Was U.S. President Donald Trump being deliberately obtuse when he claimed to be insulted by a question at his post-midterm elections press conference about whether “the Republican Party is seen as supporting white nationalists because of your rhetoric?”

Trump took understandable offense at the assumption that he or other Republicans are racist and tried to turn the tables on the reporter by calling it “a racist question.”

As with other verbal duels with reporters at a stormy presser that seemed to stop just short of a brawl at times, Trump vigorously denied any ill intent.

U.S. president-elect Donald Trump at the March 2016 AIPAC Policy Conference, where he vowed to move the U.S. embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Credit: AIPAC.

When another reporter pressed him about anti-Semitism, the president talked about his support for Israel and moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. And in a quintessentially Trumpian moment of cognitive dissonance, he responded to a follow-up about domestic hate crimes and what could be done to combat the rise of white nationalism by pointing to the growing wealth of the United States and the fact that China wasn’t doing as well.

What does the economy or the trade rivalry with China have to do with hate crimes?

The correct answer to the question is little or nothing. But perhaps Trump—in an ironic twist for one of the nation’s leading capitalists—has been influenced by Marxist thought and thinks extremism is solely the product of economic distress.

We should resist the impulse to use these baffling exchanges to take yet another deep dive into the question of whether the president is an anti-Semite. He certainly has his faults, though hatred of Jews isn’t one of them. But it is also true that merely citing his exemplary record on Israel is not enough to dismiss the claim that things he has said have, even indirectly, encouraged Jew-haters to think he is dog-whistling to them.

The interesting question here is one that Trump has tried, but generally failed, to answer to the satisfaction of his critics or supporters. And that is whether it is OK to use the word “nationalist”—albeit without the prefix “white—without being accused of being racist. The same is true of other words like “globalist” or a phrase like “America First.”

We know that when such words come out of the mouths of anti-Semites, they are code for “Jews” or an allusion to anti-Semitism. Yet when Trump says them, he is clearly referring to something else.

Love of country or patriotism, whether for the United States or any other country, is an expression of nationalism. Movements that sought to preserve particular ethnic or ethno-religious identities, such as those associated with the revival of nations long subjugated by imperial powers like Ireland by Britain or those that languished under the rule of the Austrian, Russian or Ottoman empires, were nationalist. When employed in the task of supporting the rights of such nations to speak their own languages, promote their own cultures and exercise self-determination in their homelands, they were and are laudable. When, as was the case with Germany in the 20th century, it serves as an excuse for hatred and murder, and denying self-determination to others, it is deplorable.

By that same standard, Zionism is an entirely justified form of nationalism. Yet even there, the notion that Israel is a “Jewish state”—albeit one where minorities are granted equal rights under the law—is libelously decried as a form of racism.

The problem is both linguistic and one of taking responsibility for how a person’s words, especially a person imbued with power, can be misinterpreted.

One can be an American nationalist—as Trump and other Americans can say they are—without being a neo-Nazi intent on defending whites from mythical conspiracies being hatched by cartoonish Jewish villains. So, too, can you use “globalist” in a discussion of the debate between those who prioritize expansion of the global economy and those who wish to protect domestic industries that may suffer from trade agreements.

“America First” means one thing when you are discussing the anti-Semitic isolationists who opposed President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and it means something else when describing Trump’s foreign policy, which is not isolationist (since it prioritizes support for Israel, and resistance to Iran and Islamist terror), but is less enamored of some traditional U.S. alliances such as NATO.

Trump’s ideas about trade and foreign policy can be debated, but to assume they are racist is inaccurate and generally politically motivated. And even though Trump’s rhetoric about illegal immigrants is inflammatory, it is also possible to agree with his desire to enforce border security and existing immigration laws without being a racist or a xenophobe.

Does that relieve the president of all responsibility for the way extremists may interpret his words?

No. He has been slow to understand the damage that can be done by letting such confusion persist and often unpardonably reluctant to say what needs to be said when he thinks he is being compelled to do so by his critics. It’s also true that even when he utters the right words about hate and anti-Semitism, his opponents are generally too focused on their disagreements with his policies and the coarsening of public discourse to give him any credit.

The assumption that the use of some words that mean different things in different contexts must be anti-Semitic is erroneous. However, if Trump insists on using terms that can be misinterpreted or taken out of context, it is vital that he consistently make it clear that anyone who assumes he is encouraging them to hate are dead wrong.

His failures to do so don’t make him culpable for the crimes of those who have nothing to do with him, let alone make leave him with “blood on his hands” from an unspeakable crime like the one that just occurred in Pittsburgh. Yet having failed to delineate the differences between being a nationalist who opposes globalists and thinks his job is to defend America first before other concerns and the historic associations for those words, he can’t be entirely surprised when opponents use them against him.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.