Trying to answer, in an hour, the role of America in the 21st century, the real meaning of ‘American First’, and the global impact of recent US political upheavals, is somewhat of a tall order. Bonnie Greer and Sarah Churchwell, however, covered race, history, politics, signifiers and more, with dexterity, authority and ease.
Using the touch point of Churchwell’s new book, Behold, America: A History of America First and the American Dream, moderator Pepper Culpepper instigated an exploration of the origins and meaning of ‘America First’. It’s a long and much darker history than most people realise. Acting today as a “dog whistle” to those who know, it came to prominence in the 20s and 30s as shorthand for racist, anti-Semitic and nativist sentiments.
Churchwell feels strongly that Trump uses this history very deliberately when he deploys the phrase, appealing to a deep emotional fear in many Americans, rather than a theoretical or intellectual ideology. She argues it was part of the reason his campaign was such a success.
The conversation deepened as Bonnie Greer emphasised that what distinguishes US politics and identity from other global populist movements is that race sits so centrally and deeply at the heart of America’s existence. It may sound “banal”, she said, but it’s vital to understand what a fundamental role race plays in America.
From there, the two covered foreign policy, the ‘birther’ movement and the idea of legitimacy, the expression of a nation’s psyche through its culture, and on to the ‘American Dream’. Another commonly misunderstood term, it also came to prominence in the 20s and 30s as a way to counter pro-capitalist, racist movements. The ‘American Dream’ was a liberal idea of equality, fairness and justice. It certainly wasn’t pro unregulated, rampant capitalism.
This reiterated the pair’s position that knowing the history of contemporary movements and ideas is vital for countering and removing the power from today’s doom and despair. Certainly things are bleak now, but we can take comfort from the fact they are not new, and they are not permanent.
Bonnie Greer added a particularly vibrant note of hope, reminding us that America was, and still is, a cacophonous, vociferous, multicultural republic; a constantly self-defining project that imbues each citizen with the belief that they can make a real difference. And many Americans are standing up and doing just that today.