FDR would not approve.

Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Trump's New Slogan Has Old Baggage From Nazi Era

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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Donald Trump has given up on winning historically literate voters. Consider the theme of his major foreign policy speech Wednesday: "America first."

This slogan is most associated with aviator Charles Lindbergh, who spent a great deal of time in the late 1930s gushing at how wonderful the Third Reich was. Before the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh helped form "America First" committees that campaigned to keep the U.S. from fighting the Axis Powers. Lindbergh rose to become a demagogue and accused President Franklin Roosevelt of colluding with a Jewish lobby and Britain to drag America into World War II.

For years this phrase was toxic. Pat Buchanan has used it from time to time, but "America first" and the idea it represented -- American neutrality towards the Nazis -- has been largely banished from respectable discourse.

Now Trump is bringing the phrase back to the mainstream. He deploys it at his campaign rallies. And in his major foreign policy speech Wednesday, there it was right at the top. The real-estate magnate promised to "always put the interests of the American people first." He said: "That will be the foundation of every single decision I will make. 'America first' will be the major and overriding theme of our administration."

In fairness to Trump, the world is very different than it was when Nazis ruled Berlin. Historian Ron Radosh told me that Trump was channeling the memory of the isolationists of that era, but he also allowed that Trump "differentiates himself because clearly unlike Lindbergh, he is not an enemy of Jews or the Jewish state." (Though on the substance, Radosh added that he did not think it was "good for Israel to have a president who is so isolationist.")

Nonetheless, Trump's Lindbergh-like instincts were apparent in his speech Wednesday. He said he intended to hold NATO allies more accountable to pay a fair share for their defense. If they don't, he said, "the U.S. must be prepared to let them defend themselves."

You don't need a history textbook to know what that means. It's been in the headlines since 2008: Russian forces invaded Georgia that year. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine. To this day Russia occupies large swaths of both countries. These developments have rightly frightened many U.S. NATO allies, particularly the vulnerable Baltic States that joined the alliance after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Trump also said he hoped to repair relations with Russia because both countries share a common enemy in radical Islam. In this respect, Trump sounds like George W. Bush after 9/11, when he looked into the Russian president's soul, or Senator Barack Obama on the trail in 2008, when he too promised to reset relations with Russia in the aftermath of its invasion of Georgia. The fact that Trump now promises another reset eight years later is instructive about the chances for success.

Trump also channeled Lindbergh in his personal aspersions against President Obama. Lindbergh accused FDR of undermining the national interest in favor of the Jews and the British. Trump says Obama "dislikes our friends and bows to our enemies." Apparently forgetting the period before Iran negotiations when Obama implemented crippling sanctions against the Islamic Republic, Trump said the current president "has treated Iran with tender love and care" and helped make it a "great, great power." For good measure, Trump said, "If President Obama's goal had been to weaken America, he could not have done a better job."

In the overheated rhetoric of the last few years, this kind of talk is pretty common. But then Trump undermines his own attack on Obama a few minutes later in his speech when he observes, "Our moments of greatest strength came when politics ended at the water’s edge." Someone might want to tell this to Donald Trump.

Who knows whether Trump means any of what he said, or whether any of the ideas in his speech would be the basis of his foreign policy as president. As Trump himself said Tuesday evening when asked about a Trump doctrine, "you have to be flexible."

But the front-runner ought to be careful. If his political opponents were to attack him in kind, they might point to Trump's long history of business dealings with Moscow -- as my colleague Josh Rogin has reported. Perhaps they would ask whether Trump's soft stand on Russia was influenced by his new campaign adviser, Paul Manafort, who also sought real-estate deals with a Moscow-connected billionaire in Ukraine.

When you put it like that, America doesn't seem to be first for Trump's foreign policy at all.

(Corrects timing of formation of "America First" committees in second paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net