Sometimes a name becomes too closely linked to a group to ever get free of the associations -- modern-day Communists prefer "Socialist," and hope you'll think of voluntary self-help societies, food co-ops and early unions, not food shortages and Tienanmen Square. Only the most rabid of Nazis fly that banner openly, and so on--
And yet, as the Greatest Generation dies off, we have no shortage of "America First" groups. Putting one's own country first seems sensible enough, and it's a handy slogan -- but it's got a history.
The oldest America First Committee tried to keep this country out of WW II. Aviator Charles Lindbergh was one of its most visible faces and the group explicitly rejected racism and and anti-semitism; when war came, the organizers packed up and got behind the war effort: "We have been stepping closer to war for many months. Now it has come and we must meet it as united Americans regardless of our attitude in the past toward the policy our government has followed. Whether or not that policy has been wise, our country has been attacked by force of arms and by force of arms we must retaliate." (Lindbergh, 1941). On 11 December, 1941, in the wake of a formal declaration of war against Japan, the leaders voted to dissolve the committee. --But despite good intentions, they had not been able to control the messengers: Aviatrix Laura Houghtaling Ingalls had been giving speeches for the committee of a distinctly pro-German or even pro-Nazi bent; the FBI had been keeping a close eye on her and in December of 1941, she was arrested, tried and convicted of being an unregistered agent of a foreign power.
That left a bit of a taint on the name and it was about to get worse. Gerald L. K. Smith,† a former associate of "Kingfish" Huey P. Long and one-time director of Long's "Share The Wealth" program,* decided to use the name for a political party in 1943 -- and Mr. Smith was a former Silver Shirt who'd been rejected by the old America First Committee for anti-semitism. The America First Party ran its own slate of candidates and barely made a dent in the national consciousness; in 1947, perhaps a bit wary of their own past, they changed their name to the Christian Nationalist Party; in 1952, both that party and a remnant or reorganized America First Party tagged General Douglas MacArthur to be their Presidential nominee, though neither bothered to ask his permission. The America First Party name has resurfaced periodically since, generally by candidates on the far-Right to over-the-right-edge side of the spectrum.
So when I get a message on my phone from Mike Pence, telling me he'll be speaking at an America First rally this weekend, my awareness of history makes me flinch; at best, using the tag is appallingly tone-deaf. At worst? I think we can rely on the Press to find plenty of "at worst." As for me, at one time I always voted for the GOP's candidate whenever there wasn't a Libertarian seeking the same office; now I'm going to need to do a lot more homework on the downticket candidates.
I miss the boring old state-level Republican Party of my youth.
* The degree to which the former populist and even Socialist political types came to overlap the very far Right is a bit surprising, at least to me.
† In Studs Terkel's Hard Times, Smith, then consigned to the political wilderness, is given remarkably even-handed treatment. Terkel was after a snapshot of the Depression and Gerald L. K. Smith was certainly one of the more striking images.
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