The magical religion of Firstism in America has two regressive, infantile manifestations. For decades, rightwing chauvinism has worshiped America Firstism. Because the US is always the best country ever, a Christian God grants the US divine rights to perpetual world leadership. Reigniting that equally bizarre muddle, “America, right or wrong,” Trump’s sneering, snarling buffoonery begins and ends with this “self-evident” leap of faith.
Apparently, some 30% of the right is so terrified (bigoted, benighted?) they fall for Trumpian folly that (white) America was once great and, just by elevating an amateur, blustery billionaire, “we can be great again,” If we only banish all our stupid leaders, inveighs the Donald, the remainder will be tough, savvy deal makers capable of solving everything. A mystery beyond human ken is how Trump yahoos will magically slice away all the stupids, leaving the path to greatness wide open.
And that irrational fantasy kicks off with bigger Pentagon budgets, fortress walls, and paranoid bans that demonize “outsiders.” So much for our esteemed melting pot ideals. All candidates but Sanders endorse rampant, neocon Yankee Firstism, pushing to activate the Bush Doctrine where the Monroe Doctrine feared to tread: everywhere.
The other noxious malady — our obsession with seemingly monumental Firsts — repeatedly favors token symbolism over true diversity and excellence. Footraces, sports and elections aside, what’s so great about being the Big First? How many media-stamped firsts (racial, gender, ethnic, age) empower a tide that lifts similar boats? First is not always best: first into the wartime breach endangers your life. Want to relive your first days at school or first job interviews, let alone first kisses, loves or marriages?
Upfront and personal in the Democratic primary is the latest sham Firstism crusade. When all else fails, when her setbacks, low-achievement boasts or high negatives loom, Hillary intones: “elect me. I own the mandate for the first woman president.” This is no trivial desperation, considering how gender, profile and family pitches have lost their oomph this season (Jeb! who?).
Being First or Being Best?
Non-Hillary pundits agree: the Clinton campaign lacks vision, message and focus, forever struggling to overcome bad press, investigations, and perceived self-entitlement. Forget legacy, last names, or identity politics this year, even actual governance experience. Nevertheless, her scattergun, tin-ear campaign leans on this singular default: elect HC for secondary physical attributes over which she had zero control: being born a girl. Is physiology equal to destiny? Does gender (even ethnicity) correlate with greatness, even being the best candidate?
HC’s chance gender was offset (and propelled) by a good intentional decision: marriage to a great political prospect (points for prescience) and sticking to him through thick and thin (call it loyalty, denial or ambition). Had she not married Bill, would today’s Hillary Rodham go for the gold a second time? Not likely. What a puzzle, like one hand clapping: will the last (name) bring on the first (female president)?
Relevant, big question: how many breakthrough Firsts correlate with distinction? Though helping garner votes, does Obama’s skin color (and story) inform what he’s done or not done. Not for me. What electable Democrat would have acted differently? What has he done for minorities? Mainly, Obama won thanks to good timing, rousing speechifying, fundraising, and a flawless campaign.
Likewise, did JFK’s Catholic Firstism explain talking up illusory “missile gaps” or his belated support for civil rights? What was “Catholic” about his witty press conference charm or oratorical talents? Yes, thanks to JFK (and major cultural shifts in 50 years), being Catholic is a non-issue: whether Sanctorum, Kasich by birth, Jeb by conversion. Even for the waffling Rubio, lurching from Catholic to Mormon to Catholic to Baptist and Catholic. Is that odd sequence robotic, whimsical or presidential?
Symbolism Lifts Few Boats
Did Meg Whitman, the first woman CEO blazing across the high-tech world, grease very wide skids? Not really as token women (running Ebay, Yahoo, and HP) have not repaired wage injustice for women (4/5s of male counterparts). Or amplified female hiring across the conspicuously male tech world. We’ve notched our first Hispanic senators and governors, but does that reflect newfound cultural tolerance and openness — or booming, tribal population surges?
Of course, complacent Americans boast we’re less bigoted because minorities have greater visibility. Why doesn’t such high-profiled diversity translate to significant group economic gains? Now fat cats have a tad more diversity. Have half a dozen top black CEOs offset the millions of minority children lacking food, lead-free water, or educational options available to whites? And Obama the black winner speaks to the downside of Firstism, inciting not greater tolerance but eight, incredibly ugly years of racist defiance against his legitimacy. Horrendous “firsts” oozed out of the slime, with poisonous scandals over Obama’s birth, religious beliefs or national loyalties.
Everyone Boasts a Special First
Actually, what prominent leader can’t boast some special Firstism? Harry Truman was the first, only Missouri president, also the first small-town, ex-clothing salesman. But did this down-to-earth origin stop him from being the first and only earthling to approve wiping out civilians with nukes? Nixon was the first, manifestly indictable criminal to win re-election and the first president forced out of office. Makes you wonder why we don’t track negative firsts as well, as in Nixon’s unhinged, systemic corruption and mendacity unmatched until Dick Cheney became our first presidential vice-president!
Reagan was the first Grade-B actor/president to stay in office long after his hardly exceptional brainpower evaporated. Darn, said Nancy, the script went on too long. Carter was our first peanut farmer president, not alas the best prep for Washington peanut butter grinder. Our most redeemed post-president, Bill Clinton, was our first (and only) president from Arkansas, though far more unique for early extramarital flings, let alone his notorious WH sex scandal. That stamped him as the first president impeached for preposterous spin, claiming he did not have “sexual relations” with that woman. Or nonsense about what is, is.
Clueless Dubya wins going away as our first president for which English was not his first language. Worst still, he was the first to delegate so much power to the VP — and a dreadful choice it was, as Cheney was the first VP to pick himself. Bush also qualifies for first naming the Bush Doctrine — even if Cheney’s bête noire — thus the first modern president to extend Manifest Destiny to its perverse, immoral global extremes.
Being the first Jewish VP candidate hardly ennobled Joe Lieberman, nor improved his lousy party loyalty or reactionary foreign policy. So what? First modern black senator was Rep. Edward Brook from Mass.– not exactly a monumental ’60’s figure. Carol Mosely Braun (IL) was the first black woman senator, then ambassador, then failed presidential and mayoral candidate. Many firsts are peak career moments.
First-time Amateurs: Confederacy of Clowns
For GOP primaries, Firstism is a universal affliction, starting today with the first two southern GOP Hispanics seeking the presidency. And then comes Trump, the most conspicuously unqualified carnival barker for which the presidency would be his first elected office. Need we drag in the Ben Carson, Carly Florina, and Howard Cain brigade as first-time, never-elected-amateur clowns?
And isn’t there one standout, stand-up, democratic socialist, Jewish guy from New York in the mix? Sanders’ array of earned, special attributes (including age) easily outpoints Hillary’s gender boost. Plus, he brings heart, integrity and honesty, a first nationally this generation. Imagine the delightful firsts beaming from a Trump-Sanders presidential contest! Never before would we face this dramatic contrast: the Donald’s topdown, sham America Firstism vs. the genuine, grassroots movement Senator from Vermont.
Further, Sanders brings forth sterling qualities unmatched by any modern president this generation: self-knowledge and humility, knowing full well who he is the day he’s inaugurated. Plus, Sanders looms as the first president in decades not only his “own man” but hardly obsessed with legacy: his hero’s quest is to grow a sustainable, independent reform movement, looking for collective advances, not private fame. Now, those virtues qualify as great and important firsts, shrinking whatever idle tokenism grabs some headline. Not all firsts are great, but not all are trivial either.