In its preview of how Donald Trump’s team plans to tease, humiliate, and ultimately destroy one of his first formal rivals for the GOP presidential nomination in 2024, Nikki Haley, the Daily Beast found the former president’s team offering up some revealing admissions. No, they say, Haley is no threat. Indeed, Trump is “gonna toy with her” like an orca batting around a condemned seal. But his camp doesn’t want to neutralize her too soon. “If it’s a crowded field, all Trump has to do is hold onto his base,” said one source in Trump’s orbit. And “anything over five [candidates] is a crowded field.” The remark constitutes an admission that Trump’s people know they must win the nomination, and they need to behave strategically to do it.
It is reasonable to conclude that the former president’s team hopes to run 2016’s playbook again insofar as they can duplicate the conditions that produced Trump’s primary victory. This unimaginative strategy doesn’t begin and end with their efforts to ensure a crowded debate stage. To hear Trump’s team tell it, the 45th president is also going to reprise the rhetorical themes he deployed on the campaign trail seven years ago.
In what Politico aptly deemed a “simple” approach to issues relating to American foreign policy, Trump will strike a straightforward pose: “Want World War 3? Vote for the other guy.” The former president intends to impugn his opponents as “globalist” supporters of endless interventions abroad and reckless escalation in the effort to contain expansionist foreign powers. Trump’s team is undeterred by the likely presence on that stage of at least two members of his administration who were the executors of his foreign-policy preferences: Haley, his former UN ambassador, and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The international threat environment of 2023 is radically different from the one that prevailed in 2016, of course. The Syrian Civil War has been replaced as the world’s foremost crisis by a hot war in Europe prosecuted by an unambiguously expansionist Russia. And an increasingly risk-prone China is just as intent on absorbing its neighbors. To the extent that the theoretical promise of a more introverted America was attractive to Republican voters then, it may not be now that there are Chinese balloons hovering over American ballistic missile silos in Montana.
But even if the international environment was static, Donald Trump now has a record that betrays his loose commitment to a McGovernite foreign policy. Insofar as his instincts led him to seek the withdrawal of U.S. forces from places like Syria and Afghanistan, he was talked or pressured out of his convictions. The Trump who ran for the White House as a dove also executed airstrikes on Syrian positions in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons on civilians. He ordered a second strike on a broader array of Syrian targets a year later in coordination with France and the U.K. That same Trump took the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps commander off the battlefield in an airstrike in Iraq after his administration lobbied hard against Baghdad’s attempt to withdraw support for U.S. counterterror operations on their soil.
President Trump saw the value in both preventative strikes on hostile targets that menaced Americans and kinetic responses to gross violations of international norms that did not present an imminent threat to U.S. assets or interests. Here, the new Trump and the old Trump are at odds, and his Republican opponents aren’t going to help him reconcile these contradictions.
With the Republican Party rediscovering its fiscally conservative roots amid an effort by congressional Republicans to pare back federal spending and contain the rapidly accruing interest associated with it, Trump’s plan is to force the GOP to suppress this healthy instinct. According to Semafor reporters, Trump plans to lambast his rivals for supporting, at one time or another in their lengthy careers, tax-code reform that would broaden the tax liabilities across the American income spectrum by replacing the progressive tax code with a national sales tax.
The so-called “Fair Tax” plan is easily demagogued as a proposal that would increase the tax burden on the working class, and there are plenty of Republicans who see the political peril in the proposal. But it is a live issue in the House, where Kevin McCarthy committed to holding a vote on a “Fair Tax” proposal to appease some of his most hardline—indeed, Trumpy—Republican critics.
Trump may want to position himself as a populist on the tax code, but he didn’t govern like one in the Oval Office. In his first year, Trump signed a GOP-crafted tax-code-reform bill that cut the corporate tax rate from 35 to just 21 percent. The supply-side theory buttressing the bill maintained that increased after-tax returns create incentives for businesses to make capital investments, produce more goods, deliver more services, and hire more workers. This was not a progressive reform, as actual progressives have made plain.
Even what may be Trump’s signature domestic achievement, the lightning-fast development of Covid-19 vaccines that deprived advocates of a rationale to justify the perpetuation of pandemic-mitigation strategies, is going to come under attack. In advance of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s entry into the race, Trump allies are reportedly prepared to mount a withering assault on the governor’s efforts to save the lives of seniors. One “Trump ally” told the New York Times that they were stockpiling “news B-roll of DeSantis presiding over vaccinations of elderly people.”
In essence, Trump’s allies plan to accuse the governor of supporting the Trump administration’s policies with too much gusto. The Trump White House encouraged the development of the vaccine, yes, but it also created programs and incentives designed to maximize uptake of the vaccine among the elderly, vulnerable population as rapidly as possible. “The ultimate goal here,” said Trump’s Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar of a program that allowed pharmacies to vaccinate seniors in long-term care facilities, “is to make getting a Covid-19 vaccine as convenient as getting a flu shot.”
Even if Trump’s Republican rivals on the 2024 debate stage are themselves scared of the kooks who turned on the vaccine, the protectionists who believe economic growth is a zero-sum game, and the isolationists who see American extroversion as the root of all the world’s evils, they don’t have to argue against Trump’s policies in office. They need only ask Donald Trump to defend his own record, which he now apparently believes to be a failed one.