President Trump’s speech Friday will go down as one of the shorter inaugural addresses, but it will also be remembered for its populist and often dark tone.
“From this day forward,” Trump said at one point, “it’s going to be only America first. America first.”
Trump appears to have first used the phrase last March in an interview with The New York Times when he denied he was an isolationist. “I’m not isolationist, but I am ‘America First,’” he said. “So I like the expression. I’m ‘America First.’”
Trump insisted publicly that he wrote his own speech, going as far as to tweet a picture of himself holding a pen and piece of paper in his hotel at Mar-A-Lago. But as The Wall Street Journal reported Friday, Trump’s speech was at least in part written by Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, two of Trump’s senior advisers. Bannon, as has been widely reported, was previously CEO of Breitbart, the conservative news site that he’s described as a platform for the alt-right, a movement that combines elements of white nationalism and economic populism.
“I don’t think we’ve had a speech like that since Andrew Jackson came to the White House,” Bannon told the Journal. “It’s got a deep root of patriotism.”
That maybe true, but Bannon’s stated positions, white-nationalist support for Trump, and the president’s tepid disavowal of that support are only likely to raise more questions about what he meant by “America first.”
The phrase in itself might provide comfort for those of Trump’s supporters who have long railed against what they see as lawmakers in Washington catering to special interests, corporations, and other countries at the expense of, in their view, the American worker. But the phrase “America first” also has a darker recent history and, as my colleague David Graham pointed out Friday, was associated with opponents of the U.S. entering World War II.
The America First Committee (AFC), which was founded in 1940, opposed any U.S. involvement in World War II, and was harshly critical of the Roosevelt administration, which it accused of pressing the U.S. toward war. At its peak, it had 800,000 members across the country, included socialists, conservatives, and some of the most prominent Americans from some of the most prominent families. There was future President Ford; Sargent Shriver, who’d go on to lead the Peace Corps; and Potter Stewart, the future U.S. Supreme Court justice. It was funded by the families who owned Sears-Roebuck and the Chicago Tribune, but also counted among its ranks prominent anti-Semites of the day.
“It had to remove from its executive committee not only the notoriously anti-Semitic Henry Ford but also Avery Brundage, the former chairman of the U.S. Olympic Committee who had prevented two Jewish runners from the American track team in Berlin in 1936 from running in the finals of the 4x100 relay,” Susan Dunn, the historian, wrote on CNN last April.
But charges of anti-Semitism persisted, and were compounded with perhaps one of the most infamous speeches given by one of AFC’s most famous spokesmen, Charles Lindbergh. In a speech in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 11, 1941, Lindbergh expressed sympathy for the persecution Jews faced in Germany, but suggested Jews were advocating the U.S. to enter a war that was not in the national interest.
“Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences,” Lindbergh said. “Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastations. A few far-sighted Jewish people realize this and stand opposed to intervention. But the majority still do not.
“Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.”
He insisted he was not “attacking either the Jewish or the British people,” but “I am saying that the leaders of both the British and the Jewish races, for reasons which are as understandable from their viewpoint as they are inadvisable from ours, for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war.”
The speech was labeled as anti-Semitic. Dorothy Thompson, a columnist for the New York Herald Tribune, who had reported from Europe, wrote: “I am absolutely certain that Lindbergh is pro-Nazi. I am absolutely certain that Lindbergh foresees a new party along Nazi lines.” Those sentiments were echoed widely.
Three months after Lindbergh’s speech, on December 7, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, prompting the U.S. to enter World War II. Three days later, the AFC disbanded.
But echoes of “America first” have persisted in the years and decades since. Most recently it was employed by Pat Buchanan, who used it as the slogan for his presidential run in 2000 on a Reform Party ticket. Buchanan, who has labeled World War II an “unnecessary war,” had also campaigned against free trade. Indeed, Trump, who sought the Reform Party nomination at the time, called Buchanan “a Hitler lover.”
NPR’s Ron Elving argues that “assuming he is aware of at least some of that history, Trump is demonstrating his confidence that his adoption of a phrase can supersede its past.” The president may say he wants “America first” to mean “we will not be ripped off anymore,” but shaking off the phrase’s ugly past, especially after an inauguration speech that offered little outreach to the millions of Americans who fear what his presidency may bring, could prove difficult.