How ‘America First’ and ‘American Dream’ Went From Hazy Sentiments to Loaded Clichés

Posted November 7, 2018 5:06 p.m. EST

During the summer of 2015, Sarah Churchwell was already working on a book about the phrase “American dream” when Donald Trump announced his bid for the White House, thereby elbowing his way into her research. “Sadly,” he said, after descending his golden escalator at Trump Tower, “the American dream is dead.”

It was an aggressive departure from the typical talk of presidential hopefuls, who tend to treat abject nihilism like political kryptonite, but then “typical” clearly didn’t cut it in the 2016 election. Fulminating about “American carnage” at his inauguration, Trump promised that another national idea would flourish: “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first.”

“America first,” as commentators were swift to point out, has quite the sordid heritage, brandished by Nazi sympathizers like Charles Lindbergh who objected to U.S. involvement in World War II. But Churchwell, a literature professor and the author of books about American culture, argues that the history of the phrase is in fact more surprising — and, she suggests, more convoluted — than the quick takes suggested.

In “Behold, America: The Entangled History of ‘America First’ and ‘the American Dream,'” Churchwell explores how the two phrases wended their way through American politics in the first half of the 20th century, journeying from hazy sentiments to loaded clichés.

This is a timely book. It’s also a provocative one. In addition to offering some historical perspective, Churchwell has a point to make. “America first” might never shed the stain of virulent racism and anti-Semitism, but the American dream, she suggests, has a real and discernible meaning located in its origins, one that gives “voice to principled appeals for a more generous way of life.”

To that end, she recounts how “the American dream” emerged in print in the late 19th century, when the Gilded Age gave way to the Progressive Era. A New York Evening Post editorial from 1900 depicted “discontented multimillionaires” pleading for special privileges as despoilers of the dream, rather than the realization of it. In Churchwell’s telling, the real American dream, the one she insinuates is worth reclaiming, isn’t just a Jeffersonian ideal of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” but the conditions that put the ideal within reach of every citizen: a dream, she says, that is “all but synonymous with social democracy.”

Which isn’t to say that she ignores how the American dream accrued and shed meaning over time, becoming a pliable repository for whatever the country claimed to hold dear. During the Roaring Twenties, “it began to appear far more often in tandem with glorifications of wealth,” she writes — and therefore took on an ironic, even facetious, dimension among critics of the new dispensation. F. Scott Fitzgerald may not have used the exact term “American dream” in “The Great Gatsby,” but Churchwell (who herself wrote a book about that novel) cites Fitzgerald’s concluding passage, in which Nick Carraway contemplates how Gatsby’s dream receded into “the dark fields of the republic,” as a mournful observation of how an expansive vision of “human potential” had degraded into cupidity.

By the 1920s, the term “America first” had already gone from isolationism and protectionism to proud internationalism and back to isolationism again. Churchwell finds it in print as early as 1884, when a California newspaper ran an editorial about trade wars with the British. It soon became a slogan for the Republican Party, and then the Democrats, too. President Woodrow Wilson famously invoked it when justifying his refusal to involve the United States in World War I — and then famously invoked it again when he committed troops to Europe, insisting that “America first” essentially meant that America should take the lead.

After the war was over, the phrase returned to being a rebuke to internationalist involvement — and became, increasingly, the slogan of white supremacists and homegrown fascists. The Ku Klux Klan adopted it as a motto, stating that “the ABC of the Klan is America First, benevolence, clannishness” (a reminder, as if we need one, that even the most asinine rhetoric can be deadly).

All these protean meanings can get confusing, and Churchwell has a tendency to corral the unruliness of her material by overstating her case. Still, she’s an elegant writer, and when “America First” and “the American dream” come head-to-head in her book during the run-up to World War II, the unexpected (and alarming) historical coincidences begin to resonate like demented wind chimes. There’s the repeated excuse that Americans needed to look after their own and therefore couldn’t welcome any refugees. There’s the pro-authoritarian media mogul William Randolph Hearst, who emblazoned his newspapers’ mastheads with “America First Should Be Every American’s Motto.” There’s even a “rather flippant” Time magazine article reporting the vile declarations of the white nationalist James B. True, who bragged that he was planning a “national Jew shoot.”

Churchwell finds some solace in the work of Dorothy Thompson, the first U.S. journalist to be expelled from Nazi Germany (and, for a time, the wife of the novelist Sinclair Lewis, the author of “It Can’t Happen Here”). Thompson skewered the ideology of “America first” and its adherents, even crashing a Nazi rally at Madison Square Garden to heckle the speakers. She used the phrase “American dream,” too, writing that it rejected authoritarianism and corporatism “with the spontaneity with which a healthy organism vomits poison.”

Of course, Thompson’s assertion was inflated wartime polemic, not precise analysis. And as much as Churchwell insists that “the scourges of racism and anti-Semitism were fundamentally inimical to the American dream,” a convincing argument can be made that the dream was always a fantasy of self-congratulation, inextricable from the slave society upon which it was built.

Churchwell strenuously resists any implication “that the American dream was invented as a fig leaf to protect white privilege, to obscure the racist foundations of the capitalist system in institutional slavery.” But the phrase didn’t have to be “invented” for that purpose in order to serve as such. Her entire book argues against categorical defenses like hers. “Behold, America” illuminates how much history takes place in the gap between what people say and what they do.


Publication Notes:

“Behold, America: The Entangled History of ‘America First’ and ‘the American Dream'”

By Sarah Churchwell

348 pages. Basic Books. $32.