What’s Wrong with Putting America First?
The overarching lesson of the triumphant Republican National Convention this week is that America is great, and that it is good and proper for an American president to put America first. In that, of course, the RNC is echoing President Trump’s consistent statements since he began running for president four years ago. But the President’s America-First message remains one of the most maligned, misinterpreted, and misrepresented aspects of his entire program.
In fact, the president’s primary job is clear from the oath of office that every president recites in order to assume office, and it isn’t to provide health care for illegal aliens, or to make sure that Somalia isn’t riven by civil war, or to make sure America is “diverse.” It is simply this: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
Or, to put it even more simply, as Rating America’s Presidents: An America-First Look at Who Is Best, Who Is Overrated, and Who Was An Absolute Disaster explains, the primary job of the president of the United States is to put America first.
Nonetheless, this point is hotly controverted. In Donald Trump’s inaugural address on January 20, 2017, he declared: “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this moment on, it’s going to be America First... We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world -- but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”
In response, neoconservative pundit William Kristol tweeted: “I’ll be unembarrassedly old-fashioned here: It is profoundly depressing and vulgar to hear an American president proclaim ‘America First.’”
Eight months later, at the UN General Assembly, Trump explained that his guiding principle was simple common sense: “As President of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries will always, and should always, put your countries first.”
Indeed. As Trump continued, “All responsible leaders have an obligation to serve their own citizens, and the nation-state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition.”
That is axiomatic. Yet Kristol was not alone in his disgust that the president would use this phrase and make it the principal focus of his presidency. The idea that “all responsible leaders have an obligation to serve their own citizens” primarily, rather than those of the world at large, has been out of fashion since World War II, and in many ways since World War I. It has been mislabeled, derided, and dismissed as “isolationism,” a fear or unwillingness to engage with the wider world, even as it is becoming increasingly interconnected and inter- dependent. But it does not necessarily mean that America will withdraw from the world; it only means that in dealing with the world, American presidents will be looking out primarily for the good of Americans.
The term “America first” has also been associated, quite unfairly, with anti-Semitism. This is largely due to the malign legacy of the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, who as the spokesman of the antiwar America First Committee before World War II, railed against the forces that, he said, were “pressing this country toward war: the British, the Jewish, and the Roosevelt Administration.” He granted that “No person with a sense of the dignity of mankind can condone the persecution of the Jewish race in Germany,” but insisted that “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.” Particularly after Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh was widely accused of anti-Semitism; the America-First principle was tainted by association with suspicions that to be pro-American meant being anti-Semitic.
That connection has been revived and reinforced today by young man named Nicholas Fuentes, who hosts a podcast entitled America First and has made classless statements likening Jews to cookies and claiming that it would have been impossible in the span of World War II to bake as many cookies as the number of Jews murdered during the Holocaust. His supporters insist that he isn’t anti-Semitic and doesn’t deny the Holocaust, and that these claims are exaggerated by his enemies. However, in this video from November 2019, Fuentes mockingly affirms that he does not deny the Holocaust, and repeats several times the baseless claim that if he did deny it, he would be murdered, as he claims other Holocaust-deniers have been.
This video is repulsive and stupid: Holocaust deniers are not being murdered and are not cowering in fear for their lives. Fuentes is either dishonest or misinformed, and he certainly doesn’t have anything to do with any genuine America-First principle.
The founding principles of the republic, notably the proposition that, as the Declaration of Independence puts it, “all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights,” shows that putting America first has nothing to do with such petty and irrational hatreds.
And far from the America-First being some eccentric minority view that Trump has borrowed from “extremists,” Rating America’s Presidents shows that the Founding Fathers and every president up until Woodrow Wilson took for granted that the president of the United States should put his nation first and would have thought it strange in the extreme that this idea should even be controversial.
The controversial nature of Donald Trump’s policies and personality as well as decades of conditioning have made many people suspicious of the phrase America First, but what should an American president put first if not the interests of his people? Even internationalism was originally sold to the American people as being the best course to follow for the protection of America and its people.
Today there is more reason to revisit and embrace the America-First principle than there has been in a century. Socialism and nationalism have found favor among some Americans since before the First World War. Nowadays, however, although the entire Democratic Party is embracing socialism, it is still massively discredited as a political philosophy. Its sister ideology, internationalism, is facing more opposition today than it has since before World War II.
Accordingly, it’s time the assumptions of the likes of William Kristol and the Left were challenged openly, and the America-First principle reclaimed. This is all the more important to do in light of the fact that several generations of American children have now been raised to despise the Founding Fathers as racist slaveowners and to consider American history to be one long record of racism, imperialism, and oppression. It’s time we put America First again in no small part by recalling what made America great.
Robert Spencer is the director of Jihad Watch and a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center. He is author of 21 books, including the New York Times bestsellers The Politically Incorrect Guide to Islam (and the Crusades) and The Truth About Muhammad. His latest book is Rating America’s Presidents: An America-First Look at Who Is Best, Who Is Overrated, and Who Was An Absolute Disaster. Follow him on Twitter here. Like him on Facebook here.