Trump's Support for Israel Marred by Troubling Revival of 'America First' Slogan

Republican frontrunner’s foreign policy speech will remind American Jews of isolationist movement stained by anti-Semitism that tried to block war with Hitler.

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Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers a foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington on April 27, 2016.
Republican U.S. presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers a foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington on April 27, 2016.Credit: Jim Bourg/Reuters
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Officials in Jerusalem are bound to be pleased with Donald Trump’s major foreign policy speech on Wednesday.

Many of them agree with Trump that President Barack Obama “has not been a friend to Israel.” Many of them are likewise convinced that Obama kowtowed to Iran and made it into a great power – “at the expense of Israel.” They also view Vice President’s Joe Biden’s portrayal of Israel as “an impediment to peace” – which Trump for some reason read out from his written text as “impatient area of peace” – as unfair criticism of an ally who, as the Republican frontrunner said, “is a force of justice of peace.”

And there was an added bonus for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters: Trump abandoned his pledge to be “neutral” in order to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian accord. In fact, he didn’t mention the Palestinians at all, which is just the way the current Israeli government, along with its GOP supporters, like it.

There are other countries in which Trump’s speech will be welcomed, and it’s no coincidence that some of them adorn the map of Israel’s new buddies, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Russia. In all of these capitals, leaders and officials share Trump’s view that Obama’s allegedly weak and vacillating foreign policy is what has caused good guys to wane, bad guys to gain and ISIS to flourish as never before. They will note with favor Trump’s promise to improve ties with Moscow, to show more respect in Riyadh, to atone for Obama’s abandonment of stable regimes in Cairo that maintain the peace treaty with Israel.

Many Republicans will be happy as well. Trump supporters will rest easier with the knowledge that their hero has succeeded in rendering a succinct foreign policy vision, even if it seemed at times that he was seeing some of his words for the first time as they came up on his teleprompter. It’s highly likely that Trump may have gained new fans among reluctant Republicans as well: his portrayals of Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, soon Trump’s rival, as the root of all evil in the world and the source of all that’s plaguing America is an exact reconstruction of everything that Republican leaders have been saying since 2008. They sowed the wind and now they are reaping the whirlwind.

The reactions might be less enthusiastic in other regions around the world. Europe and Asia might not appreciate Trump’s either-or ultimatum to pay up for U.S. defense of their countries or be abandoned. African and Latin American countries might be slightly miffed for being completely excluded from Trump’s speech, though given some of his past statements on immigrants and Mexicans, perhaps they should really be thankful for small favors. And while Trump spoke of “our allies in the Muslim world,” he may be hard pressed to find them as long as he continues to rail against Muslims and to view them collectively as potential terrorists.

Foreign policy experts might also find fault in some of the internal contradictions in Trump’s speech: he’s against stabilizing countries but in favor of world stability, he wants to save money but to spend lavishly on the military, he wants to return the U.S. to its supposed previous status as a strong and reliable ally but claims that the most important thing is that America remain “unpredictable.” He forgets that if Washington turns unpredictable, others will follow in its wake and the most likely outcome will chaos. And if the world’s number one challenge is nuclear, as Trump asserted, then the bottom line will be nuclear chaos.

But perhaps the most troubling aspect of Trump’s speech, delivered at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel at the invitation of The Center for the National Interest, was his unabashed adoption of the America First banner, for which his speech will come to be known.  “America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration,” Trump said, with the capital letters appearing in the official version of his prepared remarks. For anyone with even superficial knowledge, and especially for American Jews, it was a disturbing choice of words with troubling historic connotations.

The America First Committee (AFC) was an isolationist group of politicians and civic leaders set up in the late 1930s to lobby against any American intervention in the war against the Nazis in Europe. Though it was initially formed of politicians from both the left and the right, the AFC came to be identified most of all with famed flyer Charles Lindbergh, the first man to cross the Atlantic in an airplane. Lindbergh was an admirer of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis and his speeches against Jewish support for a war on Berlin ultimately stained the AFC with anti-Semitism. If American Jews push America to war, Lindbergh said, echoing Hitler, it will be they who will pay the highest price.

It’s hard to imagine that Trump used the term America First inadvertently without any knowledge of its historical background. His speech was meticulously prepared by his advisers and hired experts. It resurrects an earlier effort to revive the slogan carried out by Pat Buchanan, who wrote about it extensively in the 1990s. Buchanan, a former presidential speechwriter and GOP presidential candidate, identified Trump long ago as the inevitable heir to the Republican leadership and Trump has publicly lauded Buchanan in his tweets in return. Buchanan has also been publicly identified by American Jewish groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, as a Holocaust denier, an anti-Semite and an enemy of the State of Israel.

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