When D.J. Trump spoke his inaugural speech, many things he said were obscured through the simplicity of the words he used. One of those is the phrase “America First”.
Being first can mean different things. Whatever meaning you prefer, it refers to a politics of difference that is detrimental to the whole.
Defining through difference
In my talk on ‘Can Women Think‘ (that will be put online hopefully soon), I showed how a group of people can be defined by what they are not. Women are not men. Women lack what makes a man, and they have been approached through this lack for a long time, even up to now. It is telling that one of the many signs used during yesterday’s Women’S Marches all around the world. The one sign saying “FIGHT LIKE A GIRL” was perceived as one of the best and also controversial and powerful messages. Even though laws and policy may have changed over the last hundred years, strength is still related to a persisting norm that is male.
Saying that something is ‘first’ also works with the concept of difference. Something can only be first when it is clearly separated from what is not first. America first, so everything not American is to be disregarded, is less important, doesn’t have to be fought for. Even though this is not a new approach, as conservatives have implemented the same slogans and economic policy in the 1920s which only made the economic problems worse, it is a worrying approach for a nation (and a world) that is struggling with problems that exist because of this thinking in difference.
Even though America’s claim to greatness is based on the idea that it was America who saved the world many times over, this goes against the concept of America First. Read a great analysis of this concept in this article in Time Magazine from March 2016. America First “demands faith in an independent American destiny.” This is not only problematic in a world that interconnected, but also because some things are more important than one’s own penthouse.
Making distinction in order define oneself on the basis of what something is not, instead of having an holistic approach, is responsible for the main problems of humanity. Difference is what perpetuates poverty, climate change, social inequality, genocide, and war.
President is not first
A prima minister is primus inter pares – the first among equals. A prime minister is first from among the other ministers, and can speak for the rest, but is formally equal to the rest.
A president is the head of a state, someone who is chosen to sit in front of the rest. Literally it is someone who sits (residere) before (prae-). To be the head, to sit in the front is different from being first among equals. The president is distinct, is defined through a difference. And this makes his role more visible, but also much more responsible. He is not simply to be judged as a person, as an example. He is the one who needs to lead, to show the meaning of concepts like civility and truthfulness. And in that sense, Obama was a very responsible president. This quote of Michelle Obama is powerful, precisely in that it does not define greatness and strength on the basis of difference. But on the faith in something that is right in-itself.
Responsibility and Accountability
Whereas European leaders are mostly primus inter pares and not the head of a state. They might often lack a sense of responsibility and urgency to take decisions, there is one thing the American people can be sure about. Trump has nothing to hide behind. The distinctions he puts up, that he uses to influence the minds of people, that he uses to circumvent reality – it is his responsibility.
During the inauguration, a CNN reporter remarked that it is the sign of a true democracy that the change in power is performed without violence. But actually the true sign of democracy, is that the leaders are held accountable by the people.