Behold America: The entangled history of “America First” and “The American Dream” by Sarah Churchwell, Basic Books, US $32.00, Pp 350, October 2018, ISBN 978-1541673403
As he announced his candidacy for president on June 16, 2015, Donald Trump said, “Sadly, the American dream is dead.” Usually, presidential candidates glorify their nation they hope to lead. This reversal was just a taste of what was to come, as Trump converted what would be negative for anyone else into a positive for himself. In his acceptance speech, Trump again announced the American dream dead but promised to revive it. But, by this time, Trump had flipped much of what many people thought they knew about America on its head. Moreover, throughout his campaign, Trump also promised to put ‘America First,’ a pledge he renewed in his inaugural speech in January 2017. In Behold America, Sarah Churchwell has argued that the expressions ‘America first’ and ‘American dream’ are hugely misunderstood. She shows that few people are aware of the history and contexts of these two expressions which were always closely linked with white supremacy and authoritarianism.
Soon after Donald Trump joined the presidential race, the national press started publishing pieces on the history of ‘America first.’ Sarah Churchwell says that these articles in the press erroneously told their audiences that the slogan ‘American first’ stretches back to the Second World War, and to the efforts of the America First Committee to keep the United States out of the European conflict. ‘America first’ had been invented by high-profile isolationists like Charles Lindbergh whose sympathy with the Nazi project was often inextricable from an avowed anti-Semitism, They explained that ‘America first’ was a code for neo-Nazism. Sarah Churchwell says that nearly all of these pieces began with a shared understanding of what the American dream was supposed to be — upward social mobility, a national promise of endless individual progress. They all agreed that the American dream was under threat because of fast-growing inequality. They concluded that Trump had weaponized that inequality, convincing his followers that only an outsider could redeem a corrupt system. Sarah Churchwell argues that this was far from the truth.
Most writers and columnists did not question what the American dream really meant. They only debated its relative health. The American dream is widely understood as a dream of personal opportunity, in which ‘opportunity’ is gauged primarily in economic terms, and those opportunities are shrinking. The idea that the American dream was ‘initially conceived’ by Jefferson is similarly axiomatic, despite the fact that happiness and opportunity are not, in fact synonymous. But what Jefferson conceived — at least in terms of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — was a dream of democratic equality. He does not mention economics, or opportunity, for good reasons. Sarah Churchwell argues that the received wisdom about ‘America First’ is similarly misunderstood — including those offered by eminent historians who say the phrase goes back to the Second World War. The phrase was popularized well before the 1930s. By 1940 ‘America first’ had become part of America’s political narrative for decades. Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee of 1940 were not the beginning of the story of ‘America First’. They were the end — until Donald Trump resuscitated the term. And the American dream isn’t dead — we just have no idea what it means anymore.
It is the history of these two loaded phrases, a tale that upends much of what we thought we knew about both, perhaps even about America itself. Sarah Churchwell argues that ‘America first’ and the ‘American dream’ were always connected, and contested, terms in a nation finding its way. A nation losing its way might do well to contest these terms once more. She tells the story of the two phrases which began as the last Gilded Age was drawing to a close, a hundred years ago. The end of the Civil War in 1865 had marked the coming of American modernity, the dominance of finance capitalism and the new industrial technologies that transformed the nation, both physically and psychologically. The power of modern America was built on the ruins of institutionalized slavery; the post-bellum generation they called ‘Big Money’ energized the country, galvanized its desires, and began to glorify the enduring mercenary strains in American life.
It’s often remarked that the American dream is there to compensate for the nightmare of reality, American society as a lottery that everyone plays and no one wins. Sarah Churchwell says that we know that dream — its assurances, its betrayals — so well that we think they’re the only meaning available to us, that these ever-receding promises are all the American dream ever meant. And ‘America first’ is treated as a sudden aberration, the anomalous return of a fascist ghost that briefly stalked American history for a few months before the US joined the fight against Hitler. Turns out we were wrong on both counts.
Behold America is an amazing work of scholarship that will upend the current debate on politics in America. It is a history of two phrases that have been at the center of the conflict between democracy and authoritarianism. With her unmatched academic credentials, Sarah Churchwell has written a meticulously researched and logically argued history book that is equally enjoyable for lay people. Behold America is timely and revealing. Instead of looking for President Trump’s Russian connection to indict him, fighters for democracy should find a valid reason to indict him in this book. Hopefully, Behold America will help redirect the focus of political debate on the real issue of Trumpian ideology.