“America First” would be a harmless phrase were it not loaded with dark undertones. It harks back to the America First Committee, a group advocating U.S. neutrality in World War II. Some members were Nazi sympathizers, while others simply wanted to keep America out of another bloody conflict in Europe. The attack on Pearl Harbor put the committee out of business.
One can be sure that few Americans hear that historical echo when President Trump repeatedly talks up “America First.” Packing a strong emotion, the term speaks of leaders protecting the people’s interests. That Democrats would be doing an overall better job of it isn’t the point here. It’s that Democrats are lousy at conveying this message.
Of course, the American president is supposed to put America first. The French president puts France first. The Chinese president puts China first. The Russian president, of course, puts Russia first.
That doesn’t mean they are all effective. The economy under Trump is, if anything, idling in neutral. His tax cuts have provided economic “rocket fuel” mainly for rich investors and have exploded deficits. True, U.S. oil production has hit record highs and wages are inching up – but they did under Barack Obama (whom Trump portrayed as a foreigner not looking out for “us”).
Trashing trade deals is a cornerstone of the “America First” program. It’s a sorry scene, big on drama, short on results. Trump’s trade policies are a mess of revolving withdrawals, delays, extensions and insults – sadly aimed at the allies we need to confront China’s unfair practices.
The most potent issue in Trump’s “America First” platform is immigration. On this, Democrats must pay heed. Every time Trump’s flagging political fortunes need a shot, he plays on working-class fears of foreigners taking their jobs.
These fears are not unwarranted and not limited to those without college degrees. Arizona, where teachers walked out over pathetically low pay, is one of many states that have hired cheaper replacements from the Philippines. The American Federation of Teachers has condemned the visa program that brings in foreign teachers to undercut its members.
Democrats should and do condemn Trump’s ugly racial remarks regarding immigrants. They should talk up the important role immigrants play in our economy and demand humane treatment of the foreign-born.
But they often don’t make clear that Americans’ interests should be paramount. Our immigration program doesn’t exist to give opportunity to people who want to come here. (That it does is a happy byproduct of the program, not a reason for it.)
Americans should get to decide who and how many people come to this country – just as Canadians and Australians do. And those considerations should change as conditions in our labor markets change.
A few years back, Democrats and some Republicans backed a sensible bill that would have granted legal status to most undocumented immigrants while greatly tightening enforcement going forward. To build the public’s confidence in the enforcement part, Obama backed a rise in deportations focused on those who committed crimes.
Many Democrats abandoned him, caving to immigration activists demanding virtually no enforcement. Never mind that the vast majority of Latino workers are here legally – more than half are native-born – and many without college degrees suffer the same downward pressure on wages as similarly situated whites, blacks and others.
As for a new slogan, “America First” is taken, and Democrats shouldn’t want it. Whatever they come up with, however, should roll everyone into a single American identity, regardless of race, creed or gender distinction.
Democrats, go ahead and use your identity pitches for grass-roots targeting, but put sea-to-shining-sea imagery in your skywriting.
That would be good for America, as well as for you.
Froma Harrop is a syndicated columnist and member of the editorial board of the Providence Journal in Providence, R.I. © 2018 The Providence Journal Co. Distributed by Creators Syndicate Inc. Follow her on Twitter @fromaharrop.