Trumpism lives on in new thinktank – but critics say it’s ‘just a grift’

David Smith in Washington
·7 min read
<span>Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Rex/Shutterstock

Malcolm X, Mark Twain, Malcolm Gladwell. Lewis Carroll, Steve Jobs. Douglas Adams, Mohandas Gandhi, Rocky Balboa – all seem unlikely sources of inspiration for a definition of Trumpism.

Yet these are among the prominent figures quoted by members of a new thinktank dedicated to resurrecting former US president Donald Trump’s populist-nationalist agenda.

Related: 'His new business': Trump seeks personal political brand as he grips Republican base

The America First Policy Institute (AFPI) describes itself as both “non-profit” and “non-partisan”. Critics, however, regard it as a cash cow for alumni of the Trump administration whose stained reputations make it hard to find gainful employment.

Despite Trump’s campaign promise to “drain the swamp”, the AFPI reportedly has a first-year budget of $20m, which it hopes to double to $40m next year, and plans to expand beyond its current headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, to locations that include a spacious office on Washington’s Capitol Hill.

The AFPI unveiled a website this week replete with images of the Stars and Stripes and Mount Rushmore. It profiles 35 team members with, in most cases, an inspirational quotation from a famous person.

The board chair, Linda McMahon, for example, a former professional wrestling executive who led Trump’s Small Business Administration, attributes a line to the actor and comedian Lucille Ball: “If you want something done, give it to a busy woman to do it.”

Pam Bondi, an ex-Florida attorney general who defended Trump against impeachment, quotes the French fashion designer Coco Chanel: “Keep your heels, head and standards high.” Kaelan Dorr, who was senior adviser at the treasury department, dips into film fiction with the boxer Rocky, played by Sylvester Stallone: “Every champion was once a contender who refused to give up.”

Pam Bondi speaks at CPAC in Orlando, Florida, on 26 February.
Pam Bondi speaks at CPAC in Orlando, Florida, on 26 February. Photograph: Octavio Jones/Reuters

But vice-chair Larry Kudlow, former economic adviser to Trump, simply quotes himself: “Free market capitalism is the best path to prosperity.”

Trump this week gave the organization his blessing, issuing a statement in praise of its “patriots” as “some of the greatest champions for freedom, free enterprise, national greatness, and the primacy of American workers, families, and communities, that our Nation has ever seen”.

The former president said these “freedom warriors” have his 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 team includes Rick Perry, former energy secretary, and John Ratcliffe, ex-director of national intelligence. Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, will be informal advisers to the group, according to the Axios website.

The AFPI’s president and chief executive is Brooke Rollins, whose past roles have included policy director for Perry when he was governor of Texas, head of the Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) thinktank and Trump’s top domestic policy adviser.

With priorities including criminal justice reform, government efficiency and education reform, Rollins oversaw a significant expansion and enhanced profile of the TPPF during her 15 years there, a formula she hopes to replicate at the new thinktank. Her successor as chief executive of the TPPF, Kevin Roberts, said: “She loves ideas. She loves policy.

“She wants to be able to continue to promote the great successes that came from the Trump administration, many of them originating in states; that really makes sense when you think about what she was doing before she went to the White House. I think she’s going to be a forceful and classy voice of objection to some of the priorities of the Biden administration. She’s going to do an exceptional job in leading the group.”

Brooke Rollins at the White House on 7 July 2020.
Brooke Rollins at the White House on 7 July 2020. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Roberts believes that Trump’s policy achievements on criminal justice reform, the US-Mexico border and the pre-pandemic economy are worth preserving, studying and developing. “I think bottling that up into a thinktank and asking questions from an academic point of view – how was it that we achieved that? – is really important,” he said.

The AFPI is organized around 20 “policy centers”, such as homeland security and energy independence. A profile of the “Center for 1776” rails against “academic elites and demagogues” who are choosing to “embrace identity politics, division, and submission”. It appears to be picking up where Trump’s “1776 Commission”, a thinly disguised rightwing backlash against the New York Times’s 1619 Project, left off.

But some observers found irony in the notion that a president who exhibited few ideological commitments – other than “owning the libs” and Republican orthodoxy on tax cuts for the rich – is now spawning a policy institute.

Michael D’Antonio, an author and political commentator on CNN, said: “I guess I give them credit for exhibiting creativity. I didn’t expect that the level of gall would reach the point where they would actually create an institute devoted to policies that never existed in the first place.

Many of these people are so disgraced that their options for gainful employment outside of this make-believe world of Trump policy are very limited

Michael D’Antonio

“Trump is nothing if not energetically imaginative and this is a great way to suggest that there was something that never existed. Maybe they could at last develop Trump-related policies. So maybe now there’ll be a healthcare plan and it could come from this institute.”

D’Antonio suggested that the AFPI will spend time attacking Joe Biden and is unlikely to impress political scholars. “I can’t imagine anyone outside of the Trumpian universe taking anything that they produce seriously,” he added. “It’s not exactly a team of policy superstars. Many of these people are so disgraced that their options for gainful employment outside of this make-believe world of Trump policy are very limited.”

When a president leaves office, his former staff often slot into lucrative work on a corporate board or in the lobbying industry. Trump’s uniquely divisive leadership appears to have stigmatized former aides, although several – including Kudlow – have taken roles at Fox News, Fox Business or other conservative media. The AFPI offers another refuge.

Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman, wondered: “How could anything having to do with Trump have the word ‘think’ in it? No. It’s all just a grift. It won’t be a thinktank. It’ll be a vehicle for people to give money to pay people who worked for Trump and can’t get hired elsewhere to keep Trump relevant.”

As Trump resides at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, teasing another run for president in 2024, organizations have sprung up to carry on his legacy. They include the Conservative Partnership Institute, established by the former Republican senator Jim DeMint, and America First Legal, a legal group set up by the former White House policy adviser Stephen Miller.

The AFPI will easily be the biggest and may help Trump maintain his grip on the Republican party, but will have to work hard to establish credibility in Washington’s already crowded hive of policy thinktanks.

Bill Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, which traces its origins to 1916, said: “This is not the first research centre or joint venture to have been established to give a patina of intellectual respectability to Trumpism and it probably won’t be the last.

“After all, there are a lot of unemployed Trump alumni and, to be fair, if you strip away all of the unacceptable personal stuff, all of the prejudice, you are still left with a handful of ideas that form the core of Trumpism, for better or for worse. It obviously represents a shift in the intellectual centre of gravity within the Republican party.”

Galston, a former policy adviser to Bill Clinton, added: “I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to learn that, in four years or eight years, we’ll look back on this flurry of intellectual activity in the Trumpist wing of the Republican party and say this is where the political eruption that Donald Trump represents was organised into something that the party could newly coalesce around.”

The AFPI also includes Paula White-Cain, a Trump spiritual adviser and televangelist who will lead a “Center for American Values”. Her online profile quotes the African American poet Maya Angelou: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.”