America First: A new decree for an old dog whistle.

By Phyllis Gobbell
02/06/2023 • 09:47 AM EST

"America First" slogan returns in the 45th inaugural address.

On January 20th, 2017, in his inaugural address to the nation, President Donald J. Trump delivered a message that captured the emotions of many disillusioned Americans when he declared, "We assembled here today, are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it's going to be only America First, America First! [1] To those Americans who felt voiceless, distrustful of immigrants, and left behind economically, the words "America First" must have resonated like a trumpet call. But the "new decree to be heard in every city" wasn't new at all.

The same slogansee definition - a brief, striking phrase that people will remember, which typically acts on emotional appeals.
, "America First," had been heard before in the country in the years leading up to World War II, when it was the rallying cry of a group advocating American neutrality in the war that raged in Europe. The America First Committee (AFC), calling themselves "patriots," strongly opposed President Roosevelt and his foreign policy and lobbied against giving any military support to the Allies.[2] Leaders in the movement were some of the most prominent figures in the country at that time, powerful people that included well-connected politicians, celebrities, and members of the clergy.[3] Using propaganda and disinformation, the AFC grew to more than 800,000 members with chapters across the country.[2]

Ku Klux Klan stages an 'America First' parade in Binghamton, NY. in the 1920's. (Getty Images)

Scapegoatingsee definition - placing unmerited blame on a person or group to channel societal resentment and frustration towards a common adversary or powerless victim.
was one of the most effective tactics that energized the America First movement. Considering that much of the literature used to spread the group's message came directly from the pens of Nazi agents working in the U.S.,[3] it is not surprising that Jews were targeted as the source of the nation's economic problems. This scapegoating was effective at creating a climate of fear and mistrust in uniting Americans against a common enemy, not Hitler, but Jewish Americans.

Some members of Congress were also members of the AFC and up to their necks in spreading this propaganda. Speeches on the House floor repeated disinformation written by Nazi propagandists.[3] Approximately a dozen senators and members of Congress voiced blatant anti-semitic sentiments, the kind that had never before been heard in Congress.[4] These voices included famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, who became a prominent spokesman for the America First movement. In speeches that were unabashedly pro-German and anti-Semitic, Lindbergh warned against "a war in which the White race is bound to lose" and one that would "reduce the strength and destroy the treasures of the White race."[5]

Rev. Charles E. Coughlin,
photo portrait. c1933

The America First movement also had tentacles deep within the religious community, like Father Charles Coughlin, a Catholic priest with the largest radio show in the world at the time. From the Shrine of the Little Flower in Detroit, Father Coughlin's Sunday evening radio show went out to a base of at least 40 million listeners.[6] Amid the Great Depression, Father Coughlin's passionate voice for economic change was also an opportunity for Jewish scapegoating, blaming Jews for joblessness and misery in America. After Kristallnacht, or the "Night of Broken Glass," when Jewish synagogues and businesses were vandalized and destroyed and ninety-one Jews were killed, Father Coughlin argued that the violence was justified because of the persecution of Christians by Jews.[7] In 1938, he publicly declared, "When we get through with the Jews of America, they'll think the treatment they received in Germany was nothing."[8]

Along with scapegoating, the AFC used God praising, a form of honor by associationsee definition - defending or championing cultural sacred cows, which transfers the respect, authority, sanction, and prestige associated with those symbols to the defender.
, to portray its cause as a moral and patriotic duty and quoted religious figures and texts in their propaganda materials. In churches and cathedrals across the nation, sermons focused on a political message, the idea that the United States was an exceptional nation chosen by God. The sentiment that being a devout Christian meant embracing "America First" ideology was not a giant leap when leaders of faith pointed in that direction.

Absent its historical context, the "America First" decree in the 45th inaugural address could have been a promise to struggling Americans that jobs would return home, that the U.S. would stop sending troops to fight foreign wars, and that the billions spent abroad would be put to better use at home. But like many of the most influential political slogans, "America First" also serves as an effective dog whistlesee definition - ambiguous messaging used to stoke racial fear and anxiety and/or to covertly signal allegiance to certain subgroups of an audience.
to a time in American history when prioritizing nationalism also meant promoting anti-Semitism, fascist ideology, and divisive rhetoric. Perhaps those who chose to revive the slogan and bring it back into American consciousness simply lacked awareness of its history, knew but didn't care, or perhaps that was the intent. 

2. "America First — 1940s Style". ThoughCo. Published: December 01, 2022.

3. "ULTRA podcast, Episode 5: Shut It Down". MSNBC. Published: October 23, 2022.

4. Edward S. Shapiro, The Approach of War: Congressional Isolationism and Anti-Semitism. America Jewish History. Published: 1984.
5. Charles A. Lindbergh, Aviation, Geography, and Race. Readers Digest. Published: 1939.
6. "The Rev. Charles E. Coughlin Dies: Noted as 'The Radio Priest'". The Washington Post. Published: October 28, 1979.

7. "Father Coughlin Blames Jews for Nazi Violence". History Unfolded. Published: November 20, 1938.

8. "Radioactive: The Father Couglin Story". PBS. Published: March 09, 2022.