From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first,” Donald Trump proclaimed in his inaugural address. As has been his habit, he added to the prepared text the word “only” and employed the rhetorical device of repetition by repeating “America first.”
The phrase sticks in some critics’ craws. It was the name of a bipartisan organization opposed to U.S. aid to Britain in 1940-41, and its leader, Charles Lindbergh, claimed that the main groups pushing America to war were “the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration.”
The phrase “America first” in an inaugural address in, say, 1949 or 1953 would have been disturbing for many understandable reasons. But it doesn’t have any resonance for today’s voters.
In an earlier passage in his speech, Trump made clear what he had in mind. “At the center of this movement” – which brought him to the presidency – “is a crucial conviction, that a nation exists to serve its citizens.” Not people in other countries, not foreigners who are visitors or legal residents or would like to live here someday.
At many points in American history, that statement would have been unremarkable. Not so today. As scholar Walter Russell Mead writes in Foreign Affairs, “many Americans with cosmopolitan sympathies see their main ethical imperative as working for the betterment of humanity in general.”
Speaking in Berlin in 2008, Barack Obama identified himself as a “citizen of the world,” as well as of the United States. In a well-compensated speech to a Brazilian bank in 2013, Hillary Clinton said, “My dream is a hemispheric common market, with open trade and open borders, some time in the future.”
The phrase “open borders” is ambiguous, but it’s consistent with the prevalent view of recent presidents of both parties that freer trade and robust immigration are, on balance, good for America. That’s in line with the broader notion, widely shared since Pearl Harbor, that American interests are served by promoting free trade and free movement around the world.
In the process, American governmental, financial and media elites have become more comfortable with their counterparts in other countries – the people they see at Davos and Bilderberg – and more out of touch and uncomfortable with large masses of their countrymen.
In response, many of those countrymen, in Mead’s words, see “the cosmopolitan elite as near treasonous – people who think it is morally questionable to put their own country, and its citizens, first.” Trump, as he took care to make clear, is speaking for them.
For cosmopolitan elites, any form of nationalism is akin to Nazism. But history teaches that there are many healthy forms of nationalism and that such nationalisms are not inconsistent with – and indeed they have often promoted – a high regard for human rights. Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt and Charles de Gaulle were all nationalists, as were the postwar American presidents who built and maintained our treaty alliances and trade regime.
A healthy nationalism includes respect for other healthy nationalisms. Trump pledged “friendship and goodwill” with other nations and conceded “the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”
“We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones,” he said, “and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism.” Unless one assumes the verb “reinforce” was carelessly chosen, that doesn’t sound like a renunciation of the NATO alliance or our responsibility to defend fellow members against attack.
Foreign leaders are scrambling to engage with Trump on his terms – Britain’s Theresa May, Canada’s Justin Trudeau, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu – even as corporations from Walmart to Foxconn scramble to announce plans to create American jobs. American media struggle to delegitimize him, but foreign leaders aren’t following suit.
As for the “cosmopolitan elite” who disdain Trump’s defiant nationalism, his inaugural address reminds them of a lesson understood by the postwar presidents who integrated the military and enforced school desegregation orders: that a healthy nationalism can bring people together. “When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice,” he said at one point. “Whether we are black or brown or white, we all bleed the same red blood of patriots.”
Current American elites seek to palliate victim groups whose memberships transcend international boundaries. A corollary is a polarized politics in which those outside the groups – white married Christians – are villainized as oppressors. A healthy nationalism based on “America first” points toward a less polarized, more inclusive country.