The idea of a Donald Trump–oriented think tank is inherently absurd. Whatever your views on the former president, there’s no question that wonkish attention to policy was never the point or the focus of his administration—which might explain the strangeness of his speech today at the America First Agenda Summit, where a blood-soaked philippic on crime became a cringey laugh-fest of transphobic jokes.
The D.C. conference is hosted by the America First Policy Institute, a nonprofit created by former members of his administration to promote his policy ideas. In other words, one would imagine that this would be among the friendliest audiences Trump could encounter. (Well, maybe you would imagine that. Peter Navarro, not entirely surprisingly, sees a Communist conspiracy.)
And yet Trump seemed oddly uncomfortable for the first half hour or so of his keynote speech today. As he came onstage, he stood mostly stone-faced through Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.,” treating it with the solemnity one might afford “The Star-Spangled Banner.” And then, stiffly and mechanically, Trump launched into his attempt at a policy speech.
“This afternoon, I want to speak to some of the core elements of our agenda, and in particular public safety, which we have little of,” he said. “There is no higher priority than cleaning up our streets, controlling our borders, stopping the drugs from pouring in, and quickly restoring law and order in America.”
I immediately had the sense that I was hearing a preview of a Trump 2024 stump speech. The former president has been unsubtly hinting at a third run for the White House, with only the timing of his announcement in question. Lurid crime stories have also become a cornerstone of his spiel at recent rallies. They have been a part of his repertoire since before he ran for office, but a focus on domestic crime—urban gang wars, skyrocketing murder rates, “sadists who prey on children,” and rampant homelessness—made this speech more akin to his vision of “American carnage” in his 2017 inaugural address than to his 2015 escalator speech. “Our country is now a cesspool of crime,” he told the crowd today.
The contradictions in such a campaign theme are glaring. Trump himself is swept up in multiple criminal investigations, and a House committee has spent the summer depicting for the public how he incited a mob to attack the U.S. Capitol and assault police officers, made no effort to stop them while they did it, and then bridled at being asked to condemn the violence after the fact, a dramatic affront to law and order. But then again, Trump has always been more interested in order than law, sometimes portraying the latter as an impediment to the former.
True to form, some of his prescriptions were nearly as chilling as his descriptions of violence. “You execute a drug dealer and you’ll save 500 lives, because they kill, on average, 500 people,” Trump said. He did not cite any source for this statistic, which as far as I can tell is bunk.
“If you look at countries throughout the world, the ones that don’t have a drug problem are those that institute a very quick trial—death-penalty sentence for drug dealers,” Trump said. And though he didn’t name names, he has previously admired harsh justice systems in countries that do not maintain fair trials or basic protections for defendants, such as Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines.
Trump also quipped that trials for dealers should take two hours, just before insisting, without apparent irony, that Americans’ civil liberties must not be violated. He chillingly argued that presidents should be able to deploy the National Guard over the objections of governors, which would be cause for alarm even if he hadn’t entertained plans for martial law during his postelection coup planning. His big new policy idea was tent cities—resembling internally-displaced-person camps overseas—on the outskirts of American cities that could house the homeless who now live in downtowns.
As terrifying as this material is, it could be potent. Murder rates have risen sharply, if not as much as Trump said, and violent crime is up as well. President Joe Biden this week called for more funding for police departments, and liberal cities and jurisdictions that cut law-enforcement spending and elected progressive prosecutors not long ago have restored budgets and turned on criminal-justice reform.
Yet no one seemed to be into the speech. Trump’s delivery was listless, and the audience reaction was polite at best. Then, a half hour in, something changed as he read off a complaint about “providing puberty-blockers to young children who have no idea what that is.” Trump perked up. “Neither do I, by the way,” he said, garnering laughter. He was off to the races. “That’s not written down anywhere. I just thought it might be a good time,” he said, and embarked on a long, and often cruel and offensive, riff about transgender athletes, culminating in a fantasy about recruiting LeBron James to play for a women’s basketball team. (Maybe you had to be there; maybe you were lucky enough not to be.) The crowd applauded and laughed, and Trump loosened up, meandering through another hour of his speech.
Trump is uncommonly good at reading a crowd, whether at small scale—in a conference center or arena—or on the larger national scale. He won the GOP presidential nomination in 2016 by recognizing that Republican politicians were afraid or unwilling to give voice to some of the darker feelings that animated conservative voters. For many voters, the mere idea that he would say what others wouldn’t was exciting.
The 2024 presidential election is still a long way off, but the way his speech slouched and then soared in this crowd is worth noting for future use. If crime trends continue, any politician running for office from any party will be demanding law and order. Doing so, even with draconian penalties, won’t set Trump apart from the field. Perhaps just as important, it won’t provide the transgressive thrill that his most effective feints do. Anti-trans jokes, however, seem to have a power to unite pro-Trump wonks (however oxymoronic that may seem), move conservative swamp-dwellers, and rally crowds. There’s no chance that Trump has failed to notice that.