Con Man Hell – America First?

Day 2, 1460 more days to go

The phrase “America First” that Trump is using to describe his approach strikes me as non-sensical on the face of it, but deeply troubling from a historical perspective. Every president has put America’s interests first; even some of our larger mistakes, such as escalating the Vietnam War, were driven by ideas of protecting America’s interests above all others. Of course different people, including presidents, can define America’s interests in a wide variety of ways. Winning a chapter in the Cold War (or trying to, anyway) was one way of defining it. Providing health care for all would be another way of defining it, and one that strikes me as both more attainable and more desirable. Trump is selling his vision of putting America first as taking care of the white working- and middle-class voters who put him in office, who are worried about terrorism, immigration, and “bringing back factory jobs.” He may reduce immigration, but I doubt he will succeed at the other two. The other connotations of his “America First” vision, however, are very dangerous.

He also sees “America First” as requiring him to fundamentally change our relationships with nations across the world. But America First has a past, it was an isolationist movement in the early stages of World War II determined to keep the United States out of the war. Let Germany do as it wanted in Europe, do not try to help Great Britain, the ocean will protect us. His modern version seems to be let Russia do as it wants in Europe, encourage England in isolating itself from the European Union, and talk tough about China. That the new president is espousing a policy that exactly fits what Russia’s dictatorial leader would like to see us do – leave him alone in Europe and reduce our support for Europe, and pit ourselves against China – doesn’t show he is Putin’s puppet, but it doesn’t show anything good. We won’t know what he really means until we see our government’s actions after Russia’s next act of aggression, and how it responds to China, who will probably greet his idiotic outreach to Taiwan with provocative behavior requiring Trump to either look weak or do something stupid. America’s interests always come first for the government, as they should, but defining them in these terms means not caring about violence or aggression elsewhere in the world, not making any effort to protect people or nations being attacked or slaughtered, not supporting alliances that promote stability and peace, and not standing up to bullies. People sometimes compare Trump to Hitler, which may not be as silly as the comparisons of Obama to Hitler were but are still not justified (so far anyway), no matter how appalling Trump’s behavior has been to this point. His version of “America First” doesn’t make him Hitler. It just says Trump will let any far-off wannabe Hitlers do as they like.

2 thoughts on “Con Man Hell – America First?

    1. Immigration restriction in the 1920s basically stopped anyone coming to the US except from western Europe (and Latin America, which was just seen as a source of cheap labor for southwestern farmers). Immigration to the US in the 1930s was practically non-existent. As an aside, FDR and Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins tried to get the State department to allow European Jews to come via available spots for western Europeans but failed, men high up in State blocked it. When America First develops it is more about staying out of European wars. In the mid 1930s there were a series of Congressional committees that found the reason we entered World War I was because American bankers and munitions makers had loaned money to England and France, and that we were then dragged into WW I because of those debts and the bankers’ and arms dealers’ desire to get paid, which meant England couldn’t lose. This was only partly accurate, but it helped fuel an isolationist movement in the mid and late 1930s, and then America First as war broke out in Europe. Some of its leaders liked Hitler, or at least Germany, and were trying to make sure the US did not once again side with England. But it probably drew more on long-standing isolationist sentiment and a sense that WW I had been a mistake on our part than on the kind of racist sentiment that led to immigration restriction.

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