Second Thoughts on 'America First'




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That didn’t take long. Just minutes, really. My brothers and sisters in the national press corps went from sneering at President Trump for not visiting U.S. troops in harm’s way — until they learned he’d flown to Iraq on Christmas night — to sniping at him for signing “Make America Great Again” hats handed to him by soldiers and airmen. You can’t make this stuff up.

CNN’s claim that troops violated regulations was particularly pedantic, which didn’t stop other media outlets from running with the same inane angle. It must be nice to be unburdened by institutional knowledge. That’s one of Trump’s own problems: Otherwise he wouldn’t continually make overtly partisan remarks to men and women in uniform. Then, as has happened throughout the Trump era, the Fourth Estate emulated the president even as it criticized his lack of historical memory: Coming unglued at the sight of Trump signing MAGA caps requires ignoring footage of President Obama hugging, smiling, shooting a basketball, posing for selfies – and, yes, signing  

I liked when Obama did this, although in the interest of full disclosure, it might be because when I first covered the White House, I asked Bill Clinton to sign a baseball for me after interviewing him at a Baltimore Orioles game. What could be more wholesome than a baseball signed by a president? Not a MAGA cap, that’s for sure.

Aren’t we all for making America great? Maybe, but that’s where things get sticky. It’s not just that Trump used that slogan, which he cribbed from Ronald Reagan, in the 2016 campaign along the way to an election result that half the country still can’t accept. It’s also that during his inaugural address, Trump used a couple of related rhetorical phrases that recalled old wounds, and opened new ones.

“From this day forward,” he proclaimed that day, “it’s going to be only America first. America first.”

He initially used this wording 10 months earlier in a New York Times interview by way of denying that his foreign policy, immigration, and trade views harked back to an extinct segment of Republicanism that died abruptly on Dec. 7, 1941. “I’m not isolationist, but I am ‘America First,’” Trump said. “So I like the expression. I’m ‘America First.’”

He used another formulation, too, one not previously associated with U.S. presidents. The extensive “American carnage,” Trump vowed, would end when he took office. He described that carnage as everything from inner city crime and failing schools to “subsidizing the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military.”

He continued:

We’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. … One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores, with not even a thought about the millions upon millions of American workers left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world.

So here, nearly eight decades after Charles Lindbergh, Henry Ford, and the others in the America First Committee tried to keep the United States out of World War II, the phrase arose again, as if from the dead. Although Trump gave it a new definition, his critics insisted, not unreasonably, that this brand of populism had old ghosts. Not only the specter of ruinous economic protectionism, but also white racism and anti-Semitism.

As is usually the case, Trump’s critics were only half-right. Actually, it’s a term with a longer and more elastic and interesting provenance. The half-right part includes Lindbergh’s notorious Sept. 11, 1941 speech in Des Moines, Iowa attacking Jews; the 1920s Ku Klux Klan rallies sporting “America First” placards; the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West using the slogan “America first and always” to agitate in 1927 for restricting “Jap” immigration; anti-suffrage advocates who used the same phrase to rail against women’s rights during World War I.

Yet, it’s the half-wrong part of equating America Firsters with white supremacy that is more interesting, and much more uplifting.

Historian Sarah Churchwell has tracked “America first” references as far back as an 1884 newspaper editorial in California, apparently in opposition to free trade with Great Britain. Taken at face value, the slogan simply means that government should prioritize the needs of Americans over those in other lands. It’s similar to the logic used by liberals in the 1960s and 1970s to question, sometimes evocatively, the wisdom of spending billions for space exploration when many of our nation’s most venerable cities and vulnerable citizens were in dire shape.

But it wasn’t always about race and it wasn’t necessarily partisan. Putting “America first” implies putting “Americans first.” It doesn’t mean we’ll all agree on how that translates into public policy. Putting Americans first is what suffragists were doing in 1917 while picketing the White House — just as the anti-suffragists believed they were doing in equating those protests with undermining the war effort.

Yes, World War I, not World War II, was the crucible that propelled the “America First” movement. Although Republicans used the slogan in the 1894 midterms, it might have been forgotten except for tourism promoters who in 1906 launched a “See America First” campaign. By 1912 this slogan was emblazoned on passenger cars of the Great Northern Railway serving the national parks being established out West. In 1914, Warren Harding riffed off this slogan in his abstruse style, promising Ohioans to “Prosper America First.” 

By April of 1915, while preparing to run for re-election as the president “who kept us out of war,” Woodrow Wilson tapped into familiar language when he promised the American people: “Our whole duty, for the present at any rate, is summed up in the motto ‘America first.’”

In 1916, the phrase was adopted by both major parties. Democrats sported placards reading, “He Kept Us Out of War: America First.” Meanwhile, the GOP supported Charles Evans Hughes with the forgettable “America First and America Efficient.”

Wilson’s promise was not kept, however. After the Doughboys came home and the country began to rethink its course, Americans who believed our oceans could protect us adopted the language as their own.

My point is that throughout history, America Firsters — conservatives or progressives, pacifists or militants, right-headed or wrong-headed — are more properly understood as idealists. Let’s look at the full Wilson quote, for instance. Prefacing his “America first” point by saying he was “not speaking in a selfish spirit,” Wilson continued: “Let us think of America before we think of Europe, in order that America may be fit to be Europe’s friend when the day of tested friendship comes. The test of friendship is not now sympathy with the one side or the other, but getting ready to help both sides when the struggle is over.”

Wilson did his part, arguing for wiser and less punitive terms of peace in Europe and sacrificing his health to stump for a League of Nations that he believed could forestall the next world conflagration. “Sometimes people call me an idealist,” he said in a 1919 speech in Sioux Falls, S.D., in support of the League. “Well, that is the way I know I am an American. America, my fellow citizens — I do not say it in disparagement of any other great people — America is the only idealistic nation in the world.”

Now there’s an idea for a 2020 campaign slogan, Mr. President: “Make America Idealistic Again.”

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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