Donald Trump’s 2016 flagship policy was famously “Build the Wall.” The early rounds of the 2024 campaign have been dominated by Trump’s stranglehold over the competition, as well as his multiple court cases. Underneath the bluster and chaos, the former president has rolled out a significant number of new policy proposals that have gone without scrutiny, until now. This Washington Examiner series, Trumpism 2.0, will take a closer look at this policy, if it’s realistic, and if it’ll help Trump secure a second term.
Donald Trump has outlined an agenda shorn of the vestiges of GOP orthodoxy that marked his first administration in favor of an omnidirectional trade war abroad and renewed culture wars at home.
The former president’s policy plans have been overshadowed by his legal troubles and his efforts to relitigate the 2020 election, to the extent that the public may not be aware of his promises, but they have been spelled out in an ongoing series of videos and fact sheets posted to his website and filled in around the edges by comments to the press.
The main feature is an escalation from limited trade war to total trade war.
On the domestic front, his agenda marks a sharp turn from technocratic bureaucracy. The government will be much less engaged in managing domestic programs like Obamacare and Medicare or in promulgating and enforcing rules related to the environment, labor, or commerce.
Instead, the federal government in a second Trump term would be far more activist, in a direct sense, in confronting crime, homelessness, drug dealing, and other cultural woes that in the past have been commonly thought of as social, rather than economic, issues.
Overall, the agenda represents a major change from 2016, when Trump ran on, above all else, building a wall on the border with Mexico, with a lesser focus on reworking trade agreements and stopping the flow of drugs.
Once in office, though, Trump’s agenda for his first 100 days was steered in large part by economic advisers who favored freer trade and didn’t share his populist priorities and by congressional GOP majorities that had worked for years to build support for aggressive fiscally conservative measures, especially by replacing Obamacare and reforming other entitlements.
In the two years before the GOP lost the House, Trump had failed to repeal Obamacare, enacted a tax cut that proved unpopular, struggled to fund construction of the wall, and turned his lofty ambition for infrastructure spending into a running joke.
This time around, an aggrieved Trump would be working with a different hand of cards. More isolated, he would be less likely to staff his economic team with pro-business Democratic bankers like Gary Cohn, who directed his National Economic Council in 2017, and more likely to pick America-first loyalists. And he would be working with congressional Republicans more open to his MAGA agenda.
THE TRADE WAR
The centerpiece of Trump’s trade proposals is the passage of a law, the Reciprocal Trade Act, that would allow him to unilaterally impose tariffs of equal size of any tariffs placed by other countries on the U.S.
“We have been a country that was disrespected on trade, and frankly, disrespected on just about everything,” Trump said in outlining the policy.
Trump has also floated 10% across-the-board tariffs.
The measures are billed as narrowing the trade deficit and supporting domestic manufacturing jobs. They’re also advertised as safeguarding the country’s supply chains, which, as the pandemic exposed, are often reliant on foreign nations for critical goods like medicines and certain critical minerals.
Of course, a trade war would not be new for Trump — he carried out a major dispute with China, in particular, in his first term.
But his new proposals would entail a challenge not just to U.S. trade with any one country and not just a retreat from the free-trade ambitions of recent GOP party leaders like George W. Bush and Paul Ryan but also to the international rules that have gone mostly unchallenged for decades.
Since the establishment of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the predecessor to the World Trade Organization, in 1947, the United States has helped steer the world in the direction of freer international commerce and reduced trade barriers. Trump’s plan would reverse that dynamic.
Instead, it would hearken back to the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930. That was signed into law by then-President Herbert Hoover and raised tariffs on thousands of goods with the aim of protecting employment. But other countries retaliated and world trade suffered, which some historians have argued contributed to the Great Depression.
Jeffrey Frankel, a member of President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, told the Washington Examiner that the Trump playbook on trade would deal a blow to the WTO, though he noted the organization has already been knocked down a peg thanks to the tariffs from Trump’s first term, which President Joe Biden has largely continued.
The proposed trade agenda would not only drive an economic wedge between the U.S. and its partners in Europe and elsewhere, but it could also further strain relations with some of America’s closest allies.
“It hurts our international diplomatic relations, but it also hurts the international economy as it affects the U.S.,” Frankel, who is a professor of capital formation and growth at Harvard University, said.
In his first term, Trump demonstrated that he doesn’t need congressional approval to put tariffs in place. He imposed tariffs on China, as well as on commodities such as steel and aluminum and goods such as washing machines, using existing powers, especially national security authorizations.
Apart from the diplomatic consequences, critics fear that a renewed Trump trade war would hurt businesses and exacerbate inflation.
“There is not actually very much that a president can do, whether it’s Trump or Biden, directly to affect inflation, but tariffs are one thing that can make inflation worse,” Frankel said.
Some conservatives in Congress would also be wary of tariffs. While tariffs help “U.S. domestic manufacturers to make products here, the actual price for that product does increase, and it’s borne by the American taxpayer dollars,” Rep. Kevin Hern (R-OK), chairman of the Republican Study Committee, told the Washington Examiner.
The Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan group that generally prefers lower taxes, estimated that the Trump 10% tariff plan would shrink the U.S. economy by 1.1% and threaten more than 825,000 U.S. jobs if trade partners retaliated in kind.
It’s also a matter of debate whether broad-based tariffs would lower the trade deficit. That’s because if the tariffs result in U.S. consumers buying fewer foreign goods, fewer dollars will flow to overseas producers. That in turn will drive up the value of the dollar, making foreign goods cheaper and thus offsetting the tariff.
It is worth noting that Trump failed to reduce the trade deficit in his time in office: It totaled 2.7% of gross domestic product in 2017, his first year in office, and 2.7% in 2019, before the pandemic struck.
Still, Trumpworld sees the balance of opinion in the GOP shifting its way on trade. Former Trump U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer recently told the Washington Examiner that, while there are “a few holdouts,” most of the brand of trade policy he and Trump championed, including prioritizing families and workers, combating China, and trying to draw down the trade deficit, is “the mainstream now of the Republican Party on trade.”
A SHIFT IN FOCUS AWAY FROM FISCAL CONSERVATISM DOMESTICALLY
For years, conservative Republicans in Congress, led by eventual House Speaker Paul Ryan, built the case for bringing down the trajectory of federal debt by overhauling Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Following the rise of the tea party in 2010, Republicans also spent enormous political capital rallying to replace Obamacare (although the party has since moved on after failing to repeal the law). Together, those entitlement programs make up roughly half of government spending, excluding interest payments on the debt.
A Trump presidency would put such fiscal conservatism in a deep freeze.
His platform features a pledge not to “cut a single penny” from Social Security and Medicare. On the healthcare finance system more broadly, it is silent.
At the same time, in recent days, his advisers and allies have suggested that Trump may pursue an extension and enlargement of his 2017 tax cuts, including a reduction in the corporate tax rate from the 21% rate set in 2017 to 15% or lower. An official plan for tax cuts has been notably absent from Trump’s campaign platform so far, though, including for the individual income tax provisions of the overhaul, which are set to expire in 2025.
With the federal debt held by the public at 95% of GDP and set to grow in the years ahead, though, tax cuts and increased spending would be a risky mix.
“The idea of cutting taxes further is silly when we haven’t even figured out how to extend the current tax cuts,” said Brian Reidl, a budget expert at the conservative Manhattan Institute who has put forward plans for stabilizing the debt.
“President Trump’s economic policies are based almost entirely on political vibes without any real coherent vision for the economy and for our fiscal solvency,” Riedl said.
Trump has said that revenues from his tariffs would be used to reduce deficits and debt. Riedl, though, argued that the first claim on tariff revenues would likely go to the industries, such as agriculture, that would be devastated in a trade war.
A WAR ON CRIME AND DRUGS
Rather than fiscal conservatism, Trump’s domestic agenda is focused on law-and-order conservatism.
He would stake out a far more aggressive stance on crime and would attempt a crackdown on drug traffickers, human traffickers, and the Mexican cartels.
Ambitiously, Trump said that he wants to ensure that those who are caught trafficking children across the border or smuggling drugs are given the death penalty.
Some of his plans would stretch the constitutional boundaries on the federal government’s role in managing state and local affairs.
He is calling for new spending to hire and train police officers. He would require law enforcement agencies that receive Department of Justice grants to employ much tougher policies on crime, including by cracking down on the open use of drugs and implementing “stop and frisk,” the practice of stopping people suspected of carrying weapons and subjecting them to searches, employed controversially in New York City.
Such methods have lost favor as the public has grown more sensitive to accusations of racial profiling and as liberal prosecutors have gained office in many major cities. But Trump is now proposing to target those prosecutors, specifically those whose elections were financed in part by liberal donor George Soros, with DOJ investigations.
And if local law enforcement is seen as falling short, Trump has also called for mobilizing federal forces, like the National Guard, to counter criminal activity and violence.
Trump envisions even more extraordinary efforts to counter the epidemic of drug overdoses, which claimed the lives of over 100,000 Americans last year, by mobilizing the military against Mexican cartels that deal drugs. Part of that would be a naval embargo on cartel operations, and another part would be direct military action to inflict “maximum damage” on cartels.
The idea of military incursions into Mexico would have been mostly unthinkable until recently, but that has gained some support among Republicans in Congress.
Still, the most eye-catching facets of the agenda might not have the deterrent effect that tough-on-crime advocates would hope for.
Officials struggle to follow through on the death penalty, noted Sean Kennedy, visiting fellow at the conservative Maryland Public Policy Institute.
“It would be more effective to do something that’s a guaranteed outcome — that these people are going to spend their lives in prison or that they will actually be detained and the charges will be brought against them,” Kennedy said. “Right now, most of these individuals aren’t being charged with kidnapping or other federal crimes that would do that.”
Nor is the recent history of threatening to withdraw funding promising. For example, former Trump Attorney General Jeff Sessions attempted to punish “sanctuary cities,” localities that refuse to cooperate with federal officials on immigration enforcement, by clawing back funding. But his efforts “were struck down time and time again by the judiciary,” Kennedy said.
A WAR ON HOMELESSNESS
To address urban homelessness, a problem that has worsened in major cities in recent years and is often tied to drug abuse and crime, Trump would embrace measures that most mayors would consider out of bounds or impossible.
He has called for working with states to simply ban urban camping, giving those in the encampments the option of treatment (in newly created tent cities built for that purpose) or arrest. He has also advocated the reinstitution of mental institutions for those who can’t function in society due to severe mental illness.
Jon Guze, a senior fellow for legal studies at the John Locke Foundation, said that, in addition to being tougher on crime, the U.S. has to be tougher on “disorder.”
“We took a wrong step in the 1960s when we decided to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill,” Guze said. He said many homeless are mentally ill and are not done any favors by being left out on the streets.
“People who simply can’t look after themselves should be institutionalized,” Guze said.
AN ASSAULT ON THE REGULATORY STATE
Trump has sketched out plans to roll back regulations put in place by the Biden administration and previous presidents. Most prominently, in a bid for the support of auto workers, many of whom are concentrated in the 2020 swing state of Michigan, he has pledged a wholesale reversal of Biden’s emissions rules and fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, as well as the elimination of subsidies for electric vehicles implemented in the Democratic Inflation Reduction Act. He’s argued that Biden’s push for EVs will kill the auto industry.
More generally, he would implement rules limiting federal regulation, for example by restoring his former executive order that required that for every single new rule or regulation, two old regulations now on the books must be eliminated.
Even more generally, though, Trump’s agenda calls for a major revamp of the bureaucracy and civil service to diminish the power of career federal employees and increase the power of the president.
Agencies established by Congress to have independence from the White House in their operations, such as the Federal Trade Commission, the Federal Communications Commission, and the Securities and Exchange Commission, would be brought back under presidential authority, giving Trump far more direct influence over the economy.
Congress is not likely to go along with that plan or with many of Trump’s other proposals for overhauling the administrative state, such as moving many more agencies outside of Washington, D.C., or creating “Freedom Cities” on federal land that are not subject to many existing federal rules.
But there is much he could do on his own.
Most notably, perhaps, he could reissue an executive order he put out in 2020 giving the president greater authority to fire bureaucrats. The order would reassign tens of thousands of civil servants who have some influence over policy as “Schedule F” employees, removing some of their employment protections.
Trump has touted the idea as an effort to “dismantle the deep state,” a way to strike back at the government employees that he blames for undermining his presidency and for preventing his reelection.
CULTURE WAR: EDUCATION AND GENDER
Two of Trump’s more filled-out platform plans relate to the areas that have seen Republicans gain an advantage in the culture wars in recent years: education and gender ideology.
Some conservatives credit the issues of education, and particularly parental rights in education, for propelling Republican Glenn Youngkin to victory in Virginia in 2021.
In the education domain, Trump is seeking to cut federal funding from schools that teach critical race theory and open civil rights investigations into school districts “engaged in race-based discrimination, including discrimination against Asian Americans.”
The former president also wants to abolish tenure for teachers up to the 12th grade and drastically cut the number of school administrators. He would also adopt a parental “bill of rights,” similar to legislation passed by the current House GOP majority, that would include mandating that schools post course materials online for parents to review. That is a policy advocated by Christopher Rufo, the conservative activist who has risen to prominence in recent years in part by attacking liberal influence over education. Democrats have pushed back against such measures, claiming they put gay and transgender students at risk.
Trump has also fully embraced the latest in conservative activism on issues relating to transgender rights and gender ideology.
In February, he put out a plan to stop “left-wing gender insanity.” Not only would he aim to prevent medical and surgical gender transition-related procedures for minors, but he would sign an executive order telling agencies to cease promoting the concept of gender transitions “at any age.” He would also launch DOJ investigations into pharmaceutical companies and hospitals to determine if they have misled patients regarding gender transitions. Also, he would ask Congress to define male and female, at birth, as the only two genders.
In 2016, Trump disapproved of Republicans in North Carolina for enacting a law requiring that people in government buildings may only use bathrooms that correspond with the sex on their birth certificate. He said Caitlyn Jenner, the Olympian who is biologically male but then had recently begun identifying as a woman, would be welcome to use any bathroom in Trump Tower.