That slogan would fill out a bumper sticker nicely, but, otherwise, it's a bad fit for the auto industry.
Does it mean American businesses? American workers? American consumers? Assembled in America? Made with American-made parts? American-made subcomponents? American know-how? American robots? Does it mean Camrys and Accords ahead of Ram 1500s or the other way around? Does it mean anything at all?
It means President Donald Trump is dead serious about building that wall, literally or figuratively, between the U.S. and the rest of the world—and casting the nation's progress as an us-vs.-them struggle.
That's not a pro-growth agenda, and the auto industry ought to push back against such a narrow vision of America and how to invigorate its economy.
Corporations are, of course, obligated to put their shareholders first. But more and more, the businesses we cover are learning the value of putting people first—secure in the knowledge that the rewards flow to shareholders as well—by pushing the frontiers of vehicle safety, by providing better-paying jobs and more generous benefits than most other industries, by offering safe and affordable entry-level vehicles, by investing in global networks of talent, by embracing alternatives to the burdens of car ownership, by working in good faith (usually) to reduce fuel consumption and pollution.
In that context, "America first" is more than just banal. It's a dangerous negotiating posture that only invites our trading partners to adopt "Mexico first," "Canada first," "China first" and even "America last" policies. At that point, America would be alone but certainly not first.
The Detroit Three—and their accomplices in organized labor—shouldn't be excused for the "carnage" they jointly left across America's factory towns, the decades of bad-faith negotiations and cutthroat calculations that sent many Midwestern communities into a death spiral. Trump is right to call them on it.
At the same time, they shouldn't retreat from the more prudent course they have taken in recent years to create a more profitable, sustainable global industry. This phase has involved billions of dollars in investments in Mexico, yes, but it also has unlocked billions more for investments in U.S. plants, top-notch talent and fuel-saving technology. It's creating prosperity in the U.S. and in other countries and preventing the rise of new ghost towns.
Auto industry leaders last week were fortunate to get face time with the new president. For all their efforts to cooperate with Trump's re-election strategy and spin their long-planned investments in swing states as pro-American, let's hope they also were forthright with the president about the rewards of engaging with neighbors and global trading partners and sincere in their desire to spread those rewards across America and beyond.