Late last month, in order to give the public some sense of how, as president, he would operationalize his famous promise to “make America great again,” Donald Trump unveiled a new slogan. “America First will be the overriding theme of my administration,” he declared. Should Trump win November’s election, it will not take Jeffrey Goldberg 20,000 words to tease out what exactly the Trump Doctrine is.
The phrase is not new: The “America First Committee,” historians tirelessly explained to inquiring reporters, was a group of some 800,000 Americans, led by the Hitler-praising aviator Charles Lindbergh, which argued in the early 1940s that the United States had no interests at stake in the fight against Nazi Germany. Most of the subsequent think-pieces condemned Trump’s use of a phrase with “ugly echoes in US history,” but rare has been the writer—the historian Jeremy Kuzmarov, in The Huffington Post, was one, several weeks before Trump’s address—who notes that, far from being an exclusively right-wing, anti-Semitic organization, America First actually included many liberals, progressives, and socialists who remembered the First World War as a bonanza for imperialists and war profiteers, and who were not eager to see the United States involved in a reprisal. Norman Thomas, the Socialist Party leader and former Nation editor, spoke passionately and often on behalf of America First, before finally denouncing Lindbergh after he gave an incendiary speech blaming “the Jews” for the war. Gore Vidal was a member of the chapter at Phillips Exeter, and Gerald Ford of the one at Yale.
It may be worth keeping in mind the ideological diversity of those who favored the phrase “America First” when it was first used, 75 years ago, while reading the following responses to the question of what Trump’s foreign policy might actually be if he becomes president next January. It is, of course, difficult to say what such a proudly unpredictable figure really believes on any particular issue, but it is possible, and useful, to work through different scenarios a President Trump might face and to ponder, given past comments and present commitments, how he would handle them. Some on the left, these responses suggest, might be surprised by what they see, while others will be, and ought to be, very alarmed.
Sherle R. Schwenninger
Trump draws from two distinct traditions in US foreign policy that have been neglected in recent years. The first is an America-first economic nationalism that rose to a short-lived prominence in the late 1980s and early 1990s and that was embraced to some degree by the 1992 the presidential campaign of Ross Perot. The second is a great-power realism, as briefly practiced by the George H.W. Bush administration. These two traditions lost to what would become Bill Clinton neoliberal triumphalism. The 2016 election thus promises to be something of a rematch between Trump’s economic nationalism 2.0 and Hillary Clinton’s muscular liberal interventionism 2.0.