America First
Revival of a fascist ideology
Megan Cornish
volume 37
issue 5
October 2016

Protesters gather outside New York City’s Plaza Hotel, where Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was speaking. Photo: Timothy A. Clary / AFP / Getty Images

When Donald Trump took up the “America First” slogan, he was harking back to an extremist right-wing movement with a long, ugly history. Steeped in racism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia and anti-communism, fascist mass movements large and small have traded in this ideology since World War I.

Trump deserves the blame for giving this far-right strain new visibility. However, far less recognized is how the Democratic Party has aided in its resurgence — by offering no meaningful opposition to mounting attacks against Blacks and other people of color, immigrants, Muslims, women, LGBTQ folks, unionists and working people generally. In fact, Democratic presidents and politicians often lead these assaults.

It’s clearly time for all the usual scapegoats to drop any illusions about being represented by either major U.S. party and to create their own united counterforce against reaction.

Promoters of fascism, U.S.-style. The core tenet of the America First movement is ultra-nationalism, used to stir up feelings that “the homeland” is being overrun by immigrants and overtaken by “evil” foreign nations like China. In tandem with Trump’s call to “make America great again,” the America First slogan appeals to feelings of loss and insecurity and to nostalgia for good old days that never were. It’s the classic substitution of nationalist identity for class identity.

This assertion of U.S. superiority has been used to support both war and abstention from war. An America First Association supported U.S. entry into World War I, castigating “un-patriotic” followers of the new Russian Revolution.

But an America First Committee resisted U.S. entry into World War II. Many pacifists and some leftists, like the Socialist Workers Party, opposed U.S. involvement on moral or anti-imperialist grounds. In contrast, core America First leaders were advocates of European fascism. Charles Lindbergh, the committee’s main spokesman, admired the Nazi ideology of racial purity and demolition of the German labor movement.

In the postwar period, McCarthyism reframed U.S.-centric ideas into denunciations of “un-American” free speech and claims that “subversives” were infiltrating Hollywood, the media and government.

A succession of America First parties ran reactionary presidential campaigns in 1944, 1960 and 1996. It was an alternate name for the Populist Party of 1984, a creature of former Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard David Duke. In 2002, another America First Party was formed by supporters of archconservative Pat Buchanan.

As with fascism generally, this tendency’s base of support is not workers, but the insecure and outright desperate middle class being squeezed by economic and political instability. An example is Trump’s base. Although the corporate media focuses on angry blue-collar workers, an analysis by Nate Silver showed that the median incomes of Trump primary voters were some $16,000 above the national median. That means many are in the middle class, and few are unemployed.

Many commentators seem to think that Trump picked up the America First theme more or less by accident. But his policies consistently line up with its champions of the past. All of them would be comfortable with his call for a bigger Mexican border wall, exclusion of all Muslims from the country, condemnation of Black activists, and suggestions that women be jailed for getting abortions.

And, despite half-hearted disavowals, Trump invites support from followers of the Ku Klux Klan and all stripes of white nationalists and neo-Nazis, referring to them nonchalantly as “the fans.”

But what has propelled this current from the fringes to the mainstream?

How “lesser evil” politics feed the right. According to Hillary Clinton, electing her is the answer to all that Trump represents. But capitalism is in real trouble; it’s in a long-term economic decline peppered by crises. History shows that Democratic politicians can no more solve this problem than can Republicans, but that they are just as willing to try – by the same means of waging war, squeezing working people, and destroying the environment.

A few examples: Bill Clinton’s NAFTA free trade pact, dismantling of welfare, and anti-crime law, which has been key to incarcerating unprecedented numbers of people of color. Then there’s Barack Obama’s record number of deportations, new free trade deals, and ongoing wars, including extra-judicial assassinations by drone.

In Congress, the Democrat majority under Obama failed to pass the Employee Free Choice Act that would have made it easier to organize unions. Since then, anti-union “right to work” legislation has swept the country, now covering a majority of states. And never mind the bipartisan teamwork that reversed bank regulation and bailed out Wall Street!

Moreover, since 2011, more than 300 restrictions on abortion have been enacted by the states, with hardly a peep from top Democrats.

Despite realities like these, the national heads of most unions and NGOs unfailingly support the Democrats. These misleaders ignore the fact that the policies of Democrats have contributed just as much as those of Republicans to abominations like the shameful growth in income inequality and the steady drop in union membership, now approaching critical levels for the labor movement’s survival.

No more illusions. For wage-earners, the poor, and the oppressed, the answer to the rough water ahead lies in identifying the problem as the capitalist system, and the solution as working-class solidarity.

For the election, the best thing to do is to vote socialist! This time around, the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) critically endorses Socialist Action (SA) write-in candidates Jeff Mackler and Karen Schraufnagel. Their strong program includes abolishing the U.S. war machine, the prison-industrial complex, and discriminatory laws; establishing equal rights for immigrants; converting to renewable energy; and guaranteeing jobs, healthcare, education, and housing.

However, FSP’s support comes with criticism of SA’s opportunistic opposition to taking an anti-capitalist stand in the anti-war movement and its underestimation of the role of genuine popular revolt in Syria. (For more on this season’s candidates, see the August 2016 articles “The Grand Illusion” and “Vote Socialist!”)

No matter who ends up in the White House, what we do next is what’s most important.

The fascistic America First boosters are not going to crawl back under their rocks. The only thing that can keep them in check is a united front against reaction led by working people. The right wing is multi-issue; its opponents need to be also. Labor and social justice advocates in every arena need to see the common threads in each other’s struggles and combine to fight for each other’s demands.

Finally, workers need a party of their own, a labor party totally independent of the bosses’ two handmaidens, so that it can offer a real alternative to the suffering and fear people are experiencing. It’s time to discuss this bold step as a means to defend all our rights and survival!

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