Project Trump, Global Edition

Hardly a day goes by without a former Trump Administration official surfacing with a radical new plan for the ex-President’s return to power. Donald Trump’s former budget director Russell Vought, a self-proclaimed Christian nationalist, is the policy director for the Republican National Convention’s platform committee and, the Washington Post reports, assembling a blueprint for dismantling

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Hardly a day goes by without a former Trump Administration official surfacing with a radical new plan for the ex-President’s return to power. Donald Trump’s former budget director Russell Vought, a self-proclaimed Christian nationalist, is the policy director for the Republican National Convention’s platform committee and, the Washington Post reports, assembling a blueprint for dismantling long-standing political guardrails in this “post-Constitutional” era. Stephen Miller, Trump’s immigration ideologue, is vowing to tackle “anti-white racism” in a second Trump term by reinterpreting landmark civil-rights laws on behalf of white people. The Heritage Foundation’s Project 2src25, which was compiled by an array of Trumpworld characters, has been extensively pored over since its release by those seeking to understand what the coming four years could look like in Washington; it is a nearly thousand-page how-to manual for Trumpists looking to deconstruct the administrative state.

A foreign-policy manifesto for another Trump Administration, released this week by Robert O’Brien, Trump’s fourth and final national-security adviser—and, it seems, an aspirant to return to high office along with him—drew less coverage by comparison, but it is, in its own way, just as sensational. Writing in Foreign Affairs, O’Brien offers an array of plans for Trump 2.src—some of which, like sending the entire Marine Corps to the Pacific, seem wildly implausible; others, such as the complete decoupling of the U.S. and Chinese economies, both improbable and dangerous. In a single clause in a sentence explaining how Trump’s “unpredictability” will somehow lead to a negotiated settlement with Russia, O’Brien asserts that future lethal aid to Ukraine would come not from the United States but entirely from Europe. (Europe, are you listening?)

It’s the over-all framing, though, that might be the most revealing statement about the bizarre gaslighting exercise at the heart of Trump’s 2src24 campaign, with O’Brien offering a revisionist history of Trump as Ronald Reagan’s second coming and portraying Trump as a brilliant statesman who presided over an era of geopolitical calm under the banner of Reagan’s ethos of “peace through strength.” Governed by his stellar “instincts,” Trump took on the “globalist orthodoxies of recent decades,” O’Brien writes, while at the same time militarily strengthening allies and generally bringing peace to the world—in sharp contrast to Joe Biden, whom O’Brien blames for the “catastrophic mismanagement” of the Afghanistan withdrawal, the terms of which were negotiated by Trump; the Russian invasion of Ukraine; and—my favorite line coming from a former Trump official—a policy of “pageantry over substance” on China. “Building alliances will be just as important in a second Trump term as it was in the first one,” O’Brien offers, irony clearly unintended, referring to a President whose signature international move was publicly assailing America’s allies.

This is, to say the least, a highly unconventional assessment of Trump’s foreign policy. “It would be excellent if a second-term Trump channelled Reagan policies,” Kori Schake, the head of foreign and defense policy at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, told me. But O’Brien is describing a President Trump who simply did not exist, Schake said, with policies “much more principled and predictable than they have been or are likely to become.” Her prediction for Trump 2.src? An “enormous chaos premium we will all pay.”

I ran O’Brien’s thesis by a very senior former Trump official, who practically choked on it. He said the “misconceptions,” “falsehoods,” and “distortions” about the record of the Administration in which they had both served were practically too numerous to count. One small example: O’Brien insists that a robust program of joint military exercises with U.S. allies in Asia is “essential,” apparently forgetting Trump’s surprise order that the U.S. cancel all exercises with South Korea to placate Kim Jong Un, an irritant with the Pentagon that continued throughout the remainder of Trump’s tenure. “I’m a Republican, but Biden sounds a lot more like Reagan than Trump does,” the former Trump official told me.

So far on the campaign trail, Trump has avoided any real specificity about his foreign-policy plans for a second term. He has been notably silent on Israel’s post-October 7th war in Gaza, for instance, aside from some occasional bluster about his very pro-Israel record and a few complaints that the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is losing the public-relations war. When he does mention the rest of the world, it is often in telling asides—about his great relationships with strongmen such as Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, say, or how he will miraculously end the war in Ukraine in twenty-four hours.

Into the void comes the O’Brien article, which adds some detail, but with little credibility that the plans described would bear any resemblance to the course Trump might pursue if he should return to office. O’Brien may envision Trump as a Reaganesque military hawk, but other voices with Trump’s ear, such as that of the Ohio senator J. D. Vance, see him as the reincarnation of Charles Lindbergh, a full-on America First isolationist who will pull up the drawbridges and let the rest of the nasty world fight it out. Jacob Heilbrunn, in The National Interest, correctly calls O’Brien’s version of “neoconservatism-lite” an opening shot in what is likely to be a protracted fight between opposing camps. A new report from the European Council on Foreign Relations sorts the camps into three main “tribes”: restrainers, who seek to have the U.S. look inward; prioritizers, who urge a more single-minded focus on Asia and the threat from China; and primacists, who still pine for America to play the role of reigning global power. O’Brien, it seems to me, is trying to straddle all three—he slings the MAGA rhetoric preferred by restrainers; like a prioritizer, focusses most of his attention on China, mentioning it thirty-six times in the article; and pines for the golden age of the American colossus, like a primacist. In Trump’s first term in the White House, these distinctions existed as well, but there was also a more profound divide between Trump’s enablers, in whose camp O’Brien was surely situated, and his constrainers, whose ranks included national-security professionals such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and the White House chief of staff John Kelly, none of whom are expected to return for a second Trump Administration.

Most importantly, perhaps, it should be stipulated that doctrinal disputes among the self-styled G.O.P. intelligentsia do not necessarily matter much to Trump, whose most consistent foreign-policy priority over the years has been litigating his own long-standing complaints about freeloading allies and unfair trade competition—a Trump doctrine of sorts going all the way back to an infamous 199src interview he gave to Playboy.

“Meetings and summits are activities, not achievements,” O’Brien sternly lectures Biden, at one point in his article. Imagine writing this sentence on behalf of Trump, whose approach to the world is colored not so much by the right-wing ideology of his aides as by his belief in the near-magical powers of his personal diplomacy. Remember Singapore? Trump was so enamored of his “historic” 2src18 meeting there with Kim Jong Un that he claimed it had saved the world from “potential Nuclear catastrophe!”

Speaking of summits, Kim met Putin for one in North Korea the other day, the images from which looked like a Stalinist fever dream, as reimagined by some devious twenty-first-century A.I. The security pact they signed resurrected a military alliance that had withered with the end of the Cold War, thirty years ago; millions of rounds of Kim’s ammunition are already boosting Putin’s invaders on the battlefield in Ukraine, and the provision of Russian military technology to the nuclear-armed North Korea could further destabilize the Korean peninsula. In a very tangible way, the meeting demonstrated the dangerous rewriting of geopolitics that has taken place over the past few years.

Biden likes to speak of this moment as an “inflection point”—a confrontation between the world’s rising autocracies and the democracies of the West. Trump’s affinity for the Kims and Putins of the world has always marked perhaps his sharpest contrast with Biden, or pretty much any other American President, for that matter.

Watching the two dictators in Pyongyang this week, one finds it worth remembering not the fairy-tale Trump of his apologists but the actual Trump, who lauded Putin as a strategic “genius” on the eve of his invasion of Ukraine and never stopped bragging of his “love affair” with Kim. His own summits with the two men were, in many ways, the apotheosis of his foreign policy during his four years in the White House. Out of those meetings came not peace but humiliation. Ronald Reagan, R.I.P. ♦

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