The Corner

Politics & Policy

How Not to Attack Donald Trump’s Foreign Policy Speech

Donald Trump’s use of the phrase “America First” is yielding ridicule and scorn. Per The Hill:

Allies of Hillary Clinton ridiculed Donald Trump on Wednesday for describing his foreign policy vision as “America first” without acknowledging the phrase’s original use by critics of America’s involvement in World War II.

“Maybe he never read history or he doesn’t understand it, but he clearly didn’t understand what the American First-ers used to talk about was that there wasn’t any Nazi threat to American interests,” former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright told reporters in a conference call organized by Clinton’s campaign.

“If you don’t know enough history to know that that was the movement that tried to keep America out of World War II … that’s almost a disqualifier right there,” added Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), a prominent backer of Clinton’s who was also on the call.

I will admit that the phrase was rather jarring to my ears. Does Trump not know the history here? Or is he unashamedly playing to the Buchananite wing? Who knows? Either way, I doubt that Americans are going to care much in 2016. Rather, I suspect that this is one of those instances in which the “well, actually” crowd heard one thing and the semi-interested voter heard another. And there are an awful lot more semi-interested voters than well-actuallys.

When hearing a politician promise to put “America first,” most people do not think of Charles Lindbergh or R. Douglas Stuart, but of themselves. Polling consistently shows that Americans are concerned by the amount of money spent on foreign aid (which amount they wildly overestimate); are in favor of “doing some nation-building at home” rather than abroad; and, in this cycle of history at least, are skeptical of foreign entanglements. Moreover, such sentiments are not limited to one particular group or partisan sect, but cut across the spectrum. At present, it is customary to hear progressives, conservatives, and libertarians make some form of the argument that America is too involved in, deferential toward, or financially responsible for the rest of the world. Why, exactly, should we presume that a stance that sounds as if it reflects that skepticism will hurt Trump?

Or, put another way: I wonder whether Hillary Clinton and co. are walking into a trap here? Just as Democrats have figured out that it can be profitable to name their coveted bills “The Hugging Children and Not Being Racist Act of . . .” and then to wait for the GOP to oppose it on the merits (“that guy’s against loving children and is a racist!”), so Trump may have figured out that it’s tough to be against “putting America first.” If he is smart, Trump will say that, for two decades now, the Democrats and Republicans have failed to “put America first” on trade, on immigration, on foreign policy, and so forth, and then he will wait for Hillary Clinton and her friends to say, “well actually, Donald, the situation in Libya . . . ” so that he can pounce.

That “America First” is in truth an empty slogan — and that the speech it adorned was, all told, pretty hollow — is neither here nor there. The idea feels right, and feelings matter a great deal. Sure, I have a lot of sympathy for the reaction that Madeleine Albright felt when she heard Trump use that phrase. For Tim Kaine, too. But if the Clinton campaign believes that pointing out that America First meant something different in 1940 is going to help it in any meaningful way, it has another thing coming.

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