The president’s defense of the Saudi regime debases the term.
— President Donald Trump, November 20
That’s how the president’s official statement giving the crown prince of Saudi Arabia a pass for authorizing the gruesome murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi begins. The president goes on — with even more exclamation points. The very next sentence declares, “The world is a very dangerous place!”
And so it is.
This was the argument made by the original 1930s isolationist movement, a bipartisan campaign against getting entangled, again, in Europe’s wars. World War I, a horrible and stupid war, had disillusioned a generation of thinkers on the right and the left about both war itself and the high-flown rhetoric (“the war to end all wars,” “the war to make democracy safe,” etc.) used to justify it.
The isolationist idea, which came to be known as America First, has roots going back to Washington’s farewell address and his call to avoid entangling alliances. It was grounded in the idea that America was an exceptional place that had turned its back on the bellicosity and ancient hatreds of the Old World.
A “shining city upon a hill” should not descend into the muck of the world beyond its shores. As President Hoover put it, “It was a belief that somewhere, somehow, there must be an abiding place for law and a sanctuary for civilization.” And that place would be America. Or, as Norman Thomas — head of the American Socialist Party and a founder of the America First Committee — argued, America needed to lead by example because “America lacked the wisdom and the power to play God to the world.”
The America First movement, and isolationism generally, got uglier as the imperative to fight the Nazis grew more obvious for most Americans, but not those whose isolationism derived less from a lofty principle and more from a bias for the German cause. By the eve of World War II, isolationism had become a dirty word, and after Pearl Harbor and — later — after the Holocaust, a filthy one.
President Trump adopted “America First” when a reporter used the term in an interview. Clearly ignorant of the historical baggage the label carried, he made it his own. Some of his advisers, clearly aware of the same baggage, encouraged him to do so anyway.
I am no fan of the original America First Committee or the broader isolationist movement it represented, even if I am often compelled to defend it against the wild distortions one often reads in the popular accounts.
Nonetheless, I find it remarkable how Trump has managed to debase the term America First.
President Trump’s statement is a mockery of the best sentiments of America First. His argument for why we should turn a blind eye to the Khashoggi murder, even as the Saudi regime plans to execute the men who carried out the crown prince’s orders, is that we are too entangled in our alliance with Saudi Arabia to care. They are a “great ally” because they have “agreed to spend and invest $450 billion in the United States.” He even goes on to list the defense contractors who benefit from Saudi largesse.
Nowhere in Trump’s statement does he offer any meaningful condemnation of Saudi behavior or suggest that there is a limit to the portion of the American soul Saudi petrodollars can buy.
His defenders praise the president’s “frankness,” which is fine. But frankness means telling the truth, and that means the truth is that the president frankly doesn’t care much about anything but the Saudis’ wallet and their praise for him. A statement condemning their behavior could have been frank, too. Ronald Reagan often modeled such frankness.
As Senator Rand Paul, a man largely in the tradition of the original America First, put it, “I’m pretty sure this statement is Saudi Arabia First, not America First.”
It’s fine to defend America’s economic interests, but it’s ugly to suggest that American interests begin and end with arms sales and military alliances.
America has an interest in standing up for more than a balance sheet. Progressive historian Charles Beard, an America Firster, argued that the U.S. government must “surrender forever the imbecilic belief that it was her duty to defend every dollar invested everywhere and every acquisitive merchant seeking his private interests everywhere.”
That was America First. This is something different.
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