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"America First" is Really America Last
Every Pro-Trump narrative is crumbling before our eyes.
The Ukraine crisis has been a clarifying moment for the world in a lot of different ways. For a while, the West was sort of coasting by in an uneasy, but relative peace as lots of people assumed that Vladimir Putin’s ambitions in Eastern Europe were mostly just related to staving off NATO expansion. All of those assumptions were upended when he invaded Ukraine about nine days ago.
The courage of the Ukrainian people has been both inspiring and illuminating. They demonstrated the best of humanity while staring into the face of an actual dictator, and simultaneously exposed the ridiculousness of people in the West calling their leaders “tyrants” and flailing like children in the cereal aisle all because they’re afraid of needles. Ukrainians are — in real time — showing us how good we have it here, and how our persecution complexes are just that: Complexes.
A few other narratives have also been exposed. While Donald Trump was — in a lot of ways — an “innovation” in American history, he was also a revisiting of old ideologies. A big thing in politics is the “Horseshoe Theory,” which basically argues that the further to the right that a person gets, you actually start to see them get closer to the left and (logically) it works in the reverse.
Trump embodied a lot of this during his 2016 Campaign, where he suggested that he’d support universal healthcare, pull America back from wars overseas, and oppose free trade. Large elements of his platform ended up being more similar to Bernie Sanders than they were to orthodox Republican politics.
His foreign policy in particular attracted a lot of paleoconservatives (read: Ron Paul-ish Republicans, i.e., isolationists) to Trump, but it also roped in (formerly) hard leftists like Glenn Greenwald and Michael Tracey. Other people on the Right started doing a weird dance with Trump, and a good example of this is Sohrab Ahmari. In a column from January 22, 2022, Ahmari outlined the “paleocon” position on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which was that America should do nothing:
A 2020 Pew Research Center survey of populations in 16 key NATO states found that a majority opposes using force to defend a fellow member state in a conflict with Russia. In France, 53 percent oppose fulfilling the Western Alliance’s Article 5 obligations under such a scenario, compared with 41 percent who’d back military action. More startling still, 60 percent of Germans oppose using force to defend a fellow member state.
Ukraine, of course, isn’t even a NATO member. Its territorial claims inspire even less resolve in Europe’s core. Biden’s statements triggered much grumbling across the Atlantic. But Western Europe’s sentiments about Ukraine’s inviolable territorial integrity are just that: misty sentiments.
Ahmari has gone through a lot of iterations, but I don’t think any of them have produced a take that aged as poorly as this one. Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has united Europe, strengthened NATO, and reinvigorated Germany’s defense against Russia (they will now commit 2% of their GDP on defense spending). Along with a lot of takes about Putin’s ambitions, it is aging like milk left on a countertop for twenty years.
Ahmari started off his career as a Marxist atheist, but then successfully transitioned into a more “traditional” Republican in time for Trump’s emergence in the 2016 election, during which he opposed Trump and repeatedly warned about his “dangerous illiberalism.” Roughly six years later, Ahmari is a figurehead for the integralists, a group of Catholics who want to usher in a “post-liberal” order based on the Catholic “common good.” They have some overlap with Tucker Carlson, but if you watch Succession, their representative candidate was on the show and summarized as, “Abortions for none; Medicare for all.” Their overall philosophy has also brought them closer to isolationism on foreign policy, and more sympathetic to Putin in particular. Even Communist China — currently operating a literal slave state in its Western region — receives praise from Ahmari because, “[l]ate-liberal America is too dumb and decadent to last as a superpower.”
In a lot of ways, Ahmari’s frequent shifts in his core philosophy (well-documented by James Kirchick here) demonstrates that he’s really just a boy who became a man too quickly. Give it a few years and Ahmari might concede that Putin was, after all, just an evil man who wanted to return to an imperialist Russia. That’s why it’s more helpful to look at someone like Michael Brendan Dougherty or Ross Douthat, both of whom are slightly more consistent in their philosophy. They’ve both stated that Putin’s provocations about Ukraine can be traced back to NATO expansion and (perhaps unsurprisingly) have managed to also produce spoiled-milk tweets in only the past few weeks:
Of course, Germany has canceled NordStream 2 and joined with the rest of Europe in enacting the most punishing sanctions in modern history on Russia. But a lot of Dougherty’s point is best exemplified in this tweet from Douthat:
This is, essentially, the paleocon narrative: Putin has repeatedly tried to expand into Ukraine because he feels threatened by the U.S. and what he sees at its extension, NATO. There are several problems with this narrative, some of which were obvious to anyone who read a book on foreign policy that was written prior to 2000.
But the main problem is that Putin himself blew it up last week. He said, explicitly, that he didn’t view Ukraine as a real country, which is something that evil neocons have always said he believed:
In his speech to the Russian public on Monday night, a sometimes sullen, sometimes angry-sounding Putin was dismissive of modern-day Ukraine, arguing that its creation as a sovereign state was a tragedy and an accident of communist leaders in the 20th century.
Acting as though there had never been a historical Ukraine until Soviet times, Putin blamed at times Vladimir Lenin, at times Stalin and at one point he saved scorn for the decision of Nikita Khrushchev to take Crimea from Russia in 1954 and award it to Ukraine.
The idea that Putin actually cared about NATO (as opposed to restoring the former “glory” of the Soviet Union) has always been fodder for people willing to believe Putin’s lies. There has been a reality in Europe for a while, and it’s one that is well-known to people familiar with the region.
“Being Ukrainian” became a thing in the immediate post-Soviet era of the 1990s, and it was generally understood to mean you supported (1) democracy and (2) closer ties with the West. After the Soviet Union’s collapse, many of its former republics either embraced their “Rus” history, or turned their eyes (with envy) towards Western democracy. For Ukraine, the latter happened slowly, but it happened nonetheless.
This ultimately became too much for Russia to bear. To anyone who was actually listening, Russia repeatedly made this clear over the years. During a speech in Munich in February of 2017, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov spent a lot of time on Ukraine, but he also made an illuminating statement on Germany, where he alluded to the fact that the Soviet Union had “opposed German reunification,” and that the reunification was done “without a referendum,” implicitly (but also sort of explicitly) suggesting that it was illegal. If the Russian foreign minister is openly telling heads of State that he thinks East Germany might still belong to Russia, then what possible relevance could “NATO expansionism” actually have?
The paleocon argument fully imploded after Putin gave his speech, but it really did ignore other realities in Europe, such as Ukraine’s (fulfilled) promise to abandon its nuclear weapons in exchange for peace with Moscow. Those promises — like other promises Russia has made — have proven to be worthless.
To get back to the horseshoe aspect of it all, pacifists on the Left have been more willing to recognize their error than paleocons on the Right. In Dissent, Gregory Afinogenov was willing to call out his fellow socialists:
So if Putin’s principal motivation is to resist uncompromising NATO expansionism, why has he behaved in a way that guarantees that his neighbors will see him as a growing security threat? His own speeches and writings offer an answer to this question. For Putin, resisting NATO is in fact secondary to the larger goal of reuniting Russians, Belarusians, and Ukrainians under Russian rule—or, failing that, at least ensuring that Russian speakers across the former Soviet Union are either in a secure alliance bloc with Russia (as in the case of Belarus and Kazakhstan, which have significant Russian-speaking populations) or are governed by it directly. Putin sees Russian statehood and Russian national and linguistic identity as inextricably connected, and he is willing to spill Russian and Ukrainian blood to protect this nationalist vision. He also seems to believe that the clock is ticking—younger generations of people in the post-Soviet world are less likely to see the region’s political boundaries as a problem in need of fixing. Hence the desperate, fatal urgency of Putin’s moves in 2013–14 and again in 2022 (my emphasis).
Instead of this self-reflection on the Right, you have guys like Dougherty laughably asserting that he has been right all along.But Putin is the only one who thinks it’s funny. George Packer says it more clearly:
Putin didn’t start this war because of NATO expansion, or American imperialism, or Western weakness, or the defense of Christian civilization, or any other cause that directs blame away from the perpetrator. In 2014, Ukrainians staged what they called a “Revolution of Dignity” in Kyiv, and they’ve been struggling ever since to create a decent country, ruled by laws and not by thieves, free of Russia’s grip. That country was so intolerable to Putin that he decided to destroy it.
Trumpism isn’t really a glue that holds this stuff together because that suggests guys like Douthat and Dougherty are Trumpists, and they’re really not (they can be good people and still be wrong about foreign policy). It’s more like a crumpled ball of scotch tape clinging to something else, like the outright white supremacy espoused by Nick Fuentes.
At his “America First Political Action Conference” (AFPAC), he openly praised Putin as he welcomed sitting Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene on stage (along with Paul Gosar, but their bromance isn’t anything new). At AFPAC — where the crowd cheered Sheriff Joseph Arpaio for being the biggest racist in the country and then booed him when he said he had a black granddaughter — they openly said why they supported Putin: He was just preserving Russia’s history as a white, Christian nation, something they hoped Trump would do in the U.S.
All of these disparate philosophies — from Douthat to Dougherty to Fuentes to Ahmari — have some basis in a neo-pink slime that can basically be called “America First,” which has been here a lot longer than we realize.
The America First movement got a lot of attention during World War II thanks to Charles Lindbergh, a celebrity pilot. Lindbergh — along with the America First Party’s eventual nominee, George L.K. Smith — openly advocated for neutrality with Germany during World War II. During an America First rally in September of 1941, Lindbergh argued against American intervention in the War, as he cited to the British and (importantly) Jews as war mongers:
I am not attacking either the Jewish or the British people. Both races, I admire. But I am saying that the leaders of both the British and the Jewish races, for reasons which are as understandable from their viewpoint as they are inadvisable from ours, for reasons which are not American, wish to involve us in the war. We cannot blame them for looking out for what they believe to be their own interests, but we also must look out for ours. We cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples to lead our country to destruction (my emphasis).
Citing to the Jews specifically, Lindbergh made it pretty clear by using an anti-Semitic trope we still hear today.:
Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.
In a later America First rally in November of 1941, an actual representative — William Barry, a Democrat from New York — posited that we could, “not only trade with Hitler, but make a nice profit doing so.”
On May 29, 1941, Dewey Short, a Republican from Missouri, cited Lindbergh before Congress:
It was Great Britain and France who declared war upon the German Reich after being clearly forewarned by Colonel Lindbergh that it would be utterly impossible for them to compete with Germany’s Air Force. […] No nation has yet attacked us. No American ship has been sunk; no American life has been lost. Yet we have called other people dirty names, hurled epithets and insults at the leaders of other countries, and displayed not only an unnatural but a hostile attitude toward one of the sides in the present war.
During World War II, America First was a movement that largely spoke about Hitler the same way some on the Left and Trumpy Right talk about Putin. But at its core, it was centered on a few things: Nationalism, white supremacy, and anti-Semitism. It’s right here that we should mention that Ukraine’s incredibly brave President, Volodymyr Zelensky, is Jewish.
A lot of conservatives treat “hysteria” about Trump as just an emotional outburst or freakout because he was unpolished and/or more openly racist than the last few Republican presidents. But the main reason is simply because he unearthed a lot of things we previously thought were purged from public American life.
It’s also what makes Trump’s own comments about Putin’s actions so disgusting. Last week, he praised Putin as he was getting ready to invade Ukraine:
Well, what went wrong was a rigged election and what went wrong is a candidate that shouldn’t be there and a man that has no concept of what he’s doing. I went in yesterday and there was a television screen, and I said, “This is genius.” Putin declares a big portion of the Ukraine — of Ukraine. Putin declares it as independent. Oh, that’s wonderful. (sarcastic)
So, Putin is now saying, “It’s independent,” a large section of Ukraine. I said, “How smart is that?” And he’s gonna go in and be a peacekeeper. That’s strongest peace force… We could use that on our southern border. That’s the strongest peace force I’ve ever seen. There were more army tanks than I’ve ever seen. They’re gonna keep peace all right. No, but think of it. Here’s a guy who’s very savvy… I know him very well. Very, very well.
First, it’s worth noting that Trump seemed to fully understand Putin’s intent and praised him anyway. He talks about the “peace force” and says, “We could use that on our southern border.” Coming from the guy who literally asked about installing alligators and shooting immigrants on the Southern border, it’s safe to say that Trump understood Putin’s forces wouldn’t be “keeping the peace.” To summarize, you have the former President of the United States explicitly endorsing the illegal actions of a dictator against an American ally. This is where we would call Trump a traitor if he wasn’t obviously one already.
Trump’s words marked the final clowning achievement of anyone who supported or defended Trump and his actions on Ukraine. The absolute silliest bit came from anti-anti-Trump conservatives, who repeatedly pointed out that Putin invaded during Biden’s term and not Trump’s because he perceived Biden as “weak.” But for this argument to work, you have to think like a child.
As multiple writers have pointed out, the reason Putin didn’t invade during Trump’s term was that with Trump in Office, he was getting everything he wanted:
Look at the Helsinki Summit, where he took Vladimir Putin’s side against his own intelligence apparatus.
And in just about every case involving the use of force—the killing of Soleimani being the exception—Trump backed down militarily. Even going so far as to falsely dismiss injuries to U.S. troops in order to avoid having to retaliate against an aggressor
So why is Putin pushing into Ukraine now? Not everything in the world is about Donald Trump and Putin has been playing a very long game.
But if I had to guess what Trump’s influence on Putin was, I’d say:
Putin realized that he could get much of he wanted from Trump for free. Trump was even talking about pulling out of NATO—which is Putin’s endgame. Why do anything that might jeopardize the free gifts Trump was giving him?
On the other hand, once Biden came to power and it was clear that the relationship would be more adversarial, Putin figured that he might as well go on offense and take his lumps in pursuit of the strategic objectives that could only be achieved by force.
Trump has refused to criticize Putin since he began his rise in the GOP. As a presidential candidate in 2015, he was asked why he accepted Putin’s de facto endorsement — a man known to have killed journalists (among other political enemies). Trump responded,“Well, I think that our country does plenty of killing, too.” He repeated the sentiment in a 2017 interview with Bill O’Reilly: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What do you think? Our country’s so innocent?” In his infamous public appearance in Helsinki in 2018, Trump tossed his own intelligence community aside to accept Putin’s word that Russia hadn't interfered in the U.S. 2016 election.
In the 1980s, Reagan's former ambassador to the UN, Jeane Kirkpatrick, referred to the Democrats as the “Blame America First” crowd. Now Trump has seized that role for himself.
It’s the “blame America first” part that really stands out. Trump touted himself as the ultimate American Patriot™, except when it came to picking America over Putin. And for all the “normal” Republicans who tolerated Trump but voted to acquit him during his first impeachment, we see you; there are lots of people praising Zelensky now who were fine with Donald Trump withholding military aid to Ukraine.
But after all that, the ball of scotch tape is still clinging desperately to America First. It’s worth returning to Gerald L.K. Smith, who was an out-in-the-open Nazi sympathizer (Lindbergh was more quiet about it) and unashamed racist. Naturally, he readily expressed his hatred of “Franklin D. Jewsevelt” and “black savages,” but what was really notable about Smith was his day job: He was a preacher from Wisconsin.
After the America First Party collapsed, he founded the Christian Nationalists, which intended to:
Deport all Zionists.
Dissolve all “Jewish Gestapo” organizations.
Ship black Americans “back” to Africa.
Liquidize the United Nations.
In addition, the specifically called for, “The preservation of our Christian faith against the threat of Jew Communism…Restore the right of Christian prayer in public building,” and, “Expose and fight the black Plague.” He proudly called himself an “isolationist” and joined the American version of the Brownshirts.
For all his nuttiness, Smith never understood while so many people hated him. In terms of gaining followers, he said:
Religion and patriotism, keep going on that. It’s the only way you can really get them het up…certain nerve centers in the population will begin to twitch, and the people will start fomenting and fermenting, and then a fellow like myself…will have the people with him, hook line and sinker. I’ll teach them how to hate!
If anyone is being honest with themselves, there is only one American politician right now who thoroughly embodies that quote. Fuentes readily says that he supports Trump because he represents all of these things. But the entire point of this Jackal is to emphasize that it’s not just Trump himself, but a thread of American politics that is woven into our history.
Putin’s support of Trump in the 2016 election shows that he was fully aware of this thread and gave it a tug. His government — through social media and useful idiots on the Right — looked at every divide in America, from religion, to race, to immigration, and attempted to widen it by using a classic formula.
For instance, the central idea of QAnon — that Democrats like Hillary Clinton are part of a “cabal” that sacrifices and eats children — can be traced back to PizzaGate, which was a homegrown product of Russian intelligence services. You can trace a line from PizzaGate all the way to the insurrection, which was driven largely by QAnon supporters. But child sacrifices harken back to “blood libel,” which has been an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory dating back hundreds of years. There is anti-Semitic content all over Telegram (QAnon’s current home base), and anti-Semitism is a blanket in which America First enthusiastically wrapped itself.
We perhaps owe Putin some thanks, because nothing shocks us into reexamining our morals like a blatant act of immorality. To sum up: He is not attacking Ukraine because he has been pressured by the United States, or because he perceives Biden as weak, but because he is an evil man. We should remember this as Putin digs in, becomes more desperate, and inflicts more pain. The world has been inspired by Ukraine’s resilience up to this point, yet many suspect that the worst is yet to come and that may require a reexamination of American policy (which, up until this point, has been excellent). But Putin has shown us that protecting Ukraine isn’t right because it is politically convenient or useful, but because it is obviously good.
A running theme on the Jackal has been me telling Donald Trump to go back to the Shadow, a line I repeatedly steal from Lord of the Rings. Potential copyright infringement aside, I use it because — unlike the Joker or Cruella DeVille — there is really no way to rehabilitate Sauron and his Balrogs, or to try to “understand” their motivations. Sometimes guys who are evil are just evil.
So, let’s be clear: If you are supporting a dictator who is bombing civilians, or if you’re re-launching an anti-Semitic movement in the United States and encouraging your supporters to become a Fifth Column, you are not the good guy. America has its issues and it is not perfect, but it is nice to be reminded every now and then that we are fundamentally on the side of good, as messy as that can be.
You can only put “America First” if you actually understand American values.
You know a Jackal is going to be serious when there is no intro.