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July 2017 Policy Study, Number 17-9


President Donald Trump and the American Conservative Movement


President Donald Trunp and America First!



“America First will be the major and overriding theme of my administration,” stated Republican presidential nominee Donald J. Trump.[9] As the Republican nominee and now President, 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.”[10] As Donald Trump stated:


Americans must know that we're putting the American people first again on trade . . . 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.[11]


In his inaugural address, President Trump made his commitment to America First even more clear. “From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first,” stated President Trump.[12] “Every decision on trade, on taxes, on immigration, on foreign affairs will be made to benefit American workers and American families,” stressed the President.[13]


In his first address to Congress, President Trump reiterated his belief in America First.[14] Whether the issue was trade, immigration, taxes, or foreign policy, President Trump told Congress and the nation that it was time to place the country first:


I will not allow the mistakes of recent decades past to define the course of our future.  For too long, we’ve watched our middle class shrink as we’ve exported our jobs and wealth to foreign countries.  We’ve financed and built one global project after another, but ignored the fates of our children in the inner cities of Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit, and so many other places throughout our land. We’ve defended the borders of other nations while leaving our own borders wide open for anyone to cross and for drugs to pour in at a now unprecedented rate. And we’ve spent trillions and trillions of dollars overseas, while our infrastructure at home has so badly crumbled.[15]


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 American entry into World War II, but the tradition of American First does not mean closed-off isolationism.


Trump’s America First philosophy is rooted in the traditional conservative philosophy that was often a pillar of the early twentieth--century conservatives. Presidents and policy leaders like Theodore Roosevelt, Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover, and Senator Robert A. Taft all supported placing American interests first in the realm of foreign, trade, and immigration policies. 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 views on trade have resulted in individuals from all over the political spectrum labelling him a “protectionist.” During a speech to the Detroit Economic Club, Trump argued:


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.[16]


Trump’s “protectionism” is actually a policy grounded in the conservative tradition that 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?[17]


The America First trade policy of protectionism through tariffs was not only a constitutional way of protecting national sovereignty, but also 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.”[18]


As Robert Lighthizer, the current United States Trade Representative who also 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.[19]


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.[20]


It is still early in President Trump’s administration, but it is not clear what direction his policies will take. For example, recent issues in foreign policy have moved the President away from his America First approach, including the recent air strike in Syria and the situation involving North Korea that is softening the administration’s rhetoric against China’s unfair trade practices. It is still too early to see how the administration will handle future trade policy or even renegotiate NAFTA. On the domestic front, President Trump and the Republicans failed to repeal and replace the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. President Trump has moved in a conservative direction towards immigration reform and protecting the border. Perhaps the greatest of all victories for conservatives to this point was the appointment and confirmation of Justice Neil Gorsuch to the United States Supreme Court. President Trump’s budget targets wasteful spending, but it also calls for major increases in defense and infrastructure spending. President Trump is also calling for a Reagan-style tax cut that will lower rates.


In the end, it is difficult to place President Trump within the conservative movement. His campaign was clearly based on many Old-Right themes, but at the same time he demonstrated his “peace” with the New Deal-style entitlement measures by not making an issue of reforming programs like Social Security and Medicaid. These entitlement programs are a major factor in the looming fiscal crisis that confronts the federal government, and although they need to be reformed, the President was correct to say that many working Americans have paid into the system and deserve to have their Social Security protected.


President Trump does not easily fit into conservatism, but he is championing Republican ideas. The ideas and policies of pre-World War II Republicans and conservatives are often forgotten, but President Trump has the opportunity to renew America by following the example of older Republican administrations, which not only created periods of economic growth, but also placed the interests of the nation first. If President Trump is successful, he will change conservatism and the Republican Party.




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