Fellows | 1 February 2017

Our History Shows There’s a Dark Side to ‘Buy American’


By Dana Frank

Dana Frank is Professor of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz and the author of “Buy American: The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism.”

“We will follow two simple rules,” President Trump promised in his inaugural address. “Buy American and hire American.”

Trump’s program might sound appealing. But the Buy American exhortation follows a long history of similar campaigns steeped in racism, especially against Asians and Asian Americans, that have had real, destructive consequences. It’s not that the Buy American call is racist in itself — there’s nothing wrong with seeking to reinvest our dollars back in good local jobs. The problem lies in the way in which it frames the issues.

Buy American presumes an imagined economic nation that pits working people in the United States against those of other countries, casting them as the enemy. From there, it’s often been a quick step to racial distinctions and attacks, as the past has shown. Buy American also has played into the hands of transnational corporations and other elites, who are happy if working people in the United States turn against those from other countries, while the corporations themselves flit about the world seeking low-cost labor.

Buy American campaigns date back to the Boston Tea Party and the American Revolution. President George Washington, at his inauguration, deliberately wore “homespun” clothes as a symbolic nationalist statement — but he had put five of his slaves to work making cloth, an early clue that the politics of these campaigns are fraught.

The Buy American call erupted again in late 1932 and early 1933, when William Randolph Hearst, the media magnate who owned 27 daily newspapers with a circulation of 5.5 million, launched a Buy American campaign as his answer to the Great Depression: “Buy American and spend American. … Keep American money in America and provide employment for American citizens.” Every day for three months, Hearst’s papers in lockstep ran three or four editorials, testimonials, articles, cartoons and columns exhorting Buy American.