‘America First’ is the inevitable outcome of the Republican descent into populism.
A joke in Milan Kundera’s novel “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting” goes like this: “In Wenceslaus Square, in Prague, a guy is throwing up. Another guy comes up to him, pulls a long face, shakes his head and says: ‘I know just what you mean.’ ”
The joke is supposed to be about life in Czechoslovakia under communism, circa 1977. It conveys exactly what I feel about the moral and mental state of the Republican Party, circa 2016.
Last week, Donald Trump delivered his big foreign-policy speech, built around the theme of “America First.” The term seems to have been planted in his brain by New York Times reporter David Sanger, who asked the Republican front-runner in late March whether it was fair to sum up his foreign policy as “something of an ‘America First’ kind of approach.”
Trump: “Correct, okay? That’s fine.”
Sanger: “Okay? Am I describing this correctly here?”
Trump: “I’ll tell you—you’re getting close. . . . I’m not an isolationist, but I am ‘America First.’ So I like the expression. I’m ‘America First.’ ”
Did Mr. Trump know anything about the history of the America First Committee before he seized on the phrase? Did anyone in his inner circle advise him that it might be unwise to associate himself with a movement whose principal aim was to prevent the United States from helping Winston Churchill fight the Nazis during the Battle of the Atlantic? Once he learned of it—assuming he did—was he at least privately embarrassed? Or was he that much more pleased with himself?
With Mr. Trump it’s hard to say: He has a way of blurring the line between ignorance and provocation, using one as an alibi when he’s accused of the other. Is he Rodney Dangerfield, the lovable American everyman pleading for a bit of respect? Or is he Lenny Bruce, poking his middle finger in the eye of respectable opinion?
Whichever way, the conclusion isn’t flattering. Either Mr. Trump stumbled upon his worldview through a dense fog of historical ignorance. Or he is seriously attempting to resurrect the most disastrous and discredited strain of American foreign policy for a new generation of American ignoramuses.
And now he’s about to become the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, assuming a win in Tuesday’s Indiana primary.
It’s true that Mr. Trump benefits from having as his main opponent Ted Cruz, the man recently described by former House Speaker John Boehner as “Lucifer in the flesh.” That’s about right, assuming Lucifer is the fellow who sows discord where harmony once reigned.
In 2014, the “Republican establishment,” as it is now derisively known, succeeded in securing its largest ever majority in the House since 1928. It won nine seats in the Senate and regained the majority for the first time in eight years. The GOP also took control of 31 governorships, with historic gains in state legislatures.
These were significant political achievements, which only awaited a reasonably serious presidential candidate to lead to a sweeping Republican restoration.
Instead, Mr. Cruz used the moment to attempt a party coup by treating every tactical or parliamentary difference of opinion as a test of ideological purity. The party turned on its own leaders, like the much-vilified Mr. Boehner. Then it turned on its (classically) liberal ideas, like free trade and sensible immigration policy.
And now it’s America First time again—the inevitable outcome of the GOP’s descent into populism.
Mr. Cruz, who used to be fond of calling Mr. Trump “my friend Donald” when it seemed opportune, now presents himself as the only man standing between his nemesis and the nomination. But Mr. Cruz’s trashing of his fellow Republicans hastened the arrival of the ultimate party-crasher. Arsonists who set fire to their neighborhood run the risk of burning their own house down.
And then there is the GOP rank-and-file. It is supposed to be sinful for conservative columnists to blame Republican voters for making disastrous choices, at least without the obligatory nods to their patriotism and pain.
But if Democrats don’t get a moral pass for bringing Bernie Sanders this far in the race, Republicans shouldn’t get one for bringing Mr. Trump to the cusp of the nomination. The point of democracy isn’t freedom. It’s political accountability. That goes for elected officials—and for the ones who elect them.
The “white working classes” that are said to form the core of Mr. Trump’s support deserve better than to be patronized with references to their “anger.” They deserve to hear an argument about the disaster they are about to impose on their party, their country and their own economic interests.
A Trump nomination will not destroy the GOP, any more than George McGovern’s nomination destroyed the Democrats. But it all but guarantees another Clinton presidency. How should that make you feel? Note the Kundera punchline atop this column.