Politics: Right and Wrong Ways to Put America First
"From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it's going to be only America first, America first."
A month ago, President Trump said the above during his inaugural address. I cringed then, but now the hypocrisy in that line just kills me.
Start with the slogan's history. In the early 1940s, "America first" was the rallying cry for isolationists like Charles Lindbergh, the famous aviator who wanted the United States to look inward and stay out of Europe's troubles. Lindbergh may or may not have been a Nazi sympathizer, but he wasn't a friend to Jews—he believed in eugenics and the need for racial purity.
Of course, lots of people initially opposed getting involved in World War II, and many of them weren’t racist. But by commencing his presidency with such a checkered slogan, Trump did little to distance himself from his campaign’s connections to white supremacists.
On a more philosophical level, "America first" is basically the embodiment of nationalism.
Not that there's anything wrong with nations. Interrelated historical, geographic, and cultural factors mean that people in different parts of the world have different wants and needs. It makes sense to have national governments, with regional governments beneath them, and local governments underpinning them all. A single system can only coordinate and manage so much. And Trump, like every president before him, was elected to look after the United States' interests.
But drawn too sharply, borders create maps of conflict and fear.
Heavy dividing lines can make it seem like someone born on the “wrong” side is less, a form of prejudice based on where that person was born (and often in addition to what skin tone and/or religion they inherited). The more we make these distinctions, the more justified we feel in blaming other nations for our ills, and taking from them what we think they stole.
Because what else is war but a country (or two, or three) saying “Us first”?
Yet the ideals the United States holds dear—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, to name a few—aren’t zero-sum games. It’s possible for more than one nation to enjoy them at a time, to strike deals that benefit more people than just us. Compassion should be borderless.
Put humanity first.
There’s another way for President Trump to practice “America first,” though. And this interpretation I fully endorse: put your country before yourself. Some suggestions:
Minimize your conflicts of interest. Release your tax returns so we know what those conflicts are, and put your businesses in a completely blind trust—something that isn’t run by your sons. We shouldn’t have to wonder if you’re acting on the United States’ behalf or your own.
Along the same lines, stop using the office of the presidency to hawk your daughter’s products. It’s tawdry.
More importantly, respect the checks and balances that make our democracy strong. Don’t go after judges because you disagree with them, and don’t echo Nixon, Mao, and Stalin by calling the press the “enemy of the people.” You won’t always get your way. Accept it and act like an elected leader, not an aspiring tyrant.
Similarly, don’t fire people just because they were critical of you, and consider hiring people for just that reason. You need people who have the courage to say “That’s a bad idea” when you’re wrong.
Finally, above all else, don’t lie to our faces. Don’t invent voter fraud to explain why you lost the popular vote. Don’t make up terrorist attacks to rationalize your clampdown on immigration. Build your case with facts—real ones, not “alternatives” your administration would like to be true. This is your only chance of improving the approval ratings you seem to care so much about.
And when in doubt, remember this simple ratio: the world is bigger than America, which is bigger than you.
Happy Presidents' Day.