“This incredible journey we’re on together has only just begun,” former president Donald Trump told a rally in Ohio on September 17. In response, the crowd saluted him with a gesture unfamiliar to most Americans: their right hands raised with an index pointed up. As he went on, they kept their fingers up, nodding along with him. When photos of the throngs of people with their fingers aimed high hit the web, the Twitterati reacted with predictable outrage and confusion; was this a QAnon symbol? Some white supremacist code sign, like the OK hand gesture? No, it wasn’t. It was a symbol for the America First movement. This midterm election season, “America First” candidates represent a powerful new block of far-right contenders, among them GOP Senate candidate J. D. Vance, who Trump was in Ohio to stump for, along with the likes of former QAnon supporter Marjorie Taylor Green, “Big Lie” proponent Paul Gossar, and Peter Thiel mentee Blake Masters.
The powerful branding of this energized America First movement owes as much to Donald Trump, who promised to “put America first” as early as 2015 in an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, as it does to fringe internet influencers, chiefly Gen Z reactionary Nicholas J. Fuentes. But “America first” is a phrase more than a century old, making it one of the most enduring, prominent, and dangerous memes circulating in American politics today.
The first uses of “America first” date back to the 1880s in the years after the Civil War, according to historian Sarah Churchwell. The nation was looking for ways to reinvent itself, and the mottos “America first” and “American dream” were born. Churchwell argues that they have been entwined ever since.
“America first” continued to be mentioned in political newspapers articles at the end of the 19th and turn of the 20th centuries, but its popularity surged each time the US reckoned with whether to enter the world wars. In 1908 and again in the 1930s, William Randolph Hearst—who admired Nazism, believing it to be superior to liberal democracy—used it in his newspapers to push the idea that America had no business fighting Hitler. As tensions mounted in Europe, a student at Yale University launched the America First Committee to promote American homeland security and an isolationist international agenda. Celebrity pilot Charles Lindbergh was the most famous member of the group and its spokesperson, and in the nearly two years between 1940 and the US entry into the war in December 1941, Lindbergh toured the nation giving speeches and building up America First groups all over the place, eventually establishing an estimated 450 chapters with a cumulative 800,000 dues-paying members.
The movement would collapse following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, but in its wake it left behind not only isolationist but racist, anti-Semitic, and overtly fascist views. “America First” became a rallying cry for the superiority of white Americans.
In the 21st century, America First has been reborn once again—as a meme that’s changed hands so many times few know its provenance. On the very first day of Trump’s presidency, he declared, “A new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first. America first.” The phrase was used widely in the Trumpian right by figures like Alex Jones, Andrew Breitbart, and many others. But when it comes to Gen Z audiences, one influencer can be credited with turning America First into a meme war—Nicholas J. Fuentes.
Fuentes, who once described himself both as an “incel” and as “a devilishly handsome 17 year old mischief maker with grit, a full head of hair, and some balls,” started his career with a broadcast on his high school’s TV station. During his first semester at Boston University in 2016, he became famous on campus for rallying in favor of Trump’s anti-immigration policy and against “the multi-cultural movement in America.” A ruthless debater, he gained notoriety as he took on BU’s student body president and a host of popular alt-right influencers on YouTube. When he landed his own show on the Right Side Broadcasting Network, he called it America First.
Fed up with “the great globalist lies erected over the past 25 years,” Fuentes used his platform to attack politicians on all sides. He loathed establishment Republican leaders, whom he perceived as “cucks” in comparison to Donald Trump, “the George Washington of this century.” He was disappointed, too, by the alt-right leaders whose violence had wrecked Unite the Right (which he attended) and subsequently tanked the public perception of contemporary American white nationalism. The fallout from UTR had proven that apparently, even with Trump in office, mainstream America could still destroy you for overt racism, sexism, and antisemitism.