America First really means America Alone. It is a narrative in conflict with the contemporary American identity, harkening back to the isolationists of the 1940s.
Before Trump, the predominate American narratives about its place in the world were hegemonic. We, without irony, referred to the president of the United States as the leader of the free world. It comes from the same narrative that explains why we call the MLB champions (featuring only North American teams) the World Series champions. We believe in American exceptionalism and manifest destiny, that America is strongest when we lead. Those ideas are in direct conflict with Trump’s “America First” doctrine.
And because of that, Trump’s narrative threatens the continuance of the liberal international order. Some observers have noted that, in Trump’s America First approach to public diplomacy, “the art of persuasion… is absent.” And others have argued that our continued prestige will rest on “American arts and intellectual life [and] American education,” not on Trump.
When a world power like the United States fades, it’s usually because of overreach (like the Soviet Union after the Cold War) or the emergence of stronger powers (like France after WWI). But Trump’s new America First narrative has pioneered a third way—forfeiture. This isn’t a novel realization, Fareed Zakaria has dubbed it “the rise of the rest” and Richard Hass has called it the “Great Abdication.”
What these previous analyses have missed is how American narratives explain this shift. Previously dominant narratives like internationalism, the Cold War consensus, or the War on Terror had brought order to an otherwise chaotic world. That doesn’t mean they were perfect. Bush’s War on Terror had inarguably negative consequences, but it at least fit with existing narratives about America’s role in the world.
America First is in conflict with our dominant narratives. Trump’s America First rhetoric—inarguably a self-serving and arrogant approach—regarding foreign policy has been cited by experts as a major reason for America’s decline in soft power. This is because America First is in conflict with three particular American narratives that supported America’s image around the world: globalism, multiculturalism, and freedom.
Perhaps most clearly, it’s in conflict with the American globalist narrative. That narrative—dominant in the halls of UN in New York and Facebook in the Silicon Valley—is an elite narrative. It says: “The world is better when it’s open and connected. The future is global, security is shared, and technology has no borders.” It’s perhaps an idealistic one but has become a consensus among the bicoastal elite and Bobos in Paradise of David Brooks’ imagination.
Multiculturalism, too, is in direct conflict with an America First narrative that dictates border walls and tariffs. That narrative—engrained in our Statue of Liberty and the identity politics of Democrats—is dominant. In fact, it reinforces other American narratives like individualism, as one can maintain one’s own culture and still be an American. It says: “America is a nation of immigrants. We are strong because of our diversity; our melting pot is only possible because of it. Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to be free.” And that brings us to America First’s most detrimental conflict: freedom.
If America has one dominant narrative that transcends time and partisanship, it’s freedom. It’s the idea that led to the American Revolution, to the Civil War, and has driven us to become the world’s police force, fighting for freedom around the world. It drove us to globalism and multiculturalism and defines our being. It is why we call our president the leader of the free world. It’s a narrative—defended by our soldiers and dominant is our rhetoric—that defines the American identity. It says, like Lincoln did, that “those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.”
But America First says “only we deserve freedom.” That is not an American narrative; that is in direct conflict with one. America First is dangerous, but if our history is predictive, it won’t last for long because if you deny freedom, America will come for you.
Reed Elman Waxham studies media & strategic communication in the School of Media & Public Affairs at the George Washington University. Follow him @reed_elman. The views expressed in this blog are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of TakeFive or the Institute for Public Diplomacy & Global Communication.