A version of this story was originally published on June 14, 2016.
President Trump declared Friday that his new administration would have an old slogan: “We assembled here today are issuing a new decree … 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!” The White House website pledges an “America First Energy Policy” and an “America First Foreign Policy.”
Trump isn’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. When he began using the phrase last year during the campaign, the Anti-Defamation League had asked him to stop.
Trump wants his exclusionary America to cower behind walls. He will 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 will build a literal wall along the Mexican border. None of which is to say Trump’s isolated America will decline to fight wars: Trump says he will 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.
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.