Prior to Donald Trump winning the presidency and using the term as a cornerstone of his inaugural address, “America First” was best known as an anti-Semitic isolationist movement that took shape in the US before the nation’s entry into World War II.
The most infamous America Firster was the aviator Charles Lindbergh, who argued against American involvement in Europe.
Accused of Nazi sympathies, Lindbergh didn’t play a major role in the war and faded from view after hostilities ended. His fame rested on having been the first man to fly non-stop across the Atlantic.
It’s understandable that the phrase would confuse multinational business leaders in the second decade of the 21st century. The Allies won the war and then commenced decades of economic and military integration, leading to the development of global markets — the world that Carlos Ghosn, the cosmopolitan CEO of the Renault-Nissan Alliance, inhabits. America First was a pre-war relic.
Ghosn — born in Lebanon, raised in Brazil, educated in France — became CEO of Renault-Nissan in 2001 and for a decade and a half has been responsible for this French-Japanese hybrid, which not incidentally sells a lot of cars and trucks in the US.
At the Detroit auto show last month, Ghosn held a roundtable discussion with the media and spent a fair amount of time, in the days before Trump’s inauguration, visibly grappling with the “America First” idea.
It isn’t complicated
“If there is free trade, it should be good for me,” Ghosn said when asked to describe what American First means — with the “me” being the Trump’s USA.
He added that part two of his understanding of American First is that it prioritises “American jobs.”
For the most part, Ghosn took a cautiously flexible attitude toward what Renault-Nissan might be up against if Trump’s policies favour domestic US manufacturing.
For starters, Nissan builds cars in both Tennessee and Mississippi, but jobs in those reliable GOP states won’t help Trump. That’s because Trump needs the hiring to happen in Michigan and Ohio, which are the states he sought out during the 2016 election and will need again to get re-elected in 2020.
So some new jobs might be better than others, and Ghosn might not gain much by pointing out that there were exactly zero car factories in Tennessee before Nissan landed in Smyrna back in 1983 (GM followed in the 1990s with its Spring Hill factory).
Playing by the rules
As for NAFTA, Ghosn threw up his hands slightly when asked about the trade agreement, relevant to Renault-Nissan as the automaker operated three plants in Mexico.
‘The only rules in place were NAFTA,” Ghosn said. “We played by the rules.”
Since Trump took office, his relations with the Detroit Big Three have been far more visible than his dealings with any of the so-called foreign “transplant” automakers, many of whom like Nissan have been building and hiring in the US for decades, in the Republican stronghold that is the US South.
Ghosn “take it as it goes” attitude is understandable, and by taking Trump at his word on America First, he might actually be a good position to work with the new administration.
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