It’s Time to Start Thinking About Trump 2.0

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The former president is polling as well as he ever has; there’s no reason to be caught flat-footed by victory again.

It’s extremely early, but the former President Donald Trump is polling well enough to contemplate what his administration would look like in a second term. The answer is definitely different from what it was during his first stint in the White House, and probably different from what it would have been if he had been reelected in 2020 and were still in office right now.

Personnel was a problem in the first Trump term for several reasons. First, Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton came as a surprise to people inside his own orbit, perhaps even the candidate himself. The transition process was not so smooth or far along as it could have been.

Second, Trump did not at the time understand the adage that personnel is policy. In business, your subordinates’ opinions might matter, but they are not necessarily determinative. In government, these things matter quite a lot. If you want to avoid new wars and start wrapping up old ones, hiring John Bolton is not the best way to get it done.

Third, Trump often valued the wrong things in his hires. Being able to defend the president on television is nice. But not every job in the federal government entails the same set of responsibilities as the White House press secretary or Kellyanne Conway. There were also too many z-list celebrities around.

Fourth, most administrations are staffed by taking people from the previous administration of that party and bumping everyone up a rung or two. Trump had important differences with George W. Bush, especially on immigration and foreign policy, two issues that were critical to his 2016 election. Many Bushies actively opposed Trump in the primaries and beyond, all the way to the present day. They were not always viable Trump administration officials, and forcing the square pegs into round holes seldom worked well. But, like an earlier generation of Bushies in Ronald Reagan’s White House, they often won important bureaucratic battles.

Fifth, there was the Javanka factor. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump often got more grief than they deserved from the MAGA true believers. Sometimes they were correct to smooth the father (in-law)’s rough edges. The Abraham accords were a real accomplishment, and Ivanka’s paid family leave push could fit in with what many social conservatives increasingly wanted.

But these two Trump family members were not broadly aligned with the president on policy or political philosophy, even conceding the limited degree to which Trump the elder was driven by either. They seemed to be around as much to protect the family brand as anything else, and were ultimately unsuccessful on that front: The Trump name is now more associated with low-brow conservative politics than glitz and glamor.

So what’s changed? Javanka isn’t reenlisting in MAGA 2.0. The conservative Trump family members, particularly Donald Trump Jr. (who no less than Jared and Ivanka tried to dissuade his father from the folly of January 6) and the Republican National Committee co-chair Lara Trump, will play a bigger role. It’s possible Kushner will reemerge if his father-in-law wins, though his beard suggests a few weeks more of winter. Ivanka looks done with the new family business.

The former president appears to have learned that alignment is important. Whether he conflates that too much with personal loyalty remains to be seen. An economic agenda for his working-class supporters or a foreign policy worthy of the “America First” label would do considerably more good than a permanent relitigation of the 2020 election.

Trump’s choice of running mate may be a good indication of where things stand. The widely acknowledged veep shortlist is a combination of serious people and interesting MAGA Hail Marys. A couple options plausibly check both boxes. Just look at the top three senators reportedly under consideration: a committed populist (J.D. Vance), a convincing stand-in for Mike Pence who might also help make inroads with black men (Tim Scott), and a Hispanic convert from semi-Never Trump to semi-Trumper, albeit less plausibly so on foreign policy (Marco Rubio).

The fact that Trump is polling better than he ever has in his political career means it won’t be a major shock if he wins. There are many people in his orbit laying the groundwork for a second term, though not always in coordination or agreement with each other.

Two big questions remain: How many grifters will worm their way into a second Trump White House? And how much will Trump miss the sober-minded movement conservatives who were out of step with populism but nevertheless relatively effective in their jobs and at times curbed his worst excesses? The answers to both might be related.

Even with all the drama of the original Trump White House, it is underestimated how many ambitious people will find themselves drawn to the sequel, knowing he will be ineligible to run in 2028, while they will be.

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