Why America First Is Bunk

Trump’s attitude toward Russia shows that he never really meant what he said.

Editor’s note: This piece has been excerpted from Jonah’s G-File newsletter, emailed exclusively to Dispatch members on Wednesday. If you’d like to receive all of our newsletters the moment they’re published, and have access to regular Dispatch Live discussions and live events (when those happen again), please consider becoming a member of The Dispatch.

So, now can we agree that America First is a joke?

No, I don’t mean that realism, or unilateralism, or even “nationalism” are jokes. Many of these schools of foreign policy have serious perspectives. And even though I think foreign policy realism is usually more of a debating tactic than a fully fleshed-out position—I often say the best definition of a foreign policy “realist” is an ideologue who lost an argument—there are definitely serious people who call themselves realists who have thoughtful and important contributions to make.

No, what I mean is this garbage, from Donald Trump’s 2017 speech on the topic:

My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else. It has to be first. Has to be. That will be the foundation of every single decision that I will make. America.

America first will be the major and overriding theme of my administration.

Nearly four years later, the president of the United States, the commander in chief, and foremost champion of “America First” admitted that in eight conversations with Vladimir Putin, he has not once broached the issue of intelligence showing that the Russian government offered bounties for dead Americans.

Now before you parrot his own defense that this is just “fake news” and “it never reached my desk”—I am happy to concede both points for the sake of argument (even though neither is true, see Wednesday’s Morning Dispatch).

Even if the intelligence wasn’t in his brief (again, it was) and thus never reached his desk, you know what did reach his desk? The New York Times. Once the topic was out in the open, it really didn’t matter whether it was in his brief or came to him through bureaucratic channels.

Let me pause for a moment to make an important point: The president’s desk isn’t magic. In vampire movies, Dracula can’t enter a home unless invited. In 1688, James II thought he could prevent a new Parliament being formed or a new king being named if he threw the official seal of the monarch in the Thames. After all, the seal was the instrument of his power. So without it, the invading Protestant forces would be deprived of any power to do anything. Well, no similar rules apply to the Resolute desk. If the president hears credible information about anything, he can act on it whether or not it physically reaches some random piece of furniture in his office in paper form. I suspect the news of the Demon Semen Doctor didn’t reach the president’s desk either, but that didn’t stop him from acting on it.

Likewise, it doesn’t matter if the Russian bounty story reached the president’s desk. Nor does it matter if every intelligence agency agrees on it. The president could still act on the credible allegation. And by act, I don’t mean “go to war” or “cut ties” with Russia. I mean he could ask the Russian president about it. He could also say things like, “If this story is true there will be serious consequences” or “If this is true, it had better stop right now” in one of his eight conversations. He could also say that publicly.

But Mr. America First went a different way.

What is clear is that Trump doesn’t want the story to be true, and even if it is true, he doesn’t want it to get in the way of his bromance with Putin.

But this isn’t the primary reason Trump’s America First marketing is garbage. Further in the interview, Swan asked about the fact that the Russians have been aiding the Taliban. “Well we supplied weapons when they were fighting Russia too. You know, when they were fighting with the Taliban in Afghanistan,” Trump responded. “I’m just saying we did that too.” Watch the video, he clearly means this to be a meaningful rebuttal to reliable information, passed on by his own military, that the Russians are arming the Taliban.

Where to begin? First, the Taliban didn’t exist when we aided forces opposing the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Second, who gives a rat’s ass?

As my colleague David French said, on The DispatchPodcast, in response to this argument, “Thanks alot, Noam Chomsky.” The idea that the Russians are justified in funding the Taliban because we supported the Mujahideen four decades ago is repugnant and silly when it comes from Chomsky. But you know what? Chomsky isn’t an America Firster.

I thought the whole point of America First was to reject abstract or ideological claims that militate against America robustly defending its interests. But according to Trump, we should give some kind of pass to Russia because—seriously—we fought the Soviet Union so now it’s Russia’s turn? Neoconservatism is globalist ideology run amok! But the kindergarten rule “everyone deserves a turn” is cold-eye realpolitik?  Spare me. 

Moreover, in his big America First speech, Trump explicitly endorsed containment and our effort to defeat the Soviets. But, he said, “After the Cold War, our foreign policy veered badly off course.” So he approved of our actions back then. But shrugging at Russia’s campaign(s) against America in 2020 is a necessary corrective to post-Cold War foreign-policy drift? Someone needs to explain that to me.

Also in need of elucidation: How is it that Russia—which is not the Soviet Union anymore, much to Putin’s dismay—gets to inherit some sort of payback promissory note from the Soviets? Trump loves to talk about how we need to move beyond our Cold War attitude when it comes to Russia, but he has no problem with Russia holding on to its Cold War IOUs for America?

Forget how you can square that with America First (hint: You can’t). How can you square that with any notion of credible foreign policy?

This is all just one facet of the larger grift of America First. Like so many things Trump does, America First is a canard people fall back on to construct an intellectual paradigm to defend and rationalize Trump’s often arbitrary and always instinctual style. Trump does something inexplicably stupid and the clean-up crew comes out with anecdotes from Ancient Greece or highfalutin nonsense about being a “disruptor.” He screws American industry and consumers with steel and aluminum tariffs that didn’t even help the steel and aluminum industries overall and, like an army of Roombas unleashed from their docking stations, his enablers come out with 30,000-foot arguments about “globalism” and “America First” to clean up the mess.

Whatever the reason for Trump’s decisions, on alleged bounties for dead Americans or anything else, it’s not the product of an America First philosophy—whatever that might actually be—because nothing he does is based on a philosophy. And if you actually believe in America First or nationalism or any other ideological program that has aligned itself with Trump, I’d recommend swimming away from this presidency as quickly as possible lest you and the ideas you care about get pulled under with it.

That is, if you ever actually cared about ideas in the first place. If not, keep using America First as the bilge pump it’s always been.