Donald Trump has adopted the slogan of the 1930s movement that supported systemic anti-Semitism and opposed both material and military support of our allies during World War II. Unfortunately, he and his most extreme adherents have also adopted the nativism and prejudice associated with the slogan. They are selling a sort of white nationalism that, by definition, excludes the 38% of Americans who are not non-Hispanic white people. This exclusionary, repugnant form of identity politics was displayed yesterday by Steve King of Iowa, a member of Congress, when he asserted that Europe and America cannot “restore our civilization” (read: white people) with “someone else’s babies.” I think his, and others’, attempt to associate America with its white citizens is symptomatic of a widespread confusion, both on the right and on the left, about what this country is and whom it represents. In light of the resurgence of nationalist ideas, we all have to ask ourselves: what does it mean to be an American?
It sure as hell doesn’t mean resurrecting the America First Committee
The America First Committee was built around a refusal to provide aid and assistance to our allies, no matter how desperate their situation (and Britain’s situation in 1940 was about as desperate as it gets). It advocated that the United States remain neutral after the Nazis conquered Poland, the Netherlands, Belgium, Norway, and France. As Britain stood alone, refusing to make accommodation with Hitler, the America Firsters and their allies in Congress consistently blocked President Roosevelt’s efforts to provide materials to their blockaded ally. These are the people who listened to FDR’s great “Arsenal of Democracy” speech, which advocated using American manufacturing power to help democracies fight Fascism, and concluded that the best option was, in his words, “crawling into bed and pulling the covers over [their] heads.” It is worth it to imagine what the world would look like today if, in 1939, the United States had committed to standing with Britain and France against Hitler, rather than passing a Neutrality Act,and declaring its intention to abandon its alliances. I would hazard a guess that the progress of WWII would have looked very different, had it happened at all.
The America First Committee was also characterized by virulent anti-Semitism during a time when the Jews of Europe were being deported to be murdered by the the millions. Its executive committee included Henry Ford, an inveterate anti-Semite, and Avery Brundage, the head of the Olympic Committee in 1936, who prevented two Jewish runners from participating. America First’s anti-Semitism was best exemplified by a speech by Charles Lindbergh, the most prominent America Firster, who essentially dismissed interventionists as intellectuals and Anglophiles (America Firsters were very anti-intellectual), and suggested that Jewish dominance of “motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government” was the biggest danger to the country. He argued this enabled the Jews to spread pro-war propaganda, and said that supporters of intervention were victims of this propaganda.Their anti-semitism was a part of their nativism. They were selecting an Other of whom many Americans were skeptical, and blaming the Other for President Roosevelt’s desire to support America’s allies.
Nativism did not help the United States, but it was a useful tool for its enemies. Both the Nazis and the Soviet Union sought to use the America Firsters as a means to keep the United States from checking their imperial ambitions. Vladimir Putin seems to have been reading his history books; his support for Donald Trump’s isolationist movement echoes that of his Russian predecessors. Trump’s vision for America has a lot in common with the America First movement’s nationalist policies, from protectionism, to isolationism, to its vulnerability to manipulation by hostile powers. Far from making America great again, he has abandoned the liberal principles that have made America great.
Being American means living by our founding principles, at home and abroad
America is not just a nation of immigrants; it was the first nation to be founded on ideas. To be an American is to unify with others from different backgrounds around our ideals, among them that everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. How else are a bunch of immigrants supposed to get along? It is essential to our integrity to live by those ideals at home and abroad. It is not enough to believe that an American citizen has those rights. If we are going to be real Americans, we have to believe that everyone has those rights. By that I do not mean that we should enforce our ideals on other countries through military force – that has been a foolish and disastrous idea. However, cutting foreign aid, which the Trump Administration intends to do, is tantamount to saying “I believe in human rights, but only for me.” Foreign aid isn’t charity, it is diplomacy. It fosters positive relations with countries and is an investment in their peaceful development. It benefits us as well as them, both from an economic and a reputational perspective.
I do not say this because I am the sort of unreconstructed globalist who believes America has a greater responsibility to an Ethiopian farmer than to a Michigan steel worker. The United States government has a responsibility to ensure that the bounty of this country is accessible to everyone, and that every American starts life with an equal opportunity to succeed. However, wealth and opportunity are not a pie – they grow as people and nations rise up to participate in the marketplace of ideas. So the real question is, when you say we should put America first, which America do you mean? If you mean putting American values first, and living by them, that’s a great philosophy. If you mean embracing economic protectionism, white nationalism, and turning all focus inward at the risk of compromising those values, well, the title of this post says it all.