It says something about the complexity of language (and me perhaps) that I took so long to realize that Donald Trump’s “America First” slogan, which I found off-putting from the start, consists of the same words as the name of the pre-World War II organization I’ve respected for decades.
I think I know why. The America First Committee (AFC) had a single, admirable objective: to keep the United States out of another European war in light of the disastrous consequences — foreign and domestic — of Woodrow Wilson’s entry into the Great War in 1917. (See my condensed history of the committee here.) Its many members and supporters would have agreed on little else, considering that they included Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas, future presidents Gerald Ford and John F. Kennedy, future Kennedy in-law and Peace Corps head Sargent Shriver, future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, Sears, Roebuck Chairman Gen. Robert E. Wood, and individualist muckraking journalist Flynn. It had 800,000 dues payers.
America First has been unfairly maligned through the years, mostly because its national spokesman, famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, gave a speech in which he said U.S. entry into the war was being urged primarily by Britons and Jews. (On its face that’s neither an anti-British nor anti-Semitic statement.) However, after declaring that the AFC would “bring together all Americans, regardless of possible differences on other matters, who see eye-to-eye on these principles,” it added parenthetically: “This does not include Nazis, Fascists, Communists, or members of other groups that place the interests of any other nation above those of our own.” Ousted from the national committee were builder and American Olympic Association president Avery Brundage, who was suspected of having Nazi sympathies, and Henry Ford, who had written derogatorily about Jews. Indeed, Flynn, who headed the New York chapter, made it clear at large gathering at Madison Square Garden that anti-Semites and fascists should get the hell out of the hall. The crowd was so angry at the known fascist whom Flynn had singled out that the man needed police protection.
As for the war, the committee believed that an “impregnable defense” would deter any attack, that staying out of the war was vital to maintaining democracy, and that “aid [to the Allies] short of war” would make America vulnerable and risk deeper involvement in the war.
The committee disbanded after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which many believed (with good reason) President Roosevelt had provoked as a backdoor to war. (He couldn’t get Hitler to attack.) In its final statement, the AFC leaders said, “Our principles were right. Had they been followed, war could have been avoided. No good purpose can now be served by considering what might have been, had our objectives been attained.”
Now let’s compare the America First Committee with Trump’s America First program. We know it is not about staying out of war. Last night he ordered a cruise-missile attack on a Syrian airbase (without the congressional authorization he once said was necessary for such an action) — although Syria has not attacked the United States. He’s intensifying the wars in Iraq (against ISIS), Syria (against ISIS), Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and probably some other places we don’t know about yet. Trump has also embraced NATO, which more or less obligates the American people to go to war to defend, among others, Poland, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Turkey, and Albania, and soon perhaps Montenegro, Georgia, and Ukraine. He seems ready to go to war against North Korea. (See my “Trump Never Was a Noninterventionist.”)
Trump likes to distinguish his “America First” foreign policy from his predecessors’ policies, which allegedly put other countries first. Here Trump shows his ignorance of the dynamics of the American Empire. No one has propounded, either explicitly or implicitly, an “American Second” foreign policy. Even foreign aid (a small part of the government’s budget) is justified as being in “America’s interest,” and I have no problem believing that its champions honestly think this. Trump is wrong if he believes the alliance system and regime change have been intended to put other countries first. These were always conceived as in the interest of the Empire. Trump can’t acknowledge this because his brand largely consists of an aggrieved-nation shtick.
Now it is true that the interests of the Empire are not the interests of the American people. But neither are the interests that Trump’s program serves.
Domestically Trump is a fully committed protectionist whose other slogan is “Buy American, Hire American,” and he’s notoriously anti-immigrant.
Ironically, none of his policies puts America first, if that phrase means something like “doing what enhances the well-being of the people living in the United States.” The damage of war — morally, psychologically, and fiscally — is too obvious by now to need elaboration. I agree with F. A. Harper, founder of the Institute for Humane Studies, who said, “It is now urgent in the interest of liberty that many persons become ‘peace-mongers.’”
The damage to Americans from protectionism and nativism should be equally clear. On the harms from restricting immigration, see Matthew Iglesias’s consequentialist “The Case for Immigration.” Immigration is not just good for the immigrants.
As for protectionism, it should be obvious that one American industry’s protection is many other American industries’ pain. The other day CNN’s Jake Tapper (perhaps the most overrated interviewer in television news) quizzed Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross on the Trump administration’s heralded crusade against foreigners who “dump” low-cost products, such as steel, in America. (Dumping is not an objective phenomenon because cost is not an objective phenomenon.) Ross defended the plan because of the harm dumping does to underpriced American steelmakers. It did not occur to Tapper to ask about the harm, through higher prices, that anti-dumping measures inflict on Americans who make things out of steel or use things made out of steel — a group that far outnumbers the steel producers. Ross certainly did not mention them. You’d never know from their discussion that about half of what Americans import are producer goods — products used to make other products. (Not that there’s anything wrong with importing consumer goods.)
So how can we say that Trump’s program puts America first? It may put a small privileged group of Americans ahead of a much larger group of Americans, at least for a while, but that’s about it.
The upshot is that in Trump’s hands “America First” is a demagogic slogan that depends on people’s economic illiteracy to augment his power and diminish their liberty. It has nothing to do with John T. Flynn’s noble cause.