The main idea of this book is to use two popular phrases / notions: America First and American Dream and then trace their appearance and use from the very beginning to our time. It is also seems to be stressing the use of these phrases in contest of isolationism, racism, and consumerism when “America First” was mixed with ideas of 100% American as WASP, with all other being less than 100% and isolationism, while “American Dream” developing from strive to get new land to strive to get more goods. Another part of the main idea is to link the worst ideas related to these phrase to Trump and his supporters.
Prologue: First, America First
It starts with description of two simultaneous demonstrations: one by Italian fascists and another by KKK in New York in 1927. There was violence and police had some people arrested. Author stresses that among detained was one Fred Trump and, while some others were identified as Klan members, Fred Trump was not. Author notes that it meant nothing at the time, kind of indicating that it does mean something now.
PART ONE 1900—1920
- The American Dream 1900-1916: The Spirit of American Dreams 4
Author starts this part with the first mentioning of American Dream in 1900 in context of “resentful multimillionaires that would kill American dream”. Author points out that here American Dream meant equality and rich would undermine equality and therefore kill the dream, which is opposite of current American dream that came to mean be successful and become multimillionaire. In support of this author brings multiple examples from newspapers and other literature of the progressive period. She discusses quite intensely work of Walter Lippmann and his critics of American individualism and Americans’ “naïve” believe in democracy unburdened by expert control and regulation. Author mentions abundance of Americans dreaming about their own advancement, but together with authors of progressive era, she seems to see it as ugly impediment to implementation of beautiful collective dream.
- America First 1900-1916: Pure Americanism Against the Universe
The other notion: America First author mainly links with WWI and American initial neutrality. In addition to kind of external direction of America first author bring internal direction when it meant “melting pot” assimilation and tensions over hyphenate Americans of various kinds. It was linked first and foremost by fear of immigrants taking jobs, pushing out native business by better goods and services and cheaper prices, and, very important, fear of being pulled into European war that was practically irrelevant for majority of Americans. After reviewing more or less relevant literature and speeches of the period about immigration and assimilation, author moves to additional topic of the idea of 100% American, that obtained popularity at the time, often having Darwinist character of superior and inferior races, culminating in rebirth of KKK, and mass culture glorification of the Lost Cause of Confederacy, accompanied by occasional lynching. Author provides number of 3,436 people lynched between 1889 and1922, majority black. It is interesting because 1888 was the first year when majority of victims were black. Statistics exists for earlier times, but then majority of victims were white so author avoids it.
- The American Dream 1917-1920: What Do You Call That But Socialism?
This chapter starts with review of changes in American dream presentation in press from equality to liberty and democracy that were prompted by war propaganda. After the war the same propaganda machine switched to promoting socialism with American specifics, which somehow would be very different from murderous socialism of Russian Revolution. Once again author stresses that “ the American Dream was about how to stop bad multimillionaires, not how to become one”.
- America First 1917-1920: We Have Emerged from Dreamland
This chapter starts with statement that idea of America First moved from isolationism to jingoism, when main point became how different and better is America than other countries. Author provide an interesting example of America creed definition that won contest and remained popular for decades and even become official in 1945:
After that author discusses struggles for/against League of Nations and Americanization of immigrants. The former ended with America staying out of League, while latter with potential immigrants kept out of America. Author also links it to KKK and growth of racism.
PART TWO 1920—1930
- The American Dream 1921-1923: Salesmen of Prosperity
Author decided here to allocate separate charters to 2 years of Harding administration, which practically deconstructed Wilsons’s super big government and returned to normal, when middle class prosperity was the American Dream. Author discusses in details emerging anti-middle class literature like Sinclair Lewis’s “Babbitt”. After that she moves to immigrants, their communities, and their fitness or not for America. Author also found that in literature and ideology of the time American dream of liberty was coming in conflict with dream about equality and justice.
- America First 1920-1923: The Simplicity of Government
For America first part of discussion for this period author looks and Harding’s attempt to simplify government and make it more business like and therefore more efficient. Big part of this effort was to remove government from activities that where not proper for its interference. It also included America First approach to international trade with tariffs and increasing isolationism. She also constantly refers to literature produced by leftist authors and discusses KKK and American fascist movement that were growing at the time.
- The American Dream 1924-1929: A Willingness of the Heart
This is about period of Calvin Coolidge administration and author starts it with Scott Fitzgerald’s “Great Gatsby”. Only after discussing the book that was supposed to demonstrate moral bankruptcy of American capitalism, she moves to Coolidge and his declaration that “The chief business of American people is business.” Author also links it to Calvinist religion, which hold that productivity is religious duty and points out how out of this mix start emerging individualism, which discounted equality, rejecting the idea that there is something wrong when different ability, effort, and luck lead to different a results, sometimes dramatically so.
- America First 1923-1929: A Super Patriot, Patriot
For “America First” of this period author once again concentrates on KKK, racism, but also adds a new theme: corruption of Harding administration. She also discusses election of 1924 when democrats ran on anti-corruption platform, while supporting racism and KKK, albeit not without tension between Northern and Southern wings of the party. The republican response was to legislate anti-immigration laws that stopped mass immigration by linking ability to immigrate with country of origin in order to keep American population at the existing ethnic proportions. Author does recite Coolidge speech against bigotry, in which he stated that bigotry and racism contradict idea of “America First”, but she finds it strange, moving on to KKK claim on this slogan and 100% American notion being racist.
PART THREE 1930—1940
- The American Dream 1930-1934: Das Dollarland
This is about period of great depression when in author’s opinion selfishness failed. Author traces changes in American Dream as it was represented in literature and periodicals. The main change was loss of believe in wisdom of business leaders and growing distrust in reality of equal opportunity. Moreover it became kind of identity crisis for the country when individualism and materialism of America was questioned and significant part of Americans bought ideas of collectivism, all knowing benevolent political leaders who implement scientific social planning. This change in ideology opened gates for FDR mass changes in American system that for the first time after civil war moved America to big government system.
10 America First 1930-1934: The Official Recognition of Reality
Author describes America First of this period and increasing reaction to immigration with KKK achieving nearly mainstream status. As to external world, America once again moved to its default status of wishing external world just go away. At the same time multiple various-scale movements continued promoting American involvement in international causes. Author describes in some details one such movement – fascistic “Friends of the New Germany” that tried to promote Hitlerism and his ideas of German (Nordic) racial superiority.
11 The American Dream 1934-1939: The Pageant of History
Author describes this period as the time when American Dream become ubiquitous, saturating public discussion. It got to mean Democratic equality and high levels of activity in inventions and production. However it also started diverging into two separate streams, not necessarily compatible: Equality of Opportunity and Equality of Results. Author discusses work of quite interesting thinker named Herbert Agar who held that the failure of Americanism, as represented by Great Depression, was caused but failure to assign private property to many versus a few. Author goes through multiple examples of American dream as it was presented on meetings, in newspapers, books, and lectures. She also presents the new American dream of getting better off via government handouts, such as in public housing. The Dream also start moving away from dream of individual advance to dream of country prosperity as whole. One interesting statistical representation of this approach is rejection of variance between mean and median, when a few very rich raise mean to the level unachievable to many poor. One point that author makes here is that American Dream would have many variable meanings, but one constant feature: it always applied to all Americans. The final part of the chapter was about defending the Dream, which necessitated defense of democracy, without which its achievement would be impossible.
12 America First 1935-1939: It Can Happen Here
This is about various fascist and semi-fascist movements that happened in America at the time, igniting discussion among intelligentsia whether it could or could not happen here. Author discusses career of Huey Long and his semi-dictatorship in Louisiana, American Nazis rallies, pro-German Bund, and rejection of Jewish refugees. Author also describes in details career of Dorothy Thompson – popular anti-fascist author and journalist.
13 America First and the American Dream 1939-1941: Americans! Wake Up!
This part is mainly about raise of anti-war isolationist movement, Lindberg’s America First committee, which, under circumstances, was basically Nazi Germany propaganda operation conducted in hope to keep America out of war long enough for Germany to conquer Europe and use its total resources to prepare for final victory and conquest of the world. This German Dream of making the World save for “superior race” domination by keeping America neutral ended 4 days after Pearl Harbor, when America First Committee disbanded.
Epilogue 1945-2017: Still America Firsting
Here author narrates a bit about what happened later to these ideas after WWII and to couple of main personalities of her narrative: Hugo Black and Dorothy Thompson. At the end she breaks out of self-imposed restrictions and lets out the full scale of her Trump Derangement Syndrome, which is kind of pity because it somewhat spoils a reasonably decent book.
MY TAKE ON IT:
I think that ideas of American Dream are alive, well, and are about to blossom as soon as we get out of current restructuring of the mode of resource production and allocation from old industrial mode to the new informational one. The old Dream one way or another was mainly about material wellbeing, while now it could be taken for granted. The productivity achieved now and looming in the near future when AI could make any routine human activity unnecessary, makes this old Dream not just easily achievable, but trivial. We are in the process of switching to the New American Dream when material part could be taken for granted and psychological needs are becoming paramount. There is danger here because there are two types of psychological needs: one is achieving personal satisfactory condition via learning, relationship, thinking, and achieving recognition. And another one: which is achieving power to force other people to do what one wants, regardless of their own wishes. The first one is pretty much aligned with traditional American Dream and it could be easily traced to original dream of having enough food and shelter from one own piece of land and labor. The second one is not American at all. It was brought in from Europe with its tradition of court thinkers telling monarchs how to achieve glory, power, and prosperity. After some 5 generations of government educational bureaucrats promoting this European dream, it seems getting some traction, but there is growing resistance to this and, as usual, waking up after long sleep, American people will overcome this challenge.
As to America First, the current iteration seems to be changing from America First to pay for other people wellbeing to America First to take care about its own people.
The former comes in two forms: one is protecting allies like Europe practically for free over generations, and the second one in form of providing opportunities for developing countries like China to transfer technology and accepting unfair trade. Surely, both methods were based on believe that it was better for American ruling classes: the protection gave them power and security, while developing world was providing cheap labor and place for industrial production without environmental restrictions, which made production cheaper still. Both where at the expense of American middle class, which seems had enough. So Trump or no Trump, this change from “the first to pay” to “the first to care” is going to happen.