A brief history of ‘America First’ – then, and now Skip to content

A brief history of ‘America First’ – then, and now

Trump and his minions keep using the phrase “America First.” Do they know where it came from? Do YOU? Ivonne Rovira shows that the movement hasn’t really changed.

2 min read
(top) KKK marchers in Washington DC in the 1920s display an “America First” banner. (Library of Congress) —— (bottom) Propaganda from groups such as Patriot Front, New Jersey European Heritage Association, Folks Front, and the Nationalist Social Club (Collected by the American Defamation League)

Most of Forward Kentucky’s readers aren’t surprised that disgraced former President Trump is playing kissy-face with his BFF, strongman Vladimir Putin, and that the MAGA lick boots are following suit. However, a brief — very brief — history of the America First movement makes it likely that the extremist, fire-eating wing of the GOP would have been likely to side with America’s enemy anyway.

Trump, I’m sure, has no idea of the origins of the term “America First.” (Why would he when he doesn’t know anything else?) But I’m pretty sure the term was coined by his shaggy sidekick Steve Bannon, a neo-Nazi provocateur and strategist, and I’m sure Bannon knew exactly what the first America First movement was about.

The America First Committee was a group headed by prominent Americans who wanted the United States to stay neutral in World War II. This wasn’t a Switzerland moment; these leaders — who included auto magnate Henry Ford, aviator Charles Lindbergh, and U.S. Senator Prescott Bush (founder of the Bush political dynasty) — were big fans of Adolph Hitler (personally, in the case for Ford and Lindberg, and fans of Hitler’s money in Bush’s case). That’s not hyperbole: Both Ford and Bush made millions from selling to Germany and financing slave labor in the Third Reich. (Bush was so cozy with the Nazis that his company’s assets were seized in 1942 under the Trading with the Enemy Act.)

Like the MAGA movement, the America First Committee became quite popular, eventually boasting 800,000 members. Lindbergh, who was rabidly anti-Semitic, accused “war agitators” (code for Jews in the same vein as Steve Bannon uses “globalists” as code for Jews) of deceptively drumming up support for the war. This should seem familiar to Fox News viewers who saw Maria Bartiromo celebrate Putin and claim that any talk of war was merely an attempt to distract from inflation and supply issues. Lindbergh would have preferred that the United States side with Hitler, just as today’s MAGA darlings would love to see the United States embrace Putin and replicate his authoritarianism, anti-Semitism, and anti-human rights record here. But they were smart enough to realize that neutrality was the best they could get, so they went for that.

Theodore Geisel (better known as Dr. Seuss) accused Lindbergh of parroting Nazi propaganda in several cartoons. That should also seem familiar to those who have seen Trump and his fellow travelers parroting Putin’s talking points.

None of this is surprising. The 1940s America First Committee envisioned a world where a strongman would cleanse the earth of Jews, Socialists, and so-called “degenerates” (queer folk, Gypsies, “lesser races,” and the disabled). They viewed democracy as weakness. How does that differ from today’s America First aficionados, who envision an America where only the “right people” can vote or set curriculum standards, where undesirables can be arrested and executed in secret “tribunals,” where laws don’t apply to elites?

Any resemblance to anti-Semitic, despot-worshiping authoritarians of yore is completely intentional. Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin thinks that the Ukraine invasion has put the final nail in America First; I want to believe she’s right, and The Daily Show with Trevor Noah has a hilarious segment of Putinistas trying to backpedal. But I fear it will take more compassion and generosity than we have at present.


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Ivonne Rovira

Ivonne is the research director for Save Our Schools Kentucky. She previously worked for The Miami Herald, the Miami News, and The Associated Press. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)