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America First—But Why?

Any decent political movement must be based in love and affection, else it curdles.

American flag in classroom
(Thinkstock Images/Getty Images)

Leading with my heart instead of my head keeps me far from Nostradamus territory. (I bet every year on the Bills to win the Super Bowl and I was sure Dwight Twilley would be the pop sensation of the 1980s.) But I was in the ballpark almost three decades ago when in America First! (1995), a cultural and political history of 20th-century American isolationism, I predicted that politics in the new century would cleave along “globalist-Little American” or internationalist/America First lines. 

America First is a protean term if not concept. Woodrow Wilson, who forced U.S. entry into our most catastrophically indefensible conflict, the First World War, used the slogan, as did his amiable and un-Wilsonian successor Warren G. Harding. Senator William Borah, the interwar Idaho retroprogressive, stated the creed in language to which only an Effective Altruist could object: “Whatever we owe elsewhere, our first concern is our own people.”


I have “America First” pinback buttons for both Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, although the former was a realpolitik internationalist and the latter a routine Cold War Republican who was first elected to Congress after defeating an archetypal isolationist in a 1948 GOP primary. 

(Ford was a cofounder of the America First Committee in 1940, along with such embryonic eminences as future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, future vice-presidential nominee Sargent Shriver, future Yale president Kingman Brewster, future Quaker Oats CEO Robert D. Stuart, Jr.—the list goes on. The AFC was as American as Bob Dylan and tax revolts. But down the memory hole it went.)

The first national candidate of the modern era to say America First was Virginia Governor Doug Wilder, who experimented with the formula in 1991 when laying the groundwork for a presidential candidacy that never got off the ground. 

As our rulers fear nothing so much as potent appeals to the natural leave-the-rest-of-the-world-alone sentiments of the American people, Wilder was sternly lectured by the New York Times that A------ F---- was on the Index of Prohibited Phrases.

If only Doug Wilder had filled the Southern moderate Democrat slot instead of the unctuous Bill Clinton! Wilder was much less globalist than Clinton, and in the matter of domestic affairs he’d have selected a far higher grade of mistress.


That 1992 election was the most interesting of my lifetime, ripe as it was with (unfulfilled) promise. The valiant Pat Buchanan—who almost alone among prominent Republicans revised his worldview in light of the USSR’s dissolution—ran a stirring and articulate America First campaign. Ross Perot’s independent effort played Buchananite themes in a less sophisticated key, and Jerry Brown forged a populist, anti-globalist groove that too few Democrats followed.

Donald Trump deserves credit for re-mainstreaming the term America First. In the epilogue to the 2016 edition of America First!, I expressed the wistful hope that Trump, for all his bluster and bombast, might prove a 21st-century amalgam of Buchanan and Perot, though without the former’s grasp of American history and the latter’s Boy Scout patriotism.


Trump’s astonishing victory set off a brief flurry of false hope. At the November 2016 TAC foreign policy conference, we floated the name of former Senator Jim Webb, the keynote speaker, for Secretary of State or Defense. It seemed plausible. Webb would have been outstanding, but Trump, blinkered by arrogance and intellectual laziness, opted for a succession of empire flunkies.

Given a choice between neocon lightweight Nikki Haley and the America First Democrat Tulsi Gabbard for UN ambassador, Trump chose the former. Doug Wilder wouldn’t have made that mistake.

A man who could give us Mike Pompeo, John Bolton, and Mike Pence doesn’t deserve the honorable label of America First. To believe that Trump’s next four years would be any better than his first is to play Charlie Brown running up to kick the football out of Lucy’s retractable hold.

Any decent political movement must be based in love and affection, else it curdles, as Trumpian nationalism has, into something bleak and joyless. Humorless, too, which is odd, since Trump is at his most entertaining in the role of New York City insult comic.

If America is the sum of her ten thousand and one little places, then an America Firster will cherish each in its particular and idiosyncratic glory. Yet to the nationalist who loses sight of the trees in his obsession with the forest, Little America is Loser America. It’s enough to make a guy nod in agreement with Edward Abbey, the great defender of the desert Southwest: “Be loyal to your family, your clan, your friends, and—if you are lucky enough to have one—your community. Let the nation-state go hang itself.”


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