The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Our history shows there’s a dark side to ‘Buy American’

Campaigns urging us to buy U.S.-made products are as old as the republic, but they are often shrouded in racism.

(Andrew Spear for The Washington Post)

“We will follow two simple rules,” President Trump promised in his inaugural address. “Buy American and hire American.”

Trump’s program might sound appealing. But the Buy American exhortation follows a long history of similar campaigns steeped in racism, especially against Asians and Asian Americans, that have had real, destructive consequences. It’s not that the Buy American call is racist in itself — there’s nothing wrong with seeking to reinvest our dollars back in good local jobs. The problem lies in the way in which it frames the issues.

Buy American presumes an imagined economic nation that pits working people in the United States against those of other countries, casting them as the enemy. From there, it’s often been a quick step to racial distinctions and attacks, as the past has shown. Buy American also has played into the hands of transnational corporations and other elites, who are happy if working people in the United States turn against those from other countries, while the corporations themselves flit about the world seeking low-cost labor.

Buy American campaigns date back to the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution. President George Washington, at his inauguration, deliberately wore “homespun” clothes as a symbolic nationalist statement — but he had put five of his slaves to work making cloth, an early clue that the politics of these campaigns are fraught.

The Buy American call erupted again in late 1932 and early 1933, when William Randolph Hearst, the media magnate who owned 27 daily newspapers with a circulation of 5.5 million, launched a Buy American campaign as his answer to the Great Depression: “Buy American and spend American. … Keep American money in America and provide employment for American citizens.” Every day for three months, Hearst’s papers in lockstep ran three or four editorials, testimonials, articles, cartoons and columns exhorting Buy American.

Hearst’s campaign was laced with racism and immigrant bashing through and through, directed especially against Japanese and Japanese Americans. “ ‘Buy American’ Blocks Order for Jap Bulbs,” one story announced. Another warned of “SLIPPERY ALIEN FISH CLOSE UP OUR CANNERIES,” because Japanese firms were allegedly planting 150 million “Oriental” oysters in U.S. waters.

Hearst equated foreign products with foreign workers. “We have as much RIGHT TO EXCLUDE CERTAIN IMPORTS, DANGEROUS to our AMERICAN STANDARDS AND IDEALS, as we have the right to EXCLUDE certain IMMIGRATION which is a MENACE TO OUR AMERICAN STANDARDS AND IDEALS.” A news story in this vein promoted a “BAN ON ALIEN ACTORS.” In Hearst’s eyes, “foreign “workers were pernicious whether outside or inside the United States.

By this point, Hearst had a long history of anti-Asian racism. The pioneer of inflammatory, tabloid journalism, he had promoted the idea that a “yellow peril” was about to engulf the West Coast in a dangerous flood — although there were only 264,000 people of Asian descent in the entire United States in 1930. In the early ’30s, while Hearst was running his Buy American campaign, he published columns in his papers by Italian dictator Benito Mussolini and by Lothrop Stoddard, the author of “The Rising Tide of Color: Against White World Supremacy,” which argued that the nonwhite people of the world were about to take over the United States and other “white” nations. Hearst was viciously anti-union, too.

Heart’s long campaign against Japanese Americans, including his Buy American campaign, had real, destructive consequences. Historians agree that he helped lay the groundwork for the subsequent internment of 110,240 Americans of Japanese descent during World War II, one of the darkest and most shameful passages in U.S. history.

During the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s, Buy American and its attendant racism rose again. Autoworkers, concerned about mass layoffs as their employers moved production overseas, responded by attacking Japanese cars and those who bought them. These campaigns were largely verbal, but at times they spilled over into violence.

In 1982, two white autoworkers killed Vincent Chin, who was Chinese American, in Detroit, blaming him for their plight; Japanese cars were attacked with sledgehammers. Popular Buy American campaigns were riddled with anti-Asian racism directed at immigrants and native-born Americans alike, which revived and promoted stereotypes about “inscrutable,” “sneaky,” dangerous Asians. “Jap” blossomed again; some advocates even called for atomic bombs to be dropped on Japan.

At the 1992 Citrus Bowl, when Chang-Lin Tien, the chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley who was of Chinese descent, stepped up to the podium, some Clemson fans chanted “Buy American! Buy American!”

Trump is playing the Buy American card, coupled with a promise to “hire American,” apparently advocating employment discrimination against even legal immigrants. By pairing the two, he is equating imported products and immigrant working people, as did Hearst, and implicitly blaming both for U.S. economic ills.

Buy American also assumes an implicit nationalist alliance between working Americans and American corporations. Yet those corporations are not necessarily loyal, in turn, to U.S. workers. There is no guarantee that the profits they make from selling domestically are reinvested inside the country. Instead, U.S.-based corporations have spent decades using free trade politics to grease the wheels of their flight overseas, in search of the best investment climate — which for them usually means the lowest wages and the weakest environmental regulations they can find.

Trump, in his speech, attacked “other countries” that are “stealing our jobs,” but American companies are the ones that have chosen for decades to abandon communities that built their wealth, and flee abroad.

Instead of pointing upward at transnational corporate behavior, “Buy American” campaigns pivot sideways to cast our enemies to be working people outside our borders — who are often being exploited by the same transnational corporate logic.

Trump has attacked some individual companies for moving production overseas and taken credit for others that have kept jobs in the United States, although his actual activities aren’t as clear as his pronouncements. He has initiated the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, and has announced that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is dead. But he is happy to extract profits from an exploitative clothing factory in Honduras, and his nomination of Andrew Puzder as labor secretary makes clear his hostility to the labor movement and the enforcement of basic labor rights.

In the 1930s, it wasn’t buying American that turned the economy around. It was President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which promoted government regulation of big business, the redistribution of wealth through a strong labor movement, poverty reduction and, at its best, an inclusive vision of the American people. Today, we need to eschew both corporate-driven free trade and dangerous nationalism, and instead embrace a politics of trade and immigration based on empathy, respect and support for working people around the world.