"From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it's going to be only America first, America first." -- President Trump, inaugural address,
President Trump is something of a paradox. He roots himself in nostalgia for yesteryear -- "Make America great again!" -- but is remarkably unconcerned with history. He ransacks the past for rhetorical baubles but declines to carry their historical baggage too.
In 2015, a
He invokes the "forgotten man" as if he invented the term, never indicating that it was one of
His inaugural address made almost no reference to American history. His populist rejection of the status quo and the establishment suggests that he thinks the country is starting over at Year Zero. Indeed, he repeated a standard campaign line that at least some historians might quibble with: that he was elected by a "historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before."
Which brings us to "America first," a slogan the president seems to have first absorbed from a New York Times reporter trying to characterize the candidate's positions. As with "silent majority," Trump refuses to accept what that term means to many of the people who hear him use it.
Granted, it's more complicated than mainstream journalists would have you believe.
The America First Committee was founded in the spring of 1940 by isolationist students at
But other allies in the isolationist or "non-interventionist" cause included
The entire purpose of the America First Committee was to keep FDR from dragging the
The isolationists had largely fought FDR to a political standstill until
That Trump could so easily adopt "America first" without being hobbled by its negative connotation was a political coup. He insists that it's just a catchphrase for prioritizing American interests. Even though the term is both catnip and dog whistle to some of his more unsavory fans, I think he's sincere.
Still, my problem with Trump's version of "America first" isn't his desire to do what is in America's best interests -- who could oppose that? It's how he defines America's best interest -- and its best self. With his blind eye to the past, he's stumbled into old-fashioned nationalism.
Up until very recently, American exceptionalism -- i.e., we are a creedal nation dedicated to certain principles reflected in our founding documents -- largely defined the conservative understanding of patriotism.
Trump, however, sees America more as an identity than an idea. He promised that America's example "will shine for everyone to follow," but he defined that example not in terms of our liberties or ideals, but in terms of unity. We will rebuild "our country with American hands and American labor" following "two simple rules: buy American and hire American." We will shine through our success at building infrastructure, walling off our economy and crushing our enemies.
All in all, this is no "new vision" -- though it is arguably new for an American president.