Donald Trump greeted Twitter on Flag Day with two words in all caps: “AMERICA FIRST!”
He has made this slogan a theme for his campaign, and he has begun using it to contrast himself with President Obama, whose criticism of Trump’s rhetoric on Tuesday was answered with a Trump statement promising, “When I am president, it will always be America first.”
He wasn’t quite promising “America über alles,” but it comes close. “America First” was the motto of Nazi-friendly Americans in the 1930s, and Trump has more than just a catchphrase in common with them.
Trump defines the “America” he wants to put “first” by saying who does not properly belong in it. That definition does not include certain people of foreign descent born in the United States, who are to him still foreigners and whom he labels accordingly (in the past few weeks, Trump has referred to native-born Americans as “Mexican” or “Afghan”). It does not include Muslim residents, whom he would “certainly” and “absolutely” force to register their presence with the U.S. government (asked how this proposed policy differs from Nazi laws regarding Jews, Trump replied, “You tell me“).
Trump wants his exclusionary America to cower behind walls. He would erect metaphorical barriers against immigrants (excluding Muslims from entry to the United States until they can be “properly and perfectly” screened) and trade. And of course, he would build a literal wall along the Mexican border. None of which is to say Trump’s isolated America would decline to fight wars: Trump would increase bombing of the Middle East and fight “fast and … furious for a short period of time” against the terrorist enemy.
This is what Trump’s “America First” means: a white America (committed, to be sure, to “take care of our African American people”), living behind higher walls and screens, lashing out to prove its strength and then retreating again — not a government suspiciously tolerant of foreign threats.
And this is also largely what “America First” has historically meant.
During the early 1930s, as the Nazis consolidated control over Germany, the U.S. media baron William Randolph Hearst began touting the slogan “America First” against President Franklin Roosevelt, whom he saw as dangerously likely to “allow the international bankers and the other big influences that have gambled with your prosperity to gamble with your politics.” Hearst regarded Roosevelt’s New Deal as “un-American to the core” and “more communistic than the communists” — unlike Nazism, which he believed had won a great victory for “liberty-loving people” everywhere in defeating communism.
With the beginning of World War II in Europe and the Germans’ swift conquest of the continent, Roosevelt began to commit his administration more firmly to the aid of the those fighting Nazism. He incurred the ire of various anti-intervention constituencies, ranging from committed religious or principled pacifists to American communists, who supported the Nazi-Soviet pact and therefore the notion that the United States should stay out of the European war.
But the most prominent of his opponents were the founders of the America First Committee, formed in September 1940. The committee opposed fighting Nazism and proposed a well-armed America confined largely to the Western hemisphere. It soon afterward adopted the noted aviator and enthusiast of fascism, Charles Lindbergh, as their favored speaker. Lindbergh accepted a medal from Herman Goering “in the name of the Fuehrer” during a visit to Germany in 1938, and “proudly wore the decoration.” He thought democracy was finished in Europe, that the western powers could not effectively resist the Nazi war machine and that the United States had better make terms with Adolf Hitler.
Lindbergh wasn’t against wars per se; he could support fighting if it came to “a question of banding together to defend the white race against foreign invasion.” His definition of the white race apparently had little room for Jewish people, about whom he thought Hitler had a point: “We are all disturbed about the effect of the Jewish influence in our press, radio, and motion pictures,” Lindbergh believed, though he allowed the country could benefit from “a few Jews of the right type” — just as Trump would presumably allow Muslims who could pass a perfect and proper screen.
The famed automaker and celebrity anti-Semite Henry Ford also joined America First. Like many others, they fought against the “groups” who, Lindbergh said, were pushing the country into war: “the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt administration.”
As with the Trump campaign, not all America First Committee supporters in 1940 were so egregious as their most visible spokesmen. But also as with the Trump campaign, neither did the moderate anti-Roosevelt anti-interventionists quite repudiate their fascist-friendly leaders.
The subsidiary labels may have shifted, but the general idea of “America First” remains the same: The United States should arm itself against foreign threats and stay within carefully defined borders, using the might of the state only to defend a very specific, rather white idea of “America” that excludes certain racial and religious minorities. Then, as now, the phrase offered strength through cowardice. Defeating this defeatism was essential to victory over dictatorships in the 20th century, and it is essential to preserving the institutions of democracy today.