“From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first,” President Trump proclaimed in his inaugural address. As has been his habit, he added to the prepared text the word “only” and employed the rhetorical device of repetition by repeating “America first.”
The phrase sticks in some critics’ craws. It was the name of a bipartisan organization opposed to U.S. aid to Britain in 1940-41, and its leader Charles Lindbergh claimed that main groups pushing America to war were “the British, the Jewish and the Roosevelt administration.”
The phrase “America first” in an inaugural address in, say, 1949 or 1953 would have been disturbing for many for understandable reasons. But it doesn’t have any resonance for today’s voters.
In an earlier passage in his speech, Trump made clear what he had in mind. “At the center of this movement” — which brought him to the presidency — “is a crucial conviction, that a nation exists to serve its citizens.” Not people in other countries, not foreigners who are visitors or legal residents or would like to live here some day.
At many points in American history this statement would have been unremarkable. Not so today. As scholar Walter Russell Mead writes in Foreign Affairs, “Many Americans with cosmopolitan sympathies see their main ethical imperative as working for the betterment of humanity in general.”