Country First Over America First

ALEXANDER BOBROSKE: In 2008, then-presidential hopeful John McCain took up the campaign theme “Country First” -words that not only signified the Vietnam War veteran’s personal sacrifice for a cause greater than himself, but words that expressed optimism for a united and outward-looking America that espoused the aspiring values on which it was founded. Nearly a decade later, Donald Trump’s infamous, and similarly-sounding, slogan “America First” beat the divisive drum that promotes selfishness above country. Though the phrases at first glance look synonymous, John McCain’s visionary “Country First” stands in stark contrast to Donald Trump’s “America First” and its hallowed promises.

Country First envisions an ever more just and prosperous America built by imperfect service and sacrifice, where shared ideals can transcend identity politics and lift us up toward a more perfect union. America First conceives of a smaller nation grinding to a halt the gears of American exceptionalism.  It is built on fear-mongering of the other by those who, as John McCain said, would rather find scapegoats than solve problems.

The recent passing of Senator McCain leaves our nation at a critical juncture and poses the question of our times: which America do we want to be?

Country First knows that when the United States takes up the mantle of global leadership with resolve against despotism and support for building international institutions where everyone plays by the rules, both Americans and people around the world are better off. America First’s short-sighted isolationism leaves the United States divided and weaker, with fewer allies and emboldened enemies rewriting the global order in favor of tyranny and oppression.

John McCain received a hero’s farewell last week, not just in Arizona and Washington, but also in Ukraine, Georgia, Estonia, Bosnia, Vietnam, and all corners of the globe where his name was synonymous with a fighting tenacity for freedom and democracy. Country First understands that protecting American citizens necessitates a commitment to transatlantic collective security and NATO, the alliance of democracies that saw through the collapse of the Soviet Union. America First openly questions the US commitment to Article 5, dissolving our trust with allies at the most fundamental level and emboldening our adversaries in conflicts abroad while interfering in our democratic elections at home.

Country First knows that immigrants who come to live their American Dream also grow our economy. These immigrants sacrifice for their families, flavor our communities with new cultures, and strengthen shared American values of liberty, justice, and the pursuit of equal opportunity because they are living testaments. America First points to immigrants as scapegoats for the economic and social anxieties of its citizens rather than have the political courage to address the root causes of why citizens feel that if they work hard they no longer can get ahead.

Country First honors that the United States comes before any political party. John McCain and the Gang of Eight showed us how republicans and democrats can come together for comprehensive immigration reform that can secure our borders from cartels and crime while opening the doors of opportunities to hard workers seeking to become Americans. American First naively thinks that if you don’t agree with a political opponent, then you are an enemy.

Country First begets service; service in the military because you believe in protecting fellow citizens while advancing the beacon of freedom even at your own peril, service as a teacher in a tough school district because you have hope for each and every student, service as a civil servant with a passion to make the government efficiently work for the people. John McCain fell in love with America when he was a prisoner for five years in Vietnam, he embodied service.

American First takes and does not give. John McCain and Country First give without asking to take.

We must choose either Country First or America First, we cannot pursue both visions for the United States.

In John McCain’s farewell to the nation, he writes “I have tried to serve our country honorably. I have made mistakes, but I hope my love for America will be weighed favorably against them.”

To honor the legacy of John McCain is to love America and live out Country First.


Alexander Bobroske (SFS ’17) has served on numerous political campaigns, including as National Student Co-Chair for Carly Fiorina’s 2016 presidential campaign. He was first active in politics volunteering for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign when he was thirteen years old.

Max Magid