Report

Trump-Branded China Hawks Look to Take Over Congress

Former Trump officials are grooming a new generation of Senate candidates to make the hard-line approach to China the GOP’s default.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Venture capitalist and author JD Vance (2nd from R) shakes hands with Tim Cook (R), chief executive officer of Apple, on the third day of the annual Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference, July 13, 2017 in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Venture capitalist and author J.D. Vance (second from right) shakes hands with Tim Cook (right), the CEO of Apple, on the third day of the annual Allen & Company Sun Valley Conference in Sun Valley, Idaho, on July 13, 2017. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

On a crisp September night in Washington this fall, a who’s who of former President Donald Trump’s national security team gathered in a room at the Willard Hotel to clink glasses and raise money to help the Republican Party retake the Senate. 

But it wasn’t your typical Washington political fundraiser. Trump’s last national security advisor, Robert O’Brien, was the special guest, and arrayed alongside him were veterans of the Pentagon and the National Security Council. It was a welcome, of sorts, into D.C.’s foreign-policy elite for a Trump-branded Republican candidate, one who the former officials hoped would help inject the more hawkish views on China that characterized the former president’s last years in office into the GOP’s political bloodstream. That candidate was J.D. Vance, who became a bestselling author for elegizing about his past life as a hillbilly, evolved into a public critic of Trump before embracing the former president, and is now running for Senate in Ohio.

If the China-focused Republicans, led by O’Brien, who has advised a handful of 2022 GOP Senate hopefuls such as Vance, manage to consolidate the party’s emerging stance on foreign policy, it could look like this: Fewer hearings on the wars in the Middle East that Trump chaotically abandoned, and a lot more focus on China, particularly the intensifying competition as seen through the lens of trade, manufacturing, and security. 

On a crisp September night in Washington this fall, a who’s who of former President Donald Trump’s national security team gathered in a room at the Willard Hotel to clink glasses and raise money to help the Republican Party retake the Senate. 

But it wasn’t your typical Washington political fundraiser. Trump’s last national security advisor, Robert O’Brien, was the special guest, and arrayed alongside him were veterans of the Pentagon and the National Security Council. It was a welcome, of sorts, into D.C.’s foreign-policy elite for a Trump-branded Republican candidate, one who the former officials hoped would help inject the more hawkish views on China that characterized the former president’s last years in office into the GOP’s political bloodstream. That candidate was J.D. Vance, who became a bestselling author for elegizing about his past life as a hillbilly, evolved into a public critic of Trump before embracing the former president, and is now running for Senate in Ohio.

If the China-focused Republicans, led by O’Brien, who has advised a handful of 2022 GOP Senate hopefuls such as Vance, manage to consolidate the party’s emerging stance on foreign policy, it could look like this: Fewer hearings on the wars in the Middle East that Trump chaotically abandoned, and a lot more focus on China, particularly the intensifying competition as seen through the lens of trade, manufacturing, and security. 

The emerging counter-China establishment is a generation removed from the neoconservatives that surrounded former President George W. Bush, who hoped to refashion Iraq and Afghanistan in America’s image; the new crew, like Trump, is pushing for a halt to the United States’ foreign adventures and a return to what it sees as the central challenge. Vance, who has proposed a tax on companies that outsource jobs and opposes the Trans-Pacific Partnership and most free trade agreements, might have been laughed out of the room at Republican Party cocktail parties in Washington five years ago, some of his backers in the national security community said. Now, they’re pinning their hopes on him and Blake Masters, a venture capitalist running for Senate in Arizona, to be the vanguard of the GOP’s emerging foreign-policy mainstream. 

“These are not wackos and yahoos, right?” said one former U.S. official backing Vance, who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak about internal party deliberations. “These are guys with millions of dollars in the bank from very wealthy people, and they’re all Ivy League-educated, and they’re all very successful.

“This is a serious movement within the party. I think what we’re going to see [when] these guys start showing up in Washington is that the tenor and the tone coming from the Hill on foreign policy that’s fed the neocon beast for the last 20 years … that’s going to stop.” 

O’Brien, who pushed heavily for a massive naval buildup at the end of the Trump administration, has put himself at the forefront of nurturing the new vanguard. While headliners such as former Vice President Mike Pence, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and one-time U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley wait in their former boss’s shadow to determine their presidential prospects for 2024, O’Brien has tried to paint himself as an Obi-Wan Kenobi of sorts for young Republicans. He briefed Republicans on Capitol Hill about the fallout from Afghanistan after an invitation from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and hosted a retreat in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to zero in on China with five national security-oriented members of the House. And he’s been privately briefing candidates he’s endorsed, including Vance and Masters. 

It’s a sign that being hawkish on China is more of a litmus test for Republicans than ever before. Several Republicans in Congress, led by China hawks such as Sens. Tom Cotton, Josh Hawley, and Marco Rubio, have already helped spearhead legislation to root out Chinese espionage inside the United States, arm Taiwan, and sanction China for stifling COVID-19 investigations. But Vance’s election, if he’s able to prevail through a crowded primary field next May and cruise through the general election, would represent an important changing-of-the-guard. He would replace retiring Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who once served as U.S. trade representative during the George W. Bush administration—a sign that skeptical views of free trade, like Trump’s, are becoming more characteristic of the Republican Party as a whole.

“The GOP has always had tensions, between the Wall Street Journal editorial page and economic nationalism,” said Daniel Blumenthal, a senior fellow and director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “The free trade, free market wing won out in the 1990s and up to the 2016 election. And now because of China’s massive market distortions, it has had a huge effect on people’s views of trade inside the GOP—the feeling that it’s not a level playing field in terms of free markets, free trade.”

The former U.S. official said the new platform would focus on the nexus of trade, manufacturing, and the industrial base as a means to make the United States more competitive with China—and encourage consumers to buy American. At a campaign stop in the eastern Ohio city of Steubenville earlier this week, Vance honed in on U.S. dependency on pharmaceuticals from China. “If we made that stuff in America, we wouldn’t be depending on other regimes to ship it into our country right now,” he told onlookers at a meet-and-greet at a coffee house. 

The new wave of Republicans is still consolidating its voice on security issues. O’Brien has publicly pushed for a strategy to deter China from attacking Taiwan by providing Taipei with large quantities of anti-ship missiles, sea mines, and Stinger missiles that could disrupt a People’s Liberation Army attack from the air and sea. 

The more confrontational stance toward China isn’t without its risks. Trump’s tariffs and trade wars hurt American businesses, farmers, and consumers, and did virtually nothing to stem China’s trade abuses. The United States has never been good at developing a top-down industrial policy to compete with economies like China’s that have a laser-like focus on (and few scruples about) fostering key industries. Even a more hawkish stance in the security sphere is dicey in the short term, as Chinese naval and missile capabilities have surpassed the United States’ traditional dominance in the western Pacific, just as warnings grow of a looming confrontation with Beijing over Taiwan.

But for the GOP, the China challenge remains the most vital one—and it could well reshape the entire party.

“The bottom line is that ultimately China is bringing the GOP together,” Blumenthal said. “The new voices are understandably asking the question, ‘I am now hearing that we have fallen behind China in military and technological power; how did that happen?’ Some blame the war on terror; many blame business lobbies. The relationship of the GOP to big business is certainly changing because of China, among other reasons.”

The emerging economic plank points to a more traditional, mercantilist approach to U.S. trade policy that dates back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. And it’s an opportunity to clean up Trump’s scattershot rhetoric on trade. Vance also scored an endorsement from Robert Lighthizer, Trump’s former trade representative, suggesting the would-be senator would like to continue Trump’s full-on tariff war with China. 

“This intellectualizes the Trump agenda,” the anonymous former U.S. official said. “What these guys are doing is they’re taking impulses, and they’re making the intellectual case for them, and they’re putting a respectable kind of gloss on it.” 

But O’Brien and those like him are banking on the notion that the post-COVID-19 public opinion shift against China is permanent. A Chicago Council poll conducted last month showed that a majority of Americans—55 percent—saw the development of China as a world power as a threat to U.S. critical interests. And in industrial Ohio, where manufacturing jobs were eaten up by China, Republicans are confident the message will resonate.

“What people like Vance are speaking to politically is the sense that actually ordinary people are feeling the China challenge much more acutely than the Blob,” said Elbridge Colby, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who helped craft Trump’s 2017 National Defense Strategy, using an idiomatic term to describe the Washington foreign-policy elite. 

“The Blob, you know, Washington, D.C., has done great over the last generation. It’s grown. It’s got better restaurants. Everything works, relatively speaking. Meanwhile, if you’re living in the middle of the country, there’s been massive deindustrialization. There are a number of reasons, but a big one has been China. And I think people kind of know that in some basic sense at a gut level.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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