James Johnson is co-founder of JL Partners. He was the Senior Opinion Research and Strategy Adviser to Theresa May as Prime Minister, 2016-2019.
On the stage earlier this month, fresh from his win in Iowa, Donald Trump rolled out another trademark slogan. We will hear it as much as we heard “build the wall” and “crooked Hillary”: “drill baby drill”.
I was in the crowd, and they loved it. Trump has placed rolling back Joe Biden’s restrictions on oil and gas extraction as one of his first priorities if he retakes the White House.
But someone in the crowd went further. They came up with a slogan of their own. As Trump moved onto the need to seal up the southern border, someone yelled “seal baby seal!”.
That saying sums up the fundamental feature of what President Donald Trump’s first one hundred days could look like. A year from now, we could be eleven days in. I have written before in my column about the tenor and style of a Trump presidency, but what would the actual policies be in the opening months of ‘Trump 47’?
First be in no doubt: there is a plan. This is a less chaotic team than that of the Trump administration that unexpectedly stumbled into power in 2017. Flanking Trump on the stage that night were Suzie Wiles, his campaign manager, and Chris LaCivita and Jason Miller, two of his most senior aides. All three are serious operators who will likely be at the forefront of his White House team.
For Trump and that team, the border will be a key priority. It could be the thing that propels them to the White House. In the last month alone, there were an estimated 300,000 illegal crossings across the southern border. You read that right: that is ten times the number of migrants who made it across the English Channel in the last calendar year – in one month.
It is the central issue in American politics. Recent polling has found it now tops voters’ priorities ahead of inflation for the first time. Nor is it a white, conservative issue. Independents place it as their top concern, and Hispanics rank it almost as highly as White voters. The influx of people strikes at the same sense of unfairness that Channel crossings do in the UK: why should I work hard and pay into the system when others can cheat it?
Part of Trump’s answer is the same as in 2016: build the wall, and to bring back Trump-era restrictions such as ‘Remain in Mexico’ where migrants must be processed in Mexico rather than on American soil. Expect to see executive orders signed on day one to bring these back. He may put someone prominent in charge of the effort: there would be worse choices than the energetic Vivek Ramaswamy, who endorsed Trump after leaving the presidential race after Iowa.
But there is a new feature to Trump’s border plan this time round: deportations. Speaking in Nevada last week, the presidential frontrunner promised “the largest deportation operation in American history”. If you thought the ‘Muslim ban’ was offensive to liberal sympathies, wait until this one lands.
There are questions as to whether it is practically possible, and which levers Trump can pull. But his administration will try as many routes as they can, from a legally questionable invoking of the Alien Enemies Act (which gives the president power to deport ‘enemies’ of the state) to a widespread deputization of the National Guard. There is division in TrumpWorld about when to set a cut-off date: is it retrospective deportations, or only people who enter illegally after January 20th 2024?
If these efforts are stymied or watered down by the courts, Trump will probably be able to rely on public opinion. Though views would polarize somewhat if it came into being, currently two-thirds of Americans support deportations, including seven in ten independents and fully half of Democrats.
What else will we see in the first one hundred days? For one, that drilling. This is a straightforward executive order to make, as many regulations stem from the executive branch through the Environmental Protection Agency. But just because there might be more oil and gas action, do not expect Biden’s green subsidies to disappear. That hands-on government funding was modelled in Trump’s image, and its popularity and impact on local jobs will likely mean many of them might stay.
Never mind the deportations: the Trump measure which is driving respectable Republican and business opinion most up the wall is the question of tariffs. Trump has promised trade tariffs of up to 10 per cent, possibly applied in a blanket fashion.
He will likely use the technique as a negotiating tactic to competitor countries: change your policies, or we will not roll these tariffs back. But even so, history shows that countries often respond in kind in the first instance. The first one hundred days of a Trump presidency could mean the greatest rolling back of free trade we have seen in decades.
The question of NATO membership is the talk of diplomatic circles. Expect it to be another negotiating move: the ultimate chip at the European poker table. He will order European nations to spend more on defence, or the USA will withdraw. He may even draw up a timetable to make it real, and he will be ready to follow through if they do not. After much consternation Europe will likely – and rightly – dance to Trump’s tune and beef up their spending in response.
Then there is Ukraine. Trump will seek to initiate his promised ‘peace summit’ between Russia and Ukraine quickly. What is less clear is whether it will get anywhere. Putin looks less likely to want to sue for peace than he might have a year ago. As Dominic Lawson wrote in the Sunday Times this week, Trump might end up going cold on negotiating with Putin if he does not play ball with the President’s demands.
Back in Iowa, after ‘drill baby drill’ and the shouts from the crowd, Trump turned to the question of Ukraine. An anti-Zelensky diatribe along the lines of Tucker Carlson this was not. He spoke about the situation in Ukraine being “so horrible”, caused by Russia’s “attack”. In a sombre tone, he spoke of the tragedy of “many people killed” in attacks on Ukrainian cities, of “a culture destroyed”, of “thousand year old buildings” turned to rubble. It was a markedly different approach to that which many commentators characterise Trump as taking on the conflict.
It was just a few words. But if there is one lesson of the first Trump term, we should take his words seriously. In deciphering what a second Trump term looks like, we should apply that logic to the tone and under-reported nuance of his words, as well as his brash statements.