play guessing games as to whom Trump imagines that he addresses. But the statement here has appeal to at least two of three main streams of his Republican base, with “white nationalists” being a minorty group distributed within each of the three.
To start with the smallest group, and to deal with everybody in very broad terms, this appeals to his self-styled libertarians and his Tea Party provincials who fear at least certain sorts of centralized government in Washington DC.
Seems paradoxical, doesn’t it? But these people are not generally interested in reducing despotic behavior so much as in limiting the range of jurisdiction of particular bodies. They are less interested in discussing how someone ought to rule than in who gets to do it. This is not altogether self-interest, though of course that gets involved. It is also a relative lack of faith that principles should be followed, and a greater relative faith in the character of individuals and the strength of personal ties. This is also part of the argument that they have against propositions that ought to be no-brainers, like socialized healthcare.
They are alarmed to find the ruling class of the United States becoming more international–which, of course, is a very real phenomenon. It might in some ways be a good thing. But there is definitely a globalist capitalist tendency that we all have plenty of reason to worry about. The business entities that control food, hydrocarbon energy, nuclear energy, pharmaceuticals licit and illicit, finance, and communications are all mostly international now, with loyalties far greater to caste than to nation.
WIth a somewhat different rationalization and different talking points, this is also a pressing concern for people on the Christian right, who tend to see internationalism as relatively secular (as is Europe) or as non-Christian (as is much of Asia and Africa).
The neoconservative elements that form the other Republican stream and also the dominant stream in the Democratic Party are not so universally repelled or drawn by Trump’s claim of “nationalism.” They are used to using calls to patriotism, but may find his wording naive or gauche, likely both. He offends elements they might rather leave dormant, and may seriously wish to engage groups that are not exactly to their own particular interests. They wish to lever the American military to ensure power and profit, but that power need not align with that of the American state per se, but some coterie of families, businesses, and organizations that has become difficult to delineate precisely.
In part, Trump here probably does mean pretty nearly what Cole says he does. He at least wants to assure his base that his interests are the interests of the nation. I am not convinced. But were it true, it would not be at all the most serious worry given to us by Donald Trump.