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End of the American dream? The dark history of 'America first'

Sadly, the American dream is dead,” Donald Trump proclaimed when he announced his candidacy for president of the United States. It seemed an astonishing thing for a candidate to say; people campaigning for president usually glorify the nation they hope to lead, flattering voters into choosing them. But this reversal was just a taste of what was to come, as he revealed an unnerving skill at twisting what would be negative for anyone else into a positive for himself.

By the time he won the election, Trump had flipped much of what many people thought they knew about the US on its head. In his acceptance speech he again pronounced the American dream dead, but promised to revive it. We were told that this dream of prosperity was under threat, so much so that a platform of “economic nationalism” carried the presidency.

Reading last rites over the American dream was disquieting enough. But throughout the campaign, Trump also promised to put America first, a pledge renewed – twice – in his inaugural address. It was a disturbing phrase; think pieces on the slogan’s history began to sprout up, explaining that it stretches back to efforts to keep the US out of the second world war.

In fact, “America first” has a much longer and darker history than that, one deeply entangled with the country’s brutal legacy of slavery and white nationalism, its conflicted relationship to immigration, nativism and xenophobia. Gradually, the complex and often terrible tale this slogan represents was lost to mainstream history – but kept alive by underground fascist movements. “America first” is, to put it plainly, a dog whistle. The expression’s backstory seems at first to uncannily anticipate Trump and (at least some of) his supporters, but the truth is that eruptions of American conservative populism are nothing new – and “America first” has been associated with them for well over a century. This is merely the latest iteration of a powerful strain of populist demagoguery in American history, from president Andrew Jackson (1829-1837) to Louisiana senator Huey Long a century later – one that now extends to Trump. ...

When Senator Knute Nelson died in 1923, he was hailed in obituaries across the US as “100% American” – despite having been born in Norway. Why? Because Nelson was descended from “the true Nordic line”, “from the race which set up strong gods and bred strong men”.

“Nordic” was yet another code, used in the same ways that the Nazis would use “Aryan”. “Nordicism” held that people of northern Europe were racially superior to those of southern Europe (and everywhere else), a theory espoused by white supremacists such as Lothrop Stoddard and Madison Grant, whose The Passing of the Great Race: or The Racial Basis of European History(1916) became one of the most influential works of eugenicist scientific racism. But in practice, Nordic was used to describe anyone who was blond, white, Caucasian or Anglo-Saxon. Colloquially, “Nordic”, “100% American” and “America first” were used all but interchangeably.

It should come as little surprise, then, that the Ku Klux Klan also adopted “America first” as a motto. In 1919 a Klan leader gave a Fourth of July speech declaring: “I am for America, first, last and all the time, and I don’t want any foreign element telling us what to do.” The fantasy of a US once populated solely by the racially pure Nordic “common man” was the Klan’s genesis myth as well, the prelapsarian past to which they intended to force the country to return – by violence if necessary. 

In January 1922, the Klan staged a parade in Alexandria, Louisiana, bearing two flaming red crosses and banners with slogans including “America First”, “100% American” and “White Supremacy”. That summer the Klan took out an advertisement in a Texas newspaper: “The Ku Klux Klan is the one and only organization composed absolutely and exclusively of ONE HUNDRED PER CENT AMERICANS who place AMERICA FIRST.” ...

Read entire article at The Guardian