Before plastering the slogan “America First” across his budget request documents, in his inaugural address last year Donald Trump asserted:
From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first.
It was not the first time Trump had used the phrase to describe his policy positions.
I’m not isolationist, but I am “America First.” So I like the expression. I’m “America First.”
The inaugural address was “at least in part written by Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, two of Trump’s senior advisers” who are infamous for their anti-immigration, nativist viewpoints. Bannon is out but Miller is most very definitely still driving policy.
Where did those viewpoints originate?
These women marched in upstate New York in the 1920s, carrying a flag emblazoned with “America First; One God; One Country; One Flag.” The slogan sounds eerily familiar, almost 100 years later. [GettyImages has an original of this editorial image; the march was in Binghamton, NY.]
According to a 2015 NPR article, the KKK was not a shadow organization in the 1920s.
In the 1920s, membership in the KKK reached several million people — almost exclusively white, native-born, Protestant women and men.
The Southern Poverty Law Center reminds us that the Ku Klux Klan had as its genesis the Civil War. The war ended in May 1865; the KKK was formed in December 1865.
And it’s never gone away.
The KKK revival in the 1920s coincided with opposition to immigration, primarily Catholics and Jews. (Hence the “One God” assertion in the flag.) Membership in 1925 was about 4 million; total US population was 116 million.
In the 1960s, the KKK returned to its Civil War roots, opposing the civil rights movement and equal opportunity for black Americans.
In this context, “America First” is not a position of trade and economics; it’s one of social class and bigotry.
The KKK has no monopoly on the phrase
Although the roots of “America First” clearly lie with the KKK, it’s not the only organization to trumpet nativism. Another isolationist group channeled the phrase in 1940:
The America First Committee actually began at Yale University, where Douglas Stuart Jr., the son of a vice president of Quaker Oats, began organizing his fellow students in spring 1940. He and Gerald Ford, the future American president, and Potter Stewart, the future Supreme Court justice, drafted a petition stating, “We demand that Congress refrain from war, even if England is on the verge of defeat.”
Hitler had invaded Poland the prior year.
When it formed in 1940, the America First Committee (AFC) “was the most powerful isolationist group in America.” Within a year the organization had 450 local chapters and almost 1 million members. From The Atlantic last year:
It [AFC] was funded by the families who owned Sears-Roebuck and the Chicago Tribune, but also counted among its ranks prominent anti-Semites of the day.
In this context, “America First” was isolationist: let the rest of the world deal with its problems because they don’t affect us. This was not the first time America touted isolationist tendencies, nor would it be the last.
In 1999, Pat Buchanan used “America First” as his presidential campaign slogan for his bid to be the Reform Party’s presidential candidate in 2000. Buchanan has called World War II an “unnecessary war,” which is a position hard to reconcile with human rights.
Trump called Buchanan “a Hitler lover” after resigning as a member of the Republican Party; he was publicly considering a run for the Reform Party’s presidential nomination.
Yet today “America First” — and all that it symbolizes — is at the fulcrum of his presidency. The phrase now encompasses both of those prior meanings: economic isolation and bigotry.
For example, in the 1920s, the KKK supported restricting immigration to countries with Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian roots which was codified with the Immigration Act of 1924.
When President Calvin Coolidge signed the bill into law, the Klan celebrated the continued protection of the “purity” of American citizenship. A white Protestant citizenry and the desire to maintain their dominance culturally and politically, then, defined 100 percent Americanism.
Sound familiar? It should:
“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?” Trump said, according to these people, referring to [immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador and African countries]. Trump then suggested that the United States should instead bring more people from countries such as Norway.
As the NY Times reported this past week on the eve of the World Economic Forum:
Thirty-five new bilateral and regional trade pacts are under consideration around the world, according to the World Trade Organization. The United States is party to just one of them, with the European Union, and that negotiation has gone dormant. The United States is also threatening to withdraw from one of its existing multilateral agreements — the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada — if it cannot be renegotiated in the United States’ favor.
Trump’s own words have empowered the nation’s bigots:
- from his court-blocked “travel ban” which focused on refugees and visitors from predominantly Muslim countries
- to his words after America’s neo-Nazis took to the streets in Charlottesville, where he “defended far-right protesters … and [placed] the blame for the violence equally on what he called the ‘alt-left’.” A neo-Nazi protester, James Alex Fields, killed a counter-protester by running her over with his car. Fields has been charged with first-degree murder and faces life in prison.
This is a presidency of divisiveness, not unity; a presidency that longs for a very imperfect past rather than a future resting on social and economic justice.