Donald Trump says ‘America First’ like isolationists before World War II – USA TODAY
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In embracing “America First’’ as his guiding foreign policy philosophy, Donald Trump appropriated — spontaneously, it seems — one of the most denigrated political slogans of the last century, and one that evokes an isolationism Trump himself explicitly rejects.
“It’s a rotten term that evokes the naive idiots, defeatists and pro-Nazis who wanted to appease Hitler and make friends with him’’ before World War II, says Susan Dunn, author of 1940: F.D.R., Willkie, Lindbergh, Hitler — The Election Amid the Storm. That said, she doesn’t think the old phrase means much today.
Trump’s use of an expression so dated and discredited reflects his willingness to dip into the past for catch phrases that, no matter their historical baggage, can still appeal to voters.
During the Republican presidential campaign, Trump also has claimed to speak for “the silent majority,’’ a term coined in 1969 by Richard Nixon’s administration, and adopted Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign theme, “Make America great again.’’
Trump’s rhetoric, though derivative, is effective, says Jennifer Wingard, an expert on the subject who teaches at the University of Houston.
An expression like “America First” sounds vaguely and reassuringly familiar, even if (or maybe because) “you can’t quite place it or know why you know it,’’ she says.
Plus, “it has an emotional resonance, especially if you feel you’ve lost a job because of foreign competition: ‘I’m an American. I come first.’’’
Columnist Patrick Buchanan, an admirer of the original America First movement, says that “Trump’s phrase has a nice ring to it’’ and should ignite a debate over U.S. overseas commitments.
Trump first used it in an interview last month with The New York Times. Asked whether his foreign policy philosophy could be described as “America First,’’ Trump said, “I like the expression. I am ‘America First.’’’
Judging from the interview transcript, “he just seemed to like the sound of it when he heard it,’’ says Jennifer Mercieca, a historian of U.S. political discourse who teaches at Texas A&M. The Times, she jokes, “should charge him for the idea.’’
The next day, in an interview with Fox News Channel, Trump doubled down: ‘’My policy is America First. It will always be America First.’’
Trump’s new ‘silent majority’
Last summer Trump also looked to the past for what would become another of his refrains. “In the old days, they used to use a term, ‘the silent majority,’ ’’ he told an audience. “We have the silent majority back, folks.”
That was the term (originally suggested by Buchanan when he was a White House speechwriter) that Nixon and Vice President Spiro Agnew used to describe conservative “middle America,’’ whose members didn’t burn draft cards or otherwise protest the Vietnam War. It helped them get re-elected by a landslide in 1972.
But the phrase acquired a decidedly unfavorable odor after Nixon resigned in disgrace because of his role in the Watergate scandal cover up.
Asked by The Washington Post whether “silent majority’’ didn’t remind voters of a president with whom few politicians even now want to be associated, Trump said, “Nah. Nobody remembers that.’’
“Nobody thinks of Nixon,’’ he concluded. “I don’t think of Nixon when I think of the silent majority. The silent majority today, they’re going to vote for Trump.’’
A similar calculation appears to have gone into Trump’s selection of the phrase for which he’s best known, “Make America great again.’’
Trump liked Reagan’s old slogan so much he applied for a trademark in 2012. And last year he said he resented it being used by rivals, including Scott Walker and Ted Cruz. (The latter spoke the magic words when he declared his candidacy.)
“That’s my expression,’’ Trump told Fox News. “I’ve been using it all over the place. And I noticed that they’re all copying it now. Everybody’s using it. I was the first by a long shot.’’
Cruz appears to share Trump’s taste for rhetorical chestnuts. At the GOP debate on Dec. 15, in fact, he said he believed in “an America-first foreign policy.’’
Mercieca says Trump’s tendency to collect old campaign messages, rather than rely on speechwriters to come up with new ones, “is unusual, but that’s part of his attraction. He’s not taking advice or consulting with anybody, he’s listening to himself. He’s his own best adviser.’’
But “the silent majority’’ and “Make America great again’’ were in the Political Rhetoric Hall of Fame when Trump found them. Not America First, which overnight went from one of the most popular rallying cries in U.S. politics to the most bankrupt.
Slogan with ignominious roots
In the late 1930s, most Americans wanted to stay out of war in Europe. After it began in fall 1939, some Yale students formed The America First Committee.
Members included future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart; future Yale President Kingman Brewster; future Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver; and future President Gerald Ford (who later resigned for fear of being fired as an assistant coach on the football team).
Soon, the establishment signed on. The committee’s president was the retired general Robert Wood, chairman of Sears & Roebuck, the nation’s leading retailer. Supporters included Henry Ford, the auto maker; Colonel Robert McCormick, publisher of the Chicago Tribune; Minnesota meatpacker Jay Hormel; and Sterling Morton, president of Morton Salt.
The American First movement was amazingly diverse, ranging from principled isolationists to Nazi sympathizers. Its basic assumption was that America was protected by two oceans and its vast land mass, and that intervention in Europe would turn out no better than it had in World War I.
The movement’s most prominent speaker was Charles Lindbergh, who’d become America’s biggest hero when he flew a plane solo across the Atlantic in 1927. He argued that German victory was inevitable and that U.S. intervention would pointlessly antagonize the victors.
With hundreds of chapters and thousands of members, America First was the largest anti-war group in U.S. history. But as the war went on, opinion slowly swung against isolationism. And the movement was crippled by a speech Lindbergh gave on Sept. 11, 1941, in which he complained about American Jews’ support for intervention, saying, “Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.’’
The Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor ended the movement. Three days later, the America First Committee’s board voted to disband, saying, “We are at war. … The primary objective is not difficult to state. It can be completely defined in one word: Victory.’’
In the post-war era, which saw the establishment of the United Nations and NATO and the development of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, the sentiments behind America First seemed even more obsolete.
But they’ve never disappeared.
Today, for Trump, American First sums up several notions: NATO is obsolete and America’s allies must shoulder more of their own defense; America’s trading partners must mend their ways or face higher tariffs; illegal immigration must be stopped.
But the historian Adam Hochschild, who’s studied the pre-World War II period, says America First ignores a world in which the U.S. is “deeply enmeshed.‘’
“Trump can no more successfully pretend we’re not involved than isolationists of the 1930s could,’’ he says. “How can we put ‘America First’ as far as climate change is concerned? Trump does not have the power to make rising ocean waters lap only at other countries’ shores.’’
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Donald Trump says ‘America First’ like isolationists before World War II – USA TODAY