Friday 21 July 2017

'America First' is a throwback to disastrous periods of US history

US president Donald Trump sits at his desk as he waits for White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, left, to deliver three executive orders for his signature on Monday. Photo: AP
US president Donald Trump sits at his desk as he waits for White House chief of staff Reince Priebus, left, to deliver three executive orders for his signature on Monday. Photo: AP

Patrick Geoghegan

'Call it selfishness of nationality if you will, I think it an inspiration to patriotic devotion - to safeguard America First, to stabilise America First, to prosper America First, to think of America First, to exalt America First, to live for and revere America First." So proclaimed Warren G Harding, a Republican senator, on January 20, 1920, in a speech in New York opposing American involvement in the League of Nations. It helped make him a national figure, and later that year, he was elected the 29th president of the United States.

During the campaign, Harding insisted that he wanted to "proclaim Americanism and acclaim America". When his campaign manager was asked in private, "What does it mean?" he shrugged and answered: "Damned if I know, but it's going to get a lot of votes." Using words such as "re-revealment" and promising "a return to normalcy", Harding set a new low for political statements that has only recently been surpassed. The journalist HL Mencken called it the worst English he had ever encountered. It was, he said, "rumble and bumble. It is flap and doodle. It is balder and dash".

In terms of foreign policy, Harding's rejection of the outside world helped set America on an isolationist path which contributed to the disaster of the Depression and the problems of the 1930s. His presidency became mired in financial scandal before he died in office in 1923, and after his death, his reputation was further tainted when his former mistress published an account detailing sexual encounters in a coat closet in the White House.

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