We Americans tend to live our lives “stranded in the present,” in Margaret Bendroth’s haunting phrase, so it is not surprising when our political campaigns reflect the broader culture’s myopic present-mindedness. That said, the Trump campaign seems to be unusually deaf to the historical connotations of its catchphrases and slogans.
I first thought of this when signs claiming to speak for “The Silent Majority” began popping up at Trump rallies. Some media critics took exception to the phrase, interpreting it as coded language for “white Christian America”–which it may well be–but all I could think of was the way that Richard Nixon wielded the term in a famous 1969 speech calling for Americans to persist in supporting the Vietnam War. “Is this really the best they can do?” I found myself asking. Doesn’t anyone waving that slogan know that the American president who popularized it ended up resigning in disgrace, while forty-eight individuals connected to his administration were convicted as lawbreakers?
In a recent editorial for the Washington Post, University of California-Davis history professor Eric Rauchway calls attention to an even more historically loaded Trumpism, the promise that, “When I am president, it will always be America first.” In his piece “Donald Trump’s New Favorite Slogan was Invented for Nazi Sympathizers,” Rauchway observes that the phrase first came into vogue at the end of the 1930s, when isolationists feared that Franklin Roosevelt would lead the nation into a war against Adolph Hitler’s Third Reich. The phrase eventually became the official motto of the movement with the formation of the “America First” Committee in September 1940.
Rauchway reminds us that the favored spokesman of the America First movement was the famed aviator Charles Lindbergh. To the degree that we remember him at all today, we remember “Lucky Lindy” as the pilot who made the first solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean. But Lindbergh’s fame also positioned him to speak influentially to a number of controversial public issues in his day, and by the late 1930s he had become the public face of the “America First” phenomenon.
Americans could support an “America First” strategy for any number of reasons, and the America First movement was always a diverse coalition. But as Rauchway points out, many of the movement’s most visible spokesmen combined their foreign policy commitments with a host of (not wholly unrelated) morally reprehensible views. The powerful publisher William Randolph Hearst, for instance, leavened his proclamations of “America First” with a thinly veiled anti-Semitism. He informed Americans that FDR was secretly controlled by “international bankers” and was “un-American to the core,” all the while praising Hitler’s opposition to communism as a boon for “liberty-loving people” everywhere.
Lindbergh shared this admiration of the Third Reich, traveling to Germany in 1938 where he was awarded a medal by Herman Goering “in the name of the Fuehrer.” Lindbergh returned to the U. S. convinced that German domination of Europe was inevitable and that America must seek peace with Hitler. Lindbergh was a pragmatist, not a pacifist, however, which meant that he would grudgingly acquiesce should war become necessary “to defend the white race against foreign invasion.” As Rauchway notes, Lindbergh distinguished Jewish Americans from the “white race.” “We are all disturbed about the effect of the Jewish influence in our press, radio, and motion pictures,” he observed.
You may or may not agree with Rauchway’s assessment that “the general idea of ‘America First’ remains the same [as in 1940]: 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. ” You may or may not agree with his conclusion that “defeating this defeatism was essential to victory over dictatorships in the 20th century, and it is essential to preserving the institutions of democracy today.” Individuals of integrity and discernment can view these questions differently without one or the other side of the debate being evil or stupid.
But this much seems incontrovertible: the troubling historical connotations of the phrase–and of the mindset that underlies it–should give us all pause. History won’t influence Trump because he knows so little of it. May the same not be said of us.