Oh, to be in Cleveland! Who on earth could have imagined that for the first time in decades, the Republican National Convention would be interesting?
Donald Trump may be the most polarizing Republican presidential nominee since Abraham Lincoln (and that’s where the comparisons end). He’s an awful candidate in countless ways.
And yet, almost by sheer force of personality alone, Trump has managed to unsettle Republican rhetoric and thinking on trade, foreign policy and immigration. That’s a good thing.
Trump shocks and appalls. He’s said some things during his stream-of-consciousness stump riffs that can’t be printed in a family newspaper. What’s more, he uses language that historians and other “right-thinking” people have long since relegated to the realm of the unspeakable.
His greatest political obscenity? “America First.”
“My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people, and American security, above all else,” Trump said in April. “It has to be first, has to be. That will be the foundation of every decision that I will make.”
Horrors! Trump’s language has even seeped into the GOP’s 2016 platform. “We need better negotiated trade agreements that put America first,” one plank reads. “We cannot allow foreign governments to limit American access to their markets while stealing our designs, patents, brands, know-how and technology.”
As a rule, the typical voter tends not to care about what a party’s platform says. It’s a fair bet that 99 percent of Americans – let alone registered Republicans – wouldn’t even know where to find the platform, assuming they cared to read it. But this is no ordinary election year, and this is no ordinary platform.
Now, everyone who has ever sat through high school history is supposed to know that “America First” is a synonym for a backward-looking, insular and racist way of looking at the world.
The America First Committee that sprung up ahead of America’s entry into World War II was, in the words of historian Susan Dunn, a “defeatist,” “isolationist” and “anti-Semitic” organization that “urged the United States to appease Adolf Hitler.”
That’s about half-true. The organization, whose national spokesman was hero-aviator Charles Lindbergh and whose membership included future president Gerald Ford and future Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, opposed arming Great Britain, underestimated Nazi Germany’s expansionist designs and believed you could negotiate with Hitler. The group also attracted cranks and anti-Semites, notably the automaker Henry Ford, who was eventually kicked out for precisely that reason.
But that’s a far cry from being pro-Hitler or pro-fascist. World War II made “isolationist” a pejorative – and took “America first” down with it. That’s too bad. The latter, at least, should be a term of pride. To put America and the interests of the American people first is to honor our sovereignty and exceptionalism.
“America First” is rooted in the nation’s founding principles. The idea finds its voice and inspiration in no less a figure than George Washington (and his ghostwriter, Alexander Hamilton, who is experiencing a well-deserved popular resurgence of late).
“The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is, in extending our commercial relations to have with them as little political connection as possible,” Washington advised in his 1796 farewell address. “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the world.”
America’s bipartisan ruling class turned its back on Washington’s good counsel a long time ago. They’ve also confused policy with principle.
For example, the founders were pro-trade and pro-growth. Washington and Hamilton would agree with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that trade is “beneficial to jobs, growth, opportunity and American competitiveness.”
But they also understood that “free trade” is a policy choice, not a universal principle for all times. Hamilton certainly recognized that any trade agreement that benefits a private corporation at the expense of the American people is a bad deal.
Too many Republicans have failed to see that difference. Trump, of all people, has reminded them that it’s a vital distinction worth making.
Trump would make a terrible president. But if he manages to revive “America First” as a guiding Republican principle, he will have done a service.
Ben Boychuk is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.