This Land: The troubled, troubling history of ‘America First’

When Donald Trump originally embraced “America First” as a slogan during the campaign, I wondered if he was aware of the slogan’s very troubling history. But it’s impossible to believe that in all the time since no one pulled the president aside and told him that this slogan had once been used by anti-Semitic Nazi sympathizers — especially before he featured it as a cornerstone of his inauguration speech.

The isolationist America First Committee was founded in 1940 with the goal of keeping the United States out of World War II — even after France fell to the Nazis. Many of those involved in the committee were notoriously anti-Semitic, including Henry Ford, former U.S. Olympic Committee chairman Avery Brundage and Charles Lindbergh.

What kind of president embraces a slogan with that pedigree? How about the kind of president who would appoint a white nationalist sympathizer like Steve Bannon as his “chief strategist,” and then elevate him further with a permanent seat on the National Security Council’s principals committee — an unprecedented placement for a political adviser.

President George W. Bush’s former chief of staff Josh Bolten said Bush went so far as to order his top political adviser, Karl Rove, not to attend any NSC meetings. “[T]he president also knew that the signal he wanted to send to the rest of his administration, the signal he wanted to send to the public, and the signal he especially wanted to send to the military, is that, ‘The decisions I’m making that involve life and death for the people in uniform will not be tainted by any political decisions,’” Bolten said.

Bannon isn’t just any political adviser, either. As chairman of Breitbart News, he bragged about making the website “the platform for the alt-right” — the alt-right being a motley collection of anti-Semites, rabid sexists and white nationalists who would have felt right at home in the America First Committee.

Throughout the 1930s, “America First” was a catchphrase for pro-Nazi Americans. In an infamous 1941 speech, Lindbergh called Jewish influence on motion pictures, press, radio and government the “greatest danger to this country.”

What kind of president embraces a slogan used by such people? Maybe the kind of president who would issue an un-American executive memorandum halting the resettlement of Syrian refugees and temporarily banning people from seven majority Muslim nations from even entering the nation. Even Republicans criticized the order, calling it “ridiculous,” “poorly implemented,” and potentially a “self-inflicted wound in the fight against terrorism.” Dick Cheney said the ban “goes against everything we stand for and believe in.”

Career State Department officials also warned that the move would backfire, making the United States more vulnerable to terrorism while violating “core American and constitutional values.” Trump’s acting Attorney General Sally Yates sent a memo to U.S. attorneys and the civil division of the Justice Department ordering the department not to defender the travel ban because she was not “convinced that the Executive Order is lawful.”

Coincidentally U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s own nominee for attorney general, had asked Yates during her confirmation hearing in 2015 if the attorney general “has a responsibility to say no to the president if he asks for something that’s improper.” After her memo was issued, Trump fired her in a statement that said she “betrayed the Department of Justice.”

Woody Guthrie (who wrote the song this column took its name from) was no fan of America First or the fascism it represented. He wrote a song that took Lindbergh and other America Firsters to task. It included a warning to American workers that continues to ring true today: “They say America First, but they mean America Next.”

The question many have been asking as Trump’s tumultuous first weeks as president have played out is whether Trump’s actions are an indication of incompetence or of malice.

While Vox’s Matthew Yglesias argues that we ought to be concerned that Trump’s demonstrated incompetence will be even more disastrous when he faces a crisis that isn’t of his own making, another writer laid out a plausible case that the immigration ban and its seemingly sloppy implementation was actually a subtle plan to test “the limits of governmental checks and balances to set up a self-serving, dangerous consolidation of power” — a test of the “country’s willingness to capitulate to a fascist regime.”

Does the slogan America First continue to represent the fascist, racist sentiment that propelled it to prominence during the 1930s and early 1940s? Bannon almost certainly hopes so. But the intense demonstrations that have marked the early days of the Trump Administration give me hope that today’s version of America First will fail just as the last one did.

Radmacher is former editorial page editor of The Charleston Gazette and The Roanoke Times. This Land is a weekly column produced by Appalachian Mountain Advocates.