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How Fani Willis Became the Latest Enemy of ‘America First’
Trump’s attraction to the Lindberghian movement is all about sowing fear and mistrust at home.
AS FULTON COUNTY DISTRICT ATTORNEY Fani Willis reportedly prepares to indict Donald Trump for attempting to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election results, he’s busily denouncing her as a “young racist” who once had an “affair” with a “gang member.” It was only a matter of time before Trump started attacking Willis with overtly racist language, as he has long believed that nonwhite prosecutors and judges are incapable of rendering impartial decisions.
When Judge Gonzalo Curiel presided over the Trump University case in 2016, Trump said Curiel’s “Mexican heritage” should have disqualified him from doing so. This wasn’t a slip of the tongue, either. Trump argued that he couldn’t possibly get a fair hearing from Curiel because “We are building a wall. He’s a Mexican. We’re building a wall between here and Mexico.” He said Curiel is “very pro-Mexico” and “proud of his heritage.” He demanded that Curiel recuse himself. He insisted that Curiel couldn’t possibly be capable of fairly upholding the rule of law in the United States because his loyalty lies elsewhere. When Trump accuses Willis of racism, he’s yet again presenting himself as a victim of prejudice—and implying that a nonwhite prosecutor couldn’t possibly be impartial.
A racist outburst from Trump is nothing new, but it’s especially toxic and menacing at a time when his paranoia about a “deep state” plot to prevent him from returning to the White House has become an all-encompassing fixation. All Trump offers his supporters (and the rest of the country) is an endless, increasingly high-decibel loop of rage, resentment, and revenge. His address at CPAC in March made this brutally apparent:
In 2016, I declared, ‘I am your voice.’ Today, I add: I am your warrior, I am your justice, and for those who have been wronged and betrayed, I am your retribution. . . . I will totally obliterate the deep state. I will fire the unelected bureaucrats and shadow forces who have weaponized our justice system like it has never been weaponized before. Sick—these are sick people. And I will put the people back in charge of this country again.
Trump’s promise to “obliterate the deep state” was met with a volley of “USA!” chants. For many Americans, Trump’s political and legal fortunes are the ultimate barometer for the health of our democracy. This has always been the case, but it’s particularly dangerous at a time when Trump has declared war on the U.S. government—as well as the majority of Americans who don’t support him. A significant proportion of the population believes a would-be dictator is the only legitimate voice of the “the people,” despite the fact that Trump’s idea of what constitutes the real America has always been as narrow as it is self-serving.
WHEN TRUMP ANNOUNCED THE CAMPAIGN slogan “America First,” he was instantly and rightly criticized for running under the same banner as Charles Lindbergh’s isolationist, antisemitic movement to keep the United States out of World War II.
America First was founded in September 1940; Lindbergh, the world-famous aviator who had been speaking out against U.S. involvement in the war in Europe, joined the group in April 1941. The group encouraged Americans to look upon their allies and fellow citizens as warmongers who were acting selfishly against the country’s best interests—a view that had considerable popular support until Pearl Harbor instantly shifted public opinion in favor of war. The importance of resisting fascism in Europe was lost on Lindbergh, who, in an infamous September 1941 speech in Des Moines, Iowa, declared that Americans “cannot allow the natural passions and prejudices of other peoples to lead our country to destruction.” Lindbergh was referring to such “other peoples” as European Jews, who wanted the United States to join the fight against fascism for “reasons which are not American.”
But Lindbergh also believed that his fellow Americans—Jewish Americans, that is—might allow their own “natural passions and prejudices” to override their patriotism. He offered them an ominous ultimatum: “Jewish groups in this country should be opposing [American involvement in the war] in every possible way for they will be among the first to feel its consequences. Tolerance is a virtue that depends upon peace and strength. History shows that it cannot survive war and devastation.”
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The threat was clear: American Jews shouldn’t support the war if they don’t want to inflame antisemitism in the United States. Lindbergh rounded out this threat with a salvo of antisemitic conspiracism: “Their greatest danger to this country lies in their large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.” Seconds after cynically telling American Jews to oppose the war for their own good, Lindbergh regurgitated the exact sort of bigotry that could generate antisemitic sentiment in the country and put them at risk.
AMERICA FIRST TURNED OUT TO BE an apt brand for Trumpism. Just as Lindbergh instrumentalized prejudice and paranoia with his warnings about shadowy forces controlling the country, Trump and many of his allies on the nationalist right use the same strategy today. When Trump was indicted in March for allegedly falsifying business records and violating state and federal election laws (yes, that indictment), he declared that Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg was “handpicked and funded by George Soros.”
As the New York Times reported, many prominent figures in the GOP—such as Gov. Ron DeSantis, and Reps. Elise Stefanik and Marjorie Taylor Greene—echoed Trump by affixing “Soros-backed” to their criticisms of Bragg and the indictment. Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance took it a step further, proclaiming that “Alvin Bragg is bought by George Soros.” Soros is a Hungarian-American Jewish Holocaust survivor and refugee from communism whose political activism—which is generally liberal and cosmopolitan, and thereby anathema to the nationalist right—has made him a target of vicious antisemitic conspiracy theories for decades. Anti-Defamation League director Jonathan Greenblatt acknowledges that drawing a connection between Soros and Bragg isn’t antisemitic on its own, but he distinguishes between an isolated case and a “person or a political party [that] repeatedly and relentlessly makes wild claims such as that there is a ‘cabal of globalists backed by Soros destroying our country.’”
That’s exactly what the nationalist right has been doing for years. When Tucker Carlson was still the apex host at Fox News, he produced a documentary titled “Hungary vs Soros: The Fight for Civilization.” The documentary presented Hungary’s nationalist prime minister Viktor Orbán as one of the last bulwarks defending Western civilization from—you guessed it—a cabal of globalists backed by Soros. Carlson says Soros has made the “societies he focuses on more dangerous, dirtier, less democratic, more disorganized, more at war with themselves, less cohesive. In other words, it’s a program of destruction aimed at the West.” These ideas tend to trickle down to lesser (but no less noxious) demagogues: “Why does George Soros want to fund the destruction of America?” Candace Owens demanded to know after the first indictment. “He is committed to fostering the end of America. That is the truth.”
In Carlson’s telling, Hungary is an “outpost of Western civilization in the middle of Europe” which is thwarting Soros’s sinister globalist agenda with its embrace of traditional values, immigration restrictions, etc. He accuses Soros of using NGOs that are “accountable to no one” to undermine Hungarian democracy. In reality, it is Orbán’s effort to build what he himself describes as an “illiberal democracy” in Hungary that has led to the erosion of judicial and media independence, the manipulation of the electoral system to benefit his party (Fidesz), and constant attacks on civil society—like legislation that made it difficult for Soros’s Open Society Foundations to operate in the country by clamping down on foreign funding. Orbán’s government used similar legislative maneuvering to push Central European University, which was founded by Soros at the end of the Cold War, out of the country in 2018.
Beyond the expulsion of Soros-supported institutions, Orbán has used Soros as a scapegoat to galvanize conservative Hungarians: “We are fighting an enemy that is different from us,” he said in 2018. “Not open, but hiding; not straightforward but crafty; not honest but base; not national but international; does not believe in working but speculates with money; does not have its own homeland but feels it owns the whole world.” Carlson says the charge of antisemitism is merely a political cudgel used against Orbán to stifle legitimate criticism of Soros. You be the judge.
Near the beginning of Carlson’s documentary, he claims that Soros has “installed radical prosecutors who refuse to enforce the law.” When Trump and other Republicans decry a “Soros-backed” prosecutor, they know exactly what they’re doing—trafficking in a paranoid and xenophobic conspiracy theory about a Jewish financier controlling the world. This sounds a whole lot like Lindbergh’s hysterical warnings about Jewish “ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio and our government.”
ONE OF CARLSON’S POLITICAL INFATUATIONS is the idea that Democrats in the United States and members of the globalist cabal abroad are attempting to undermine democracy by importing foreign voters to dilute the political influence of “legacy” citizens. This is why Carlson accuses Soros of waging a “political, social, and demographic war on the West.”
Trump has been waging his own demographic war for years. He falsely accuses Democrats of pushing for open borders (the Hungarian right says the same about Soros). Since the very beginning, he has terrified his supporters with images of Mexican criminals, drug dealers, and rapists flowing across the southern border. As president, his fear-mongering about immigration was so thorough that it sometimes sounded like bigotry Bingo—when a caravan of migrants from Central and South America made its way toward the United States in 2018, Trump said (absent any evidence) that “unknown Middle Easterners” were mixed in with the crowds. Trump publicly suggested that U.S. soldiers shoot migrants if they threw rocks and privately wondered why putting bullets in their legs wasn’t an option. Of course, Trump suggested that Soros was paying migrants to continue their journey northward, undeterred by the fact that a bomb had been discovered in Soros’s New York mailbox a week earlier.
When Trump isn’t echoing Lindbergh, he’s channeling Joseph McCarthy. Unlike his predecessors who urged unity after tragedy, Trump sowed fear and hatred. Just days after the September 11 attacks, President George W. Bush visited the Islamic Center of Washington, D.C. and declared that the “face of terror is not the true faith of Islam.” After a 2015 terror attack in San Bernardino, Trump demanded a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Bush called upon Americans to treat their Muslim neighbors with the respect they would afford any fellow citizen; Trump told the brazen and incendiary lie that he saw thousands of Muslims celebrating on September 11.
Isolationism and prejudice are often entwined, but it’s especially unsurprising that an isolationist as opportunistic and vindictive as Trump is willing to exploit bigotry and conspiracism. Like Lindbergh, Trump uses scapegoats to make his case for isolationism because it’s much easier to manipulate public opinion when you manufacture a nefarious enemy within—especially when the country faces real enemies abroad, like an imperialist dictator in Russia who is prosecuting the largest conflict in Europe since World War II.
When Trump discusses external threats like the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he only does so to attack his domestic political enemies: “We have never been closer to World War III than we are today under Joe Biden,” he says. But Trump isn’t interested in a debate about foreign policy—he prefers to talk about the “deep state” and the “globalist neocon establishment that is perpetually dragging us into endless wars.” His policy prescriptions are similarly domestic, political, and personal in their focus: “Congress should refuse to authorize a single additional shipment of our depleted weapons stockpiles . . . to Ukraine until the FBI, DOJ and IRS hand over every scrap of evidence they have on the Biden Crime Family’s corrupt business dealings.”
Trump hasn’t bothered to develop a coherent position on Ukraine. He prefers to terrify voters with the specter of “nuclear Armageddon” while indulging their darkest conspiratorial fantasies about globalist puppet masters in Washington. This is what Lindbergh did with the original America First movement: He ignored the existential threat posed by Nazism and turned Americans’ attention and hostility toward their neighbors. According to the preeminent America Firster of the last century, it wasn’t the fascist takeover of Europe that Americans should worry about, but the fifth column dragging the United States into war for “reasons which are not American.”
TRUMP’S AMERICA FIRSTISM is far more dangerous than Lindbergh’s. Trump isn’t just an isolationist and a bigot; he’s the most powerful demagogue in the country who stands a real chance of returning to the Oval Office. And if he wins in 2024, he will be more paranoid and vindictive than ever. There’s only one reason Trump wants to become president: to “totally obliterate the deep state,” as he put it in his first post-indictment (or, rather, first post-second-indictment) speech. The “deep state” he plans to destroy now encompasses at least the State Department, the Department of Defense, the intelligence services, and the Department of Justice.
Trump recently declared that the “greatest threat to Western civilization today is not Russia. It’s probably, more than anything else, ourselves.” He went on to condemn the “Marxists,” “globalists,” and other “horrible USA-hating people” who are “doing more damage to America than Russia and China could ever have dreamed.” This has been Trump’s central message to Americans from the beginning—that the gravest threats are all around them.