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December 2016 Brief: Volume 23, Number 34

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America First!


By John Hendrickson



“‘America First’ will be the major and overriding theme of my administration,” stated Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump.[1] As the Republican nominee, and now President-Elect, Donald Trump is the first major party candidate in some time to run for office under the banner of placing America first in both domestic and foreign policy. Patrick J. Buchanan wrote that if Trump is elected, “U.S. policy will be dictated by U.S. national interests.”[2] As Donald Trump stated:


On trade, on immigration, on foreign policy. The jobs, incomes and security of the American worker will always be my first priority. No country has ever prospered that failed to put its own interests first. Both our friends and our enemies put their countries above ours and we, while being fair to them, must start doing the same. We will no longer surrender this country or its people to the false song of globalism. The nation-state remains the true foundation for happiness and harmony. I am skeptical of international unions that tie us up and bring America down and will never enter America into any agreement that reduces our ability to control our own affairs.[3]


Trump’s “America First” philosophy and approach is bringing much criticism from all sides of the political spectrum, and his critics have accused him of being an isolationist, xenophobic, and even racist. These characterizations are not true, and one of the main differences that separates Trump’s philosophy from that of his opponents is that he is a committed nationalist and not a globalist. Critics of “America First” often recall the vocal anti-interventionists before America’s entry into World War II, but the tradition of “America First” does not mean closed-off isolationism. Trump’s “America First” philosophy is rooted in traditional conservative philosophy that was often a pillar of the early twentieth-century conservatives. Presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover all supported placing American interests first in the realm of foreign policy, trade, and immigration. Warren G. Harding even campaigned on an “America First” theme in 1920.


Perhaps the most controversial aspects of Trump’s “America First” platform is his call for restructuring our trade and immigration policies. During the campaign, one of Trump’s main issues was his criticism of our national trade policy, which has resulted in the loss of numerous manufacturing jobs. Trump is calling for the restructuring of American trade policy, including renegotiating NAFTA and opposing the Trans Pacific Partnership and other agreements. Trump’s attack on trade has resulted in individuals from all over the political spectrum labeling him a “protectionist” for his views on trade. During a speech to the Detroit Economic Club, Trump argued that:


Trade has big benefits, and I am in favor of trade. But I want great trade deals for our country that create more jobs and higher wages for American workers. Isolation is not an option, only great and well-crafted trade deals are.[4]


Trump’s “protectionism” is actually a policy that is grounded in the conservative tradition and was the dominant policy for much of our nation’s history. Patrick J. Buchanan defined the historical significance of protectionist trade policy when he wrote:


Protectionism is the structuring of trade policy to protect the national sovereignty, ensure economic self-reliance, and “prosper America first.” It was the policy of the Republican Party from Abraham Lincoln to Calvin Coolidge. America began that era in 1860 with one half of Britain’s production and ended it producing more than all of Europe put together. Is this a record to be ashamed of?[5]


The “America First” trade policy of protectionism through tariffs was not only a constitutional way of protecting national sovereignty, but also of putting the economic health of the nation first. The policy of protectionism was often debated within Republican circles, but it was a policy that many took seriously as a key component to an overall successful economic program. Tom Piatak, a contributor to Chronicles magazine and Rockford Institute, wrote in response to Trump’s victory that “the America First GOP of McKinley and Coolidge may be on the way back.”[6]


As Robert Lighthizer, who served as a trade representative in President Ronald Reagan’s administration, wrote:


Conservative statesmen from Alexander Hamilton to Ronald Reagan sometimes supported protectionism and at other times they leaned toward lowering barriers. But they always understood that trade policy was merely a tool for building a strong and independent country with a prosperous middle class.[7]


The same is true for immigration. Trump campaigned on the theme of border security and the need to get control of our failed immigration policy. Trump was correct when he argued that a nation without borders is not a nation at all. In 1924, President Calvin Coolidge argued that two policies that were essential for a sound economy were restrictions on immigration and trade protectionism.[8]


On Election Day 2016, the nation voted in support of Trump’s call for a return to “America First” policies. The globalist elites may call Trump and his supporters “deplorable” or other names, but in the end Donald Trump is starting a historic effort to restore America.



[1] Donald J. Trump, “Read Donald Trump’s ‘America First’ Foreign Policy Speech,” Time, April 27, 2016, <> accessed on November 6, 2016.
[2] Patrick J. Buchanan, “At Last, America First!,” The American Cause, April 28, 2016,


26&cntnt01returnid=29> accessed on November 6, 2016.

[3] Trump.
[4] Donald J. Trump, “Transcript of Donald Trump’s Speech to the Detroit Economic Club,” The Hill, August 8, 2016, <> accessed on November 10, 2016.
[5] Patrick J. Buchanan, “Bush’s Black List?,”, June 5, 2008, <> accessed on November 18, 2014.
[6] Tom Piatak, “The First Fruits of Victory,” Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, November 11, 2016, <> accessed on November 11, 2016.
[7] Robert E. Lighthizer, “Grand Old Protectionists,” New York Times, March 6, 2008, <> accessed on November 18, 2014.
[8] Calvin Coolidge, “Address delivered to a group of Labor Leaders, who called on the White House, September 1, 1924,” in Foundations of the Republic, University Press of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawaii, 2004, p. 83.


John Hendrickson is a Research Analyst with Public Interest Institute, Mount Pleasant, Iowa. Contact him at


Permission to reprint or copy in whole or part is granted, provided a version of this credit line is used:"Reprinted by permission from INSTITUTE BRIEF, a publication of Public Interest Institute." The views expressed in this publication are those of the author and not necessarily those of Public Interest Institute. They are brought to you in the interest of a better-informed citizenry.




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