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Don’t know much about history

There are certain qualities we once thought every president should have. He should never lie to us. He should try to unite us, be the president of all the people. He should know a lot about the U.S. Constitution and all of its amendments. 

And he should know history, especially ours. But this president neither seems to know or care much about what happened before his election.

Indeed, before that election, candidate Trump betrayed his profound ignorance of America’s past by adopting a catchy, but discredited, old slogan he seemed to treat like something new and original. In March of 2016, nearly a year before his inauguration, Trump told The New York Times, “I like the expression, ‘America First.’”

Despite protests that the term echoed the anti-Semitism and nationalistic, even fascistic sympathies of isolationist America in the 1930s, Trump continued to use the slogan and preach his version of the doctrine throughout the campaign.   

And in his inaugural address, he pledged, “From this day forward, it’s going to be only America First. America First.”

The original America First organization, with a membership of 800,000 at its peak, disbanded after the attack on Pearl Harbor, but not before its principal spokesman, the aviator-hero Charles Lindbergh, warned the nation of the nefarious influence of its small, but influential, Jewish population.

“Their greatest damage to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government,” Lindbergh told an America First rally in Pittsburgh on Sept. 11, 1941. He warned America’s Jews that, “Instead of agitating for war, the Jewish groups in this country should be opposing it…for they will be among the first to feel its consequences.” Tolerance of Jews and other minorities, he said, “is a virtue that depends on peace and strength. It cannot survive war and devastation.” 

“I am absolutely certain that Lindbergh is pro-Nazi,” wrote Dorothy Thompson, the columnist for the Republican New York Herald-Tribune.  “I am absolutely certain that Lindbergh foresees a new party along Nazi lines.” 

Those dreams and their discredited slogan were forgotten after December 7, only to be revived in the 2000 presidential campaign of ultra-nationalist Pat Buchanan, who had called World War II the “unnecessary war,” and then by the ultra-nationalist Trump 15 years later.

Trump’s brand of America First xenophobia is most evident in his opposition to immigration from countries whose people don’t look like his political base. In his taped interview with the British tabloid The Sun during his recent European rampage, Trump declared Europe is “losing its culture” to refugees and asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East.

This isn’t the kind of talk heard from an American president since the 1850s, when Millard Fillmore and the American Party, or Know Nothings, railed against Catholics from Ireland and Germany or later, when passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 did just what its name implied.  

Even into the 20th century, history tells us that “give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” came with exceptions. The National Origins Act of 1924 specifically placed quotas on Catholics from southern and European nations like Italy and Poland along with Jews and Arabs. Now, under the banner of Trump, we’ve “progressed” to only Arabs and others of the Islamic faith.

Finally, but not exclusively, we have Trump’s pursuit of “peace in our time” with Vladimir Putin’s Russia, up to and including his apparent willingness to be understanding about Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.  

This happened at the G-7 meeting in Canada when Trump explained to our allies that Putin wants the Ukraine back because most of its people are Russian speaking. It was remarkably similar to Hitler’s demand for self determination for the German-speaking residents of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland region before he seized it in 1938.  

Hitler also offered Great Britain and France his assurance he had “no more territorial ambitions in Europe.”  

We don’t know what Putin’s territorial ambitions may be because we still don’t know what he and Trump talked about before the infamous press conference. 

And given all the evidence regarding Trump’s less than nodding acquaintance with history, he has probably never happened upon the writings of the immigrant philosopher-essayist George Santayana and his oft-repeated aphorism:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

 

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.