He spoke in lurid detail of cities overrun by violent crime. He railed against the media, deep state and liberal elites. And he touted his wall with a dire warning: “Millions of illegal aliens are stampeding across our wide open borders, pouring into our country. It’s an invasion.”
Donald Trump’s return to Washington this week was deja vu all over again. The former US president’s 90-minute speech at a luxury hotel was eerily reminiscent of the nativist-populist campaign that won him the White House in 2016. But while Trump himself never evolves, his audience this time around was different.
While the America First Policy Institute (AFPI), a rightwing thinktank, was happy to indulge the garrulous showman at its inaugural summit, it also maintained a cold-eyed focus on the future. Over two days Trump’s allies and alumni laid out a blueprint for a return to power and a second term more authoritarian, more extreme and more ruthless than the first.
The institute – evidently untroubled by the associations of the phrase “America First” with Nazi sympathisers who wanted to keep the US out of the second world war – has 150 staff, including nine former Trump administration cabinet officials and more than 50 former senior staff and officials. Familiar faces such as Kellyanne Conway, Larry Kudlow and Mark Meadows were feted at the conference.
The AFPI is led by Brooke Rollins, a former domestic policy adviser in the White House, who boasted how the 15-month-old organisation put “boots on the ground” in 32 states on issues from “election integrity to school choice and patriotic education to health care transparency to taxes and spending to fatherhood initiatives to border security to big tech censorship”.
The institute has sued Twitter, Facebook and YouTube for alleged censorship, she added, while fighting Joe Biden’s vaccine mandates all the way to the supreme court and opposing his Build Back Better plan for climate and social spending.
Critics have described the AFPI as a “grift” for Trump hangers-on to make money but others perceive a “White House in waiting”, determined to avoid the mistakes of his uniquely turbulent presidency and, through 22 “policy centres”, guarantee the survival of Trumpism beyond Trump.
Conway, a former senior counselor to the president, told the Guardian: “It certainly is a way to preserve the legacy and for some people it’s also a way to make sure that the entire body of work of the America First movement is all in one place. It’s about policies and principles, not about personalities and politics.”
She added: “I actually believe, and I’ve heard Brooke Rollins say more than once or twice, privately and publicly, that we have this in place in case President Trump runs again and, if he doesn’t, then it’s in place for whomever runs again.
“Whoever the Republican nominee is next time, whether it’s Trump or someone else, will run the way all of these Republican candidates for House and Senate and governor this time, with very few exceptions if any, are running on the America First agenda. They all are doing that this time.”
The summit revelled in apocalyptic portrayals of Biden and Democrats posing an existential threat to the American way of life. It also described America First principles such as making the economy work for all, putting patients and doctors back in charge of healthcare, protecting the second amendment right to bear arms and giving parents more control over the education of their children.
The list of priorities included “finish the wall, deliver peace through strength, make America energy independent, make it easy to vote and hard to cheat, fighting government corruption by draining the swamp”.
Handouts of reading material offered another insight. A “parent toolkit” warned of the perils of “wokeness”, “critical race theory” and “the 1619 Project”, citing examples such as an elementary school in Philadelphia that “forced fifth-grade students to simulate a black power rally”. It offered advice on how to run for school boards.
An op-ed by Rollins about the supreme court’s decision to overturn the constitutional right to abortion quoted the British prime minister Margaret Thatcher during the Falklands war: “Just rejoice at that news.”
A document on school safety and gun violence emphasised fortifying schools, improving access to mental health services and “understanding the relationship between culture and violence” rather than limiting access to firearms. Another paper was entitled: “Fatherlessness and its effects on American society”.
During one panel discussion, Rick Perry, a former energy secretary, insisted that the next Republican administration would not be “genuflecting at the altar of the religion of environmentalism”, adding: “We don’t need to apologise to anybody for being for fossil fuels and how they have changed the world that we live in today, the flourishing of the world.”
The gathering also heard about plans to follow through on what Steve Bannon, former White House chief strategist, described as the “deconstruction of the administrative state”, centralising power in the presidency like other strongmen around the world.
In his speech on Tuesday, Trump said: “We need to make it much easier to fire rogue bureaucrats who are deliberately undermining democracy or, at a minimum, just want to keep their jobs. Congress should pass historic reforms empowering the president to ensure that any bureaucrat who is corrupt, incompetent or unnecessary for the job can be told – did you ever hear this? – ‘You’re fired. Get out. You’re fired.’ Have to do it. Deep state.”
The comments followed recent in-depth media reporting about the dramatic scope and scale of planning for President Trump 2.0. The Axios website described how his aides are aiming to transform the federal government by replacing thousands of civil servants with loyalists to him and America First.
Axios wrote that the plan owes much to an executive order known as “Schedule F” that was secretly developed in the second half of Trump’s presidency only to be thwarted by his election defeat.
The site added: “The impact could go well beyond typical conservative targets such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Internal Revenue Service. Trump allies are working on plans that would potentially strip layers at the justice department – including the FBI, and reaching into national security, intelligence, the state department and the Pentagon, sources close to the former president say.”
The AFPI could prove central to this authoritarian vision. Newt Gingrich, a former speaker of the House of Representatives, drew a comparison with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative thinktank that he said was crucial to the Ronald Reagan administration, to the extent that Reagan gave each cabinet secretary a copy of its experts’ report and told them to implement it.
“The America First Policy Institute is going to do for the next few years what the Heritage Foundation did in 1979, 1980,” Gingrich said. “I think because of the experience over four years under President Trump, we have a seasoned enough cadre that, if we work at it methodically, we can actually have enormous impact on profoundly reshaping the federal government.”
Trump remained the undisputed master of the AFPI universe in Washington, with some panelists expressing nostalgic yearning for what they perceived as the golden age of his presidency, seemingly oblivious to the revelations of the congressional committee investigating his role in the deadly January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol.
Rollins described him as “one of the greatest Americans of all time”. Board chair Linda McMahon added: “Our nation greatly misses President Trump and we need his voice and perspective more than ever.” Senator Lindsey Graham opined that Trump was “good” for the Republican party and proclaimed: “I hope he runs again.”
But the thinktank is also seeking to trace an ideological thread in the chaos and carnage of the Trump years, laying the foundation for the future of America First after he has left the political stage or if the mantle passes to another Republican such as Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida.
Marc Lotter, chief communications officer at AFPI, said: “There’s no question that President Trump is the visionary that put all this in place and started it but the voters will decide who should carry that leadership forward and, if they’re America First, then they’ll have the benefit of our work.”
He added: “One of the differences between AFPI and many of our fellow folks in the conservative think space is we were actually the ones there doing it in the White House and so know what you need to do when you hit the ground running, whether it is in January ’23, when America First retakes control of Congress, or in a state house or a governor’s office, or eventually in ’25 in the White House. That’s what we’re preparing for.”
Policy experts remain sceptical of the AFPI. Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution thinktank in Washington, said: “I looked at the website yesterday and I was astonished by the number of people who appear to be in salaried positions and also by the unimpressive and unoriginal quality of what they turned out on the policy front.
“A small team of legislative assistants to a Republican congressman could have written papers with those titles in a week because there’s nothing very original about being pro-patriotic and pro-family in the Republican party. Let me know if they come up with anything more impressive than that.”
But Galston, a former policy adviser to President Bill Clinton, also noted the Axios report about Trump acolytes’ plans to purge disloyal civil servants. “A second Trump term would be even more dangerous than the first because they now realise how unprepared they were to assume power,” he added.
“I don’t think they’re going to make that same mistake again, and they now have a much clearer idea of what to do to institutionalise their power should they regain it. The next two and a half years will be a game for very high stakes in the United States.”
Friends, this isn’t the time to be complacent. If you are ready to fight for the soul of this nation, you can start by donating to elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris by clicking the button below.
Thank you so much for supporting Joe Biden’s Presidential campaign.