Last week, Punchbowl News published excerpts from a draft policy platform by the America First Caucus, a proposed legislative caucus for far-right members of Congress. Arizona’s Paul Gosar and Georgia’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, who reportedly planned to lead the group, had not yet formally launched their new organization when its draft platform became public. After a sharp backlash from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and other top GOP figures, it looks like they won’t follow through with their plans after all.
Why was the group so controversial? Most of the scrutiny last week fell upon its lengthy discussion of immigration policy. “The America First Caucus recognizes that our country is more than a mass of consumers or a series of abstract ideas,” the platform read. “America is a nation with a border, and a culture, strengthened by a common respect for uniquely Anglo-Saxon political traditions.” It called for legal immigration to be “curtailed,” for birthright citizenship to be abolished, and for refugee resettlement programs to be shut down.
“Mass immigration,” the platform argued, posed an “unnecessary risk” to both “large segments of our society” and “the long-term existential future of America as a unique country with a unique culture and a unique identity.” This cloddish echo of white-nationalist rhetoric was not lost on any observers, even among the GOP’s upper ranks. “America is built on the idea that we are all created equal and success is earned through honest, hard work,” McCarthy wrote on Twitter after the platform’s text became public. “It isn’t built on identity, race, or religion. The Republican Party is the party of Lincoln [and] the party of more opportunity for all Americans—not nativist dog whistles.”
But a deeper read of the platform suggests that the America First Caucus is hardly an outlier in today’s conservative politics. Most of its policy stances reflect the prevailing orthodoxy in Republican policy circles. Other positions may hold less support among some top GOP figures but still reflect the consensus of the Trumpian wing of the party. As much as McCarthy and other Republican leaders may like to cling to their party’s mythic status as the political home of Abraham Lincoln, they are now better understood as the last bastion of Trumpism. And to the extent that “nativist dog whistles” may be found in short supply, that’s only because they’ve been replaced by nativist bullhorns.
The immigration section in general is essentially a cruder version of Stephen Miller’s own wish list. The reference to “Anglo-Saxon political systems’’ would almost be funny if it weren’t entirely driven by racist anxieties. Greene and Gosar don’t work alongside “ealdormen” and “thegns” in Congress, and that august body is also nothing like a “witenagemot.” The United States is made up of 50 states instead of a heptarchy of feuding kings. Except for perhaps the county sheriff, there are few American institutions that can be traced to Anglo-Saxon rule itself. And then there’s the greatest irony of all: The Anglo-Saxons were themselves migrants to England who arrived after the decline and collapse of Roman rule.
Merely referring to this history doesn’t make it a dog whistle, of course. In legal contexts, judges and scholars occasionally refer to the “Anglo-American legal tradition” in order to capture both the English common law and American adaptations of it after 1776. But the America First caucus wasn’t discussing how to, say, apply the Fourth Amendment to modern contexts. The “Anglo-Saxon” reference came in a section that also claimed birthright citizenship “encourages hostile interests to undermine the legitimacy of democratic self-governance by engaging in subversive ‘birth tourism’ and chain migration.” It’s hard not to read that as a clumsy allusion to the same “white replacement” conspiracy theory recently espoused by Fox News’s Tucker Carlson.
Most of the caucus’s platform is an attempt to distill high-test Trumpism into an ersatz legislative agenda. (The America First Caucus’s name is itself a reference to a discredited term revived by Trump during his 2016 campaign.) It criticizes elites and oligarchs for undermining American schools with “left-wing interest groups,” for outsourcing American jobs to third-world countries, for importing “foreign citizens” to the U.S. “en masse,” and for undermining federalism by concentrating too much power in Washington. The platform compared Big Tech companies to Soviet dictators for denying conservatives access to their platforms and praised fracking and clean coal.
On foreign policy, the caucus platform largely reflects Trump’s rhetoric toward international relations, if not how he actually pursued those policies in power. It sharply criticized neoconservatives and liberal interventionists in the Bush and Obama administrations for failed military campaigns in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. “Instead of endless interventions, bold diplomatic endeavors must be undertaken with countries such as Russia and North Korea to ensure a more peaceful and stable world,” it said. “America should not be sacrificing blood and treasure while our so-called allies refuse to pull their weight in contributing toward neutralizing threatening actors in the world.”
The platform also criticized foreign aid programs as “generally an unwise undertaking” and said U.S. tax dollars “should not go toward teaching gender studies in Pakistan or supporting ideologically subversive non-governmental organizations (NGOs).” (It did not clarify which NGOs it viewed as “ideologically subversive.”) The Trump White House sought to cut foreign aid budgets on similar grounds. Trump’s ambassador to Hungary also criticized anti-corruption groups operating in that country and undermined U.S. efforts to protect Central European University, which was founded by George Soros, from a campaign to close it by Viktor Orban’s government.
The caucus’s platform mirrored Trump’s rhetoric toward restrictions to slow the coronavirus’s spread as dangerous and counterproductive. It called for direct economic support for struggling businesses and individuals, even though every would-be member of the caucus voted against Biden’s relief package earlier this spring. And while more than 560,000 Americans have died from Covid-19 over the past 12 months, the platform said the caucus would work “to make sure we do not overreact to a pandemic in this same way again.”
On the environment, the platform denounced “globalist, vague, and irrelevant policies being pushed under the guise of combating climate change,” such as the Paris climate accord and the Green New Deal. Its approach to environmental policy lauded “fishermen and hunters” for their “legitimate, and culturally deep, ties to the land” and praised “gold mines, copper mines, and oil wells” that “contribute to our modern lifestyle.” Those interests, the platform argued, should be balanced “with preserving opportunities for hiking, camping and enjoying the visual beauty of our lands.” It’s a vision of climate policy where the most important stakeholder resembles Donald Trump Jr., and the highest priority is his hunting expeditions.
Perhaps the strangest portion of the platform is its discussion of infrastructure. Republicans criticized President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan in recent weeks for including things that they don’t consider to be infrastructure, such as broadband internet and at-home caregivers. The America First Caucus platform adopted the same “bridges and roads only” mindset but then took it in a different direction by focusing on the aesthetics of the bridges and roads themselves.
“The America First Caucus will work towards an infrastructure that reflects the architectural, engineering, and aesthetic value that befits the progeny of European architecture, whereby public infrastructure must be utilitarian as well as stunningly, classically beautiful, befitting a world power and source of freedom,” the platform stated. “As the Romans demonstrated with aqueducts, walls and roads, function and beauty are not at odds. Federally funded infrastructure, including roads, buildings, airports, seaports, bridges, should demonstrate a pride of workmanship. A bridge is not merely something to cross from side A to side B, it is a connection among peoples.”
This is what happens when your policy aides spent too much time playing Age of Empires and Civilization as teenagers. If this were simply a critique of brutalist architecture for public buildings, I’d be somewhat sympathetic to it. But I’m not sure what it means for an airport to be the “progeny of European architecture.” Civil engineers have also learned quite a bit about bridge design since the Julio-Claudian dynasty. The Founding Fathers had an affection for classical architecture, which reflected their commitment to republican ideals and their search for a distinct style to represent it. After the immigration section, though, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the America First Caucus is trying to idealize something else.
None of this is particularly alien to mainstream conservative politics, especially in a post-Trump era. Indeed, the former president’s influence is clearest in what’s not in the platform. There are no references to the hobbyhorses of Tea Party Republicans during the Obama years, like deficit reduction or “entitlement reform.” The platform makes no mention of abortion or LGBT rights. None of the caucus’s would-be members are pro-choice or particularly supportive of gay and transgender Americans, of course. But Trump showed the GOP how to fight the culture wars differently, in an age when even many Republicans favor marriage equality and anti-discrimination laws.
It’s understandable why McCarthy would want to distance the House GOP from members like Gosar, who spoke at a white nationalist event in March, and Greene. And it’s no surprise that both of those members quickly tried to distance themselves from a racist articulation of their policy stances. But it’d be hard to find a better distillation of the post-Trump GOP than the America First Caucus’s platform. It hasn’t been the party of Lincoln for a long, long time. Maybe it’s now the party of medieval Lincolnshire.