The Grave Dangers and Deep Sadness of ‘America First’
Donald Trump’s vision for the U.S. role in the world runs counter to the best and brightest ideas of this proud country of immigrants.
Donald Trump’s caustic, ill-tempered, and divisive inaugural address sounded as if it came from a different world from the one I inhabit — or, to be exact, from a different America than I have known for the 40 of my 47 years that I have been lucky enough to live in this wonderful country.
Trump’s America is full of “rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.” It is home to an education system “which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge.” It is rife with “crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential.” And who is responsible for this “American carnage”? Trump heaped blame on other countries and on disloyal American elites.
“For many decades,” he complained, “we’ve enriched foreign industry at the expense of American industry; subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military; we’ve defended other nation’s borders while refusing to defend our own; and spent trillions of dollars overseas while America’s infrastructure has fallen into disrepair and decay.”
And, in a not-too-subtle suggestion that his predecessors did not have the country’s best interests at heart, Trump pledged, “The bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America.” Trump left it to the listeners’ imagination to speculate where previous presidents had owed their allegiance, but in the past he has railed against “global special interests” that are supposedly in cahoots with Americans, such as George Soros and Hillary Clinton, who “don’t have your good in mind.”
This is a very jarring vision of America — paranoid, angry, xenophobic — for someone like me who came here in 1976 from the Soviet Union as a wide-eyed, 7-year-old boy, along with my mother and grandmother. To us, and to countless other immigrants (including, ahem, Trump’s own grandparents), America appeared to be not the hellhole he describes but a land of unimaginable wealth and opportunity.
This country took us — foreign-born Jews — into its bosom and made us feel welcome in a way that would be hard to imagine occurring in too many other nations. I have never felt less than fully American, and I have never personally experienced anti-Semitism — at least not until the past year, when pro-Trump trolls flooded Twitter with vile anti-Jewish rants.
My family and I have been able to thrive here. Admittedly, we haven’t done nearly as well as Trump and most of his appointees. We’re not billionaires or even millionaires; we don’t travel in private aircraft or own skyscrapers. But my mother is a professor, I’m a writer and historian, and we live comfortable lives that are the envy of much of the world.
I recognize, of course, that not all Americans are so lucky, that life is particularly hard for some of Trump’s core supporters — working-class white men without college degrees. But even those who are in poverty in America live far better than most people around the world. The Pew Research Center found in 2015 that 72 percent of the world’s people were poor or low income, subsisting on less than $10 a day; 15 percent somehow survive on less than $2 a day. By contrast, 56 percent of Americans are considered high income, living on more than $50 a day. Pew concluded that “almost nine-in-ten Americans had a standard of living that was above the global middle-income standard.”
Americans are also blessed with another gift of incalculable value: They are free to live, worship, and speak as they please, without fear of a visit from the secret police or from ethnic-cleansing squads. They are able, moreover, to determine who rules them, a freedom symbolized by last week’s peaceful transfer of authority. Few others around the world are so lucky: Freedom House estimates that 60 percent of the world’s population is trapped in countries that are either not free or only partially free. If I were still living in Russia and denounced Vladimir Putin as regularly as I denounce Donald Trump, I would likely wind up in prison, exile, or an early grave.
I would not have enjoyed the freedom and prosperity of America were it not for the generous, even altruistic, foreign policy of America. For the emigration of Soviet Jews, including my family, was made possible by the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, sponsored by Sen. Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington and Rep. Charles Vanik of Ohio, both Democrats, which tied American trade relations with the Soviet Union to its willingness to allow freedom of emigration and other basic rights. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment was opposed by coldblooded realpolitikers like Richard Nixon, who thought that human rights had no place in American foreign policy, but passed by an overwhelming vote of Congress. As a result, hundreds of thousands of Soviet Jews were able to leave that Communist regime and seek better lives elsewhere, primarily in Israel and the United States.
I and countless others will forever be grateful that the United States took us in. And, dare I say, America has benefited from our contribution just as it has benefited from previous waves of immigration. Consider just one Soviet Jewish immigrant: Sergey Brin, who has helped make Google one of the most successful companies in America and the world, creating far more wealth and employment than the Trump Organization ever has.
The actions America took to press the Soviet Union on its human-rights record were done not simply to undermine an adversary, but to promote freedom — in other words, they were done for a combination of self-interested and altruistic motives that have always characterized the best of American foreign policy. It was for the same reasons that after World War II the United States did not follow the policy extolled by Trump during his visit to the CIA on Saturday: “to the victor belong the spoils.” Instead of looting its defeated enemies, the United States helped them get back on their feet, making it possible for them to become our trading partners and allies. In retrospect, this is generally seen as one of the wisest moves made by any American administration.
But if Trump had been a little older in those days one suspects he would have been denouncing Harry S. Truman, George Marshall, and Dean Acheson as suckers who were letting “real” Americans be taken advantage of. He would surely have had little respect for Truman, in particular, given that president’s unimpressive business record as a failed haberdasher. He might even have echoed Joe McCarthy’s foul charges that Marshall and Acheson were Communist dupes who were selling out America. Trump, who has almost no record of philanthropy or in fact of doing anything not calculated to benefit him personally, has crafted a perfect foreign policy for a solipsist: He thinks that America should look after its narrow self-interest and that the rest of the world can take a flying leap.
The generation of Democrats and Republicans that created the postwar world, after having seen for themselves the disastrous consequences of pursuing an “America First” foreign policy, had a broader and wiser outlook. Their view was well summed up by Truman’s speech to a joint session of session of Congress in 1947 in which he announced a program of aid to an embattled Greece and Turkey. “The seeds of totalitarian regimes are nurtured by misery and want,” he said. “They spread and grow in the evil soil of poverty and strife. They reach their full growth when the hope of a people for a better life has died. We must keep that hope alive. The free peoples of the world look to us for support in maintaining their freedoms. If we falter in our leadership, we may endanger the peace of the world — and we shall surely endanger the welfare of this nation.”
Those words have, for the most part, guided American foreign policy to the present day. But apparently no longer. Instead a mean, crabbed, selfish vision of America’s role in the world appears regnant — one that will not, in the end, serve our interests nearly as well as the more generous and idealistic vision that drew me and so many others to this fair land.
Photo credit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images