The primary slogan of the Trump movement is the simple, now-iconic appeal to “Make America Great Again.” Indeed, “MAGA” is so ubiquitous that it is now a metonym for the movement itself. But if the Trump movement has a second catchphrase after “MAGA,” it would be “America First.” Donald Trump himself routinely vows that he is an “America First” politician. Myriad Republican congressional candidates now tout themselves as “America First,” typically with an eye toward securing a coveted Trump endorsement. And many prominent conservative commentators, often with close ties to Trump’s orbit, frequently beat the drums of “America First.”
But what exactly is meant by “America First?”
In a literal sense, “America First” is one of the most anodyne, uncontroversial political slogans in decades. It is, or at least should be, axiomatic that the United States ought to place its own interests first in everything it does, from its trade deals to its immigration policy to its diplomacy and foreign policy to its membership in international institutions, and so on. To pursue an “America First” foreign policy, then, is to make decisions through the singular lens of what is best for the U.S. national interest. Such a foreign policy approach is often dubbed “realist,” but it is also just commonsense.
Indeed, because it is such a basic analytical prism, “America First” does not necessarily get us very far when it comes to making actual foreign policy decisions. Any sober, national interest-centered foreign policy should look skeptically at ideological interventionism, whether it takes the form of dogged neoconservatism or starry-eyed liberal humanitarianism. Crucially, however, “America First” should look just as skeptically at ideologically driven foreign policy from the other end of the spectrum—meaning, doctrinaire isolationism.
The Trump administration intuited this, and the 45th president implemented this understanding in practice quite well. The “Trump Doctrine” was neither neoconservative nor isolationist; it rejected such an absurd false choice, opting instead for a narrower, national interest-centric foreign policy that eschewed ideological excess from any direction. Sometimes, that pragmatic calculus militated in favor of American restraint on the world stage. But sometimes, it militated in favor of decisive American action—just ask Qasem Soleimani.
Unfortunately, many voices on the right now clamoring the loudest for “America First,” such as Tucker Carlson, either outright ignore or fail to grasp and appreciate such nuances. They conveniently overlook Trump’s actual presidential record, preferring instead to retcon history and conflate Trump-style “America First” with Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas)-style ideological isolationism. This is a disservice to the public discourse at best, and it is deceitful at worst.
How is it “America First,” as some would submit, to discount the importance of the Oct. 7 Hamas pogrom in Israel—a mass slaughter, that is, in which dozens of United States citizens were killed and many were captured and taken hostage? How is it “America First,” moreover, to question the American patriotism of those who care about what is, on its own terms, the single worst American hostage crisis since Tehran in 1979? How is it “America First” to dismiss those who are righteously indignant about the three American soldiers killed and dozens more wounded by an Iranian-supplied drone at Tower 22 in Jordan last Sunday? How is it “America First” for the United States to fail to respond in any capacity to a terrorist regime whose proxies have now struck our military bases over 170 times since Oct. 7?
There is nothing “America First” about mindlessly toppling foreign autocracies and seeking to transmogrify Islamist hellholes into shining Madisonian democracies. But there is also nothing “America First” about shirking our solemn duty to protect and defend our own citizens and soldiers overseas. Many now touting their “America First” bona fides sound a lot less like Donald Trump, who boasted of “defeating ISIS” on the 2020 campaign trail and installed fresh missile defense systems in Central and Eastern Europe to keep Vladimir Putin at bay, and a lot more like Charles Lindbergh and the “America First Committee” of old.
It is a rather curious conception of “America First” that would disavow any American interest in the very slaughter of its own citizens and soldiers overseas. The nation-building boondoggles of yesterday resulted in failure; indeed, the entire enterprise has been discredited. But basic, “peace through strength”-style deterrence is a timeless necessity. Caring about the fate of our citizens taken hostage overseas and seeking retaliation for our soldiers murdered by an evil adversary regime overseas, moreover, is about the lowest-hanging fruit imaginable for any American who calls himself a patriot.
It really doesn’t get much more “America First” than that.
To find out more about Josh Hammer and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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