History rarely starts when we think it did, and it never seems to end when we think it should. Nor does it tend to say what we think it will. The phrases ‘American dream’ and ‘America first’ were born almost exactly a century ago – and rapidly tangled over capitalism, democracy and race, the three fates always spinning America’s destiny.
Received wisdoms can become self-fulfilling prophecies – loaded dice, rigging the conversation. When what’s on the table are national values, and our language obscures from us important truths about those values, the stakes grow very high. Returning to original sources can overturn those common wisdoms, exposing the gaps between what we tell each other that history shows, and what it actually says.
Behold, America offers a genealogy of national debates around these two expressions, most of which have been forgotten. The evolution of these two sayings – both their myths and their truths – has shaped reality in ways not fully understood. We cannot understand the subtexts of our own slogans if we do not understand their contexts; we risk misreading our own moment if we don’t know the historical meanings of expressions we resuscitate, or perpetuate. We cannot hear a dog whistle if we are not in its range.
Phrases can form chains of association, conceptual paths that the mind follows intuitively, even unconsciously, as one word, or idea, seems to lead naturally to another. Those chains of association help define political and social realities, and it’s only by tracing the words, how people skip from one to the next without necessarily even being aware of it, that we understand how these ideas have evolved.
Take, for a different example, Ronald Reagan’s often cited ‘city on a hill’, in which he suggested that America was a shining ideal held up to the world to emulate. That is a very Cold War idea, and it’s basically the antithesis of what John Winthrop, who coined the phrase ‘city upon a hill’, said in 1630.
Winthrop used ‘city upon a hill’ not to suggest the nation would be a glorious beacon. Instead, it was a metaphor for a place everyone could see and judge: the singularity of the American experiment meant that the world would be watching.
We must Consider that we shall be as a City upon a Hill, the eyes of all people are upon us; so that if we shall deal falsely with our god in this work we have undertaken and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword through the world, we shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of god and all professors for God’s sake.
Our equivalent simile would be a goldfish bowl: Winthrop was urging Americans to strive for moral excellence, because the world would judge the outcome of the experiment. The message of Winthrop’s ‘city upon a hill’ amounts to: ‘We mustn’t fail, because everyone is watching. If we fail, we’ll become a laughing stock, and bring our ideas into global disrepute.’ It’s not self- congratulation; it’s a warning.
We need to be able to tell the difference between alarm bells and victory peals. Compared to Winthrop, Reagan’s speech was the goldfish preening himself on being watched as he bumps blindly into the glass. The degradation of ideas matters to our society: anyone who doubts that should look at the current state of our toxic civil discourse, about which there is almost nothing civil left at all. Reagan’s ‘city on a hill’ became a shorthand that distorted ideas of American exceptionalism. America wasn’t supposed to be an exceptional place because its citizens had dreams, or even because those dreams sometimes came true. That’s true of everyone. It was supposed to be exceptional in being a place dedicated to the proposition of helping those dreams to be realised – but the nation’s dreams were meant to be exceptional, too.
The American dream and America first have similarly been misunderstood, and misrepresented. The American dream – far from validating a simple desire for personal advancement – once gave voice to principled appeals for a more generous way of life. And America first was no mere temporary pushback against Roosevelt’s creation of the welfare state. The nationalism embedded in the phrase had a long-standing and profound purchase on many Americans’ understanding of their country, and its connection with anxieties about American fascism did not begin in 1940.
In 1941, an American journalist named Dorothy Thompson, who had been in Europe during the rise of fascism in the early 1930s, wrote about Charles Lindbergh, at the time (and now once more) the most famous embodiment of America first.
Lindbergh’s behaviour is confusing only if one fails to remember that it can be a political tactic to confuse. If one assumes that Lindbergh confuses consciously, then his behavior fits a pattern. Lindbergh’s behavior does fit a pattern – a thoroughly familiar pattern. It is the pattern of revolutionary politics designed by Adolf Hitler. Lindbergh’s technique, his whole campaign, is singularly without inventiveness. It has all happened before. To anyone who has studied the rise of popular demagogues bent on making New Orders of Society, Lindbergh is old stuff.
I am absolutely certain in my mind that Lindbergh is pro-Nazi; that Lindbergh hates the present democratic system; that Lindbergh intends to remake that system and emerge as America’s savior and that Lindbergh intends to be President of the United States, with a new party along Nazi lines behind him.
The similarities between what Thompson says in 1941 and our political situation today might seem like a coincidence. But what looks at first like historical coincidence may, instead, simply be a pattern we haven’t discerned yet.
We’re all asking urgent questions about the present, but there are far more surprising answers than many think to be found in the past. The backstory of these two charged expressions might help us understand how we found ourselves facing these problems today – and even, perhaps, how to resolve them.
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