…those who don’t know history are condemned to repeat it: Trump’s America First policy

Posted on April 29, 2016. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Politics | Tags: , , , , , , |

So many world events seem to be trending toward a repeat of World War II: China’s decision to “own” all the islands in the East China Sea and its vocal and powerful minority calling for a return to strict Maoism; Japan’s corresponding military build-up and refusal to acknowledge war crimes its soldiers committed before and during WWII; ethnic violence and the upswing in the growth of neo-Nazi groups (both official political parties and grassroots organizations) in Europe…

…and the racial, ethnic, and xenophobic hatred being brought to its logical conclusion by the Trump campaign in the U.S. Since the 1970s, the Republican party has been taken over by neoconservatives who have urged white Americans—rich and poor—to hate any American who isn’t white and to blame them for all the white people’s (perceived) problems. The hatred has extended to gay Americans, non-Republicans, feminists, and any other group that isn’t toeing a traditional line.

The hatred has also been extended to the federal government. It has been openly described as “the problem” since Reagan, and white Americans have been relentlessly urged to destroy it by starving it of tax money, electing people to office who are devoted to tearing it apart from the inside, and, frankly, ignoring it.

Now there is a man who is willing to admit this is the party policy and reap the harvest of all those decades of hate-mongering, who is not afraid to actually destroy our system of federal government. Other Republicans had not been willing to do this because they make their living in government work. Trump does not, and he is happy to wreck our federal government for a few reasons: he doesn’t understand how it works, and therefore will push it to do things it can’t and then blame it/shut it down; his most passionate supporters want this and he wants their admiration; and since he will be incapable of serving as president, he will appoint people to do that work for him from the ground up.

Trump has contributed to the 1930s feel of the world today in many ways, but his “America First” foreign policy, delivered in a speech on April 27, is very clear. As CNN.com reminds us:

It is extremely unfortunate that in his speech Wednesday outlining his foreign policy goals,Donald Trump chose to brand his foreign policy with the noxious slogan “America First,” the name of the isolationist, defeatist, anti-Semitic national organization that urged the United States to appease Adolf Hitler.

The America First Committee actually began at Yale University, where Douglas Stuart Jr., the son of a vice president of Quaker Oats, began organizing his fellow students in spring 1940. He and Gerald Ford, the future American president, and Potter Stewart, the future Supreme Court justice, drafted a petition stating, “We demand that Congress refrain from war, even if England is on the verge of defeat.”

—We have to break in to say that Stuart’s involvement is no surprise. For decades into the 20th century the Quaker Oats slogan outside the U.S. was “Wherever white men live, Quaker Oats will be sold.”

Their solution to the international crisis lay in a negotiated peace with Hitler. Other Yale students — including Sargent Shriver, who served in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, and Kingman Brewster, the chairman of the Yale Daily News, future president of Yale and ambassador to the Court of St. James — joined their isolationist crusade.

Robert Wood, the board chairman of Sears, Roebuck, agreed to act as their group’s temporary chair. The growing organization soon included powerful men like Col. Robert McCormick of the Chicago Tribune; Minnesota meatpacker Jay Hormel; Sterling Morton, the president of Morton Salt Company; U.S. Rep. Bruce Barton of New York; and Lessing Rosenwald, the former chairman of Sears.

…After Pearl Harbor, the America First Committee closed its doors, but not before Lindbergh made his infamous speech at an America First rally in Des Moines, Iowa, in September 1941. After charging that President Roosevelt had manufactured “incidents” to propel the country into war, Lindbergh proceeded to blurt out his true thoughts.

“The British and the Jewish races,” he declared, “for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war.” The nation’s enemy was an internal one, a Jewish one.
“Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government,” he contended. Booing began to drown out the cheers, forcing him again and again to stop, wait out the catcalls, and start his sentences over.

The America First foreign policy announcement comes after Trump began asking his supporters to stretch out their right arms as a sign of support… in a gesture that can only be described as the Hitler salute.

Trump’s response? The Republican front-runner at first dismissed the controversial comparison, calling it “ridiculous” and “a big stretch,” and insisting rally attendees were just “having fun.” “Well, I think it’s ridiculous, I mean we’re having such a great time,” Trump said. “Sometimes we’ll do it for fun, and they’ll start screaming at me, ‘do the swear-in, do the swear-in!'” …pressed [to state whether] he would stop asking supporters to make the pledge now that he was aware of the controversy, Trump said, “Well, I’ll certainly look into it.” “I mean I’d like to find out that that’s true, but I would certainly look into it, because I don’t want to offend anybody. But I can tell you that it’s been amazingly received, but I will certainly look into that.”

The more important Hitler comparison lies not with Trump, but with the American people. Most Germans though Hitler was a nut when he came on the scene. But he stayed, and after a few years people accepted him as a part of the political scene, albeit a nut. The shock and annoyance of hearing his crazy statements wore off as people became used to it. As he grew in power with the fringe, mainstream Germans began to shift from saying he would never be in power to speculating about what it would be like, and how he could be managed by “real” politicians. And then he took power, and that was that.
Let’s hope mainstream Americans are not doing the same thing. Would a Trump presidency  mean fascism? Not all at once. But even this election campaign has been the thin end of a wedge that will allow more radical, more hate-filled candidates to run in the future, and each time they do the shock will wear off a little more, and we will treat them a little more like normal candidates, and eventually, the worst will happen, if we are not vigilant. Historians always watch the long-tail past and the long-horizon future. Let’s hope non-historians will start doing the same.
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