‘America First!’ Is Current Again
I suspect that the publishers of Bill Kauffman’s America First! Its History, Culture, and Politics brought out a new edition of this 1996 book in part due to the newsworthiness of the title: after all, there’s a well-known person whose presidential campaign has taken this very phrase as its theme. And we’ll get to that in a moment, but in the meantime one has to recall what the author was trying to get at.
When it first came out, Kauffman’s book was hailed by those of us on the “isolationist”/Buchananite right as a masterpiece of historical, literary, and political analysis. We loved not only the subject matter—the resurrection of nearly forgotten writers, political figures, and other colorful characters whose eccentricities are not only charming but downright seditious—but also the Kauffman style: witty without being smug and crammed full of learned allusions without being exhibitionistic. Robinson Jeffers, the poet of the Old Right who paid for his bitter opposition to World War II and all things Rooseveltian by being banished forever from “respectable” literary society, is herein described as having “prescience, which we often confuse with pessimism.”
In the first part of the book, an historical overture to the “America First” tradition, Kauffman draws on an unlikely amalgam of politicos, polemicists, and literary adventurers, some obscure, others famous: Senators Gerald P. Nye, Burton K. Wheeler, and J. William Fulbright and novelists Hamlin Garland, Edward Abbey, Jack Kerouac, and Gore Vidal, to name a few. Here he constructs a common mindset beyond mere eccentricity, underscoring their uniquely American traits, characteristics of a common creed that upholds anti-militarism, love of country—not America as an “idea,” but as an actual place—and in all cases a certain curmudgeonliness.
The thread that binds this concatenation of idiosyncratic leftists, libertarians, progressives-turned-conservatives, and downright unclassifiables is the phrase contained in the book’s title: America First. This also happens to be the name of the biggest anti-interventionist—heck, antiwar!—movement in our history, the America First Committee, which opposed Franklin Roosevelt’s relentless campaign to involve us in the European conflict and was eventually outwitted when, as the historian Charles Callan Tansill put it, he got us in “through the back door.”
The AFC comes in for a brief—and bold—analysis, in which Kauffman goes so far as to defend Charles Lindbergh’s infamous Des Moines speech, which is something I would not do. John T. Flynn, a prominent America Firster, put it best when, in a letter to Lindbergh, he wrote that while the tactic of smearing anti-interventionists as anti-Semites was employed by some Jewish leaders, pointing this out was “a far different matter from going out upon the public platform and denouncing ‘the Jews’ as the war-makers. No man can do that without incurring the guilt of religious and racial intolerance.” What is lost in the conventional historical account, however, is that Lindbergh and the AFC—a broad movement that included Gerald Ford and Norman Thomas, as well as conservative businessman and publicist Henry Regnery—were hardly synonymous.
In any case, Kauffman goes on to distill this “America First” sensibility into a political phenomenon that encompasses Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, the libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard, and the paleoconservatives around Chronicles magazine, which, taken together, he calls “The new party of the Old Republic.” In this new edition of his book, Kauffman extends this analysis to include Buchanan’s subsequent political career, Ron Paul and his movement—which he, in my view wrongly albeit admiringly, dubs “quasi-pacifist”—and the latest entrant to the America First sweepstakes: none other than Donald Trump.
Of course, Trump—who, much to the horror of our ideological police, has made the slogan “America First!” current again—belongs in this book, despite the fact that Kauffman isn’t so sure. “Donald Trump is and is not in the tradition of the men and women profiled in this book,” writes Kauffman, who confesses to being “conflicted about Trump.”
I think a better word is squeamish, because it seems that Trump’s stance on the issue of immigration—specifically of Mexicans and Muslims—is what the author finds hard to square with his own (uncertain) views. After all, in the previous edition, the author spent pages heaping praise on Buchanan; now he disdains Trump’s proposal to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border—he purports to see it as a mere “public works” program—and yet this proposal was first made by Buchanan.
While Kauffman makes a rather interesting point, likening Trump to media mogul and part-time populist William Randolph Hearst, in programmatic terms it is Buchananism that is clearly the ideological precursor to Trumpism. Clearly Kauffman has been imbibing the left-libertarian soma of open borders, and yet if Kauffman purports to imagine a cultural “America-Firstism,” then what exactly does this consist of aside from the glorification of small-town America and its literary paladins?
The author admits that he “largely ignored immigration in this book,” because he’s “of two, or two thousand, minds on the subject.” Yet the small-town ethos Kauffman valorizes as the last remnants of the Real America, as opposed to the homogenized, politically correct urban monstrosity that now rears its ugly head, is being driven to extinction by the floodtide of immigrants who know or care nothing about the Bill of Rights and would no sooner support “the new party of the Old Republic” than they’d vote for … Donald Trump.
Aside from this blind spot, however, Kauffman—unlike all too many conservative and libertarian anti-interventionists—gives Trump full credit for his brave foreign-policy stance, in which he not only opposed the Iraq War but declared we were deliberately lied into it. To Kauffman’s credit, he sees through the smear campaign aimed at Trump, which he rightly describes as “a full-bore campaign of media vilification unrivaled in American history for its comprehensiveness.” And it’s not just the New York Times, but the “Never Trump” faction of the GOP—“scholars for hire, fundraising wizards, and Republican fronts”—who are “slavering over the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency.”
In the end, Kauffman’s ambiguity about Trump wins out. The author doesn’t want to make America great again: “Nah. Let’s make America good.” Well, that’s nice, but a little too safe for my Trumpian tastes. Aside from which: a person is good, while a nation can be great in spite of the ungoodness of all too many of its most influential citizens.
“Is Trump a fluke?” asks Kauffman, or is he “a bell in the night pealing for an America that minds its own business … that believes there was and is a country somewhere underneath the carapace of Empire?” Actually, the sentence I’m quoting is much longer, but you get the idea. Kauffman’s answer is: “Damned if I know.”
If I might venture an opinion where Kauffman is loath to give one, I’d go for the “bell in the night” option. Despite the appalling defection of some of the few conservative intellectuals who have been critics of neoconservative globalism, and who apparently care more for their careers than for any ostensible principles they think they hold dear, Trumpism isn’t going away. You don’t beat the entire GOP establishment and then just fade, quietly, into the night. Trumpism and the Trumpist constituency are here to stay—and that, as far as I’m concerned, is the best thing about the Trump campaign. I suspect Kauffman agrees with me: “I am conflicted about Trump,” he avers, “but I love as countrymen the Trump supporters, drawn from that narrowing swath of Americans who remain patriotic, desperately so, their naivete laced with cynicism (or is it the other way around?), scorned by their (our) country’s enemies (chicken-hawks; social-justice warriors; Conservatism, Inc.).”
Yes, these are our people, the constituency of the “new party of the Old Republic”—and they will not be denied.
Justin Raimondo is editorial director of Antiwar.com and the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement.