In September 1968, Republican vice presidential nominee Spiro Agnew created an uproar among both Democrats and Republicans when he said that Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey was “soft on Communism.”
GOP presidential nominee Richard Nixon sent a babysitter, Stephen Hess, to the Agnew campaign plane to watch over the Agnew operation. Hess found that neither Agnew or his aides realized that the phrase “soft on Communism” had a history.
One account of the campaign later reported, “Hess found to his horror that [Agnew] and most of his staff were delighted with the effect the ’soft on communism’ speech had had. Apparently, they were infected by the Billy Rose approach to publicity: don’t read it, measure it. Hess arrived just in time to stall more diatribes on the same subject. Such crowd-pleasing gambits as ’Communists in our midst’ and ’lists of names’ were under consideration. At this point, it emerged that Agnew genuinely did not know that these phrases were the slogans of McCarthyism. … In 1953, Agnew had been an apolitical manager of a supermarket, and in the years since he hadn’t bothered to find out about McCarthy.”
It’s appalling how often our leaders are ignorant of history and insensitive to the power of words. After the Sept. 11 tragedies in 2001, as the United States geared up for war in Afghanistan, George W. Bush said, “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take awhile.”
In Europe, which has had more experience with terrorism than the United States and is more sophisticated in its approach to combating terror, Bush’s use of the term crusade caused leaders to shudder. They want a battle between civilization and extremism, not between civilizations. In the Middle East, crusade is a reminder of Christian terrorism in the medieval period—and a synonym for extremism. Bush at the time was reportedly reading the study Warriors of God by James Reston Jr., about the third Crusade (Reston: “the crusades were among the most disgusting blots on the human record”). One wonders how much Bush absorbed of the volume.
Which bring us to Donald Trump. His use of “America first” panders nicely to U.S. chauvinism, to those who believe the United States is exceptional. “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first,” said Trump at his inauguration.
“America first” is a slogan used by the Ku Klux Klan (see http://tinyurl.com/zj2ta9w), by U.S. anti-Semites—including Nevada’s U.S. Sen. Pat McCarran—who opposed this country fighting against Nazi Germany, by Reform Party presidential candidate and Holocaust skeptic Pat Buchanan.
Trump seems to consider himself a legitimate judge of the quality of various races and religions: “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best,” he claimed. But the quality of his own appointees is hardly testament to his judgment of people.
Because the slogan is so associated with dark forces, Trump’s use of “America first”—however popular—sends a message that those forces are approved by a U.S. president. We would argue “America best” will never emerge from “America first.”