Long enough ago to have been forgotten by everyone but historians, a charismatic politician stood at New York’s Madison Square Garden, with this simple message for his nation: “We lack only a leadership that places America first”. President Donald Trump invoked Charles Lindbergh’s 1941 speech, by accident or design, in his inaugural address. “From this moment on”, he said to applause, “it’s going to be America First”. The parallels are not trivial; they remind us that what Trump calls his new vision for America is in fact a tired old ideological fantasy. In 1941, Lindbergh— legendary aviator, admirer of German Fascism, committed to building bulwarks against “inroads of the Mongol, Persian and Moor” against the “white race’s culture” — campaigned for the America First Committee against involvement in World War II. He invoked the idea of an “independent destiny for America”, relying on “our own strength, our own ability and our own courage”. He warned against American wealth being used to fight wars abroad. Trump, in his inaugural speech, drew on similar memes, lamenting that the United States “subsidised the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military”. “We’ve made other countries rich”, he went on, “while the wealth, strength, and confidence of our country has disappeared over the horizon”.
These claims were demonstrably untrue in 1941, and remain so today. In the build-up to World War II, the United States opposed Fascism not out of misguided ideological naïveté, but the realisation that its empires in Europe and the Pacific would choke its access to resources and markets. Today, it maintains global military commitments to uphold an economic system of energy and trade security from which, as the world’s largest economy, it is the principal beneficiary. Factories in some sectors have indeed disappeared from the United States, but Trump can no more wish away cheap labour or automation than the Persian emperor Xerxes could whip the ocean’s tides into submission. United States companies like Microsoft, Apple and Exxon are global giants; six of the ten most profitable companies in the world are headquartered in that country, while just two are in China.
President Trump, worryingly, had no serious comments on the real issues dividing the United States: Women’s rights, police violence against African Americans; economic deprivation caused by the decay of education and deindustrialisation. These will be the touchstones by which his leadership is judged, not the fantasy of captaining America though the seas of history, somehow avoiding the storms all around. The writer Philip Roth had imagined what America might have looked like had Lindbergh won the 1940 elections instead of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Leadership matters, Roth’s novel reminds us — and in the words the world heard on Friday, none was evident.
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