President Donald Trump is pulling up the drawbridge.
The United States, if the new president has his way, will retreat from the world. Global trade will give way to protectionism. Immigrants and refugees will be turned away or sent packing. Traditional alliances that have allowed much of the world to live in relative peace after two ghastly world wars will be weakened.
“From this day forward, it’s going to be only America First, America First,” Trump said in his inaugural address on Friday. “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs, will be made to benefit American workers and American families.”
We have to wonder if the president appreciates the full meaning of his own words. He doesn’t read books, we know, but perhaps he watches the History Channel. The slogan “America First” sounds benign and even kind of terrific to those who know no better, but historically it has been a rallying cry for some of our nation’s worst impulses. In the name of “America First,” the United States stayed out of World War II for far too long while the Nazis ravaged a continent and a people. America First was the cry when we rounded up fellow citizens, Japanese Americans, and forced them into detention camps.
A precursor to this newspaper, the Chicago Sun, was founded for the express purpose of countering the darker inclinations of those who cry America First. Marshall Field III founded the Chicago Sun in 1941 to give Midwesterners an alternative to Col. Robert McCormick’s stridently isolationist Chicago Tribune.
It is possible Trump is unaware of the historic resonance of his words, though the ideologues with whom he surrounds himself certainly know better. His mix of naivete and bravado is dangerous. But even taking Trump’s call for America First at face value, he has some wrongheaded notions about how to put America first.
Our nation is too immersed in the global economy to throw up walls of protection. Many more American jobs have been lost to automation than to other countries. Industrial output in the United States is at the highest level in history; it is the jobs that have disappeared. Global trade is part of the problem, but much more part of the solution. Our nation must create new jobs by exploiting new markets in the global economy.
So, too, with immigration. In this case, Trump would throw up a literal wall. But he also would chase further into the shadows those who already have found their way into our country, undocumented to be sure, but looking only for work and a better life. Trump’s new nationalism offers no hope for them. In his 16-minute inaugural address, he offered them not a word of compassion.
And so, too, with our nation’s traditional alliances. As a candidate for president, Trump made clear his scorn for NATO and foreign aid, and he showed no more appreciation on Friday for how these alliances help keep us safe and promote economic growth. He complained that we “subsidized the armies of other countries” as if that is always a bad thing, like handing out free condos at Trump Tower.
Trump’s inaugural address was short on grace, long on populism and divisive, a mildly tamped-down version of his campaign speeches. He again confirmed and fed the resentments of his supporters, promising “You will never be ignored again.” And, above all, he played up small-minded nationalism, that pulling up of the drawbridge. He conjured up a world that is just ripping us off.
“We’ve defended other nations’ borders while refusing to defend our own,” Trump complained. “And spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay. We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth, strength and confidence of our country has dissipated over the horizon. One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores. . . .”
Some of what the president said was appealing. It’s hard to argue with his call to rebuild the infrastructure of America — its roads, bridges and railways — and to use those new jobs to “get our people off of welfare and back to work.” Chicago would love it.
He called for unity among Americans, though he said nothing to reach out to those who have opposed him. He vowed to be a president for every American, for what it’s worth. And while he complained about America blowing money on foreign armies, he did add that America would “reinforce old alliances and form new ones.” You can bet the first new alliance, unfortunately, will be with Russia.
“The time for empty talk is over,” Trump said. He was referring to Washington politicians, but we might say the same to him.
The presidency of Donald Trump, our nationalist in chief, has begun. Now we shall see.
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