Trumpism Lite, the Think Tank


What exactly is the point of the America First Policy Institute?

WASHINGTON, DC – MAY 18: U.S. Secretary of Energy Rick Perry (C) speaks as Texas Public Policy Foundation President and CEO Brooke Rollins (L), news commentator Van Jones (2nd L), Senior White House Adviser and son-in-law of President Donald Trump Jared Kushner (3rd L), and Jessica Jackson Sloan (R) of Cut50, participate in a panel discussion during a summit at the East Room of the White House May 18, 2018 in Washington, DC. The White House hosted a summit to discuss prison reform. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

With former President Trump out of Washington, America First populists find themselves, as they were before 2016, more or less without a credible advocate in the nation’s capital. With demand far outstripping supply for just this sort of thing, it’s a seller’s market, so some of the new entrants appear to be cutting corners hoping nobody’s going to notice the product defects.

Which is to say, if the things you liked about the Trump administration were stinginess with the second round of COVID checks, the Platinum Plan, and the quasi-Christian stylings of Paula White, you’ll love the new think tank announced last week, the America First Policy Institute.

Trump himself said last week in a statement that they “have my full support as they work not only to preserve the historic accomplishments of my administration, but also to propel the America First Agenda into the future.”

The president and CEO is Brooke Rollins, who has supported amnesty and was instrumental in persuading the White House to take a softer line toward the rioting last year. Mike Allen of Axios reports that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump are informal advisors. 

What you won’t see looking at the AFPI’s website are indications of strength on the three main issues that got Trump elected: trade, immigration, and opposition to foreign wars.

The blurb for the “Center for Homeland Security and Immigration” decries “efforts to dissuade social integration of immigrants,” as well as “narratives proclaiming American iniquity [and] abuse of our asylum system,” without even mentioning illegal immigration.

In the realm of foreign policy, the two most prominent names are Keith Kellogg, formerly Mike Pence’s national security advisor, and John Ratcliffe, former Director of National Intelligence. Ratcliffe is an Iran hawk and Kellogg wrote an op-ed in Breitbart in 2017 saying “do not listen” to those calling for Trump to follow through on his commitment to end the war in Afghanistan.

Perhaps one could excuse the Wilsonian word salad in the security portion of their mission statement—“freedom’s cause in every part of the globe depends upon a strong America”—if it was being led by people whose records demonstrated that they construed American interests narrowly. It’s impossible to have that confidence here.

The biggest name on the roster is probably Larry Kudlow, who is a staunch free-trader opposed to social spending, not exactly the type you’d expect to champion creative ideas for restoring the American middle class. Other hires are even more puzzling, like Javon Price, who came from the anti-Trump Republican group GenZGOP. About Paula White, who will chair the “Center for American Values,” the less said the better.

To the extent some of these Trump-aligned PACs and policy outfits draw fundraising away from the moribund institutions of D.C.’s conservative movement, perhaps there’s a case for them. But it’s hard to look at this list of staffers and conclude it’s a populist endeavor.

Details are slim about what is going to come out of this new group, but it is striking how backward-looking they have been in their initial media promotion, with Rollins and Chairwoman Linda McMahon talking about how they’ll be defending the policy legacies of the Trump administration. This may be useful for maintaining Trump’s influence in the GOP, or for the alleged political aspirations of Brooke Rollins to run for governor of Texas, but not much else. I think most America First conservatives would admit the Trump administration’s policy record was decidedly mixed.

One could even argue many of the people involved in this project share the blame for Trump’s loss in 2020. From Kudlow advising against a second round of COVID checks, to the Rollins/Kushner softness on immigration, these sorts of deviations from the populist line probably played a role in many of the midwesterners who voted for Trump the first time staying home. Whatever shadiness there may have been in the election this November, it doesn’t exculpate the people around Trump whose decisions allowed it to be so close in the first place.

NeverTrumper Pete Wehner claimed to Bloomberg that the AFPI was attempting to rehabilitate Trump’s reputation after two impeachments, but at least to the Republican Party’s base, no such rehabilitation is needed. What is needed are institutions to carry forward the vision Trump’s success in 2016 pointed toward, but it looks like we’re going to have to keep waiting for that.

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