Investigating two ubiquitous yet murky expressions—“America First” and the “American Dream”—through “a genealogy of national debates” that surround them.
Churchwell (American Literature /Univ. of London; Careless People: Murder, Mayhem, and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, 2013, etc.) introduces these ill-defined concepts and then uses broad historical research to demonstrate their intersections during portions of the last three centuries. Although the detailed narrative ends in 1941, the author offers an epilogue covering the years 1945 to 2017, mostly focused on Donald Trump and his associates. Churchwell demonstrates that when the concepts of the American dream and “America First” arose in the culture and the language of the U.S., those terms tended to signify the opposites of their meanings today. At any given moment, each term has been linked, for better or worse, to the American concepts of democracy, capitalism, and racial equality—or inequality, as the case may be. Churchwell acknowledges her preferred definitions, but she mostly avoids moral judgments in favor of pointing out shifting historical trends. So when Trump (or others) talk about “America First” or the American dream, their crabbed definitions may have different connotations than in previous decades. For example, “America First” has, at times, suggested isolationism from the remainder of the world, especially leading up to the world wars. At other times, it has suggested unthinking patriotism or even implied racism due to the desire for a whiter population. As for the American dream, Churchwell shows persuasively that, initially, it signified opposing the accumulation of wealth by capitalists, since business moguls rarely cared about the well-being of society as a whole. In 2018, however, it seems many Americans aspire to unabashed self-enrichment.
Churchwell demonstrates a lively intellect, as she exhibited early in her publishing career with The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe (2004). The only weakness of this book, which provides much food for thought, stems from generalizations about the way “most Americans” define the two key concepts. That knowledge is, of course, ultimately unknowable.