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BLOG—”America First” is Always Built on Prejudice

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Yesterday, President Donald John Trump retweeted three inflammatory, unverified videos of perceived Muslims committing various acts of violence. These videos were originally posted by Jayda Fransen, a high-ranking member of the Britain First political party that is more well-known for anti-Islamic rhetoric and violence than parliamentary procedures. Once again, the occupier of the Oval Office has engaged in irresponsible behavior that could have a detrimental impact on Muslims here and around the world. In England, Prime Minister Theresa May condemned the tweets and is now facing increasing pressure to cancel Trump’s upcoming State visit. All of this while North Korea is increasing its provocative acts and pushing us closer to a global conflict  Trump’s “America First” philosophy has at its roots an ideology of prejudice.   

A Brief History of “American First”

Nativism as nationalism is not new to Europe or the United States. And it almost always comes with a heavy dose of prejudice. Martin Scorsese’s film Gangs of New York adeptly reflects the tension that existed in the 19th-century between the so-called natives and the Irish hordes coming into New York each day to escape the Irish Potato Famine. They were also hoping to escape religious prejudice: Catholic Ireland was dominated by the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, with a series of penal laws relegating the former to second-class citizenship. The Irish had a rough go in the U.S. at first, but contrary to popular arguments seeking to relativize slavery, their treatment was never akin to that of Africans and African-Americans. However, anti-Catholic sentiments were rampant throughout the country and remained so strong for a century that then-Senator John Fitzgerald Kennedy, as he sought the presidency in 1960, was forced to give a speech in front of Protestant pastors about how he wouldn’t be controlled by the Pope.  

American nativism expressed itself as isolationism in the early 20th century. President Woodrow Wilson won re-election in 1912 with the slogan “He Kept Us Out of War.” The “us” was clearly white Americans of certain economic means; Wilson oversaw an “unprecedented segregation” program in U.S. government, keeping African-Americans from the fullness of citizenship and employment rights. Wilson famously screened the first film in the White House, D.W. Griffith’s grotesque Birth of a Nation, a propaganda film positioning black men as threats to white womanhood. In 1925, 30,000 Klansmen and Klanswomen marched in Washington, D.C. to cries of adulation.*   

The horrors of World War I, which the United States entered in 1917, were still fresh in the minds of those who watched Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1930s’ Germany. The American fascism movement was popular as well, especially the German-American Bund. There was a strong push to keep the United States out of another foreign war; before the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt pushed through programs like Lend-Lease to remain “neutral” while still supplying necessary armaments and provisions to the British during the “darkest hour.” This was the eleven month, twenty-eight day period in which the UK fought the Nazis alone. It ended when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa, bringing the Soviet Union into the conflict.

In a December 17, 1940 press conference, Roosevelt famously used the philosophy of isolationism to justify the economic efforts of self-interest to assist the British.

“Orders from Great Britain are therefore a tremendous asset to American national defense; because they automatically create additional facilities. I am talking selfishly, from the American point of view—nothing else. Therefore, from the selfish point of view, that production must be encouraged by us,” he said, before offering the following analogy. “Suppose my home catches fire, and I have a length of garden hose four or five hundred feet away. If he can take my garden hose and connect it up with his hydrant, I may help him put out his fire…I don’t say to him before that operation, ‘Neighbor, my garden hose cost me $15; you have to pay me $15 for it’…I don’t want $15—I want my garden hose back after the fire is over.”

President Roosevelt’s actions were despised by as many as 800,000 Americans, )who formed the America First Committee (AFC). Automobile magnate Henry Ford and aviator Charles Lindbergh, two notorious anti-Semites, were among the more famous members. Lindberg gave a speech on September 11, 1941, in Des Moines, Iowa, in which he expressed sympathy for the Jews in Europe but argued that Jews in the United States were pushing “us” into a war not of our own making. 

Why This Matters

Brian Levin, an expert on hatred and extremism and a professor at California State University San Bernadino, recently wrote an article titled “Islamophobia in America: Rise in Hate Crimes Against Muslims Shows What Politicians Say Matters” for Newseek. In it, he pointed out that when President George W. Bush spoke after the attacks of September 11, 2001, and assured citizens that it was extremists who committed the violence, not representatives of worldwide Islam, there was a slowing down of hate crimes against Muslims. The president’s words matter.

Trump seems to have no ideology except that which serves his purpose for the moment. He can contradict himself within a matter of hours, sometimes multiple times per day. This can result in a fatigue that gives way to malaise. Trump does infuriating things so frequently, it is exhausting. But we must be sure that this does beat us into complacency or shell-shock. Posting videos from a far-right, nationalist, nativist, violent organization is a dog whistle to Trump’s base, who have become increasingly emboldened in xenophobia and racism, as is evidenced by events like Charlottesville in which a white nationalist rally ended with three deaths. Trump’s retweeting of debunked Britain First propaganda has been praised by former KKK-leader David Duke, and WH Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has curiously argued that even if the images aren’t real, the threat they depict is. 

Even George Orwell couldn’t write this stuff.  

The “America First” cry is once again a gut-check for a nation. How do we define “America”? And what are we placing “first”? Is it healthcare? Education? Access to services, protection of rights, compassion for those who come here looking to escape the horrors that far too often have been wrought by our irresponsible foreign policy? We can make “America First” into a revolution of inclusive community, or we can once again let the powers of nativism cower us into fear. War is peace. Hate is love. Incompetence is wisdom.

Let us not be distracted by the anger and frustration we might feel toward a government that seems to be corrupted beyond repair, but let us rally to the sides of our Muslim neighbors. Visit a mosque. Support Muslim cultural events. If you are part of an organization, invite Muslim speakers or seek some sort of institutional relationship. The best way to counteract these unverified videos is to engage in verified love.   

*The PBS documentary Birth of a Movement is an outstanding resource for those who wish to learn more.  

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BLOG—”America First” is Always Built on Prejudice

by Aaron Maurice Saari