A disturbing sense of inevitability hangs over the Iowa caucuses on Monday. Donald Trump, with a 34-point lead in the polls, is the all but certain Republican nominee. And despite his legal troubles, Mr. Trump leads Joe Biden in several general election polls in swing states.
The prospect that Mr. Trump will be president again is impossible to ignore. For liberals, this fact inspires dread. And for good reason. In a second term, Mr. Trump and his advisers have promised to weaponize the Justice Department against his enemies, go to war with Mexican drug cartels, detain and deport millions of immigrants and send federal troops into Democrat-run cities to fight crime and put down protests. We know this because conservative operatives have anticipated this outcome for years, developing plans for a better, smoother and more ideologically coherent Trump White House, capable of implementing the former president’s radical agenda and circumventing bureaucratic obstruction.
To achieve this vision, a Reagan-era shibboleth has come back into fashion in conservative circles: Personnel is policy. Conservative organizations have become, as one administration alum put it, “laser-focused on the staffing challenge.” Most prominently, rival think tanks — the Heritage Foundation and the America First Policy Institute — are collecting names for potential political appointees, putting forward detailed plans to staff the next Trump administration quickly and efficiently. Both have raised millions for this effort.
Think tanks — Brookings, Rand, the Center for American Progress, even Heritage — have played this role before, for both Democratic and Republican presidents. But conservative groups have placed special emphasis on planning for the transition this time around, in the hopes of avoiding the self-inflicted wounds of Mr. Trump’s first term.
In office, Mr. Trump was notorious for favoring his most obsequious staffers, blithely firing many who challenged him and making personnel and policy decisions in consultation with his television. Though they are loath to admit it for fear of dooming the effort, the architects of these initiatives are working to preemptively contain Mr. Trump’s worst impulses: his capriciousness, his disdain for process and detail, his weakness for sycophancy.
But on the campaign trail this time, the former president seems more Trumpian than ever. He doesn’t want to be contained; he wants to be obeyed. And it has already begun to bedevil the transition plans. A shadow war is raging among former Trump officials, ensconced at their respective think tanks, each competing to serve as his White House in waiting. The king hasn’t returned from exile, but he is already inspiring acrimony and disarray among his courtiers.
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