The rise of Trump has dredged up old and bitter debates surrounding the concept of "America First," a position Trump frequently advocates almost unconsciously and using his own peculiar terms. Consider this tweet, from 2013, as an example of Trump expressing a populist, America First sentiment regarding both domestic and foreign policy in a few short words:
Most progressives, neo-conservatives, and neo-liberals view this development with alarm and disdain, equating America-centric sentiment as inherently xenophobic, isolationist, and utterly incompatible with America's role as the unquestioned arbiter of world affairs. In their minds Trump harkens back to the bad old days of the America First Committee and Charles Lindbergh, days of suspicious small-mindedness and nationalism. In their eyes, America First is the cry of the Babbitts, the John Birchers, and the Deplorables. Only a provincial fool, one who fails to grasp the complexity of the modern world, could support Trump's retreat into a mythical world where America worries mostly about her own.
Some conservatives, libertarians, anti-war doves, and pro-Trump populists disagree, arguing that Trump's inward turn is exactly what is needed in a country with $20 trillion in debt and a war in Afghanistan running longer than any other in US history. Globalism, at least the political sort, has eroded American sovereignty and diminished our sense of any shared American experience. But even with Trump's revolution lurching about this is a distinctly minority viewpoint. The American media, universities, and corporate boardrooms are aligned against it, not to mention the Deep State and leaders of both political parties.
But it remains worthwhile to consider the case for humility, rather than nativism and nationalism, as the foundation for a less ambitious and kinder set of policies—one that considers America First from the perspective of a restrained nation offering goodwill rather than direction to the world. Leave it to Silent Cal, speaking before an American Legion convention in 1925, to state the case plainly yet eloquently*:
The generally expressed desire of "America first" can not be criticized. It is a perfectly correct aspiration for our people to cherish. But the problem which we have to solve is how to make America first. It can not be done by the cultivation of national bigotry, arrogance, or selfishness. Hatreds, jealousies, and suspicions will not be productive of any benefits in this direction. Here again we must apply the rule of toleration. Because there are other peoples whose ways are not our ways, and whose thoughts are not our thoughts, we are not warranted in drawing the conclusion that they are adding nothing to the sum of civilization.This is the point Ron Paul worked valiantly to make in 2008 and 2012, with his audacious references to the Golden Rule and calls for American to lead by example rather than force. It's at the core of what Murray Rothbard called the "key to the whole libertarian business," the foundational question of war and peace. We believe in liberty not because we know what's best for the world, but precisely because we don't know— and neither do politicians and elites. Washington, DC cannot competently address the needs and hopes of 320 million Americans, much less 7.5 billion people around the world. Humility, rather than hubris, compels us to advocate market cooperation, voluntary civil society, and peace rather than top-down political control. But hubris is at the core of everything the state does, and it's at the core of the worldview of those who hate Ron Paul precisely because he challenged the federal state's omniscience in his campaign. Given the state of affairs here at home, and our simmering domestic Cold Civil War, perhaps 2018 should be the year America takes a break from lecturing down to, bribing, cajoling, threatening, and warring with the rest of the world.
We can make little contribution to the welfare of humanity on the theory that we are a superior people and all others are an inferior people. We do not need to be too loud in the assertion of our own righteousness. It is true that we live under most favorable circumstances.
But before we come to the final and irrevocable decision that we are better than everybody else we need to consider what we might do if we had their provocations and their difficulties. We are not likely to improve our own condition or help humanity very much until we come to the sympathetic understanding that human nature is about the same everywhere, that it is rather evenly distributed over the surface of the earth, and that we are all united in a common brotherhood.
We can only make America first in the true sense which that means by cultivating a spirit of friendship and good will, by the exercise of the virtues of patience and forbearance, by being "plenteous in mercy," and through progress at home and helpfulness abroad standing as an example of real service to humanity.
*h/t to The Federalist for unearthing this great speech.
Reprinted with permission from the Mises Institute.