Opinion

Trump says he stands for 'America First.' What does that mean?

Donald J. Trump took the oath of office and assumed the presidency of the United States on Jan. 20, 2017. In his inauguration speech, he returned to a regular theme of his campaign, referencing “America First.” Doyle McManus took a look at the controversial phrase last year. Here’s what he had to say:

Donald Trump formally unveiled a snappy new slogan for his not-quite-isolationist foreign policy on Wednesday: “America First.”

“America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration,” the Republican front-runner told an audience in Washington. “My foreign policy will always put the interests of the American people and American security above all else.”

Sounds uncontroversial — but for anyone who knows American history, the phrase comes with a dishonorable past.

Seventy-five years ago, the America First Committee was an isolationist movement that opposed U.S. entry into World War II.

Its most famous leader, aviator Charles Lindbergh, argued that Nazi Germany was certain to defeat Britain and that U.S. intervention would be useless. His followers included more than a few pro-Nazis and anti-Semites.

It seems unlikely that Trump knew that when he adopted the slogan. He appears to have heard it for the first time from a New York Times reporter who asked him if his foreign policy attitudes boiled down to “America First.”

“Correct,” Trump replied. “I’m not isolationist, but I am ‘America First.’ So I like the expression.”

From that exchange, the slogan found its way into Trump’s public language — and, on Wednesday, became an “overriding theme.” Luckily for Trump, few voters today will associate it with the discredited isolationism of 1941.

But what does it mean? Trump is right on one score: He’s not really an isolationist. Instead, his strategy is a hodgepodge organized around his argument that the United States has allowed itself to be victimized by craftier countries.

One part is economic truculence. Trump says he would force China to be more helpful in Asia by using economic leverage, presumably by threatening to restrict trade. “We have the power over China,” he said, “and with that economic power, we can rein [them] in.”

And he says he would continue existing U.S. alliances with countries in Europe and Asia — but only if they agree to pay the full cost of their defense. If not, they’re on their own.

Another theme: the minimalist foreign policy doctrine often called realism. “We're getting out of the nation-building business and instead focusing on creating stability in the world,” he said.

But Trump says he’d continue the war against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and wage it more aggressively than President Obama — although he refuses to say how.

“ISIS will be gone if I'm elected president, and they'll be gone quickly,” he said. “I won't tell them where and I won't tell them how. We must as a nation be more unpredictable.”

As a foreign policy strategy, it doesn’t quite hang together yet. After months of promising to make America win again, Trump still hasn’t explained how.

But at least he has a memorable slogan — reclaimed and rebranded from the dustbin of history.

Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter @doylemcmanus and Google+

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