Despite its dispiritingly anti-intellectual president, the Trump era has paradoxically been the Age of the Think Tank.
It’s no secret that the president often lacks in ideological consistency. Some would say that contributed to his success in the 2016 general election. So for those not too proud to play the game, it’s a wide-open field for trying to steer the administration’s prerogatives in one ideological direction or the other.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, depending on who you ask. But it does make every day in the little-understood, bureaucratic underworld of policy shop shenanigans a veritable knife fight.
The latest entrant is the Committee on the Present Danger. Represented by former White House strategist Steve Bannon and Frank Gaffney, head of the Center for Security Policy, this is third resuscitation of a foreign policy interest group that has existed in manifold forms since the advent of the Cold War.
Bannon and Gaffney say the world has changed: far from paling in comparison to the Soviet challenge, Xi Jinping’s China is a something Marxist Eurasia never was: an economic peer—even a successor state. Additionally, they argue, Xi and his team in Beijing are authoritarians with Alexandrian ambition, a marked departure from the Chinese technocrats who have reigned since leader Deng Xiaoping retired in 1989.
“A radical cadre led by President Xi and Wang Quisan have consolidated power within the CCP,” Bannon told me. “This cadre has enslaved the Chinese people.”
Red Scares dominated the States sixty years ago; but following the butchery of Josef Stalin, short of a brief, soul-searching moment when Sputnik darted the heavens, it never appeared to most reasonably thinking people that Leninism was ever preferable to what we had here in the United States. As the peerless historian Stephen Kotkin precisely notes: “What’s the difference between communism and fascism? Communism is over.”
Critics pooh-pooh the China challenge, saying the build-up of Western tension with the Communist nation today is but a shadow of the grand, murderous philosophical competition that dominated the last century. They’re wrong. As Bannon and Gaffney suggest, the encore of efficient authoritarianism is the story of our time, an existential challenge for the West’s way of doing business not seen since the 1930’s.
They’re not alone. They were joined earlier this week at event on Capitol Hill by other heavy-hitters in Trumpland: Texas Senator Ted Cruz, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and Asia studies bigwig Gordon Chang, to name a few. Brian Kennedy of the Claremont Institute and his own American Strategy Group, is the committee’s titular chairman. “Very much as we had to get organized in the thirties to stop un-American activities…we’re going to go through the same cycle here,” said Gingrich. The Chinese “invest billions in espionage and theft,” implored Sen. Cruz. And Chang sounded the alarm on brain injuries (not officially corroborated by the State Department) suffered by U.S. diplomatic personnel working in Guangzhou.
For this crew, the path forward is clear: overt confrontation—and not just toward the Chinese. Bluechip American firms have sold out their fellow citizens, Bannon argued to the crowd. President Xi, he exclaimed, now runs “a full-scale information and economic war against the West.”
This cohort now quietly fears appeasement from President Trump, though he has moved the Overton Window on China more swiftly and surely than any figure since Nixon. Of course, in the opposite direction. If Nixon was Turkey’s Mustafa Kemal, Trump is Racep Tayyip Erdogan—different approaches for different time.
A hardline tact toward China like this divides foreign policy realists, and scrambles many of the new allegiances forged in the Trump era. Those on the restrainer end of realism note the reality of the situation, but urge triage on the American economy—not tactical nuclear weapons in the East China Sea. “Rather than rebuilding our own national power—focusing internally on our economic prosperity—Washington is expending resources on the wrong solutions: increased Pentagon spending and ever-growing, outdated security commitments,” Ed King, president of Defense Priorities, has told me.
But if there is a direct, rival intellectual of Trumpism to Bannon, it is Fox’s Tucker Carlson. Like many realists, Carlson is markedly less interventionist than Bannon. Carlson may want neutrality in the Middle East and thinks NATO expansion is a joke, but even Carlson is a China hawk. Vaunted realist scholar John Mearsheimer is oscillative, but continually flirts with confronting Beijing.
The fear now, for China hawks, is that after much huffing and puffing, the president will strike a deal too soon with Beijing. As Janan Ganesh notes in the Financial Times: “Trump the China dove: as recently as 2018, this idea would have read like so much try-hard contrarianism. By the end of 2019, it might be just a mildly subversive proposition.”
Bannon and Gaffney’s new group isn’t saying so, but they would like to stop this. For Gaffney, his outfit is a new chapter in one of Washington’s greatest —or, depending on your perspective, most odious–comeback stories. In championing the new China fight, he and his Center for Security Policy have slid back into the mainstream. Gaffney’s perspective that the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the United States remains deeply in the minority. On China, his views are far closer to a rapidly-coalescing consensus.
And Bannon, of course, has worn nearly every hat in his media profile since masterminding Trump’s election in 2016: Bannon the auteur, Bannon the banished, Bannon the fraud, Bannon the irrelevant. None of it, of course, is accurate. The fact is politicians like Trump and intellectual wranglers like Bannon need each other, as the president not so subtly noted to the New York Times earlier this year.
Conservative donors recently complained that the Trump re-election effort lacks a strategy. If history is any guide, that can’t last. In less evolved administrations, downplaying the significance of outside groups might have been savvy—now it’s short-sighted. The work-shopped policy idea in April could be White House doctrine by October.
On the issue of China, the mission becomes more urgent. Which way Trump will go—confrontation or reconciliation—may depend on how successful Bannon and Gaffney are in their new endeavor.
Curt Mills is the foreign affairs reporter at The National Interest, where he covers the State Department, National Security Council, and the Trump presidency.