‘America First’, ‘Common Wealth’: Notes on the Public Language of Our Times

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.
Charles Lindbergh at an America First rally (Wikimedia)

America First. In his big foreign policy speech yesterday, Donald Trump said that his guiding principle as president would be “America First.”

On the substance, there’s a good case to be made (from George Washington’s time onward) for interest-based, hard-headed realism as a basis for foreign policy — as John Judis has noted in response to Trump’s speech. But the term “America First” has a specific and nasty history, mainly because of the America First movement that essentially advocated accommodating Nazi interests on the eve of World War II. There’s a list of terms you’re wiser to avoid, no matter how deserving the underlying idea might be. “Separate but equal,” in the United States. “Cultural Revolution” or “Great Leap Forward” if you’re in China. “Final solution,” anywhere. In the realm of foreign policy, America First is one of these. You can make the point without using the phrase.

A reader in the tech industry writes to marvel about Trump’s using this term in what was billed as his most serious policy speech, and one of the few (along with his AIPAC address) that he read from a teleprompter:

What astonishes me about Trump’s “America First” speech is not that Trump himself apparently does not hear its awful echoes. Individuals sometimes have surprising gaps in their knowledge, though it’s sobering to know that millions of Republicans are now willing to vote for such a man.

But this wasn’t an ad lib to a heckler or an improvisation for the cameras. This was a speech. Even if Trump writes his own speeches—is that possible?—surely he has people to check the details, fix any mistakes, and type them up.  

What is most frightening is not that Trump used the phrase, but that a room full of his advisors must have thought it was a good idea to use it. That one real estate never learned about Lindbergh and the German American Bund is unfortunate, but that in a room of high-level advisors, not one recognized this, is shocking.


Common Wealth. Two days ago I quoted the film maker Ken Burns, on why he was involved in the American Prairie Reserve effort to restore an enormous chunk of the northern grasslands to their pre-Lewis and Clark wildlife state. Burns said:

In one way or another, every film I have worked on has been trying to work on this tension, between individual freedom and collective freedom—between what we need individually and what we need together. We can perceive that we live in a narcissistic age when it’s All About Me. But you can just look at a little girl seeing the falls in Yosemite and understand what our common wealth means.

“And not in any socialist way, but in the idea that we share things in common. We got out of the depression together, we’ve done many things together. We’d like to use this prize as a kind of megaphone to herald the good news of this project, and to celebrate a kind of American spirit that we think is concurrent with the values of the American Prairie Reserve.”

Mike Lofgren, Congressional staff veteran and author of many books, writes to support Burns’s argument but also to note its phrasing says about current discourse:

Commonwealth of Pennsylvania

I found it depressingly characteristic of political dialogue in America that when Ken Burns brought up the term common wealth, he made haste to disclaim any “socialist” imputation that would discredit his argument. The term commonwealth was the official title of England during Cromwell’s rule, and the term is used to formally designate four US states. The term means a political arrangement with the consent of the governed, or government for the common good. It is sometimes synonymous with a republic. Why is that controversial?

It is sadly evident that the Overton Window [the range of acceptable ideas] in American discourse has shifted so far to the right that the term is used almost apologetically, even as groups like the Bundyites feel justified in conducting armed seizures of public lands: outright theft of a tangible part of the commonwealth that belongs to all of us.