The Global Opinions editor of the Washington Post, Karen Attiah, delayed publishing Jamal Khashoggi’s final column in hopes that they could edit it together, as had been their habit. It gradually became apparent that this was not to be, as reports of his disappearance after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul were replaced with reports of his torture and murder. Ironically, his final column was about freedom of the press—ironic because it was his history of outspoken criticism of the lack of freedom in his native Saudi Arabia that led to his death.
In the column he lamented the lack of freedom throughout the Arab world that left its citizens ignorant of or misinformed about the larger Arab world. He wrote, “They are unable to adequately address, much less publicly discuss, matters that affect the region and their day-to-day lives. A state-run narrative dominates the public psyche, and while many do not believe it, a large majority of the population falls victim to this false narrative.” Critics have been imprisoned; print journalism has been suppressed: “These actions no longer carry the consequence of a backlash from the international community. Instead, these actions may trigger condemnation quickly followed by silence. As a result, Arab governments have been given free rein to continue silencing the media at an increasing rate.” Jamal Khashoggi was silenced permanently on October 2, 2018.
As news of Kashoggi’s murder spread, the eyes of the world were on how America would respond. Then last week a single word he used in the final sentence of his final column was picked up by President Trump and immediately began ricocheting all over the media: nationalist. Definition often finds itself at the heart of political discourse, particularly leading up to critical midterm elections. Trump’s declaration that he is a nationalist certainly fits this bill, centering discourse on the connotations of nationalism.
So much depends on how nationalism is defined. In its denotation, it seems innocuous. Merriam Webster defines it thus: “loyalty and devotion to a nation, especially: a sense of national consciousness . . . exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups.” That sounds pretty much like patriotism, which President Trump may have had in mind when he stated, “A globalist is a person that wants the globe to do well, frankly, not caring about our country so much. You know what I am? I’m a nationalist. Okay? A nationalist. Use that word.”
Yet, when Khashoggi used the term, it was in the context of “the influence of nationalist governments spreading hate through propaganda.” CNN reporter Jim Acosta was quick to pick up on one negative interpretation of the term. In the Oval Office the next day, he asked, “Mr. President, just to follow up on your comments about being a nationalist–there is a concern that you are sending coded language or a dog whistle to some Americans out there that what you really mean is that you’re a white nationalist?” Trump’s response: “I’ve never even heard that, I can’t imagine that. I’ve never heard that theory about being a nationalist.” Unfortunately, many have.
Trump says the word nationalist and hears patriot. Others hear the “dog whistle” of white nationalism. Others hear Khashoggi’s “governments spreading hate through propaganda.” The term’s connotations have everything to do with context. In the context of Khashoggi’s death, its use seems ominous.