But it goes further. Focus America on Nebraska, not New York, that hub of global cosmopolitanism. “America First” is a statement about tradition, about the America that Trump wanted to grow. It’s about leveraging American power primarily to protect where power is traditionally held in America. It is about rejecting the sense of America as a participant in a dynamic and diverse world and responding to America’s increased diversity.
It’s a statement about protecting Americans – Americans who feel their power has eroded.
Over the weekend, a group using the name America First held a conference in Florida. Led by a notorious white nationalist named Nick Fuentes, the group explored explicitly racist and toxic applications of the phrase. Nobody did it more eagerly than Fuentes.
“Tonight I say, we are going to rule this country,” he told the cheering audience, largely made up of young white men. After declaring that “the government of the United States has become the evil empire in the world”, he promised that he and they would “build and elevate a shadow economy” to avoid the restraints otherwise imposed on overt racists.
Fuentes, who was at the far-right rally in Charlottesville in 2017, reused one of his nationalist slogans as he railed against his group’s enemies.
“To every RINO, to every lying journalist, to every carjacker, gangbanger, illegal immigrant, to every OnlyFans whore, to every politician and pundit beset on the payroll of a Middle Eastern country, to the people who plundered our wealth, addicted our youth to drugs, opening our borders to invaders from all over the world, to the corrupt who have sold our country and our people: we are coming to get you. … Do you think you can replace us? You are wrong. We will replace you.
It’s not subtle, sure, but Fuentes at another time was more explicit.
“Our secret sauce here?” It’s these young white men,” he said. The audience applauded. “That’s what we call the secret ingredient. America and the world have forgotten them, but not us.
Seventy years ago, these young white men would have been largely assured of social, political and economic power, thanks in part to the structure of the economy, yes, but also thanks to the way society has structured itself. to their advantage. This is still largely the case, but often not as concretely or gratifying as it once was – thanks, they suppose, to immigrants, globalists and Jews, etc. So go back in time. Put “America first” once again.
Then Fuentes made a telling transition.
“You know, they say about America, they say, ‘Diversity is our strength,’ you know,” he said. “And I look at China and I look at Russia…”
He stopped for a moment. It’s pretty clear where he was coming from: China and Russia are powerful despite broad racial and cultural homogeneity; ergo, that’s the best way to go. It’s certainly more than questionable in many ways, but the fact is that Fuentes turned away.
“Can we get a round of applause for Russia?
He has one. He also heard chants of “Putin!” Putin!” from the public, referring, of course, to the Russian president who last week launched an unprovoked invasion of neighboring Ukraine.
Fuentes was explicit in praising the invasion. On Telegram, he called the invasion “the coolest thing to happen since 1/6” – referencing the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021, which he called “awesome” during of his speech, as he had done weeks after it happened. Last year.
Beyond the strongman shtick that drives enthusiasm for Vladimir Putin and moves like Fuentes’, it’s telling. Putin’s motivations for invading are complex and rooted in a variety of historical, social and economic causes. But a central motivation is his fear that Ukraine will be removed from Russia’s and Europe’s orbit. He has been actively fighting this change for decades, worrying about the expansion of liberal democracy in a country so closely tied to the one he rules as an autocrat. It’s a literal war on democracy and it’s one that Fuentes and others applaud.
Last year, I interviewed historian Thomas Zimmer, who focuses on the history of democracy. He articulated a broad struggle of the type that President Biden has often spoken of, pitting democracy against authoritarianism (precisely how Biden framed the invasion of Russia last week). But Zimmer went further: the current political moment in the United States is not simply about democracy versus autocracy, as played out on Capitol Hill on January 6, but inextricably pluralistic democracy, a democracy in which a diverse set of interests compete fairly and seriously for power through free elections. The increase in political power among black, Hispanic, Asian, American women and gay Americans does not mean that white American men no longer represent a plurality, but it does mean that the power this group once enjoyed is now a power more often contested. . Hence the scale of the fight, hence the emphasis on “protecting” the election – and thus the way the global far right has taken interest in what is happening here.
“I think the United States is becoming the most advanced and acute test of whether or not it is even possible to erect a stable, multiracial, pluralistic democracy, or whether the country will remain a white Christian nation defined by white Christians,” Zimmer said. . “I think it’s become kind of a test case of world historic significance.”
This framing corresponds perfectly to Fuentes’ position: he acclaims Russia as a homogenous, then as aggressors against a young democracy. The two intertwine.
Consider other right-wing voices who have praised or defended Putin in recent days. There’s Trump himself, of course, who repeatedly described Putin as “clever,” including in his lengthy tirade at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) on Saturday. What else did Trump advocate during this speech? Well, he once again denigrated those who come to the country, saying that “our country is poisoned from within”.
Or consider Tucker Carlson, who for days before the invasion defended Putin’s alleged motives. At one point last week, he wondered aloud on his Fox News show why Democrats “want you to hate Putin.”
“Did Putin send all the middle-class jobs in your town to Russia? he asked, capturing that first concrete meaning of “America first.” And then, two sentences later: “Does it teach your children to accept racial discrimination?”
Still later, he informed viewers who they “should be mad at”, including people “who call you racist” and those who “allow your country to be polluted and invaded”. In the past, Carlson has embraced the racist idea that the left intentionally drives immigration to dilute the power of white Americans. He also praised Hungary’s increasingly autocratic leader for taking a hard line on immigration in the service of nationalism.
Putin’s defenders in his fight against democracy are those who denigrate America’s diversity again and again.
Last year, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) was among a small group of right-wing lawmakers who floated the idea of a political action committee adopting “America First” as a name. The proposed platform included specific articulations of the need to uphold the country’s “unique Anglo-Saxon political traditions”. He argued for an infrastructure that “reflects the architectural, technical and aesthetic value befitting the offspring of European architecture”.
Before long, those who considered signing were forced to withdraw. While Greene had been identified as a participant by several colleagues, her team insisted that she had not “approved or accepted” the document that circulated.
On Friday, Greene undermined the idea that she was standing aside from the rhetoric included in the platform: she was the surprise guest speaker at Fuentes’ conference. Condemnation came quickly, including from her own party, and she later claimed not having been aware of past comments by Fuentes and his organization. But, of course, she has her own proven track record of amplifying far-right conspiracy theories and rhetoric.
During his speech at CPAC, Trump praises Greene. Fuentes responded on Telegram.
“After a day of vicious attacks on Marjorie Taylor Greene for speaking at AFPAC last night, Donald Trump is giving her a shout out and an endorsement from CPAC’s main stage,” he wrote. He speculated that Trump might attend his group’s America First conference next year or the year after.
Given the band’s position in the struggle between pluralist democracy and autocracy, it’s not hard to see this happening.