Trump famously scrapped the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal and assassinated Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike. Since then, the administration has told the government of Iraq that it will not honor any request for American forces to leave the country. As The New York Times reported in late 2019, despite his vows to conclude “endless wars,” Trump hasn’t ended any. As the Times put it, “More troops have deployed to the Middle East in recent months than have come home. Mr. Trump is not so much ending wars, as he is moving troops from one conflict to another.”
Whether you think this record should be a source of pride or shame, it is not, in any sense, noninterventionist or dovish.
Similarly, the president’s attacks on the excesses of the “deep state” have failed to produce more robust civil-liberties protections. Despite his insistence that the “deep state” participated in an Obama-Biden “coup” against his administration, Trump has not meaningfully curtailed federal law-enforcement or surveillance powers expanded in the name of fighting terrorism. Last year, Trump signed on to a bipartisan reauthorization of the PATRIOT Act without major changes; last November, the Trump administration invoked PATRIOT Act authorities to detain a person indefinitely on American soil for the first time—an act from which it later retreated in fear that the courts might not uphold it. The president has repeatedly threatened—and deployed—federal power to suppress anti-police-brutality protests. His administration has urged the suppression of intelligence showing attempted foreign interference in American elections on his behalf, while ordering the manufacture of intelligence meant to justify an authoritarian crackdown on his domestic political critics.
All of that said, even with the examples of Trumpian cruelty, the president has compiled less a record of radical departure from his predecessors on these particular matters than one of continuity. Barack Obama was elected as a skeptic of the War on Terror; his administration presided over an expansion of its scope, much as Trump’s has. A Hillary Clinton administration likely would have as well, perhaps with some differences—maybe a Clinton administration would not have rescinded Obama’s drone restrictions, and public pressure might have resulted in a reduction in drone warfare. But the two most consistent qualities of the post-9/11 security state are that it grows, and that its growth is bipartisan. The trend suggests that a rollback of expansive national-security powers and commitments won’t be forthcoming in a hypothetical Biden administration either.
On Thursday, Biden told the military newspaper Stars and Stripes that “these ‘forever wars’ have to end. I support drawing down the troops. But here’s the problem, we still have to worry about terrorism and [the Islamic State],”adding that he does not “foresee major reductions in the U.S. defense budget.”
Still, it makes no more sense to give Trump credit for being a dove than it would to give Obama credit for his 2008 rhetoric on the same issues, or Biden just for saying that the “forever wars” must end. Just as he is no great businessman or economic populist, Trump is no foe of defense contractors or endless war—he only plays one on television.