“America First”: It was one of the more effective campaign slogans in recent memory. Only President Barack Obama’s “Hope and Change” could match it in terms of voter awareness and intensity.
The successful employment of both slogans in the context of two very different presidential campaigns speaks to the power of optimism.
For Obama, it was all about the historic breaking of the ultimate glass ceiling. For Trump, it represented a reaffirmation of American exceptionalism — a reminder that only an exceptional country expects to win.
Truth be told, both enjoy a subjective quality. Think about it. “Hope,” “Change,” and “First” qualify as generic, “fill-in-your-definition-and-go-on-your-merry-way” terms — an especially effective quality for campaign message makers.
Back to the initially triumphant and subsequently marginalized “America First.” No motto could have been more appropriate for 2016. Recall that Mr. Obama had indulged his audiences — foreign and domestic — with eight years of apologies for America’s real (and perceived) sins.
But the apology tours had run their course. Voters in flyover America had grown weary of the self-flagellating mea culpas and expressions of regret for America’s military and economic dominance, even at times its mere existence. (Parenthetically, what seemed like persistent America-bashing at the time now seems almost mild compared to today’s vitriolic progressive rhetoric.)
And so tens of millions of working and middle-class citizens did what so many thought could never occur: They voted for the unapologetic America Firster from Queens, New York. His was certainly a different brand of politics.
Here was a candidate all-in for America who would repeatedly (and only half-jokingly) assure his audiences that they “might even get tired of winning.” After years of economic misery and the wielding of a decidedly small stick on the world stage, enough frustrated citizens said, “I’ll take a chance on that.”
The succeeding four years witnessed “America First” in action.
There was a welcome break at the gas pump as America became energy independent for the first time in history and a dramatic military build-up (but no new endless wars) and a very public reckoning for NATO slow-pays and a refortified southern border and a long-overdue calling to task of China for its malignant behavior.
At home, the Trump era ushered in a return to nationalistic pride, especially as the pre-pandemic economy raced to historic highs that benefitted every demographic.
It was a major hit in middle America. You could see it, feel it, touch it through thousands of American flags at well-attended MAGA events.
But enthusiasm for the muscular motto was lacking on the other side of the aisle. For the progressive left, the return of American nationalism was interpreted as retrogression — as an “Ozzie and Harriet” redux in the age of social justice.
Even worse, the left saw its Obama-era momentum stalled by a notorious capitalist who had campaigned as Ronald Reagan but without the “aw, shucks” attitude and nice-guy veneer.
But the George Floyd murder was a game-changer. The left’s long-engrained and not-so-secret narrative regarding racist police accelerated and expanded into an indictment of the larger culture.
Progressives asked how America could be “great,” “exceptional” or “first” if the entire experiment was inherently racist from day one.
The resulting racial “reckoning” was fodder for a media that had always interpreted “America First” as mere code for the revival of a poisonous brand of American nationalism. Candidate Joe Biden accordingly saw an opportunity and took full advantage, literally promising to jettison “America First” on his very first day in office.
Alas, President Biden meant what he said. The first month of his administration has seen a return to the multilateralism of the Obama years.
America has moved to rejoin the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, the World Health Organization and the (horribly misnamed) United Nations Human Rights Council.
To boot, executive orders that have shuttered the Keystone XL pipeline and delayed oil and gas leases reflect a rejection of American energy independence, inexplicably without any commensurate American advantage, even in combatting global warming. And our allies can rest assured that America will no longer be dunning deadbeat members of NATO.
As they say, elections have consequences. I get it. But Biden’s “Dare to Be Mediocre,” or “America: Somewhere in the Middle of the Pack” just doesn’t make it for me. I suspect I’m not alone on this one.
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