The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The war against democracy finds allies in America First

Ukrainian residents gathered at Plaza del Castillo in Pamplona, Spain, are draped with their national flag during a demonstration against Russia's invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 26. (Alvaro Barrientos/AP)

What does “America first” mean?

This tagline generally associated with former president Donald Trump seems self-obvious, which is the heart of its utility. “America first” means putting America first, which … sure. But how? In what context?

In 2016, Trump spoke often of the loss of American manufacturing jobs, helping him overperform expectations in the Upper Midwest where those job losses were most acutely felt. But it was clear that, even then, this specific manifestation of the concept was only a small part of its appeal. Trump's campaign gained traction not for his (often overstated) economic arguments but for his rhetoric about the purported dangers America faced, like criminal immigrants crossing into the United States and terrorist infiltrators. Those sentiments were more important in building support for his candidacy than economic hardship. And they reflect the once-quiet subtext of “America first”: America for Americans and not for the hordes seeking entry.

But it goes further. Focus America on Nebraska and not New York, that hub of global cosmopolitanism. “America first” is a statement about tradition, about the America Trump wanted to make great. It's about leveraging American power primarily to protect where power has traditionally been held in America. It's about rejecting a sense of America as a participant in a dynamic, diverse world and about responding to America's own increased diversity.

It’s a statement about protecting Americans — the Americans who feel as through their power has eroded.

Sign up for How To Read This Chart, a weekly data newsletter from Philip Bump

Over the weekend, a group using the name America First held a conference in Florida. Led by a notorious white nationalist named Nick Fuentes, the group explored the explicitly racist and toxic applications of the phrase. No one did so with more eagerness than Fuentes.

“Tonight I say: We are going to rule this country,” he told the cheering audience, largely made up of young White men. After pronouncing that “the United States government has become the evil empire in the world,” he pledged that he and they would “build and raise up a parallel economy” to avoid the constraints otherwise placed on overt racists.

Fuentes, who was at the far-right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, repurposed one of its nationalist catchphrases as he railed against his group's enemies.

“To every RINO, every lying journalist, every carjacker, gangbanger, illegal immigrant, every OnlyFans whore, every mobbed-up politician and pundit on the payroll of some Middle Eastern country, to the people that have looted our wealth, addicted our youth to drugs, thrown open our borders to invaders from all over the world, to the corrupt that have sold out our country and our people: we are coming for you. ... You think you can replace us? You’re wrong. We will replace you.”

This is not subtle, certainly, but Fuentes at another point was more explicit.

“Our secret sauce here? It's these young White men,” he said. The audience cheered. “That's what we call the secret ingredient. America and the world has forgotten about them, but not us.”

Seventy years ago, those young White men would have been broadly assured of social, political and economic power, thanks in part to the structure of the economy, yes, but thanks also to the ways in which society was structured to their advantage. It still largely is, but often not as tangibly or rewarding as it once was — thanks, they assume, to immigrants and globalists and Jewish people and so on. So, turn back the clock. Put “America first” once again.

Then Fuentes made a revealing transition.

“You know, they say about America, they say, ‘Diversity is our strength,’ you know,” he said. “And I look at China and I look at Russia —”

He stopped himself for a moment. It's pretty clear where he was going: China and Russia are powerful despite broad racial and cultural homogeneity; ergo, that's the best path forward. This is certainly more than debatable in many different ways, but the point is that Fuentes got sidetracked.

“Can we get a round of applause for Russia?”

He got one. He also got chants of “Putin! Putin!” from the audience, referring, of course, to the Russian president who last week launched an unprovoked invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

Fuentes has been explicit in praising the invasion. On Telegram, he called the invasion “the coolest thing to happen since 1/6” — referring to the attack at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, which he called “awesome” during his speech, as he had weeks after it occurred last year.

Beyond the strongman shtick that motivates enthusiasm for Vladimir Putin and for movements like Fuentes’s, this is revealing. Putin’s motivations for invading are complex and rooted in a variety of historic, social and economic causes. But a central motivation is his concern about Ukraine being pulled away from Russia’s orbit and into Europe’s. He’s been actively combating that shift for decades, worrying about the expansion of liberal democracy in a country with such close ties to the one that he runs as an autocrat. His is a literal war against democracy and it’s one that Fuentes and others cheer.

Last year, I interviewed historian Thomas Zimmer, who focuses on the history of democracy. He articulated a broad struggle of the sort that President Biden has often evoked, pitting democracy against authoritarianism (precisely the way in which Biden framed Russia’s invasion last week). But Zimmer went further: the current political moment in the United States isn’t simply about democracy against autocracy, as played out at the Capitol on Jan. 6, but inextricably about pluralistic democracy, a democracy in which a diverse set of interests compete fairly and earnestly for power through free elections. The increase of political power among Black and Hispanic and Asian and female and gay Americans doesn’t mean that White American men don’t still represent a plurality, but it means that the power that group has enjoyed is now power that is more often challenged. Hence the scale of the fight, hence the focus on “protecting” elections — and hence the way in which the global far-right has taken an interest in what’s happening here.

“I think the U.S. becomes the most advanced, most acute test case of whether or not it is even possible to erect a stable, multiracial, pluralistic democracy, or whether the country will remain a White Christian nation defined by White Christians,” Zimmer said. “I think it’s become a sort of a test case of world historic importance.”

That framing fits neatly with Fuentes’s position: He cheers Russia as homogenous and then as aggressors against a young democracy. The two intertwine.

Consider other right-wing voices that have praised or defended Putin in recent days. There's Trump himself, of course, who has repeatedly described Putin as “smart,” including in his lengthy tirade at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Saturday. What else did Trump advocate during that speech? Well, he once again disparaged those coming to the country, saying that “our country is being poisoned from within.”

Or consider Tucker Carlson, who for days before the invasion defended Putin's purported motivations. At one point, last week, he wondered aloud on his Fox News program why Democrats “want you to hate Putin.”

“Has Putin shipped every middle class job in your town to Russia?” he asked, capturing that first, concrete sense of “America first.” And then, two sentences later: “Is he teaching your kids to embrace racial discrimination?”

A bit later still, he informed viewers who they “should be mad at,” including the people “who are calling you a racist” and those who are “allowing your country to become polluted and overrun.” Carlson in the past has embraced the racist idea that the left is intentionally spurring immigration to dilute the power of White Americans. He has also praised the increasingly autocratic leader of Hungary for taking a hard line on immigration in service of nationalism.

Putin’s defenders in his fight against democracy are those who are disparaging America’s diversity, over and over again.

Last year, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) was one of a small group of right-wing legislators who floated the idea of a political action committee adopting “America First” as its name. Included in its proposed platform were specific articulations of the need to defend the country’s “uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions.” It argued for infrastructure that “reflects the architectural, engineering and aesthetic value that befits the progeny of European architecture.”

In short order, those considering signing on were pressured to step away. While Greene had been identified as a participant by multiple colleagues, her team insisted she hadn't “approved or agreed to” the document that circulated.

On Friday, Greene undercut the idea that she stood apart from the rhetoric included in the platform: She was the surprise guest speaker at Fuentes’s conference. Condemnation came quickly, including from her own party, and she later claimed to have been unfamiliar with Fuentes’s past comments and his organization. But, of course, she has her own demonstrated track record of amplifying conspiracy theories and far-right rhetoric.

During his speech at CPAC, Trump praised Greene. Fuentes responded on Telegram.

“After a day of vicious attacks against Marjorie Taylor Greene for speaking at AFPAC last night, Donald Trump gives her a shoutout and endorsement from the main stage at CPAC,” he wrote. He speculated that perhaps Trump would attend his group’s America First conference next year or the year after.

Given where the group stands in the struggle between pluralistic democracy and autocracy, it’s not hard to see that happening.